THINK of amateur talent; think of Hughie Green. They go together like — well, like mustard and cress or Morecambe and Wise, or…
And it’s not surprising, really, when you recall that for the past 15 years or so Hughie has devoted most of his time to giving Britain’s youngsters the sort of chance they’ve dreamed of.
He is, in fact, rather like a one-man Arts Council in the field of light entertainment.
“It incenses me,” he said — and he meant it — “to see enormous amounts of money being spent promoting all this ‘long haired’ stuff which has virtually no public appeal, and nothing being done for music, theatre and music hall.
“For, let’s be honest, music hall is the very backbone of this nation. It has produced some of the greatest entertainers of all time.”
What I particularly wanted to know when I met Hughie during rehearsals for one of the Saturday Opportunity Knocks! shows, was how he had come to be Britain’s top amateur talent seeker.
A mischievous smile appeared, he settled back in his chair and said: “For the answer to that, we have to go back a long way.
“Before the war we did a show called ‘Hughie Green and His Gang.’
“That was a talent show really because we used kids in it, and we were always on the lookout for those with talent which was a bit out of the ordinary.
“After that, I had the good fortune to go to America and work in a show called ‘Meet the People.’ It was a sort of Theatre Workshop.
“We all got paid 40 dollars a week and there were no stars. But there was certainly no shortage of talent.
“In fact, the whole idea was to get hold of people who had talent but no real stage presence or ability, and knock them into shape. It was a first-class training ground. Everybody criticised everybody else.
“It was terrific. I did an act on my own, danced in the chorus and took part in the sketches.”
Afterwards, Hughie spent five years with the Royal Canadian Air Force, did some more work in the United States, and finally returned to this country in 1948.
But let him continue the story in his own words: “One day I ran across radio producer Harry Pepper. Would I, he wanted to know, be willing to put on an amateur talent show called “Opportunity Knocks!”
“I jumped at it. You see, it meant that once again I would be in a position to give genuine talent the chance it deserved. And that was something I wanted to do more than anything else.
“That show began on radio in the summer of 1949 and went on until the spring of 1950. And, since then, it has had eight years on commercial radio and, in 1956, made its first appearance on ITV.”
In the current series, Hughie has introduced what one might call a new look—repeated appearances instead of a final prize. What had he to say about this?
“1 think it’s far better. It allows one week’s winner to compete the following week and, if successful in that programme, go forward again — and so on.”
Why? Because I’m convinced that repeated appearances in front of the public do far more good for an up-and-coming young artist with real talent than any major prize.”
And then, to allay any suspicions that this might be a way of doing the show on the cheap, he added: “Nobody, by the way, appears ‘for free.’ Everyone gets paid either the Equity or Musicians’ Union rate.”
If Hughie needs any encouragement in his never-ending search — though I should imagine that’s most unlikely — two things surely provide it.
The first is that his “spotting” has produced artists of the calibre of David Whitfield; the second, that the best of his current discoveries are to be auditioned for the famous Ed Sullivan Show, in America.