Fame Academy

Auntie Beeb has an awkward relationship with ‘event television’, the kind of big ticket items commercial broadcasters know massive outlay splooge can be spent because advertising revenue will recoup part of the costs. For the Beeb, chasing the ratings and yet being innotive with programming is the eternal struggle for its own existence; it’s why latest Saturday ratings hopeful “101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow” will be wrapped around the Licence Fee discussions like a tightly knotted neon turd.

Ahead of the game with “Strictly Come Dancing”, the Beeb was caught napping around the time of the “Pop Idol”/”Pop Star” frenzy, to such a degree it cobbled together buttoned-up talent show “Fame Academy”. Rather than replicate the ITV pace-setters entirely, the Beeb went for “education” and “learning”, with the positive elements of training the starlets to write their own material and only sing where they felt comfortable. Unlike “The X-Factor”, which looks beamed from another universe in compairson, the students of ‘the Academy’ were not made to sing from outside their comfort zone or be made to feel awkward about thier differences. While this should be applauded – it made for refreshing change to the sausage-factory approach to talent television – “Fame Academy” utilmately suffered by producing only one commercially viable contestent in two series…and he soon faded from sight.

A select few “Fame Academy” wannabes, to be fair, did anything after the credits rolled. Did the BBC fail them? Unlike “The X Factor”, or indeed “Pop Idol/Star”, there was a sense of realism about the business called show. The fact that each person was shown struggling to write and sing every week showed far more realism than the polished products which turn up on the “X Factor” stage every week. “We want to make you a star…if we can” probably did for the BBC in the end; nobody on reality television likes reality to be so, well, real.

Limahl, who didn’t win, made the best of his lot with well regarded RNB albums and strings of MOBO nominations and rewards. He is the only person from the show to have anything like that kind of success, such as it was. James Fox, who didn’t win, represented the UK at Eurovision, which at least guaranteed millions of viewers if not exactly sales. It must be particularly good for the spirit of a wannabe singer to know, perhaps halfway through the performance, that absolutely no good would come from singing. There are parallels to be made with my sex-life, but that should be for another blog…

Peter Brame, who had the kind of Doherty/Gallagher hybrid look that commercial broadcasters would avoid touching like the plague for being too difficult to explain to its viewers, went from the show to celebrity bed-hopping and tabloid tales. His attempt at a commercial career failed; I include the only single to get into the public domain here for reference.

David Sneddon had a woeful single release, one of the ear-worm chorus types with faux-humility running through the verses like so much off milk. Ainslie Henderson – kind of “Homebargains Roddy Woomble” – made my trips to the jukebox much easier with a belter of an one hit wonder, to be followed by absolutely nothing. This is one of the shames of the reality TV consequences, that a good singer/songwriter was left washed up before his career got going. Cruel, and not necessairly realistic.

Alex Parks, whose victory was the antidote to fame craze television, made the best of a badly handled career. The shy Cornish lesbian clown (four no-nos in a row for ITV, there) had her first album hastily released by a record company which didn’t really know what to do with her; the follow-up was years later and flopped. The girl who sounded like Tracy Thorn with hiccups (as a mate of mine put it once) could have been another Annie Lennox or Kate Bush….

Lessons learned from “Fame Academy” hang around the BBC “future” argument even today. Chasing ratings, trying to be distinctive, supporting new music….the elements of contemporary issues with the Beeb have some threads running back as far to the “Academy”, when the Beeb thought it could compete with the phone-in stardom craze so succesfully monopolised by commercial rivals. Today the Beeb can hear the clock ticking on its future; how it reacts to its place in multi-channel broadcasting now seems just as important as it did years ago.

Below, Peter Brame’s only attempt at the singles charts, and the Alex Parks single which blows out of the water most of the vocal gymnastics to come out of “X-Factor”.