This year is the 16th year that Britain’s Got Talent has been broadcast (2001 was skipped due to the pandemic). Fans of BGT seem to become a little jaded in their reactions to the show, judging from online comments that have been amplified by the press. In this context, it is instructive to look back at the first series of BGT (2007).
Watching footage from the 2007 show, it is refreshing to see the judges making it up as they go. In the video of the audition of eventual winner Paul Potts, when Amanda cries, they are fresh tears; it is not yet something that she is known for. The footage after Potts sings, where Simon outlines his vision for the show, is not yet old hat.
What a performance by Paul Potts! What a deserved winner. Even so, it is interesting to see that the past isn’t always as ideal as one imagines. The judges may look comparatively younger – TV presenters age in public – but it is a little jarring remembering that Piers Morgan was once a judge; he has become more of a divisive figure than when he was on the show and his image no longer seems a good fit for a popular talent show. Then there were the accusations that Potts wasn’t an amateur.
The argument that Potts was not an amateur, and shouldn’t be on BGT 2007, was aired just before the final. It was argued that Potts was not simply a cellphone salesman, but he had sung with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and with Bath Opera. In short, he was an experienced singer with professional training. I’ll get back to this. In the meantime here is Paul Potts performing a rousing version of Aha‘s Take on Me at Eimeldingen, Germany, 2022, where he appeared as a Koala on The Masked Singer.
Paul Potts was 37 when he appeared on BGT. After finishing school, Potts worked at Waitrose and Tesco’s. He earned a BA (hons) from University College Plymouth St Mark & St John in 1993. From 1996 to 2003, he served as a Liberal Democrat councillor on Bristol City Council.
Potts got into classical music as a bullied schoolboy (his teeth were broken running away from bullies). He says that he was first transported by Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony (No 6); he loved the first movement. “Then I got into Puccini and the emotion of Italian music,” he said. While a councillor, Potts paid Ian Comboy for singing lessons. “Paul used to cycle to lessons in Bath in all weathers, all the way from Bristol, and arrive panting and sweating, but he would still sing like an angel. He lived for his singing,” Comboy told The Guardian in 2007.
From 2000, Paul Potts appeared in leading roles in four productions for Bath Opera, an amateur company. He sang once with the LSO, and he attended (and paid for) a singing master class in Italy. In 2003, he stopped singing entirely. First he a benign tumour removed, which lead to a later emergency appendectomy. As he was recovering, he had a bicycle accident in which he broke his collarbone and experienced whiplash. The resulting financial troubles were a factor in Potts signing up for BGT 2007, even though he hadn’t sung in years.
When it was claimed that Paul Potts did not qualify for BGT as he was not an amateur, Potts and his former singing teacher countered that while Potts had attended lessons he had never earned money for his singing. At most, he had been given petrol money. The issue blew over, and Paul Potts went on to win the show.
After BGT, in July 2007, Potts released his debut album. A week after its release, One Chance topped the UK Album Charts. Potts has since released six further studio albums of new music, the most recent being 2022’s Musica Non Musica, a double LP featuring arias performed “At Home” during lockdown. Potts has appeared on numerous TV shows from America’s Got Talent: The Champions to the German version of Masked Singer. He has sung in at least 45 countries and logged well over a thousand performances.
Paul Potts’ biography, One Chance, was published in 2013 to accompany the release of the biopic of the same name (Potts was played by James Corden in the film). Of the film, Rotten Tomatoes concludes: “Predictable and sentimental, yet thoroughly agreeable, One Chance is an unapologetic crowd-pleaser that achieves its admittedly modest goals.” From the perspective of the present, it is striking that both the book and the film were released by the Weinstein Company. While this is no indictment on Paul Potts, of course, it is a reminder that the past isn’t as rosy as one might like to imagine.