The presenter of 'Stars in their Eyes' really does mean it, sincerely, he does
Across the lobby of the chintzy Bournemouth hotel sits a man who bears a striking resemblance to Matthew Kelly. He is very tall and has a well-trimmed beard and smiling eyes that cannot quite conceal some inner turmoil. When approached he looks as surprised as only someone who isn't Matthew Kelly could look. The most bizarre thing about this encounter with a doppelganger of the presenter of Stars in their Eyes is that it actually happens.

The genuine article turns up a short while later, looking very much himself. He has just done a big trolley-load of shopping at Asda for a slot in the People newspaper where celebrities are given pounds 200 to buy groceries in return for allowing a mental health care professional to analyse what they have bought. Matthew Kelly spent pounds 212. Did he make up the difference? "I offered" Kelly guffaws. Today is his 46th birthday. He is going up to London later to meet his two grown-up children and get "shit- faced and disgraceful", but for the moment Matthew Kelly is at the mercy of his promotional schedule.

Saturday's grand final of Stars in their Eyes will be watched by as many people as watch Top of the Pops and the FA Cup Final put together. That the most popular music programme on television should be a show in which members of the public are judged on their ability to impersonate the star of their choice might easily be seen as a symptom of a culture in the terminal stages of decline, but that would be a mistake. Authenticity is an over-used notion, and yet - as anyone who saw the man who was Elvis Costello a few weeks back will tearfully testify - there is something acutely authentic about the emotional content of Stars in their Eyes. To the stars themselves it would be a job. To the contestants it is a dream come true.

Kelly's explanation for the programme's huge appeal is a canny one: "I think people want an idea of something rather than the reality." Does he think Stars in their Eyes is camp? "Oh hardly at all [laughter], especially the Christmas specials. Those are fantastic. You stand at the side of the set thinking 'what the f--- is going on?' They've deforested half of Norway for the pine trees, there's about pounds 2,000 worth of false snow coming down, there are lookalikes of every single singing star you could possibly imagine, reindeer that look like they've been nicked from a shopping mall, 10ft nodding snowmen, a choir of schoolchildren and a 28-piece orchestra, and the whole lot is covered in sequins. You think 'no, this isn't camp at all'.''

Now in its seventh series, the show still seems to go from strength to strength. It might have been expected to decline after the first wave of Elvises and Karen Carpenters had spent itself. "I think the reason the opposite's happened," Kelly enthuses, "is that all the people who wanted to do it have done it, and now we're getting the real real people. We've gone through the semi-professionals and the show-offs and now it's people who've never sung in public. People whose parents don't even know they can sing are making their singing debuts in front of 13 million people."

One of the most refreshing things about Stars in their Eyes is its complete absence of irony. Kelly's almost pyschotically sincere style of presentation harks back to a pre-Jonathan Ross age of innocence: contestants pick up the microphone secure that no one (at least, no one in the studio) will be making cheap cracks at their expense. "The thing I like about it is that it's a show about potential" Kelly explains "and that's something we're not normally very good at: we don't seem to find it very easy to tell people they're good."

There is a poignantly stark contrast sometimes between the paucity of opportunities real life seems to offer Stars in their Eyes contestants and the extravagant ideal of glamour the show is built around. "A lot of people seem to think it's going to be the best thing that ever happens to them" Kelly says worriedly, "but I sincerely hope it isn't." At this point Matthew's tomato and mozzarella salad arrives. It is not the best thing that has ever happened to him. The cheese is a scary brownish yellow and tastes like grated trainer insole. "That's never mozzarella" he exclaims, understandably outraged.

Matthew Kelly is the product of a "really ordinary" Manchester upbringing. His dad was a printer, his mum worked for the social services and he had two brothers: one now works in Hollywood and the other is a drama teacher. Matthew's own showbusiness career began in variety in the mid-1960s, working as a stooge for Hylda Baker and the legendary Mr Pastry. After training as a teacher he went into the theatre, where he still maintains a parallel career in touring productions of Waiting For Godot and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

How did he get into television then? "It started because I was doing a sitcom for LWT in 1979 and I was asked to go on Punchlines as a 'celebrity'. This was an new concept to me and I found it very embarrassing, so I went to see a friend of mine who actually was quite famous and asked her what I should do and she said, 'well, they obviously think you're a celebrity: take the money and don't be humble' so I did." Soon after, Kelly was asked to do a pilot for Game for a Laugh as one of ITV light entertainment's Gang of Four, with Henry Kelly, Sarah Kennedy and Jeremy Beadle. "That was the first presenting job I was offered and I knew that if I did it it would be a slippery slope. Peter Davison [Kelly's sitcom co-star] said 'you'll never work as an actor again' and I said 'that's all very well, but I'm not working as an actor now'.''

Did Granada come to him when they realised that the obvious solution to the problem posed by original Stars in their Eyes' host Leslie Crowther's car accident - a Leslie Crowther lookalike - would have been in very poor taste? "Oh yes. The kind of show I do, you wouldn't actually really pursue would you?" A shocked pause. Matthew Kelly's habitual self-deprecation has landed him in deep water. "No, but I mean you'd set your sights ..." A bit higher? The Granada press officer chokes on a prawn. Kelly laughs good-humouredly. "I didn't say that." Matthew Kelly is a very entertaining man and his opinions on Saturday night television are well worth hearing. He thinks the national lottery is "total bollocks" because "it's run by the National Heritage ministry and it's actually destroying the very thing it's supposed to be saving." The Shane Ritchie Experience on the other hand is "the future of gameshows". Why is that exactly? "Because it treats the sanctity of marriage with the respect it deserves." (It should be noted that while Kelly lives in Bournemouth, his wife lives in Cheshire.)

"If contestants are prepared to sit on a gigantic chicken" - Matthew is warming to his theme now - "shooting eggs out of its arse into a net on top of their prospective bridegroom's head in order to get a free honeymoon, one doesn't really care too much about which of them actually wins." But isn't that a good thing? It's always so gruelling when there's a nice family on a gameshow and you really want them to win. "I tend to think they should just give them the money anyway. If the game's worth playing it's worth playing on its own merits. Just give them the caravan or the car or whatever - it's in the budget!"

This is dangerous talk. Kelly is reluctant to be drawn on the ideological basis for his subversive attitudes, on the grounds that "no one wants to hear showbusiness people banging on about politics". At a couple of points in the conversation, though, when his dander is well and truly up, he switches off the tape recorder and mutters vehement imprecations along the lines of "the sooner this country sorts itself out and becomes a f---ing republic the better" and even "everyone should get paid the same''.

In view of this position does Kelly have any qualms about accepting what he himself describes as "absurd amounts of money" for presenting Stars in their Eyes? "I'll have to think about that word 'qualms','' he replies with a hint of mischief. "Look at these hands [he holds them up] they're like silk. They haven't done a proper day's work in their lives." And with that we move through to the lounge. Two respectable-looking people in late middle-age vacate their window seat with much giggling so that Matthew Kelly can have his photograph taken in decent light. One of them is a man dressed as a woman.

The grand final of Stars in their Eyes is on ITV at 8.15pm this Saturday. Major bookmakers have odds and Bobby Vee might repay a modest investment.

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