First impressions can be very deceptive, which is why auditions have always been such a massive magnet for misjudgement. We all know the most egregious examples from movies - such as MGM's brutal deconstruction of Fred Astaire: 'Can't act; slightly bald; can dance a little' - and music - such as Decca's damning rejection of The Beatles: '[They] have no future in show business' - but British comedy, too, is littered with similarly rash and risible dismissals of some of its future greats.
Sometimes, of course, the decision-makers were not to blame, and some really talented performers were simply very bad at their auditions. Frankie Howerd, for example, was always a brown-suited bundle of nerves whenever he had to stand in front of the judges.
His first audition, for RADA, ended prematurely in farcical circumstances. After suffering a panic attack that saw him stammer increasingly badly and lose control of his fiercely twitching left leg, he ended up, while trying to control said leg by banging against it with a right fist clutching a paper bag containing his packed lunch, accidentally showering his audience with the grated cheese and breadcrumbs that he had shaken from out of his sandwiches.
He followed that humiliating disaster, during the war, with four similarly shambolic failed auditions for the touring troupe 'Stars in their Battledress', and one attempt to join the post-war Combined Services Entertainment organisation that was thwarted by a certain Captain Ian Carmichael, who judged him to be 'too raw, with no timing, and I don't think he's particularly funny' (when urged by his colleague to elaborate a little, Carmichael nodded, thought for a moment, and then added: 'I thought he was death-defyingly unfunny!').
Howerd only passed his seventh audition, for the agent Frank Bernard, after being left waiting in the foyer for so long that, after going through all of his usual multiple bouts of self-doubt, he finally snapped and completely lost his temper, marching into Bernard's office and shouting: 'I am going to make you laugh, you IDIOT,' he barked, pointing wildly, 'because I am a VERY funny man, you OAF!!!'
His subsequent BBC audition, when it finally arrived, was, by comparison, fairly calm and straightforward. It happened in London on a cold and grey day in October 1946; the studio was empty except for the piles of sandbags that were strewn around all four of the walls, the solitary microphone standing in the centre of the room was old and battered, and, after surveying this lonely scene, Howerd's nerves, once again, were starting to unravel. By this time, however, his anxiety had become part of his act, and he impressed the producer Joy Russell-Smith so much that, once it was over, she emerged from the booth to shake his hand and declare that she had witnessed 'a completely new art form'. This time, at last, he had passed without a problem.
Not everyone has as many chances as Frankie Howerd. For too many budding performers the first time is the last time, and, their spirit crushed, they slope off the stage and are never seen again. That has always been the problem with the most high-pressured of auditions: the right place is not always at the right time, and, unless the examiners are alert enough to notice, all kinds of talents can be overlooked, and, sometimes, one can only shudder at the thought of who might have slipped away after the thumbs came thrusting down.
The BBC archives, in particular, can sometimes seem like a veritable Black Museum as far as such scenes of the crimes are concerned. Search through one of the old beige cardboard box files dedicated to the luminaries of light entertainment and it is alarming to find how many future greats failed, at least initially, to impress.
Why did it happen? One reason, especially back in the post-war years when the BBC relied heavily on auditions for finding fresh talent, was that too many of the judges were too often in the wrong frame of mind to reach the right decisions.
It had always been like this, right back to the earliest days of radio, when the BBC, hungry for new stars but wary of being manipulated by theatrical agents and managers, was determined to assess young performers in-house (preferably before they had secured any representation and would therefore be easy and cheap to hire), but was never determined enough to set up a proper audition system. Eric Maschwitz (the first Head of the Variety Department) had once mooted the idea of establishing the BBC's own talent school, which could find and train young entertainers to fit into the Corporation's culture, but the concept failed to get very far, and, into the 1950s, auditions were still organised in a decidedly amateurish, informal and sometimes alarmingly capricious manner, heavily reliant on the disposition, and discipline, of whomever happened to be occupying the chair at the time (the infamously mercurial programme-maker Dennis Main Wilson, for example, once oversaw an audition, after imbibing quite a few drinks, in a very merry mood, and promptly awarded the singer Gary Miller a score of one hundred per cent, and then gave Bob Monkhouse 'one hundred and one per cent', scribbled 'Wow' on his report sheet, and then slumped into his seat unconscious).
