The Magnets: A Talent For Survival

by Michael Welton

A while back The Magnets, and a number of other British a cappella groups, were contacted by an enthusiastic researcher from a TV company with plans to make a UK version of The Sing Off, a kind of X-Factor for American a cappella groups and a surprise hit for the NBC network. “Oh yes, it’s definitely been commissioned” she said sensing our scepticism. “Would The Magnets be interested in competing?” We politely declined, thinking forward to the ignominy of a professional group being beaten out of sight by a group of cute 16 year-old performing arts kids and their simple but energetic Grease medley, but added that we would of course be very interested in a role as mentors or judges. Alas for the UK a cappella scene the next time the researcher called the concept had shrunk to a Christmas special featuring only professional groups (raising the delicious idea of The Magnets duelling The Swingle Singers for best Yuletide medley), before the idea was unceremoniously dropped all together. Definite commission my arse.

Unfortunately third series ratings for The Sing Off are on the slide (blame those new two hour episodes – it’s true, you can have too much a cappella), so that may be the last we hear of a UK version, although the French are giving it a try. But, as Out of the Blue showed on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year, it certainly won’t be the end of the story for a cappella on TV talent shows. Indeed, it is a little broadcast (or perhaps memory supressed) fact that The Magnets owe much to two such shows for our surviving the tricky passage from student to professional group.

In these Back to the Future days of ‘X-Factor vs Strictly Come Dancing’ Saturday night entertainment it is hard to believe that in the 1990s such light entertainment TV was considered as outmoded as the test card and the continuity announcer’s bow tie. But some TV executives, who now look like visionaries, were determined to prove there was still life in Variety on TV. The Big Big Talent Show was a vehicle for Jonathan Ross, already a star chat show host, and the format was as traditional as they come. Comics were pitted against crooners and acrobats against a cappella groups. Having won through a round of (non-filmed, can you imagine!) public auditions, we were the first act on the first show of this brand new ITV series. It was a pretty daunting proposition for a group that had only been together for 18 months, and by the standards of today’s student groups at least, were pretty shambolic with a repertoire largely limited to a few Rockapella and Kings Singers arrangements.

We were nothing if not cocky though, and being on the first show meant we also got to film the not-for-broadcast pilot in front of a studio audience, so by the time the show proper came around we regarded ourselves as TV veterans. Decked out by the costume department in lime green, purple and orange shirts with matching pin-stripe suits we fairly nailed Paul Simon’s ‘Call Me Al’ but, in a lesson for all wannabe a cappella talent show hopefuls, lost out to a cute ventriloquist’s dummy*. We were in good company. Also beaten on that episode were comedian and now professional Hollywood bad guy Omid Djalli and comedy hero Ed Byrne, while for good or ill the series went on to launch Charlotte Church onto the national stage. Even the ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin (who went on to win the series final by a country mile), has gone on to carve out a successful career on the circuit, including multiple appearances on that holy grail of light entertainments, the Royal Variety Show.

The Big Big Talent show lasted just two series, its creators having failed to come up with Pop Idol/X-Factor/BGT TV gold of placing the same faces in front of the public for 16 weeks in a row. Back then it was just one heat and then, if you’re lucky, the final several weeks later. In those pre-Facebook, pre-website days we had no way of knowing how our performance had gone down with the public (contrast that with the 5000 people who ‘liked’ Out of The Blue on Facebook during their run on BGT). Though we were suddenly being recognised on the Underground, it seemed perfectly natural that our next shows were back on the streets busking alongside the jugglers and clowns of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We were too naïve then to even know how to go about getting a venue.

But in our own minds we were now TV stars. Rather than hand it on to the next bunch of students we greedily kept hold of The Magnets, and that taste of glory, that inflated self-perception helped see us through a succession of dead-end managers, no-gig agents, record company A&R rejections and numerous other near misses and disappointments as we balanced the survival of The Magnets with the post-university reality of temping jobs and Milk Round training schemes. It sustained us over four years until our life changing record deal with EMI and our next brush with TV talent show fame, of which more another time. We made it pro. Surely it’s only a matter of time, and possibly a lack of other postgraduate career options, before another student group does the same.

*We had previous with that dummy. He’d beaten us in a talent show at Dagenham Working Men’s club a few weeks previously. Top prize £50.