Three months before the official opening of the musical The Band, the show had already raked in £10 million in ticket sales. The anticipation is a testament to the continued popularity of the British pop act Take That, whose songs are featured in the musical. Naturally, the stage show required a boy band, so Take That’s own Gary Barlow teamed with Guy Freeman, BBC Studios’ editor for formats and special events, to conceive a new talent competition. Let It Shine, which aired on BBC One earlier this year, auditioned thousands of aspiring singers, placing the most talented into boy bands that then competed for the audience’s votes. BBC Worldwide is now shopping the concept to broadcasters across the globe eager for a new spin on the perennially popular talent-competition format. As Barlow tells TV Formats, his firsthand experience as a member of a boy band played a major role in how the format was devised. And the pop icon is no stranger to talent competitions—at age 15 he took part in a song contest hosted by the BBC One program Pebble Mill at One, and he spent several seasons as the head judge on The X Factor in the U.K.
TV FORMATS: Where did the idea for Let It Shine come from?
BARLOW: Well, me and Guy [Freeman] had worked together on quite a few TV shows over the years. I think we did our first show together in 1993. We’ve known each other a long time! Guy paid me a visit at my studio, and we were chatting about TV and ideas for TV and what I wanted to do next, really. I was ready to go back into TV. I’d done The X Factor for three years, I enjoyed that, but I was ready to do something else. And at that time I was in the middle of trying to come up with a musical featuring all the music from Take That, and I knew I needed a band to be in this musical. So I just threw it in, right at the end of the conversation: “Just so you know, I am looking for a band, wouldn’t it be great if we could talent search it?” And Guy said straightaway, let’s try and come up with a format around that, a talent-search format that can put bands together, specifically designed for individual people to audition for us and to then form them into bands.
TV FORMATS: What were you looking for as you put the panel of judges together?
BARLOW: For this particular project it was putting a band in a musical, so I wanted people who had musical experience but also had pop experience. That’s not everybody, and those two worlds don’t often meet. But this is a show featuring the music of Take That, so [Australian singer] Dannii Minogue fit perfectly in that world. She’s been in musicals herself, she’s been a pop artist herself, she’d had the credentials of being involved in talent shows for many years. What that skill brings is the ability to look at and see people who have a small flame of potential. Spotting that potential is very important. Martin Kemp [from Spandau Ballet] was my boy band era. I wanted someone who had been part of that band formation and he worked great. Amber [Riley, of Glee fame] was one of our early judges and she comes with TV and musicals experience, and she’s an amazing singer. It’s about that really—people who aren’t just talking about it, but people who’ve done it, who’ve been there and done it. So the audience can watch and go, actually, yes, they do know what they’re talking about because we’ve seen them do it.
TV FORMATS: You took part in a talent competition yourself, didn’t you?
BARLOW: I was in a few very early on. I got my first job through a talent competition in a local club. Honestly, every time you go on TV, whether it’s singing or talking, people are judging you all the time. It’s something that’s continuous. I try to say this as these [Let It Shine competitors] leave the show—this doesn’t end here, the judging doesn’t end, it gets worse, actually. Be ready for that. That’s what you do. That’s part of the gamble of being in this business, but that’s the thrill of it as well. The whole thing for me is about what happens when the competition ends, when the entertainment ends. What happens to the people from that point? That’s why I feel very good about our show. We have unearthed brilliant talent. They have a job for the next year, and a skill that they can use, or not, for the rest of their lives. That makes me feel good about it.