Friday, April 8, 2011

Fresh talent: Amanda Holden says the new BGT will be even funnier now Simon Cowell’s gone

By Jenny Johnston

Who needs Simon? The new Britain's Got Talent judges line-up Michael McIntyre, Amanda Holden and David Hasslehoff

The photoshoot is surreal enough before Fudge the West Highland terrier trots in wearing a tutu.

He licks his owner Amanda Holden’s face as she lies on the ground, and tries to scrabble into the tiny spaces left between her, Michael McIntyre and David ‘The Hoff’ Hasselhoff, causing mayhem.

The three celebrities, all dressed to the nines, are stretched out on top of a giant Union Flag with their heads close enough together for all to benefit when an assistant gives The Hoff a final blast of hairspray. A photographer snaps away from the rafters above, well out of Fudge’s reach.

As soon as her pet appears, Amanda shrieks, Michael makes a botched attempt at a doggytackle, and the dog is out of there. The Hoff, oddly enough, didn’t move an inch.

Actually, he didn’t seem to notice there was a tutu-clad dog practically promenading through his hair, which makes you wonder what other bizarre situations he’s experienced in his time. But still waters run deep.

After another ten minutes of grinning heavenward for the photographer, and straining to hold his stomach in, Michael asks, ‘What exactly is this pose supposed to represent?’

‘The end of our careers,’ suggests The Hoff.

It’s a shame, really, that Simon Cowell – the man to credit (or blame?) for all this – isn’t here to witness today’s team bonding. When he and Piers Morgan stepped down from the Britain’s Got Talent judging panel last year to concentrate on their soar-away US careers, Cowell set about finding replacements to sit alongside Amanda.

Whether his choices – The Hoff, a showbiz legend, and McIntyre, the most successful young comedian of recent years – will be a hit with the BGT viewers remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: this show is going all out for laughs.

‘I think it’s going to be a very different show to what went before,’ agrees Amanda when she finally rises from the floor.

Talented individuals: Michael, Amanda and The Hoff are having a great time judging the competition

‘It’s lighter, funnier. I’ve actually found it more relaxing, which is weird because I didn’t expect to. I was nervous about not having Simon and Piers there. But while I do miss those guys, I think maybe it’s good for me that things have changed.’

She means that – how can we put this nicely? – there suddenly appears to be more space on the BGT panel, now that it is rid of two of the most competitive,

testosterone-charged characters in the TV world. I ask if the ‘new boys’, as she calls them, have egos as outsized as Cowell’s and Morgan’s.

‘No, they really don’t. Well, The Hoff has an ego, but his is kind of contained. He’s American. He lives in his own little bubble, Hoff World, so it doesn’t really impinge. And Michael is a sweetheart. There is no ego there. He talks a lot – actually, I can’t get a word in edgeways – but he’s a darling, too.’

What she means is that Amanda is the new boss on the BGT panel. The other two defer to her, or at least tell her they do. ‘Amanda’s the new Simon, absolutely,’ confirms Michael.

‘She’s the only one who stops the acts. She does that Simon thing of slicing through the air with her arm.’ Amanda obligingly stands up to demonstrate. ‘Sometimes I use two arms,’ she says, doing a mean impression of a windmill. ‘Air traffic control is my next career.’

She is revelling – head-girl like – in the responsibility. She might even be good at it too. There’s an interesting moment during the endless faffing that goes on before a celebrity photoshoot.

Amanda says: 'I was nervous about not having Simon and Piers there. But while I do miss those guys, I think maybe it's good for me that things have changed'

The Hoff is having a huff about his costume, whipping off a cloak because, he says, it makes him look like Dracula, rather than a magician, as intended.

Michael is waddling round the room pretending to be a penguin, making comedy, rather than complaining, about the fact that the shoes provided for him are both too narrow and too long.

Amanda, meanwhile, is chivvying them both on. She’s in front of the camera, ready to roll, while they are still standing in front of the mirror admiring their hair.

Unbelievably, Amanda is the one who doesn’t seem to touch hers once. I have to confess to a newfound respect for the woman.

Her presence today could have made for a very difficult atmosphere. This is her first day back at work on Britain’s Got Talent since she suffered a very personal tragedy, losing her baby boy seven months into a much-wanted pregnancy in February.

She made it clear before the interview that she didn’t want to talk about this, but admits that getting back to work – even if hers seems a crazy sort of work – has been all important. ‘Work, for me, is the best therapy. I can do everything I need to do about what happened behind closed doors.’

Will we be seeing a different Amanda?

She says yes, but not necessarily because she is any different now. ‘I’m a very assertive, confident woman and I don’t think that has always come across on the show.

