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Meet the Major - a real talent!

Byline: Dan O'Neill

SIMON Cowell could never get away with it. In fact, no "talent show" on telly could get away with it. Come to think of it, it's a wonder that radio ever got away with it.

Right, let's end the suspense. Way back when Bing Crosby was King of the Crooners there appeared a bloke who was doing a Cowell before Cowell was born. His name was Edward Bowes but he became a legend after promoting himself to Major Bowes, and that is how he'll always be remembered.

He was the manager of New York's Capitol Theatre and presided over a sort of go-as-you-please competition, giving young hopefuls the chance to step on stage and show what they could do - or, as is so often the case with Mr Cowell's contestants, what they couldn't do.

He took Major Bowes Amateur Hour to radio in 1934 and lo, in the fullness of time an act called the Hoboken Four turned up. A member of that quartet revealed years later they were so popular Major Bowes brought them back week after week - under different names. Try that on X Factor.

Anyway, the gent recalling that minor radio rip-off was Mr Francis Albert Sinatra, who went on to greater things like marrying Ava Gardner and cosying up (so it's said) to the Cosa Nostra. Sinatra would say he owed a lot to that show, so Major Bowes certainly started something.

Canadian Carrol Levis, who had doubtless heard the Major and his amateurs, came to Britain in 1935 and soon had his own talent show. But it was another performer arriving that year from Canada who made the formula work.

Hughie Green, born in London in 1920, went to Canada as a baby and came back to host his own BBC radio show while appearing in films like Tom Brown's Schooldays as well as starring in cabaret and the country's variety theatres. He was 15. Prodigy, or what? After the war, a couple more films then the big break, Opportunity Knocks first on radio in 1949 and then TV.

And this guaranteed him his place in showbiz folklore, a boon to impersonators who pounced on his relentless catch phrase: "And I mean that most sincerely, folks." Here was living, smirking proof that if you can fake sincerity you've cracked it. But unlike X Factor, Opp Knocks put the spotlight on the contestants, not the judges. In fact, Hughie didn't judge, he simply compered the show and left it to the listeners, later the viewers, to pick the winners. No prima donna judges like Louis and Cheryl, no smug executioner like Cowell - although Hughie could have given him lessons in smugness.

So on they came, week after week, the talented, the wannabes and the woeful. So woeful were some that critics labelled the show sadistic. But what did they know.

"They don't understand what the public in Britain wants. They are so arrogant they think they can dictate what people want. All I worry about is what the man who sells newspapers on the corner tells me about the show."

It could be Cowell responding to recent attacks but no, this was Hughie in April 1973, pontificating for the benefit of Echo readers.

He was here to compere the final of the Miss Cardiff Tattoo, Opp Knocks part of the attraction. But Hughie wasn't impressed. The whole thing, he moaned, was "chaotic and professionally embarrassing." He'd been even more disillusioned with our town when he arrived in 1957.

"Frankly," he said after four hours ear-bashing in the Park Hotel, "frankly, I'm disappointed. Where, oh where are the choirs of Wales we hear so much about?" OK, no luck in Cardiff but Opportunity really did Knock for some pretty impressive performers over the years. Can X Factor or BGT come up with a line-up of acts including Les Dawson, Bonnie Langford, Pam Ayres, Freddie Starr, Frankie Vaughan, Frank Carson, the Bachelors, Paul Daniels and our own Max Boyce? Maybe the most memorable was Lena Zavaroni who, as a nine-yearold in 1973, wowed the nation with her belting style, going on to become the youngest performer at the Palladium. Then, a catalogue of illness, drugs and an early death.

Among the winners, a 91-year-old grandma who played the piano, leaving it a bit late for Opportunity to Knock. Another piano player was winsome Bobby Crush, a kind of cut-price Liberace, still tinkling away. Then there was Tony Holland, a body builder who twitched muscles to music and topped the show for six weeks. Meanwhile, Sue Pollard of Hi-Di-Hi fame was beaten by a singing dog!

Which, some cynics might say, sounded better than some of the acts inflicted on viewers by Mr Cowell and his cronies.


* Hughie Green flashes his most sincere smile during a visit to Cardiff in 1975
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 25, 2011
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