I was first approached to be on the judging panel for The Octagon Theatre's fantastic Somerset talent competition, Let Me Entertain You in 2011 while I was working with the Western Gazette. It was the first time that the Theatre had put on a show like this and with my background in music, the paper considered me the appropriate choice to represent them. I was more than happy to do so, albeit not having a clue as to what would be waiting for me!
The first year of the show I was available to judge right from the audition process through to the final. It was apparent from very early on that there was more talent coming out of the woodwork than any of us could have imagined! Particularly me. Being, to all intents and purposes, a Londoner, and having worked with some of the most incredible recording artists of the last few decades, it was a HUGE surprise to me to discover just how much talent there is in the West Country.
The winner that first year was the talented Benjamin Tubridy. I still follow his career path, and in fact, organised for him to play an opening set for live performance veteran Jo Burt, which he performed wonderfully not too long after his win.
It seems crazy to gloss over that year - and the next - but for some bizarre reason in those days I wasn't yet writing a blog. The second LMEY can't be passed over without mentioning the amazing Acrofusion, who won that year. All of us judges were totally blown away by their skill and daring - what a routine! I recall their semi-final specifically as photographer Len Copland captured a image of me with my jaw practically on the judges desk as I watched! I was totally awestruck by their fearlessness - amazing stuff!
But 2015 is the year I'm writing about.
This year has been the most exciting of all. I missed the very first day of auditions, having prior commitments with my own band, but caught the second day. Already I was excited by what I saw. There were so many contenders to win, and I hadn't even seen everyone who had made it through to the semi-finals yet.
There were some excellent auditions. It never ceases to amaze me that Somerset and the surrounding area holds such a range of talented individuals. Having worked with some of the very best in the business I could be accused of being somewhat jaded. But not with this show. I simply LOVE the variety and scale of talent that comes out for Let Me Entertain You.
This year was show number three. As far as I'm concerned it's a huge privilege to be asked to sit on the judging panel, so for me it was a given that I would say yes! It's also a great excuse to dress up in fantastic outfits from fabulous Sherborne-based designer Perri Ashby, who has kindly dressed me for every live Let Me Entertain You event.
But LMEY is not about me. Nor is it about Emma Britton (fabulous BBC Somerset radio DJ and all round lovely woman). Not even about the amazing Adam Burgan (Theatre Manager at The Octagon, gorgeous person and two-time winner of Theatre Manager of the Year).
It's about the talented contestants - and as far as I am concerned, also about the theatre team.
I don't know if everyone who watches the show is aware of how much work goes into making it happen. Not even I am clued in to just how much it takes to make it work. However, I do know a reasonable amount about sound and light (not the technical stuff, I hasten to add – just the basic workings) and I have also experienced my fair share of load ins and get-outs. That small amount of knowledge is enough to make me want to get down on my knees and kiss the (rather sweaty, no doubt!) feet of the amazing backstage team who make the show appear so effortless and utterly professional. Their sheer joy at working on the show is totally infectious and their amazing vibe carries throughout the event. If it wasn't for the theatre team, though the competition would still be good (no doubt - the talent on the stage is astounding!) it wouldn't be the incredible show that it is. The addition of exceptional sound, seamless backstage management and head-turning lights are what make the event stand out from anything of it's kind that I've ever taken part in in the past.
And then there are the acts themselves. It goes without saying that without them, the show wouldn't happen – but they are so much more than mere contestants. I've expressed earlier in this blog just how impressed I have been over the years with the level of talent in the area, but I can't stress enough just how mind-boggling some of it is. We see kids who can sing, dance, play instruments and OWN a stage at a ridiculously young age. There are dancers of all kinds who get stronger and stronger as the competition advances – with moves that take our breath away. We hear singers of all genres who make the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end and cover us in goosebumps. Bands, acrobats, musical theatre, comedians, magicians – we've had it all.
2015 saw another fantastic winner – this time a band of young students called Twisted Vinyl who excited me from the first moment I heard their audition. The story amuses me still. These young musicians chose to play Tom Robinson's 2-4-6-8 Motorway as their audition piece. An interesting choice for kids of 17 and I was delighted when they did a really great job! When it came time to critique them, I told them that my husband had performed with Tom Robinson for many years and played that song hundreds of times with the man himself. They all squealed with nerves but I was happy to be able to tell them that I had been favourably impressed. The best part came when they performed the same number – even better, by the way – for the live semi-final. As the judges' mics went live I told them that my husband was in the audience and the nervous, excited reaction was priceless! Not just from the band but the audience too. The compère asked for the house lights to go up and asked my husband to stand up – I must admit I hadn't planned on putting him through such embarrassment but I'm sure he'll forgive me – he has chosen a life on the stage, after all!
One final thought I need to send out there regarding Let Me Entertain You and the men and women, boys & girls who take part. There can only be one winner – we all know this. It's a competition and we as judges have no choice but to vote – we wouldn't be judges otherwise. But I must tell you just how privileged I and my fellow judges feel that you are happy to share your talent with us on that stage. NEVER give up. It takes enormous guts to audition for this show, let alone perform in the live semi-finals and final. You are all amazing – please keep doing what you are doing and continue to share with us your passion. We will always value and appreciate what you do – so keep it up!
All photographs by Len Copland.