12 Nov 1977 – Series Six (10)

Show winner vocalist Stella Starr
Image: The Stage Media Company Limited

Returning to the panel for show ten of the series, after an absence of nearly twelve months, was entertainer and female impersonator Danny La Rue. He was joined by Mickie Most, Jimmy Henney and Peter Prichard, who was making his tenth appearance as a judge.

The show featured a strong line-up of seven new acts, four of which would go on to appear again on later shows with two acts making the series Gala Final. Performing on this show were;

  • Formula Five (group) from Nuneaton
  • Steve Cassidy (vocalist / guitarist) from York
  • Smokey Road (country trio) from Cheshire
  • Stella Starr (vocalist) from London
  • K.L. Band (five-piece group) from Bristol
  • Hercules (comedy strong man) from Exeter
  • Mike Johnson (jazz guitarist) from Derby

Also listed as appearing were the seven-piece group, Climax, however, it seems they may have been confused with or replaced by K.L. Band from Bristol as no record of their appearance can be found.

In a high scoring show, with four acts recording over 100 points, the act that topped the leader board to book a place on the forthcoming Christmas Eve All Winners Show was South African vocalist Stella Starr, real name Stella Josephine Thomas. Stella was the second act in just a few weeks to perform wearing an Eric Lloyd creation after he also provided the stage outfit for Annie Bright who won show 6.8. The two singers are still friends today.

On 18 January 1968 Stella Starr featured in The Stage’s first ever colour advertisement.
Image: The Stage Media Company Limited

In November 1963 vocalist Stella, a former office worker in a Bond Street travel agency, was signed by the George Cooper Organisation Limited, who were managing acts such as Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, The Tornados and Bert Weedon. Just one year later she completed a season in Israel, and a further twelve months after that Stella was earning over £120 a week performing at the famous Astor Club in London’s Mayfair. Having escaped South Africa to move to England, Stella was living in a Hammersmith flat with her German husband Harry Schumann, a ladies hairdresser, who she met in South Africa four years earlier.

Stella released her first single, Bring Him Back, on the Pye record label in March 1967 and took to the road to promote the single, playing a series of shows in the north of England before making a television appearance in Barcelona, Spain which was followed by a six week cabaret engagement in the same city.

In January 1968 Stella was the stunning star attraction of the first colour advertisement in The Stage entertainment newspaper, taking up a full page wearing a glamorous full length pink outfit. In the summer of 1970 Stella returned to South Africa as the supporting artist for American singer Percy Sledge’s latest tour. Stella continued her international fame in the early 1970s, performing shows in South Africa, Spain, West Africa, Portugal, Israel and Malta as well as continuing to perform in clubs across the United Kingdom where she continued to impress the audience and the critics alike with her own unique versions of songs such as My Way, Aquarius and Melting Pot.

Following her success on this show she was contacted and booked for the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Stella recorded her appearance for their show and was included in the credits but unfortunately, due to a technical over-run, her performance was deleted from the version of the show that was broadcast. To make up for the disappointment Stella was booked to appear on the next series of the show.

In July 1979 Stella was sitting on the judges panel for a preliminary round of the Miss United Kingdom beauty contest when she displaced the cartilage in her right knee which left her in pain and on crutches, however, she still continued to perform. In August, with her leg still in plaster from ankle to thigh, Stella performed alongside Earlene Bentley, another former New Faces act, in a charity show for Capital Radio’s Help A London Child appeal, raising £600. In 1982 it was more charity work for Stella as she appeared with actress, and former New Faces judge, Ingrid Pitt to host the Bertie The Bus charity gala night at the London Room. The cabaret also featured Ray Ellington‘s son Lance, who was a New Faces series winner with the vocal duo Koffee ‘n’ Kreme. Stella’s charity work continued in 1987 when she presented the eleventh consecutive Birthday Gala Night in aid of the London Taxi Drivers Fund for Underprivileged Children at Grosvenor House, London, and was once again joined by Ingrid Pitt.

Stella now resides in Monaco where she still regularly performs and supports many charities. She was married to former boxer and Lonsdale sportwear boss Bernard Hart for over 40 years until his death in 2020.

Vocalist and guitarist Steve Cassidy scored well with the judges.
Image: http://www.stevecassidy.co.uk

Other acts performing well and impressing the judges on this show were guitarists Mike Johnson and Steve Cassidy and comedy strongman Hercules. All three acts would appear again on the New Year’s Eve Near Misses show, suggesting that they all scored in excess of 100 points to qualify for a return appearance.