No real effort was made to put the performers at their ease. After waiting patiently outside for some period before and during the audition sessions (which were usually either at lunchtime or else between 4pm and 10pm, depending on the region), they would merely be summoned and sent through a thick, slow-moving, sound-proofed door and straight into the gloom of an empty studio, where the following instructions were waiting for them:
NOTICE TO AUDTIONEES
STAND ON THE ORANGE MAT AND FACE THE MICROPHONE. WHEN THE RED LIGHT GOES ON, STATE YOUR NAME CLEARLY, THEN WAIT. BEGIN YOUR PERFORMANCE WHEN THE GREEN LIGHT GOES ON. WHEN THE GREEN LIGHT GOES OUT, STOP PERFORMING AS SOON AS IT SEEMS JUDICIOUS FOR YOU TO DO SO. IF YOU HAVE STOPPED PERFORMING BEFORE THE GREEN LIGHT GOES OUT, GO TO THE DOOR AND PRESS THE BLACK BUTTON UNDERNEATH THE LIGHT SWITCH. DO NOT WHISTLE UNLESS YOUR PERFORMANCE REQUIRES IT.
It was usually, in fact, hard-working producers who were obliged to host these occasions, and some of them deeply resented the additional chore, regarding them as a drain on their time, with far too little return on the effort and resources they invested (out of the two thousand or more auditions each year, it was estimated that only about one per cent of the performers were deemed suitable for a broadcasting trial, of whom only about fifteen per cent were offered a second engagement - a total of three). The result was that some of them would sit there up in the control booth, arms folded and faces frowning, in no great mood to be pleasantly surprised.
This made the auditions unusually intimidating and often dispiriting contexts for all kind of budding entertainers, but especially so for the comedians. Trying to make a couple of producers laugh while they yawn, glance at their watches and mutter to each other was a task that strained even the sunniest of dispositions ('For all the laughs I got', reflected one crushed comic, 'you would have thought I was reading the news').
There also seemed to be all kinds of unwritten rules that made the whole process even more hazardous than it might have appeared from the outside. Recommendations, for example, were more often than not an impediment rather than an aid to a performer getting a fair hearing - or, indeed, any hearing at all. Whether this was down to a suspicion of unsolicited endorsements, or a snooty reluctance to accept any external advice, remains a matter of conjecture, but, judging from the archive, a tip-off could serve as a turn-off.
Take the case of Ken Dodd. On 10 December 1952, a Mr William Barber of Wood End Stores, Maghull in Sefton, Merseyside, wrote excitedly to Ronnie Waldman, the BBC's then Head of Light Entertainment, urging him to test one of Liverpool's nascent comic talents:
Dear Sir. This is the first time I have written to the BBC but I must let you know about this future star of television as I know you need a star or two. I don't want to say a lot about him. I want you to come up here and see for yourself. I will even pay your expenses. His name is Ken Dodds [sic] and he is appearing at the Shakespeare Theatre this coming week. He is funnier than Norman Wisdom and by the way, he doesn't know me from a crow so I am writing to you because he is a real find. His act is purely visual and he would be of no use on radio. If you are not interested, remember the name, Ken Dodds, and try not to reproach yourself.
Waldman, though rattled by what he regarded as the impudent tone, passed the letter on to an assistant, who responded politely if curtly (telling Barber that '"Dodds" should apply for an audition in the conventional manner'), but he made not the slightest effort to see this man 'Dodds' for himself.
