IT'S morning in the Brixton Road in south London and Olivia Newton-John is singing 'I Honestly Love You'. In a bare rehearsal hall, equipped with a gas ring for the kettle and some smeary mirrors where other performers have inspected themselves worriedly, she sings her heart out.

'Are you here for the auditions?' asks the man at the door with a sad but kindly look, anxious, perhaps, that I think I might possibly pass for Madonna or Streisand or Cher]

It's not really Olivia, of course. This is Anne Louise from Orpington, a medical secretary who is auditioning for Stars in Their Eyes, Granada's television talent show that since 1990 has been turning small lives into big stars. ('At the age of 11, I used to sing 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' at school with my class as the audience,' writes Anne Louise on her application. 'They were amazed by my likeness to the star.')

They are all here - Buddy Holly in a bow tie and Jerry Lee Lewis, Danii Minogue and Neil Diamond, who sings 'Love on the Rocks'. Some assured, some frantic, they stutter or strut their stuff. They are milkmen and builders and locomotive mechanics. Most have longed, at best, for an audition. (There were 10,000 applications for 700 auditions.) A few dream of making it to the final shortlist of 60 contestants for 10 shows next season.

Just as boxing has always been one way out of the ghetto, so Stars in Their Eyes is a way out of Pinner or Skegness. For most of the Madonnas and Barry Manilows, though, it's simply the big night out, the time of their lives. This is the trip through the stargate that, in the dreary recession-driven Nineties, is a kind of DIY redemption. For most, it's not the possibility of a career but the thing itself, a chance to be born again as Shirley Bassey or Stevie Wonder or Vera Lynn. The sum of all this aspiration, all this hope, is greater than its parts; this is a kind of real-life Chorus Line. And, once in a while, there is a real contender.

Amanda Normansell was a 14-year- old Welsh schoolgirl who had never had a singing lesson in her life when she heard a track by the late American country singer Patsy Cline. Last year, she auditioned for the programme. 'It was magic,' says Jane MacNaught, the producer. 'It's the only time I knew someone was a definite from the moment they opened their mouth.' Amanda won the series. Patsy Cline's manager heard Amanda; now she is on her way to Nashville to cut an album.

Not surprisingly, the explosion in the number of entries is largely due to the proliferation of karaoke. On one show, a terrific Engelbert Humperdinck (including the hair) said he had discovered himself as Engelbert at a karaoke bar. Like karaoke, Stars in Their Eyes is as kindly and down-home as real life show biz is brutal.

In the hall this morning sits the Granada team, carefully taking notes, encouraging the performers - 'That's OK, love, everyone gets nervous. Go on, have another go' - clucking like mother hens trying to hatch a starlet out of a very nervous Debbie Harry wannabe from Essex. For the moment, the singing is what counts. Later, for the winners, Granada will provide wardrobe and make-up for the transformation scene that turns a window cleaner into Stevie Wonder.

Some of the contenders can sing, some can barely hum along. Here is Harry from Uxbridge. Harry is a firefighter. He does Luther Vandross - 'it's the sexiest ballad voice combined with the best melodies that make me idolise this man'. As he sings one of those huge ballads, the production team leans forward a little and there is one singular sensation that this guy is something. As Harry finishes he grins and pulls off a curly wig. 'It's not my hair, by the way,' he says.

We all figure that Gary from Portsmouth could be a prat. He has called just this morning to say that whereas he was to appear as Paul Young, now he is coming as Curtis Stigers, the crossover country/rock star, the Kris Kristofferson of the Nineties.

Unaccompanied, he sings 'You're All That Matters to Me'. He is 19. He is a pro. A star. He knows it.

Today there are the Andrews sisters who sing 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' and have all the moves. There is Dave as Dylan, complete with a harmonica, and a 13-year-old girl who belts 'em out like Ethel Merman. There are two Sinatras, a pair of Chers, a Perry Como and a Bobby Vee. And Andy as Roy Orbison ('I amazed people with my total disregard for any embarrassment about over-the-top impersonations and dancing.')

There have been loads of Roy Orbisons and Neil Diamonds and Gene Pitneys, and, after Elvis, the man most often impersonated by a grateful nation . . . Cliff Richard. There has been a Marilyn and a Doris Day; Aretha Franklins and Vera Lynns have appeared in their dozens. Soon after she died, Karen Carpenter became a favourite; a flood of Freddie Mercurys turned up in the weeks after his death.

But dead or alive, it is always the saints and icons who play best. In them you can read a kind of nostalgic longing for these stars who had often faded before their impersonators were born, but are fixed in some homespun


Most of all there are the Elvi. In their thousands. So many that there will be special Elvis auditions in September and an Elvis Special at Christmas. Says Ms MacNaught: 'The majority of Elvises want to be the Lurex- suited Las Vegas Elvis.'

Currently, in real life, there is a movement to sanctify, maybe even canonise Elvis - to make him a saint - so we can pray to him, to say he sang, and died, for our sins. Stars in Their Eyes has less extreme ambitions, however. All it wants is to find the best living Elvis.

And finally today, there is our Elaine. There are lots of Elaine Paiges, but Our Elaine is Sue from Fulham; she arrives in costume, all black sequins and high heels. She sings 'Memory'. She can also do 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina'. On her application form she says what matters is 'just having a 'go' in life'.