Sunday, November 27, 2005

Preparation H

Ever since seeing Lee Latchford Evans wimping out of a bit of torture on 'Commando VIP', I haven't been able to stop wondering what's become of his blonde sidekick, H. And not just because I wished it was him being tortured instead of Lee. Well fortunately for me, Channel 4 have ridden to my rescue by screening 'H Side Story' on Sunday afternoons, a reality show following the man's progress as he spends a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It may not feature torture, but it is quite painful to watch.

H's real name, it turns out, is Ian Watkins, which is only one step up from Reg Dwight if you ask me, but having spent a few years named after a letter of the alphabet, Ian is apparently keen to move on and be recognised as a serious performer in his own right, on his own terms, and with his own name. Though he clearly hadn't told the programme's producers that. They preferred to call the show 'H Side Story', throw in a lot of Steps references, and only refer to him as Ian once. But never mind, eh.

Today's episode documented H's preparation for an 'Agents Showcase': a musical performance in front of an army of top west end agents looking for talent. None of whom were put off by seeing H's name on the cast list, which is a little surprising. Fortunately for H, he had on his side two heavyweights of musical theatre: Mary Hammond and Karen Rabinowitz, course leaders at the academy, who took it upon themselves to choose his song for the showcase. Mary eventually came up with Billy Joel's 'Goodnight Saigon', while Karen's contribution was to insist upon "keeping him down to a fairly still performance". Suggesting that she'd already seen him dance.

H was pleased with the song selection, stating that "people generally see me doing comedy songs" (well, I do find myself laughing at him quite a lot), and headed off for a singing lesson with 'Repertoire Coach' Dane. Dane duly listened to a run through of the song, and advised him "Don't be afraid to make an ugly sound". My girlfriend's got the Steps Greatest Hits album, so let me assure you Dane, he's not.

Warbling over, H showed us his "visual diary" (that's a scrapbook to you and me) into which he'd stuck pictures of Asians, in an attempt to get into the mood for a song about the futility of Vietnam. Alongside these images he'd jotted down the words "nightmares, alone, fear, therapy, death and numbness" - interestingly all emotions I felt when my girlfriend played that CD.

But it's not all fun and laughter at the academy. Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat. Or to put it another way, H was having trouble sleeping. As he said himself, "I'm awake at two in the morning singing harmonies. It drives me nuts". I've always felt that way about his singing too, but fortunately for us both, H decided to seek out medical help. Not from a qualified doctor, obviously, but from "Australian master healer" Mike Squirrel. After all, if you're being driven nuts, it makes sense to go to a squirrel.

Mike performed the latest therapy from California, known as 'Access', which basically involved talking to H's feet and waiting for them to respond. Amazingly his ankles mentioned that he was having trouble sleeping, so Mike reached straight for the Tibetan sound bowl, sent a resonance through his thighs, and started the acupuncture, before setting light to a few smoking cones on his arm. It's not often you see a squeaky clean pop star endorse smoking, but H seemed quite impressed.

So with his health sorted, it was back to the showcase preparations, and the final dress rehearsal, described by course leader Karen as "a shambles". H bemoaned the whole process, branding the entire show as "a meat market" (which explains why Linda McCartney never had more of a showbiz career) before retiring to his dressing room an hour early to start straightening his hair and putting on make-up.

And then it was show time. H took to the stage with the words "Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be Billy Joel" (well, ok, he didn't), and sang his little heart out for the agents, one of whom declared "I'd be happy to audition him for my next project". Though possibly only for the fun of saying 'no'. But by the end of this half hour celebration of musical theatre, the results were there for all to see. In the words of H, "another bit of good news: I'm getting some kip". Him and me both.