It would be two more years before anyone from the BBC bothered to assess him, and then it was strictly on their terms. In September 1954, the writer and producer Ronnie Taylor, based at the BBC's Manchester studios, finally saw his act: 'We certainly feel that Ken Dodd has a lot to offer', he reported, 'although at present he works with little finesse. We hope to use him in one of our sound programmes from the region quite soon'. Dodd would never know it, but his well-meaning fan had probably delayed his progress.
Even when artists wrote in on their own behalf, they, too, needed to be careful. A simple and polite request would get a proper response, but any attempt to stand out from the crowd by sounding either glib or pathetic usually resulted in a very brusque rejection. Derek Nimmo, unfortunately for him, managed to sound a bit like both when, in 1956, he wrote to the BBC asking for an audition.
He began by announcing brightly that he was a twenty-six-year-old actor whose experience included 'West End and touring plays, musical comedy, pantomime and variety and I have spent four years in rep'. He then made the fatal mistake of trying to sound simultaneously witty and needy: 'At present, I am walking around with sandwich boards but am desirous of a change'. The BBC's reply was predictably blunt: 'I do not think that there would be much point in arranging an interview at the moment. Your sandwich boards sound most uncomfortable but there it is'.
A more palpable puzzle concerned the issue of presentation. Some performers, reasoning that they were only aiming to be on the radio, would turn up in their casual clothes, only to be marked down for being 'scruffy' and even, on the odd occasion, 'disrespectful'. Others, especially those hoping to get into television as well as radio, put more thought into their wardrobe.
Comics with a distinctive image were sometimes tempted to tone it down in order to make themselves seem more adaptable, while more conventional comics were tempted to exaggerate their looks, or even try something more striking, in the hope of making themselves appear more unusual and memorable. Neither tactic, however, seems to have brought most of them much luck.
Benny Hill, for example, dressed himself up as smartly as possible for his audition in 1947, but it only seemed to draw attention to the blandness of his material. The panel who saw him would remark that he appeared 'a young man of very pleasant appearance in a dinner jacket', but complained that his actual impressions and comedy routines were feeble. Ronnie Waldman, who was one of the producers present, was particularly sceptical about Hill's talent: 'The only trouble with him was that he didn't make me laugh at all - and for a comedian that's not very good. It's a mixture of lack of comedy personality and lack of comedy material.'
In contrast to Hill's over-eager attempt at sartorial ingratiation, Morecambe and Wise went deep in the other direction. They elected to appear as two very quirky-looking types (described by one unimpressed producer as 'Healthy Hank and Lingering Death') for their audition, which took place in London at Aeolian Hall in Bond Street in 1948. The BBC was cautious: 'Part of this act', wrote one observer, 'might be suitable', but warned: 'Suggestive material and dancing together should be omitted'. The other reviewer simply found them, in spite of their mannered appearance, 'too much like Jewel and Warriss' (the most prominent northern double act of the time), and advised them to 'try again in five years' when they had developed a more distinctive act.
An exception to such tailoring troubles was the character comedian Rex Jameson, who used his clothing versatility to his advantage. For his first audition in the autumn of 1949, he arrived dressed as a noticeably camp vicar, and proceeded to spend most of his allotted time delivering a mock-sermon ('Ah, good evening to you my flock, and now you can flock off'), blissfully unaware that the BBC's guidelines at the time prevented it from broadcasting anything religious under the banner of humour.
'Can you do anything else?' one of the producers asked with a pained expression. 'Yes', replied Jameson, 'I do a charlady'.
He was lying. It was simply the first thing that had popped into his head.
He was asked back to perform 'her', however, so he went off, wrote a script, dressed himself up in drag and returned the following week. He passed that audition, and was soon a regular on the radio as 'Mrs Shufflewick', a character with whom he would become so closely associated that his agent always insisted on his being billed and publicised as her without any mention of his real name or sex.
Some comedians, however, were simply far too nervous to fuss over their features. Their challenge was to keep their composure well enough to do justice to their normal act.
