As I write this, Britain’s Got Talent is about to start its 10th season. I still find it difficult to watch. A couple of my magician friends have been on it in the past few years with huge success, and I typically watch their acts in support… but then immediately turn to something else once they’ve finished.
Although it’s not hugely known, I auditioned for the show once. In fact, it was 10 years ago, when the show was in its very first series. My gimmick, of course, was that I was a 12-year-old from Liverpool, with a broad accent and a slightly ill-fitting suit, performing magic tricks on stage. What’s not to like, right?
I submitted an application online after seeing an advert for the show on TV, and was absolutely delighted to hear back from them to say my application had been successful… along with about 5,000 other people as well, I would imagine. The audition I was invited to was held at the Manchester Apollo theatre a month or two later.
This was remarkably exciting! I would be performing on a proper stage, on a proper TV show, in front of the proper Simon Cowell! This is going to be incredible, I thought. Over the coming weeks I worked on my 3-minute act tirelessly, perfecting each word, each move, to make it Cowell-ready.
The day of the auditions arrived, and I set off to the theatre along with my family and some friends, most of whom would be sat in the audience and would watch the show live. I headed for a separate ‘performance entrance’ along with my dad. I was given a large Britain’s Got Talent sticker which I was told to place along my chest. Boldly and intimidatingly upon it was a number: 114.
We followed the crowd into what became an enormous waiting room backstage. Hundreds of nervous performers of all kinds were pacing up and down, making last-minute tweaks to their act and trying not to faint with the pressure of it all. “Just try to relax,” we were told, “we’ll let you know when we need you.”
Throughout the day, gaggles of numbers were belted out, alerting the corresponding variety acts that this was their time. In each instance, various performers from around the room would stand with apprehension and make their way towards the corridor in which they were all led. It was like The Hunger Games for ventriloquists and dogs who can do funny dances.
Several hours passed. “Can we have contestants 112 - 117 please?” shouted a member of the production team, over the remaining 200 or so singers, comedians and variety acts. I looked down at my sticker… 114. This was it. My hands started to shake as my entire body was suddenly swept with a feeling of trepidation. I tried controlling my nerves, keeping them hidden - but let’s not kid ourselves… I was petrified. I was just about to stand on stage in front of 2,000 people, along with a tremendous amount of TV cameras and a panel of judges, including Simon Cowell. Shit.
I stood in the wings of the theatre; the first time I’ve ever been on the other side of the curtains, and watched as the acts before me did their bit. First, a juggler who dropped a club early on through nerves and was buzzed immediately, illuminating the enormous red X’s above the stage. Until you’re actually stood there, you cannot begin to imagine how loud and intimidating they really are. The ground seems to tremble beneath you like an earthquake as each one is pressed. This was, of course, the very first series of the show - so even the idea that you could be ‘buzzed’ off stage was completely unexpected and absolutely terrifying. Especially for a 12 year old.
Next, a dance act. I didn’t pay much attention to their act to be honest. I just checked my props over and over again, constantly repeating my script in my head. The dancers did seem to do well though, and came running off stage, overjoyed. They were swiftly escorted into a side room to be interviewed for the cameras.
Now it was my turn. I took my position backstage, next to Ant & Dec. “Good luck pal,” said Ant, smiling, “you’re going to be great…” He gestured, signalling for me to make my entrance. I closed my eyed and took one deep breath. I rubbed my hands on my trousers to try and wipe the sweat away. I couldn’t turn back. I strode towards the middle of the stage, faking confidence. Directly ahead of me were the judges surrounded by a sea of people, all looking in my direction.
The next 5 minutes and my act itself is something of a blur, but the reaction from the audience and judges was absolutely incredible! They raved about what they’d just seen and couldn’t have been more complimentary. I was ecstatic - bowled over by their kind words! I walked off stage towards Ant & Dec who continued the barrage of compliments. This is amazing, I thought.
So I went off, did the customary interviews and set off back home with my family, who were elated and overwhelmed by the entire thing. I was on cloud nine for days afterwards and set to work on what my next act would be.
A few days passed and I got a call from someone on the Britain’s Got Talent team, who said the next round would be in London and we’d need to be there a couple of weeks later. We promptly bought some train tickets and my dad and I set off for the capital, excited to discover what it would bring.
