Tuesday, September 25, 2007

To be a star you need star quality

Janet Street Porter bent a few ears with a rant about the freak show that the X-Factor has become, slagging off judges who spend fortunes on facelifts and hours in make-up before humiliating poor, talentless and massively overweight contestants.

She’s dead right. The conveyer belt that allowed poor Emma Chawner to get through four off-screen auditions before being put in the stocks that is prime time entertainment was designed to feed our insatiable (check the ratings) appetite for seeing lesser mortals treated with ridicule and contempt.

And there was mileage in this story. The Sun got to say 'Fat's yer lot', TV-am had the entire family on the couch (a feat in itself) and Street Porter got to atone for all her involvement in reality shows.

But while all this was going on, one of the best talents ever to have emerged from such TV auditions was treating a few thousand of us to a concert at the Albert Hall in aid, not vanity, but of people close to her heart whose plight deserves far more attention than any wannabe pop star.

Patti Boulaye won the 70s equivalent, New Faces, scoring the highest marks in the history of the series and went on to enjoy a fabulous career doing everything from Carmen Jones to having her own Channel Four show.

But in the two years I’ve known her, she’s hardly sung a note. The voice I’ve heard recently has often been one of near-exhaustion as she takes five minutes away from her relentless toil, raising money for her Aids charity Support for Africa from her Buckinghamshire home. She’s called in favours from showbiz mates, spent hours on the phone, on the road and at her computer doing what most high-profile benefactors would hire legions of staff to do – and built health centres in her native Nigeria and surrounding countries that have saved countless lives.

And all the time her career has been on hold. In fact, when she is asked to sing, she invariably waives the fee in return for a donation. When John Major rang and asked her to appear at an event he was organising, she agreed to sing for free in return for his name as patron; something of little benefit to her but massive benefit to the charity.

Rarely have I met such a driven individual. I’ve often wondered how she found time to sleep, let alone rehearse, but on Sunday she took a break from the office, slipped into something snazzy, lined up alongside the likes of Boney M, the New Seekers and Peter Sarstedt – and blew them off the stage.

Her voice was as powerful and pure as the time in the nineties when she became, in producer Simon Callow’s words, the best Carmen Jones ever. Now, she assures me, she plans to take a break from fundraising and get back in front of a microphone.

I hope so but I’ll believe it when I see (or should I say hear) it. In the meantime, if we really have to endure more TV auditions to find the likes of the next Patti, or Lennie Henry or Les Dennis, may I suggest we spare the no-hopers the heartbreak and cut to a shortlist of one: her daughter, Aret.

I didn’t even know she was a singer until this week, but having taken one of the country’s most prestigious venues by storm, I do now.

Judges take note.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where there's a Will, there's a way

Glad for the chance to help out my old pal, Will Lewis, yesterday.

The energetic Telegraph editor-in-chief was due to speak at the end of Tuesday's Independent Publisher's Forum conference when he got the wrong train and found himself in Peterborough - instead of Grantham 30-odd miles away where delegates were awaiting his keynote address.

As the final business session ended, organisers made a frantic series of calls, to be assured that, as far as Victoria Plaza was concerned, he had boarded the train from London.

But as it came and went and the hapless driver laid on to collect him reported no sign of him or his sidekick, they decided to wind up the conference and let delegates dash for trains of their own.

Faced with the prospect of the great man arriving to an empty room, I discreetly got a message to Victoria that the audience were being told of the mishap and urged to make their way home. Some did, slipping out of side doors as votes of thanks were taken.

Quick as a flash, his wide-awake PA rang my mobile with the news that he was "literally minutes away", having just dived into a cab and Yours Truly had to break the news that the event was "literally breaking up". Anyway, (just for old times. Call me nostalgic)I poked my head back into the room like some apologetic Best Man and caught the eye of the podium.

Seconds later, most of the room sat itself down again, tactfully spreading out this time, and I returned to my seat eagerly waiting to find out what had happenned behind the scenes at the Telegraph since I cleared my desk.

And Will was back where he's most comfortable (in the hub) - and, er, spoke.