Yesterday I was happy to play
For a penny or two a song
Till a fellah in a black sedan
Took a shine to my one-man-band
He said, “We got plans for you, you’d never dream”
You’re a Star, Carl Wayne’s theme song for Birmingham-based television talent show New Faces, tells the story of art constrained by commerce, of authentic culture packaged by a star system. The narrator finds success of a sort, measured in his new possessions and receives acclaim from all around but his song is a confidence trick. The only positive emotion he has is in the first line, and is already linked to the past: “Yesterday I was happy to play”.
Musically too this is dour stuff, its leaden rhythm is hidden by a sing-along hook in the chorus. This is a cathartic song. Such melancholia makes You’re a Star a strange anthem for a show like New Faces that fetishises stardom, a show whose very MacGuffin is the pursuit of fame. Yet this is perhaps the greatest trick of stardom, that it hides its shame in plain sight. Indeed New Faces‘ great rival, Opportunity Knocks, achieved much the same feat of doublethink with Kiki Dee’s Star, which camouflages the lines “They can build you up / And they can break you down / With just the right words” behind the jauntiness in an almost Smithsian way.
Now you’ll be forgiven for thinking I’m about to claim that Birmingham invented Saturday night television (it played a hand in that, of course). Possibly you suspect I’m going to say that New Faces, filmed firstly at the ATV Centre off Broad Street and then latterly at the Birmingham Hippodrome, was the first television talent show and therefore the precursor of the blockbuster global formats X-Factor, Pop Idol and, er, Fame Academy. Sadly not: Opportunity Knocks predates New Faces by many years.
Perhaps you think I will make the case for Birmingham inventing the light entertainment public vote, which is so ubiquitous in the modern talent show era? To be honest we bodged that one. The theatre audience at New Faces could vote live via push buttons wired to Marti Caine’s ‘Spaghetti Junction’ scoreboard but the rest of us at home had to write in on a postcard to place our vote. Uncle Bob and his Opportunity Knocks lot responded to the postcard innovation with a telephone vote meaning that the London show could give results on the night while here in Birmingham we had to wait a week for the postal votes to be collated. In any case, these are all petty side issues compared to the real issue at hand: how Birmingham invented the whole sham that is fame itself.