BBC makes a dramatic appeal for new talent

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Those of us who have been studying Sharon Watts sulking behind the bar of the Queen Vic will know that the EastEnders pub could do with a more mature landlady.

Perhaps now it will get one. Yesterday the BBC ran auditions for 1,000 members of the viewing public desperate to become television stars. They included an 84-year-old woman; the retired speech therapist would, presumably, find plenty of scope for both acting and elocution lessons on the EastEnders' set.

The people attracted by a BBC advertising campaign for new talent turned up at a north London cinema where they were given a short script "full of humour, pathos and emotion'' (well, a character on drugs, or going to prison, or hitting someone with a baseball bat) to perform before a jury of casting directors and some genuine soap stars.

One of these, Lucy Benjamin, who plays Lisa in EastEnders, said: "It's true that lots of the people here just want to be famous. The whole stigma of soaps has gone out the window. It's cool to be a soap star now.''

But getting there is hard, as some of the younger hopefuls admitted in the cinema foyer before going in for their auditions. Elizabeth from London was only 16, but is already a veteran of countless auditions, and a reject from ITV's Soapstars. She said: "I want to be an actress, I love EastEnders, I can relate to all the characters.'' In the meantime she will be taking an A-level in the next best thing to showbiz – media studies.

Kevin Gower, 37, from Bedfordshire, is already an actor, but saw the BBC advert as "a legitimate fast-track way of getting there'' – a sentiment that shows that actors can do corporate-speak too.

Before the audition started Jane Deitch, executive casting director for BBC drama, told the hopefuls that at least 10 jobs in various BBC series had been reserved for the winners. The world – Casualty and Holby City at any rate – was their oyster.

With a caustic nod at the opposition, she added: "This is not Soapstars. This is not Popstars. Nobody here is nasty or cruel. And remember, it's TV, so keep it small.''

A few faces fell among those who had been practising their best theatrical gestures. But Lucy Benjamin cheered everybody by saying: "Enjoy it. Take a breath. Try not to gabble.'' Which would seem to rule them out of EastEnders.

One of the impressive hopefuls who "kept it small'' and quickly became absorbed in her character was Rachel Hepworth, 16, who had come down from Doncaster. She said afterwards: "My hands were shaking in the audition. I couldn't say my words quickly. My dream is to be a soap star. But at the moment I'm going to secretarial college.''

The BBC Talent scheme, which will look at 12,000 hopefuls across Britain before it is done, could be seen as a bit of a thumbs-down for drama schools. That doesn't bother EastEnders' Lucy Benjamin. She said: "There is a certain style you get from people who come out of drama school. It's too contrived.''

Angela Wallis, executive producer BBC Talent, added: "We do see all the people from drama schools but we need more variety of talent and a lot more regional voices. We also need a lot more naturalistic acting talent than we see at the drama schools. And we've got 431 hours of drama to fill. We just need more talent.''

Then she added: "Would you like to try? It's open to anyone. You can if you want.''

Watch out for a dashing, if a little frazzled, new doctor in Casualty this autumn.