It's about generating pride in where we live not the money
WHEN I arrived at the Victoria Hall in Hanley at half past seven on Saturday morning the queue of competition entrants and their supporters was already snaking around the building.
It felt like a homecoming. Stoke's Top Talent was back after a year off and so was the buzz surrounding our showcase for home-grown stage stars.
They say the role of the media is to inform, to educate and to entertain.
Stoke's Top Talent certainly ticks the third box and, like the Our Heroes awards which we judge tomorrow, provides this newspaper with an opportunity to champion the communities it serves.
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The contestants came from all over our patch. From across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.
For some, simply performing in front of hundreds of people at the Vicki Hall is thrill enough. Not everyone harbours dreams of a career in showbusiness.
For example, at the age of 74, I suspect crooner Graham Horne knows that the competition is unlikely to propel him to West End stardom.
But, as he said himself, he just loves to sing in front of an audience and he did Ol' Blue Eyes proud once again. I reckon it would take a brave man to bet against Chell's finest making it through to the latter stages of the contest.
In sharp contrast to Graham, there were scores of youngsters there on Saturday for whom the dream of a career in musical theatre is very much alive.
From the brilliant dance act Dolly Mix who just get better and better to guitar virtuoso David Jiminez Hughes, of Silverdale, who won a few hearts and minds at the end of a very long day.
For them Stoke's Top Talent could well be a springboard to future success – allowing them to follow in the footsteps of Abbey Hulton dancer Aaron Corden. He was sat right behind me on the front row, watching this year's hopefuls with a wistful look in his eyes.
Now one of the top dancers at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge, Aaron has already danced for Take That and the Black Eyed Peas and will be back home in Stoke-on-Trent for Christmas appearing in the Regent theatre panto alongside whoever wins the competition which kick-started his career.
For others with no great ambition beyond the contest itself, it was simply a case of testing the water.
Some were doing it for charity like the Dolly Tubs – four ladies with big personalities squeezed into leotards and tutus in the name of Caudwell Children.
They showed us their best sides as well as their backsides and no-one minded that we'd only just had breakfast.
Some of the contestants will have wanted to do this for years. Wanted to prove to themselves that they could stand up in front of an audience and sing, dance, tell jokes or perform tricks.
Whatever their reasons for getting involved, the 147 acts who had their moment in the spotlight on Saturday can be rightly proud of themselves for having the bottle to get up on that stage.
For me, being a judge will always be something of a surreal experience because I'm just a punter.
I'm not in the industry. I don't do am dram. There are so many people more qualified than yours truly who could be judging the contestants.
But that's why Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson were there. That's why panto producer Kevin Wood ('the judge with the grudge') and West End star Louise Dearman will be at the heats and grand final in September – along with a host of other famous faces.
Me? Well, I once embarrassed myself in panto but my main qualification is that I have the distinction of having sat through every single Stoke's Top Talent audition and heat since year one.
I just try to say what I see – which isn't always easy when Jonny Wilkes is writing inappropriate comments on your judging sheet, trying to make you laugh when you're speaking and stitching you up with the voting.
Ever the performer, you have to be on your toes with our Jonny when there's a mic around.
Even so, it was a wonderful day which I could tell meant a lot to Jonny. Christian, meanwhile, seemed genuinely blown away at the calibre of some of the acts.
He wasn't alone.
It was a day of raw emotion ranging from the nerves of first-time contestants to the elation of those put through to the callbacks.
Then there was the genuine pleasure of seeing a few familiar faces return stronger and better with two years' worth of practice under their belts.
On Saturday we have the unenviable task of cutting the remaining 110 acts down to just 50 who will contest the heats.
It really is a case of comparing apples and pears when gymnasts, dancers, singers, musicians, bands, comedians, a drag queen and a mentalist go head-to-head.
However, unlike some of the the TV talent shows which make a point of poking fun at some of their contestants, Stoke's Top Talent is a win-win for all concerned.
Everyone will get their moment in the sun and everyone will walk away with huge respect from the judges, their fellow competitors and the audiences.
What's more, someone will walk away with a cash prize of £2,000 a professional theatre contract.
For me, though, it's all about generating pride. Pride in our communities and pride in the potential of local people to aspire to great and memorable moments which will stay with them all their lives.
The callback auditions for Stoke's Top Talent take place on Saturday at the Victoria Hall at 9.30am and are free to watch.