Tommy Cooper was one of those who failed to do just that. He arrived at the studios, in the summer of 1947, in such an agitated state that his audition was a disaster right from the start. He was snail-slow when he meant to be medium-paced, he was lightning-fast when he meant to merely be brisk, and his demeanour oscillated wildly between the placid and the panicky. The report on his performance would bemoan his 'nonchalant approach' and 'poor diction', along with what was regarded as an 'unpleasant manner'. As if that was not bad enough, he was then summed up as an unappealing young man with an 'extremely unfortunate appearance'.
Dora Bryan was rather more successful, at least initially, in managing her jangling nerves. She requested an audition the same year, saying, 'I can do any dialect well except Welsh and broken accents, which aren't so good'. She was warned that the waiting list for auditions was very long, but, as the BBC was looking for more female performers, she was assessed a few months later and, even though she was visibly and audibly anxious, was passed as 'a beta++ blonde, quite a character for comedy'.
It was only after that, however, that her temperament teetered, and her career was almost over before it began. In one of her first brief probationary appearances, she referred to Butlin's holiday camps on a live broadcast, thus breaking BBC rules about advertising. She only survived by sending her bosses a swift and grovelling apology: 'I'm ever so sorry about mucking it up. Because I said "Butlin's", I got nervous and mucked up the rest. I had an awful feeling that you'd think I'd done it on purpose and I got worried.'
It was just as stressful for Tony Hancock, who arrived, looking very pale and fragile, for his BBC appointment in 1948 weighed down by painful memories of his previous two failed auditions for ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association), which had been rendered shambolic thanks to his intense attacks of stage fright. On this occasion, appearing alongside his then-partner Derek Scott, he prepared by throwing up repeatedly in the nearby lavatories, and then struggled through the performance, but only just. Described by the panel as a 'pleasant' pair specialising in 'concert party burlesque', they squeaked through the process by earning the less than enthusiastic verdict of being 'not untalented'.
Some performers, who fell short even of this generously low-notched bar, simply slumped off and never came back. Some others, on the other hand, refused to accept any negative judgements, and, through sheer dogged and thick-skinned persistence, refused to stop applying until they got the answer they desired.
One of the performers who came to epitomise this indefatigable attitude was Les Dawson. No matter how many times he was knocked down, he kept getting up again and going back for more.
His first audition, in 1954, was at the BBC's northern headquarters in Manchester, where he performed as a singer and jazz pianist. John Ammonds and Jimmy Lelliott were the producers present, and it was a depressing experience. They were far from being impressed. Ammonds's report would read: 'Popular baritone. Badly out of tune. Quality of voice unpleasant.' Lelliott agreed, dismissing Dawson as being 'a typical club singer' who was of 'no use to broadcasting'.
Undaunted, he was back at the BBC two years later. This time, still billing himself as a singer/musician (although some comic patter was now becoming a part of his act), he was auditioning again in the presence of Lelliott, alongside another colleague, Eric Miller. Both of them, once again, complained that he was out of tune and had an unappealing tone, and, once again, they rejected him.
He got over it. He refused to give up.
He tried a different gambit when he managed to get another audition in 1958: this time, rather than calling himself a singer, he appeared primarily as a comedian. It failed to help, as the producers who saw him on this occasion merely complained about his projection, piano-playing and patter, and sent him straight back out of the building.
It still failed to discourage him. He reflected on the experience, he learned from it, and he continued performing, and continued dreaming.
He finally won the BBC over, or at least wore them down, when he returned yet again, this time in 1961, for another audition. Watched on this occasion by another pair of producers, Peter Pilbeam and Geoff Lawrence, his singing still failed to impress, and his pug-like face was deemed far more suitable to sound than vision, but they actually liked what they considered to be his 'good, different line of chat', and so, at long last, they passed him.