We arrived at the theatre, as requested, at 10am that morning. Surrounding us were around 150 other acts, each of whom had also been put through to the next round; none of us really had any idea of what was going on. This was, after all, the very first year of the competition. We had nothing to base it on, or any real idea of how it all worked.
About an hour or so passed when suddenly Simon Cowell appeared above. A hush fell over the, admittedly, rather strange collection of people. “The other judges and I,” he boomed, “are going to re-watch the videos of all of your acts and narrow it down to just 12 of you. We’ll speak to you when we’ve made a decision.” With that, he disappeared into another room.
So, having nothing else to do, we waited. And waited. And waited. About 10 hours passed without a word or any real end in sight. That was until, finally, numbers started being called once again. Much like the first audition, groups of people were being taking away from the waiting room we had been in all day, and into a theatre. I sat, anxiously. Each passing second seemed like a minute.
Finally, my number was called. 4 or 5 other performers and I walked nervously to a show runner, who escorted us to what turned out to be an empty theatre stage. Empty, of course, other than the addition of the four judges sitting in the front row.
There was a moment of complete silence which seemed to last for hours. The other acts and I stood there in desperate anticipation; longing for good news. Finally, Cowell took the lead, “We’d like to say thank you for coming, but unfortunately we’ve not picked you.” Suddenly, in that moment, I felt completely hollow. I just stood there, completely exposed on stage as my dreams seemed to be shot down in front of me. A camera zoomed close into my face to capture any kind of reaction. It was crushing and in that moment I wanted the earth to just open up and swallow me.
I kept an absolutely straight poker face, trying to conceal any kind of emotion as Cowell continued, “you can leave that way.” He pointed towards a side-door and gestured for us to leave. In unison, we turned and sidled out into the dark London street. As quickly as that, it was over. Hours of apprehensively waiting; months of planning, all came crumbling down to this.
It’s a cliché, but I remember the taxi back to the hotel like it was yesterday. Bitterly cold; cloudy but not raining. There didn’t seem to be a single star in the sky. My dad tried to comfort me, tell me it was fine and that he was really proud of how far I’d come - but I just didn’t want to talk. So we sat there, passing the twinkling London lights as I desperately tried to hold back my tears, silently.
Even now, as I write this, I can still feel the unshift-able knot in my stomach I got at the time. I was at an age where the rejection just really hurt. I was completely crushed. Ashamed at the idea of my own failure. This is going to be shown on TV, I thought. I was mortified at the idea of walking into my new secondary school and being laughed at. Humiliated.
My dad spoke to my mum briefly. Told her I didn’t make it through to the next round, but I was alright and would speak to her tomorrow. I just sat, staring out the window.
We got back to the hotel around midnight and I got straight into bed. Head resting on the pillow, staring into the darkness above me, towards the ceiling.
“I’m not sure I want to be a magician anymore,” I said to my dad, “I don’t see what the point is.” I meant it. There was a moment of silence before I rolled over and went to sleep. My dad, he’s since told me, didn’t sleep for a second that night. Helpless in what he could say or do to make me feel better.
A few weeks passed, with Britain’s Got Talent and magic in general going entirely unmentioned. I had no interest in talking about either. I genuinely think I would have happily thrown in the towel after that night and never picked up a pack of cards again – but I had a problem. I’d been hired to perform some close-up magic at a charity event later that month. I was dreading it. I hated magic and did not want to do it, but despite my pleading, despite my begging, my dad insisted that I went and did it. He maintained that I could absolutely not let these people down.
So I went, begrudgingly. Over the course of the following 2 hours, something within me changed. I’d watch smiles dance on peoples’ lips; grown adults burst into spontaneous laughter and applause at the magic they’d just seen me perform. It was making people happy. It was making me happy to be there. It sparked my enthusiasm for magic and performing once again.
Jumping back on the horse was exactly what I needed to do and it reignited my love of it all. Looking back, I absolutely think Britain’s Got Talent did me an enormous favour by not putting me through. Truthfully, I wasn’t ready for it and I think they knew it. I just didn't have the material to sustain being on the show and being able to perform to any kind of high standard. I was jumping the gun without any real experience, and progressing forward in the competition would have probably done me more harm than good.
In the months that followed I forgot about the events of BGT, which thankfully were never broadcast, and moved onto other things. That feeling of rejection though, and how to deal with it, was a genuinely invaluable life lesson. It would be happening a lot over the next few years…