Shining a spotlight on the next big boy band
Gary Barlow is back with a brand new talent series on BBC One, with Dannii Minogue, Martin Kemp and Amber Riley signed up as judges, and Graham Norton and Mel Giedroyc on hosting duties - and a string of hopefuls battling it out for a year-long stage show gig. Ella Walker finds out more
Let It Shine opens with a bang. A musical theatre bang, no less, a sequence that's so glitzy, the choreography so dazzlingly precise, that even a naked Gary Barlow doesn't distract from the pageantry of it all.
"I did actually have some thin undies on, just to ruin the illusion. They were horrible; I apologise to the poor dancers," says the boy-band legend, grimacing. "A two-year diet that was, just for that one shot!"
Singer, writer and producer Barlow is at the helm for BBC One's new flagship talent show, which will see him and fellow judges - Dannii Minogue, Spandau Ballet's Martin Kemp and Glee's Amber Riley - casting five all-singing, all-dancing young men to star as a boy band in a brand new touring stage production, which will feature the music of Take That.
That, apparently, is what sets Let It Shine apart from the likes of X Factor and The Voice, the latter of which recently defected to ITV: These boys will get a career, hopefully a long one, at the end of it.
"This is for a job, it's not someone waving a [recording] contract," says Barlow. "I was able to sit there and say, 'Hey everyone, the reason you're here today is because this audition is for a job. We are going to give you an opportunity to be out on the road, around the UK, playing eight shows a week'."
It's structured more imaginatively than your average TV talent show too; the contestants audition on stage in front of a live audience, the judges then secretly mark them out of five, and those marks are translated into a light-up 'starway'. To get through to the next round, contestants must receive 15 out of a possible 20 stars, and the star they're standing on has to light up.
It's all much more intense than it sounds. "What we were asking people to bring to the audition was the 1992 version of us [Take That], and what I mean by that is, it's not looking like us, or having the same names as us, but having the same energy," says Cheshire-born Barlow (45). "Everything's new, you're wide-eyed, you're leaping about the stage, it's all fantastic and amazing - that's the version of us I wanted."
Successful applicants need to be able to sing, act and dance - "We used to do dance routines through ballads, so dance will definitely be a big part of it," Barlow notes - and have the stamina to do it night after night on the road, away from home, for a year.
Meanwhile, the judges are just that, there to judge, explains Minogue. "The boys did not see us before they stepped out on stage. We're not coaching them or mentoring them, we're just saying what we want to say after their performance, so it was like, 'All boys clear! Clear the corridors! She's coming through!' It did make me chuckle."
On hand to give the show a witty, irreverent bite are presenters Graham Norton, who handles things on stage, and Bake Off's Mel Giedroyc, who gets to know the contestants backstage ("There was a lot of primping," she reveals).
Understandably, when dealing with a load of teenage lads preparing to perform for Gary Barlow, things could get quite fraught.
"They held it together pretty well, and then there came a point where all of them dominoed," Giedroyc says, wryly.
"The funny thing about boys is, they have less filter," muses Norton.
"Women at this age, they've been to stage school, they've been doing Saturday morning drama classes and they're tough, whereas these boys, they fall apart if they get rejected."
Don't expect harsh critique, and acts deliberately picked by the producers to appear because they're awful, though.
"There's nobody coming on that's a clanger," promises Minogue (45), while Barlow says he was adamant from the start he wanted the whole process to be a positive experience for those auditioning.
"Casting people in front of a big audience - which I think is very hard and very brutal anyway - I wanted everyone who is on that stage to go away having learnt something."
Kemp, who also regularly appears in TV acting roles, adds: "The last thing you want to do, when anyone walks into an audition, is strip away their confidence to a point where they'd never go near a stage again."
Take That's Mark Owen and Howard Donald also appear backstage as Barlow's "spies" to spot potential troublemakers; lads who could "ruin the whole experience for everyone".
Fortunately, they didn't find any scoundrels during the first stage of filming. "They haven't come to me once, everyone's been great," says Barlow, "but when we started this process, we didn't know who was going to come through the door, and the one thing I didn't want was someone just looking to be famous - that's the opposite to what we need.
"We need people who have the work muscles, the work ethic and want to learn to be better."
Let It Shine may not have even aired yet, but there's already talk of scope for further iterations of the show, with Kemp agreeing a Spandau Ballet version is possible, although he admits "getting the ball rolling is a different thing".
"My band, we all get on all right for periods of time when we're away," he adds, "and then we land at Heathrow, we pick up our bags off the conveyor belt and we fall out!"
Barlow thinks a girl band version is "a great idea", but is keen to note that his dream for the show is to promote collaboration, regardless of gender.
"I think the underlying message of this show - having young children as well - is that, I find teenagers can often live a very solitary existence with their phones and their games.
"What this show, and the way that the interaction between the groups is, is it's teaching people to work as a team".
Let It Shine launches on BBC One tonight, 7pm