tue 23/07/2019

Over the Rainbow, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Over the Rainbow, BBC One

Over the Rainbow, BBC One

Lord Webber camps it up in entertaining new talent series

'Eradicating Judy Garland': Andrew Lloyd Webber (right) searches for an 'edgy' Dorothy

Having already unearthed a Joseph, a Maria, an Oliver and a Nancy for three of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s many West End productions, at the same time generating several dozen hours' worth of free primetime publicity, the BBC are now aiding the “merciful Lord” in his search for a Dorothy (and a Toto, although we’ll have to wait until future episodes before we get into the Alan Partridge-esque circus of dog auditions) to tread the boards in his forthcoming stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.

Over the Rainbow is basically The X Factor for girls raised on Boden and Birkenstocks. One candidate's parents sold their house to put her through stage school; she seemed to find the idea quite amusing. Someone else mentioned the “ping factor”. I’ve no idea what he meant but it seemed to capture the general tenor of these shows rather well.

As he made the last in a series of supposedly unscheduled cameo appearances intended to scare the wits out of the assembled hopefuls, it dawned on me that Lloyd Webber is actually rather good at this television lark

One thing Over the Rainbow doesn't do is linger on the so-bad-they're-good brigade. It does not exploit those with little talent, which may please some and frustrate others. Last night’s opening show fast-tracked us through the national auditions, pausing for breath only to home in on the by-now obligatory tall tales recounting absurd commitment to the cause. My favourite was the girl who claimed to have “walked 30 miles in a blizzard” to get to the Glasgow audition - and was promptly sent home, presumably in her bare feet.

From 9,000 eager contenders, we were swiftly down to the best

150, who were invited to strut their stuff at the “imposing” Hackney Empire. Here they learned their fate from the judging panel: three days of hot-housing at Dorothy Farm (a half-hearted attempt to evoke a slice of dirt-blown Kansas in the verdant Home Counties) for the victors; a stern reminder that “you are not Dorothy” and a one-way ticket home for the less fortunate.

The panel looked promising enough but had scant opportunity to riff off one another last night. John Partridge, who appears in EastEnders but has a sturdy background in musical theatre, was soon baring his teeth and high-kicking around the rehearsal room in a manner that would surely see him come to swift and considerable harm in Albert Square. He lacks previous judge John Barrowman’s sheer, irrepressible daftness, but looks like he might be good value, both good and bad cop rolled into one. Sheila Hancock, currently performing in Sister Act, watched hawk-like and took no prisoners. She had all the best lines (“You’re going to spend a lot of time unemployed,” she told one toothy aspirant) and claimed to be holding a torch for the “quirky” girls. Good luck with that, Sheila.

Within a few minutes of the show starting Lloyd Webber talked about “eradicating Judy Garland”. Someone else, inevitably, mentioned the words “edgy” and “contemporary”, which allowed the judges to put through a few girls with piercings and blonde hair. None of them, it was almost immediately obvious, has a hope in hell of treading the boards in the West End, but this is, after all, a television show and has to at least pretend to be considering as broad a demographic as possible. But if Dorothy doesn't turn out to be small-boned, pale-skinned and dark-haired I’ll eat my red shoes. 

Third judge Charlotte Church, on whom the majority of the show's pre-publicity has focused, only turned up near the end, striding into Dorothy Farm in six-inch red high heels and a power suit, telling the girls to give it some “welly from the belly”. Never knowingly short of an opinion, she was a little subdued here, but will doubtless come into her own once proceedings enter the cut and thrust of the live studio.

Last night, however, Lloyd Webber was the best thing on show. While host Graham Norton laboured with a series of lame Wizard of Oz gags and slight visual puns, it came as a somewhat uncomfortable shock to realise that things were generally less fun and less interesting when the Lord wasn’t on screen. Clearly relishing his role as camp comedy villain, he weathered the chilling slo-mo, cheesy horror SFX and hairraising close-ups (“I nearly cried,” sobbed one poor lass when he hove unexpectedly into view; an ambiguous statement if ever there was one), with an implacable smirk. And as he made the last in a series of supposedly unscheduled cameo appearances intended to scare the wits out of the assembled hopefuls, it dawned on me that he’s actually rather good at this television lark.

This breathless opening episode was all about scene-setting, preparing the stage for battles to come. At Dorothy Farm the cast was finally boiled down to 20, and those who had failed to make the cut learned their fate via a cruel and unusual punishment. Dissolving in a sea of snot and salty tears, 50 young ladies snivelled through "Somewhere" while Church crept amongst them, dispensing gentle taps on the shoulder to 30 of them to convey instant death to their Dorothy Dream. Vaguely fascistic, it made for excellent telly. For the last 20 standing, all that remained was to clap, hug and cry some more as the throbbing strains of Take That rose behind them on the soundtrack. Fade and cut. Job done. It’s back on tonight. I’ll be watching.

None of them, it was almost immediately obvious, has a hope in hell of treading the boards in the West End

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