EXCLUSIVE: At the height of its 18 year run, Young Talent Time was unstoppable.
The talent quest beamed to living rooms around the country for 42 weeks a year, and with Summer ‘Best Of” episodes, was on screens all year round. During its ‘down’ time there were sell-out concerts at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, shopping centre visits, TV Week magazine covers, Logie Awards, King of Pop, a Young Talent Time School and booming pop careers for its graduates.
“I can walk down the street and people will recognise me, but they won’t remember my name. But they’ll sing ‘Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you….’ It’s very flattering,” John Young, now 74, tells TV Tonight.
24th April 1971 was when Young Talent Time began on what was then Channel 0, produced Live from Nunawading studios in a desperate bid by the station to combat Saturday night football replays.
Host and co-producer Johnny Young had already found success as a pop singer, with 1960s hits “Step Back” and “Cara-lyn,” writing number one records such as Smiley for Ronnie Burns; I Thank You for Lionel Rose, which was a double gold record; The Star for Ross D. Wylie, The Girl That I Love and the seminal The Real Thing for Russell Morris. He had also hosted pop shows Club Seventeen and Young Summer Happening, a summer replacement for Fredd Bear’s Breakfast-A-Go Go .
“They were having huge problems, finding something to go against the football replays, because there was no live footy in those days,” he remembers.
“Channel 0 tried everything… but nothing worked for them.”
“Channel 0 tried everything… The Gong Show and all sorts of different things with Mary Hardy but nothing worked for them.
“They gave us very little money and said, ‘Why don’t you see if you can come up with something for kids to go up against the football replay?’
“I had a bit of a reputation then. I wasn’t bad looking and I had a lot of fans from my pop career, my songwriting and all that.”
Young, who created the show with business partner Kevin Lewis, drew inspiration from The Mickey Mouse Club.
“It was a wonderful show and I never missed it, five days a week. I thought of using The Mickey Mouse Club as a template: 5 x half hour shows with a group of young people, with me as the host.
“Young Talent Time was based on the feeling that I got from The Mickey Mouse Club”
“Young Talent Time was based on the feeling that I got from The Mickey Mouse Club. It had similarities… an elder brother and a group of kids singing and dancing, just very simple entertaining stuff.
“But I changed it to an hour, added the talent quest component and it became Young Talent Time.”
The original cast featured Rod Kirkham, Vikki Broughton, Phillip Gould, Debbie Byrne, Jamie Redfern &
Jane Scali -although Redfern would only last one season when he was spotted by Liberace and whisked off to a US tour.
The show was an instant sensation.
“In the weeks prior to Young Talent Time starting they were getting 3s and 4s. But from week one, we got a 19 which was unheard of. Somehow the idea of Johnny and some young kids having a musical good time appealed to people who weren’t into footy.
“People used to tune in, just to see that”
“We sang All My Loving on the first show, sitting around a piano with no strings and backing and “ooohs”. That developed later on. People used to tune in, just to see that because it was so it was so ‘family’ and so lovely.
“We started off with a 13 week contract and after 13 weeks we got a 4 year contract. We were perfect programming for them.”
Over the years 34 other young singers would learn their craft on the show, many becoming household names and some spawning lifelong careers: Tina Arena, Dannii Minogue, Karen Knowles, John Bowles, Joey Perrone, Sally Boyden, Beven Addinsall, Derek Redfern and more.
“It was a bit like an Academy”
“It was a bit like an Academy. You learned about choreography, harmony, singing, how cameras worked, the technical side and all that stuff,” says Young.
“The kids didn’t start until lunchtime. We rehearsed and prepared the contestants early so that the kids could come in late. Friday night, they had a rehearsal. We were live to air when we started but you can’t promote it when it’s live.”
He continues, “There were some kids who weren’t great singers, but they were great team members. Even my dad had his favourites but it wasn’t always the Tina Arenas or superstars….I wanted it to be real.
“I often get asked, how we handled the educational side of things, because they were school kids. But Karen Knowles was the dux of the school. So was Sally Boyden. We didn’t have a tutor on set. We had security people. The disciplines were run basically by Maggie Burns. Maggie and Ronnie both won Orders of Australia for their work with children. Towards the end Actors Equity wanted us to have (tutors), but the kids were all different ages.”
Young maintains cast parents were also very connected to the show, spending week after week in the Nunawading green room.
“Jane Scali was with the show for 7 years and during those years, Maria Scali crocheted me a bedspread which she gave to me when Jane left the show. She was there every Saturday.”
Leaving the nest was never easy, but mandatory at the age of 17.
“You couldn’t be 17 and be on Young Talent Time.”
“You couldn’t be 17 and be on Young Talent Time. People like Dannii Minogue started as a 9 year old, and she could barely sing. But she was a gorgeous looking girl and a wonderful dancer, just absolutely terrific. But she learned the art of singing from Ross Burton and Greg Mills, who was the the musical director.
“By the time she turned 17 we had encouraged her to design her own clothes for Young Talent Time.”
The show’s judges variously including Evie Hayes & Frank Tupper (original judges), Ron Tudor, Ronnie Burns, Honour Blackman, Nancye Hayes, would also cast their eye over numerous other artists: John St. Peeters, John Foreman, Asher Keddie, Livinia Nixon, Silvie Paladino and ‘associate YTT‘ member, a young Denis Walter.
“He was never a team member because he couldn’t dance”
“He was never a team member because he couldn’t dance. But he had this wonderful voice. He was on every week, we did albums with him and he was fantastic.
“John St. Peeters was my first contestant (as Johnny la Piccolo) and he played The Gay Sombrero or something on squeeze box! I still see him. I always get a Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday from Johnny,” says Young.
“John Foreman still tells me how he won a Yamaha baby grand piano and a trip to London.”
The show ended in 1988 when it was outrated by Hey Hey it’s Saturday in primetime, but 13 episodes of The New Generation were produced for CBN Cable Network/The CBN Family Channel (now Freeform) while 10 rebooted the show with host Rob Mills in 2012, with Tina Arena as judge.
To mark its 50th anniversary Young and former YTT members are staging a reunion to screen as pay per view special for a one-off $14.95 fee at Epicentre TV.
Two networks are understood to have declined interest in mounting a special.
A concert in June for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival will also feature Philip Gould, Karen Knowles, Steven Zammit, Beven Addinsall, Joey Dee, Lorena Novoa and Nicole Cooper with Young as host and Greg Mills as Musical Director.
“The reaction has been incredible”
“There’s a lot of people coming from Melbourne to Adelaide to see the show. The reaction has been incredible. We had 100 bookings in the first 30 seconds,” says Young.
“Young Talent Time stands alone. Nobody else has done it. Everybody loves the memory of it, and everybody loves the feeling of it.
“The only thing that I regret is that I didn’t write All My Loving. Paul McCartney keeps getting his royalties!”
Photos: Nostalgia Central