TV talent shows have been on my mind a lot of late, not least because The X Factor has recently returned to our screens and the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar has begun doing the rounds. The star of this production – of course – is Ben Forster, who was cast in the role through ITV’s series Superstar. And whatever you may think about the quality of that series itself, its success, if we simply look at how it was pitched to audiences – a search for “the next musical superstar” – has to be judged on Forster’s performance.
So, did the series succeed? The answer is yes, and no, depending on who you believe.
Lyn Gardner, in The Guardian, says that while Forster makes “plenty of noise” in the role, he only has two facial expressions – “pained or faintly smouldering, like a bit of damp kindling”, before adding he lacks charisma. Michael Coveney, in The Independent, however said Forster “proves a wonderful discovery” and our own reviewer, Mark Shenton, says he “acts with soulful gazes and flicks of his tousled hair, but hits the high notes as required”.
I saw the arena production and, being honest, was slightly underwhelmed by Forster, not helped by the fact the last person I saw in the role was Steve Balsamo back in 1996, who was, quite simply, superb. So I am with Lyn Gardner on this. But it seems on the whole, critics have welcomed Forster, and so ultimately, you might argue, the TV series that found him has succeeded.
But all of this merely assesses the series based on what it told audiences it was setting out to do. Clearly, ITV wanted more out of it, and commissioned the show in the hope of securing a ratings success. Sadly, it wasn’t, with Elaine Bedell, ITV’s director of entertainment, recently admitting it was a disappointment for the broadcaster, both in terms of audience and in terms of the format (she admitted the series should not have been shown nightly, but weekly).
I for one would be happy not to see another [talent show]. I think they’ve run their course
With this in mind, it’s hard to see how ITV would justify having another one in its schedules, nor does it seem likely it would want one. Bedell said there are no plans to do any more. Which will no doubt be welcome by many people in the industry (including Joanna Page, who turned out to be one of the most vocal critics of Superstar, perhaps voicing what West End performers wanted to say but couldn’t for fear of not being employed in the future). I for one would be happy not to see another. I think they’ve run their course. And personally, I believe that, despite the quality of talent that has been found through the series in the past, the most recent productions that have followed the television programmes (The Wizard of Oz and Jesus Christ Superstar) have not been of great quality.
I wonder whether perhaps this is because the producers of the musicals rested on their laurels somewhat, knowing they had a guaranteed audience thanks to the TV series behind them. But that’s by the by, and to return to ITV’s Superstar itself just briefly, there’s one other thing that occurred to me which is perhaps worth raising. Whereas the BBC’s Lloyd Webber shows used money from public voting to go into the BBC’s Performing Arts Fund, which exists to help new talent across dance, music and theatre, Superstar, from what I can tell, only put money into the pockets of ITV and Lloyd Webber. And with that in mind, you might ask, how much did either really care about discovering the next “musical superstar” at all?