'Viewers have seen the softer side – which is obviously there because I’m an extraordinarily heart-led, emotional person. I go with my gut in everything. But I don’t take any lip either. Hopefully, that will come through this time.’

She says she especially won’t ‘take any backchat’ from those contestants who try to use sob stories to boost their chances. She agrees, poignantly, given her own circumstances, that the trend for every wannabe to have a personal tragedy and a Whitney Houston song to cover has gone ‘too far’.

No sob stories: While the judges are up for a laugh, they won't 'take any backchat' from contestants who try to use sad tales to boost their chances

‘We saw in the auditions that people were telling you their tragedy before they even started singing. They were milking it, doing the “My mother died last week and this is for her” thing, trying to get the audience on their side.

'I think we’re coming down harder on that this year. Of course people have back stories, and it’s right for us to find out about them, but not before they perform.’
This will be Amanda’s fifth year on BGT. She blabs away about how she ‘got the gig’ in the first place. Michael’s jaw drops to hear Cheryl Cole was offered the role before her.

‘Oh yeah, didn’t you know that? Apparently, Cheryl chickened out at the last minute and they called me. I was virtually on the train before they’d got off the phone, and began filming the next day. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true about Cheryl.

I asked Simon about it and he said, “No, no, Amanda, we only wanted you…”.

'Anyway, it was a great gig for me, and I don’t care how I got it. I’m eternally grateful. And to be honest, I didn’t realise how much I’d learned from Simon until I sat on my own and did it.’

She loves Simon. They all love Simon. The Hoff tells me he and Cowell call each other ‘Precious’ because when they once fell out, way back in 1993 when The Hoff made a record that bombed and had a hissy fit over it, Simon told him not to be so precious.

‘The name stuck. We’ve had our ups and downs but when he offered me this, I thought, “Why not? It would be a chance to work with Simon again.”’

All three compare notes about how Cowell brings people into his stable, then moves them round his shows like pieces on a chess board. ‘He’s Caesar, basically,’ says Amanda. ‘He’s got these gladiators and he decides who goes in the ring when.’

‘I think she’s saying he’s about to feed us to the lions,’ interprets Michael.

So if Amanda is the new Simon, who is Michael McIntyre? Hoff reckons he will be the star of the show, because he is ‘so damn funny – although I’ve had to say to him, “Calm down, Michael. Stop with the jokes. They will only be able to fit in two for each act.” Honestly, we can be there all day filming, because he just keeps the gags coming.’

Veteran: This will be Amanda¿s fifth year on BGT. She 'got the gig' in the first place after Cheryl Cole turned it down

So, why did Michael want the gig?

‘Are you mad? Anyone would want it.

The biggest show on TV, and you’re travelling round the country meeting all these amazing people and laughing constantly? I’m almost ashamed to say I enjoyed the auditions more than I’ve enjoyed anything in my life. I told some of the crew that, and they looked at me oddly. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life.’

Or maybe he’s still reeling from the experience of watching a Chihuahua doing an impression of Princess Di.

Yes, really – it’s one of the highlights of the audition stages, apparently.

The Hoff, of course, isn’t the new anyone. The Hoff is just himself (although at times it seems he’s on another planet).

I am granted ten precious minutes alone with him in his dressing room and he spends two of them brushing dust off his trousers. He tells me that, on balance, the contestants on Britain’s Got Talent are more nuts than their American counterparts.

Really? ‘Oh, yeah. Some of these people are stark raving mad. Do you know I had to dance one lady off stage? I was saying, “Keep her away from me.”’

You’d think The Hoff would know his way around the showbusiness world, but the concept of shows like this, involving public voting, bewilders him. He says he was voted off his last show of this type – Dancing With The Stars – and can’t fathom what the public were thinking.

‘The producer had been on at me to do the show for four years. When I finally agreed, he said, “Camp it up.

Give them Tom Jones.” So I did. I was sexy, funny… and got voted off! One judge said, “It’s a pot-pourri of madness.”’

He looks downright baffled.

‘I don’t understand how these voting shows work. I understand people being entertained by them, but it always amazes me how many people pick up the phone and vote. I’ve never done that. Have you?’

When I say something about people not only being keen to vote, but being prepared to pay for the privilege, he looks at me as though I’m the crazy one. Viewers don’t pay to vote in America, hence the confusion.

It’s clearly going to be a very steep learning curve for everyone when this lot buckle down to the live shows. I ask what the dressing room arrangement is and Amanda says she reckons Michael will be next to her, in Piers’s old room.

‘Once Piers came in and found me naked,’ she says. ‘I tried to hide behind a clothes rail with no clothes on it. Michael hasn’t seen me naked yet.’

Michael rolls his eyes. I get the impression it’s only a matter of time.

Britain’s Got Talent returns on ITV1, Saturday, 16 April.


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