Watched by 14 million viewers, Signature’s act on Britain’s Got Talent revived Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and threw bhangra into the British mainstream. Kunal Dutta asks what sparked the ideas and where does the duo go now?
Vilified by the press and the subject of numerous allegations, Michael Jackson had become famous for almost everything but his dancing. Of course some still remembered the Eighties performer whose moonwalk mesmerised a generation. But the Jackson of recent years was a very different one: often an eccentric and sorry figure whose most memorable performance was inside a Santa Barbara courtroom where he cleared his name of child abuse charges.
Then last May something happened. Suleman Mirza, a 29-year-old Muslim dancer appeared on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent with Madhu Singh, a corpulent 34-year-old Sikh man carrying a broom. Blasting in the background was ‘Nachna Onda Nei’ a bhangra track by Tigerstyle mixed to the bass line of Jackson’s 1983 hit ‘Billie Jean’.
As individual elements, each had the makings of car-crash television and the duo, called Signature, might easily have found themselves rejected alongside the show’s dud magicians, pom-pom acts and deluded musical hopefuls.
Instead it was the reverse. The act saw Mirza, an exhilarating performer with a moonwalk almost identical to Jackson’s, interrupted mid-flow by Singh who appeared as if to sweep the stage. When Mirza pushed him aside, Singh ripped off his workman’s coat in protest, flung his broom aside and matched Mirza’s moves with some electrifying bhangra.
The act caught everyone offguard. Even the show’s stoniest judges forced a smile. The audience stood and applauded and the British voting public dialled in their droves. The Daily Telegraph described the act as the ‘perfect riposte to those who pontificate and agonise over multiculturalism’ and the duo were propelled into a final watched by over 14 million viewers.
Even though they lost out to George Sampson, a 14-year-old street dancer from Warrington, Signature’s fortunes have since changed irreversibly.
Now touring the country, the pair have had numerous commercial approaches including a six-figure offer from Virgin Media. Their talents are being sought for as far as Dubai and earlier this year they entertained guests at a Conservative fund-raising ball organised by David Cameron. There are even whispers that Signature will perform with Michael Jackson on a comeback tour, but when this is put to Mirza, he turns uncharacteristically coy. “Fingers crossed,” is about as far as he’ll go.
We’re standing inside a cramped kitchen in Soho where the pair have just performed as part of a press launch for Uncle Ben’s new range of Indian sauces. The room is strewn with boxes, luggage, desk fans and camera equipment. There is no seating. So Singh, who appears so outwardly calm that it often looks like his eyes are shut, perches quietly on a few boxes. Mirza is the opposite. Restless and thrumming with energy, he leans impatiently on a worktop.
Instantly you sense Mirza is the front-of-house driving force; a perfectionist, constantly trying to catch his ideas before they are overwritten by the next. At the start of our interview he tries to surreptitiously scribble a note and pass it to Singh. But the gesture is so gigantic, I enquire what it is. “Nothing really,” he says before conceding it’s a move that his partner got wrong in the earlier show. