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Stars in their minds

They don't fix their Barry Manilows up with false noses. They won't let men do Shirley Bassey. And don't even dream that they'll let you be a Black-and-White Minstrel. Welcome to Stars in Their Eyes, the weirdest show on television
David Essex is worried about his West Midlands accent, but Alison Moyet puts a comforting arm around his shoulders and tells him he'll be fine. We are in make-up, an hour before showtime. Tony Rich is confident. Dennis De Young, an engaging Scouser, is so nervous that he "could do with a Valium sandwich". A few years ago, Neil Diamond had a terrible panic attack. And Kate Bush went down with laryngitis.

Meanwhile, LeAnn Rimes is silent. She is only 17 and therefore has to have a chaperone, Patsy, who speaks highly of two previous charges, Jimmy Osmond and Michael Jackson. "Michael Jackson had lovely manners," she says. "I send all my kids Christmas cards, you know." But Patsy hasn't warmed to LeAnn Rimes, who is a Mormon from Chorley and has distanced herself from the backstage camaraderie. The night before, LeAnn went home to be with her family, while David Essex and the others socialised in their Manchester hotel.

They were warned not to get too merry, though, and were told the cautionary tale of Robbie Williams - or it might have been Gary Barlow, or even Barry Manilow, nobody can quite remember - who got back to his room at 5am, legless. "He was just about OK by the time we did the show," recalls the executive producer of Stars in Their Eyes, Jane Macnaught. "But he didn't win. He pissed his chance away."

I am a late convert to Stars in Their Eyes, having long sneered at the show as jumped-up karaoke. It doesn't particularly help to learn that the format was born in Holland as Heini Haussmann's Sound Mix Show. And being unfamiliar with half the acts doesn't help either. My knowledge of popular music is shaky, and in any case covers only the years from Abba to Wham!. Besides, my children aren't yet old enough for me to form even a vicarious interest in Top of the Pops. So unless a contestant strides on to meet host Matthew Kelly, and says "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be Tinky-Winky," the chances are that I won't know whether the performance is any good. Who are Dennis De Young and LeAnn Rimes, anyway?

And yet, Stars in Their Eyes has gradually sucked me in. It was a show a couple of series back that kindled my interest, when a pair of rather square accountants, a man and a woman who had apparently met at a party yet still barely knew each other, emerged from the dry ice as Peters and Lee. How the hell did they find out that they could sing together like Peters and Lee? What motivated them? Would they start, on the back of their TV appearance, a Peters and Lee tribute act... or just return quietly to their spreadsheets?

Tonight, Matthew, Stars in Their Eyes embarks upon its 10th series. It has become a cultural phenomenon. Every year, upwards of 40,000 people contact Granada Television, asking for application forms. Last year's celebrity show, which featured Carol Vorderman as a slightly dodgy Cher, was ITV's highest-rated light entertainment programme for five years.

Meanwhile, not even Granada's most senior executives are beyond indulging their pop star wannabe fantasies on stage. Somewhere, probably at the back of a safe, there is a videotape featuring Charles Allen, the company's dour chief executive, strutting his stuff as Elton John. And at the other end of the plectrum, if you'll pardon the pun, is Loretta O'Sullivan, a 17-year-old milkmaid from County Cork. She had never heard of Stars in Their Eyes, nor had she ever been out of Ireland, but was entered by her sister, and features in the forthcoming series as a startlingly good Patsy Cline.

The process of finding contestants begins every July, shortly after the grand final of the previous series. Applicants send in cassettes of themselves singing, and the awful ones are weeded out, as are the suspiciously good ones - more often than not they turn out to be the real person performing. Last year, dozens of Celine Dions applied, following the success of Titanic. "Obviously it reflects fashion," says Jane Macnaught. "When Ghost came out, with the Righteous Brothers on the soundtrack, we had lots of Righteous Brothers."

Having whittled the 20,000 or so applicants down to 900, Macnaught and her colleagues go on the road to conduct auditions. Sometimes, singers are persuaded to change their act. Freddie Mercury became Jarvis Cocker. And, even more bizarrely, Andrew Strong, of The Commitments fame, became Sacha Distel."In Glasgow last year," adds musical director Ray Monk, "a leggy 17-year-old blonde came to see us as Madonna. She sang well, but she looked the spitting image of Twiggy and we see hundreds of Madonnas but no Twiggys. So we suggested that she did Twiggy instead, even though she'd never heard of her. We always get a huge number of Neil Diamonds and Roy Orbisons, and we had thousands of Elvises in the early days, but we got them all out of the way with an Elvis special. We usually have a massive surplus of Karen Carpenters, one or two of whom unfortunately turn out to be size 24s."

A striking physical similarity is not a criterion, but a passing resemblance helps, for it can usually be accentuated by Granada's make-up queen, Glenda Wood. "I've been doing this for 36 years," says Wood, as she slaps foundation cream on David Essex. "I've made up four Prime Suspects, four prime ministers and Dustin Hoffman. But this show is my favourite. I haven't a clue who they are. Doris Day and Ruby Murray, that's my limit. But they're a lovely lot and there's such a buzz in here before a show. Neil Diamond let us shave his whole head, but we nearly had a disaster with Stevie

Wonder, because his beads pulled his bald cap back."

It is no wonder that each series of Stars in Their Eyes costs Granada around pounds 2m. The wigs are made to order, and cost up to pounds 1,000 apiece. Beards cost pounds 350. Very little expense is spared with costumes (Carol Vorderman's leather top, commissioned

from the chap who made Uma Thurman's catsuit for The Avengers, cost pounds 1,000). But in the drive to make contestants look like their alter egos, there is a line which Jane Macnaught insists must not be crossed.

"We don't give our Barry Manilows prosthetic noses," she says. "We don't let men do Shirley Bassey, though lots apply. And we don't cross ethnic boundaries. So we don't black up, although we do tint down. Nat King Cole was a Liverpudlian with dark skin, and we helped him on his way a bit. But you have to be careful. We've had a few Pavarottis, but we have to work hard to stop them becoming Russ Abbott comedy padded man."

In the end, the only real showstopper is the song. And because of the demands of the advertisers, Ray Monk has to ensure that each arrangement lasts precisely two minutes, 45 seconds. "That usually devastates them," he says. "Especially the ones singing slow ballads. Tony Rich took quite a bit of consoling earlier today."

Also, permission has to be sought from the original artists, only one of whom - Robert Smith from The Cure - unsportingly refused. Some of the original artists, in fact, are admirably supportive. The real Bryan Ferry sent Bryan Ferry a fax, and not only did the real Lisa Stansfield send Lisa Stansfield flowers, but the real Mr and Mrs Stansfield sent a good- luck card. "In a way, it's become like Spitting Image," says Macnaught. "A lot of politicians didn't like not having their own puppet, and it's the same here."

Moreover, record labels have cause to be grateful to Stars in Their Eyes, adds Matthew Kelly, who succeeded Leslie Crowther as host in 1993. "A Patsy Cline retrospective album and a Marti Pellow album both shot up the charts significantly after our grand final one year," he says. "Also, our Marti Pellow was asked to sing to the real Marti Pellow at a party to celebrate his album going platinum. Hot Chocolate asked our Errol Brown to take over from the real Errol Brown. And our Jarvis Cocker has been fronting Jarvis Cocker's tour. He starts off, and then the real Jarvis wanders on stage."

All of which begs one question. Do most contestants, some of whom are already semi-professional, hope to use the show as a stepping-stone to fame and fortune? Macnaught thinks not. "Some of them may do," she says. "But plenty are content with their 15 minutes of fame. Last year's grand final was only the second time Billie Holiday had sung in public."

It is now showtime. The audience is laughing at a warm-up man. And backstage - at the bottom of what the production team, out of earshot of the contestants, call the "guillotine steps" - David Essex is pacing up and down whispering the words of "Hold Me Close". His real name is Christopher Nott. But tonight, Matthew, that is really neither here nor there.

`Stars in Their Eyes' begins tonight at 7.30pm on ITV