Singer and guitarist Steve Cassidy, real name Norman Fowler, is the son of boxer Frank Fowler. Steve started his singing career aged fourteen, when he opened a Cliff Richard concert. In a career that dates back to the 1960 Steve also worked with The Escorts as well as recording with Joe Meek and composer John Barry, who produced his 1963 single Ecstasy.

Talented performer and songwriter Steve was among a galaxy of talent on show in the 1979 McLeod Holden Enterprises Ltd Agency showcase at the Birkholme Country Club near Hull. Also on the same bill for that showcase was another former New Faces winner, Helen Day. Steve went on to appear as Fagin in the musical Oliver! and also appeared in and directed Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams.

After his New Faces appearances Steve continued writing and playing and composed the song that welcomed Pope John Paul II on his visit to York. In 2010 he wrote the songs for the musical Black Potatoes, story written by Alan Combes, which premiered at York’s Monkgate. Steve now sings with The Steve Cassidy Band as well as performing as a solo artist around the world.

Mike Johnson with his busker trophy from his successful All Winners Show performance.
Image: The Stage Media Company Limited

Derby jazz guitarist Mike Johnson also scored well with the judges and would go on to make two further appearances later in the series, winning his All Winners Show and making the series Gala Final. He is the only guitarist to claim a win on the show.

In 1979 Mike was performing as part of the Mike Johnson Quartet as they played a show near long Eaton. In 1980 Mike claimed he was the finest all-round guitarist in the world and he issued a challenge to the entertainment world to prove his point. In an article in The Stage, Mike said, ‘I challenge any other guitarist to prove he’s better than me at rock, jazz, blues, classical and country guitar styles.’

This may seem like a huge claim from Mike, but when he won the New Faces Near Misses Show on New Years Eve 1977, Ray Ellington described him as ‘one of the finest guitar players I have heard in this country for a long, long time,’ and this gave Mike the drive to take on the world.

Mike Johnson was known for cramming as many styles as possible into his set, with audiences being particularly receptive to his classical version of Cavatina and his solo rendition of Jose Feliciano’s Malagueña as well as his rock guitar rendition of The Sabre Dance.

In the 1980s, despite his ambitions to take on the world, Mike found himself teaching in Derbyshire but still managed to combine this new teaching career with his music and was, for a time, the resident act at The Midland Hotel, Derby.

In December 1983 Mike was recruited to assist professional guitarist John Richards with his new venture, the Staffordshire and Derbyshire Guitar Institute in Burton on Trent. The new institute’s aim was to provide tuition to all styles of guitar players as well as providing advice on playing for an audience, selling musical skills, musical arrangement for guitars and surviving in the professional music business.

In 1987 Mike played as part of the support group for a show by George Melly & John Chilton’s Feetwarmers at the Burton Town Hall and the same year Mike took a group of his pupils to the Midland Hotel to perform piano and guitar musical pieces ranging from Bach to Handel and Bartok to Joplin.

Exeter strongman Brian Varley (Hercules) performing in 1992. Image © The Stage Media Company Limited

Exeter strongman Hercules, real name Brian Varley, was yet another act that could claim previous experience on rival show Opportunity Knocks, having made an appearance on the Hughie Green show in November 1974. The gap between appearances was long enough to validate his appearance on this show.

As a child Brian was so sick and weak that he spent a full six months in hospital with tuberculosis. When he was finally discharged his father bought him a chest expander, but he was the only child in his school who was unable to pull it, even a small amount. This prompted Brian to train as a body-builder and he eventually became British Strength Champion for ten years and was the World Champion ripper of 1,200 page phone books for several years.

After his appearance on New Faces Hercules continued to show off his strength at events and festivals. He was often seen bending and straightened a steel bar in his teeth, breaking six-inch nails with his hands walk on broken glass, beating six men in a tug-of-war and balancing a lady sitting on a chair on his head as well as tearing Yellow Pages directories into four. Alongside his feats of strength he provided a good dose of comedy with his facial expressions and a gag for every aspect of his performance, making him Britain’s funniest strongman for over 30 years.

He offered £1,000 to anyone who could match his feats of strength, and after his career of over 30 years was over the cash was still in his bank account.

In 1999, at the age of 63, Brian retired from his show-business life as ‘Hercules,’ but refused to put his feet up. He packed his leopard skin and size thirteen wellington boots away at his home in Exeter and launched himself into his local community through the activities of Exeter Lions Club, where he became the secretary. In June 2015 Brian was presented with his 50 year service chevron by the club for his long service to their charity work.

A few weeks before appearing on this show the group Formula Five were performing in Coventry, at the TGWU Dunlop event, alongside another New Faces winning act, Jess and the Gingerbread.

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