There was a collective gasp of excitement earlier this year when it was claimed that Pop Idol could be returning.
Although insiders stressed that a full-scale return was ‘unlikely’, unconfirmed rumours on social media of further developments have kept fans salivating – and hey, it’s understandable.
Arriving 20 years ago on the heels of ‘Nasty’ Nigel Lythgoe’s Popstars, which allowed viewers to peek behind the curtain at the formation of a pop group (Hear’Say and, inadvertently, Liberty X), Pop Idol changed the game for talent shows by making them a shiny-floor Saturday night extravaganza with a public vote – pulling in 13million viewers at its peak and introducing us to the likes of Will Young, Gareth Gates, Eurovision star Jessica Garlick and bona fide gay icon Michelle McManus.
But in 2022, talent shows are struggling to find audiences in the way they once were – and actually, I’m not convinced Pop Idol is the format that could breathe new relevancy into this once mighty genre.
So if we’re going to revive any dormant talent show from yesteryear, I’d – wait for it – reopen the hallowed halls of the BBC’s Fame Academy.
Hear me out: folks have been excited about the potential return of Pop Idol. They’ve been excited about the potential return of Big Brother. They’ve been excited about the way an artist like Sam Ryder has brought ‘credibility’ back to our Eurovision efforts.
So why not reboot the programme that essentially harnessed all three of those appetites, added a sprinkle of Cat Deeley, and put them all in one neat, addictive package with a slick theme tune?
Running for only two regular series (and three Comic Relief celeb specials), Fame Academy launched in October 2002 – less than a year after Pop Idol, and around the same time as Popstars’ Girls Aloud-generating second series on ITV.
Casting wannabes who could pen their own tunes and, in some cases, play their own instruments; the format essentially saw them taking up full-time residence in a literal Academy – receiving vocal, dancing and writing classes from an array of tutors (among them Carrie and David Grant, as well as weekly superstar guests) before singing for the nation every Friday night.
Much like Big Brother, fans could watch live feeds from the Academy throughout the week, tune-in to regular highlights packages, and spend their Friday evenings finding out which one would be evicted (or, in this case, expelled) in a thrilling live show.
But rather than, say, Pop Idol and later The X Factor – in which every contestant was on the chopping block every week – Fame Academy saw tutors selecting three hopefuls each week to be put ‘on probation’. Then, on the Friday nights, those three would sing for survival, after which one would be saved by public vote, one would be saved by a vote among the other contestants(!), and one would be eliminated.
As for the others, they got to perform either solo (especially if they were the week’s ‘Grade A student’), or in a duet or group – and the talent spoke for itself, particularly among the legendary final three of series one.
Bronze medallist Lemar went on to score seven UK Top 10 hits, two BRITs and three MOBO Awards; and winner David Sneddon became an acclaimed writer for the likes of Lewis Capaldi, Lana Del Rey, Saara Aalto and Newton Faulkner.
As for runner-up Sinéad Quinn, she hit No2 with I Can’t Break Down and is currently enjoying something of a low-key cult resurgence after her vastly underrated album Ready To Run was finally added to streaming services just last week (among my favourite albums of all time, I might add!). Mighty Hoopla and/or Pride gigs in 2023? I demand it!
Even the cast album – containing studio recordings of some of the tracks sung on the series – is a classic among those who were fans at the time. Remember Ainslie Henderson’s absolute megabop Keep Me A Secret? Lemar and Sinéad’s cover of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For? Marli Buck’s sensational spin on The Tracks Of My Tears? Perpetual underdog Katie Lewis’ take on Perfect?
(No, I know, you probably don’t – but ah, that’s history!).
Sure, things changed a bit in the inferior second season (the concept of being ‘on probation’ was dropped in favour of everyone facing the vote every week; and the live shows moved from a proper TV studio to the tiny foyer of the Academy), but it still worked – and it was all worth it to be introduced to the likes of the now-elusive Alex Parks.
Even when the Beeb opted not to continue with any further ‘civilian’ series, the celebrity spin-offs in 2003, 2005 and 2007 were stellar. If you still remember the tense clash-of-the-titans-style showdown between DJ Edith Bowman and EastEnders’ Kim Medcalf in the 2005 finale, you’re my kind of people.
Fame Academy never felt like it reached the same giddy heights as Pop Idol and, later, The X Factor – but maybe that could work in its favour now.
The fact it lacked the overt bombast and drama-mongering hysteria of the Simon Cowell catalogue – without being any less riveting – might make it a better fit for what audiences want now.
After all, if even the ever-reliable Britain’s Got Talent is suffering an (admittedly minor) ratings drop in 2022, maybe something that feels a bit less bells-and-whistles might be the way forward.
It encouraged artistic originality and songwriting prowess, but never forgot the need for star power and engaging performance skills. Crucially, it never got so preoccupied with authenticity that it forgot to be entertaining.
The reality element of them all living together in the same camera-infested building added a unique Big Brother-esque opportunity for viewers to get to know their faves; and format points like the elimination process – from the ‘on probation’ system to the contestants’ own voting – would still be exciting today.
So while I’d doubtless tune in to a rebooted Pop Idol, or even a rebooted X Factor, I’m not entirely confident that either would stick: are they really that different from, say, BGT and The Voice, once you get the USPs like spinning red chairs and the concept of Deadlock?
Fame Academy, however, might just be grounded yet engrossing enough to still work.
Just look abroad for the receipts: the Spanish version was revived in 2017 and has done well enough to warrant repeat recommissions; and the French-Canadian edition was brought back just last year.
Its upcoming 20th anniversary in the UK is the perfect opportunity for us to follow suit.