Even that breakthrough, however, proved to be not much of a breakthrough, and six years later Dawson was auditioning yet again, this time on Opportunity Knocks. His wait to kick-start his career lasted longer than some performers' entire careers.
If one lacked Dawson's exceptional patience, however, there was one other, 'break glass in case of emergency', option open to the fledgling entertainer: subterfuge. The performer who actually managed to pull this one off was Peter Sellers.
Sellers, after being demobbed at the end of the war, was desperate to get into radio. After trying in vain to lure someone from the BBC to see him in action at a live venue (where his current range of routines included topical impressions, regional-accented characterisations and some musical numbers), he realised that he would have to go to them, and so, at the start of 1948, he wrote asking for an audition. He was told by way of a reply that, while there was nothing available at present, he would be put on the dreaded waiting list.
Two months passed, and he had heard nothing, so he decided to write again. Someone at the BBC merely read the letter, scribbled 'Waiting List' on it and filed it away with a pile of similar requests.
Sellers finally got an invitation to audition at the start of April. No fewer than four producers saw him, and the consensus was that he possessed a 'likeable personality' but would need 'much better material or he'll fail'. He was handed a provisional pass, but was told he would only advance if and when he came through a subsequent recorded audition that would be arranged in the near future.
Two more months went by, however, and Sellers had heard nothing from the BBC. He was, by this stage, feeling intensely frustrated - 'You feel you've GOT to get ahead, you've GOT to get ahead' - so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He went to a public telephone booth in Soho, ran through some lines in his head and then took a deep breath. He took out a crumpled piece of paper bearing a telephone number, stared at it for a moment, and then got ready to dial.
'There was a radio programme at the time called Show Time, introduced by Dick Bentley, and I wanted to get on it,' he would later recall. 'The producer, Roy Speer, was a very senior man and I thought he must know Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch (picutred) whose Much Binding In The Marsh was one of the biggest things on radio. So I telephoned Roy Speer's secretary and said, "This is Kenneth Horne". I thought I'd be able to tell from her voice whether Speer knew him well or not. Anyway, he came on and said, "Hello, Ken"'.
Sellers was now at the point of no return. He could either hang up or go through with the ruse. He chose the latter.
'In Horne's voice I said I was calling because "Dicky and I saw a young feller the other evening - extremely good". "What's the name of your show, old chap?" Then I did Dicky Murdoch's voice hissing urgently in the background, "Show Time, Show Time". "What? Oh yes, Show Time. He would be marvellous on your Show Time, this boy"'.
Roy Speer had been hooked: 'Who is he, what's his name?' Sellers replied again as Horne: 'His name? Oh Peter, Peter - er...' He hissed in the background as Murdoch: 'Sellers'. He switched back to Horne: 'That's right, Peter Sellers'.
The conversation continued:
'Well, it's very kind of you chaps to take the trouble'.
'Oh, not at all. We're always on the lookout. Matter of fact we thought we might use him in our show.'
'Oh, did you? Will you be seeing him again?'
'Yes, we can see him right now.'
'Oh, I wouldn't go to all that trouble.'
'Trouble? No trouble at all, Mr Speer, because I am Peter Sellers.'
'What? What's that? What did you say, Ken?'
'I am Peter Sellers and I've been impersonating Kenneth Horne because I couldn't get to see you.'
'You cheeky young sod! You've got the nerve of the devil! Come on, then: what do you do?'
'Well, obviously, impersonations...'
Once Speer had recovered from the shock, he invited Sellers to his office, where he told him once again that he was 'a cheeky young bastard', and muttered 'this is highly irregular...'
That, though, was then. Now, of course, there are far more places where the budding performer, good, bad or mediocre, can get noticed and get on. How else can one explain, for example, ITV2?
So what are the lessons, if any, from all of this? It is probably just, as Samuel Beckett put it, a case of 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better' - but also, if you happen to have the ability as well as the audacity of a Peter Sellers, maybe break the odd rule if you feel you have to.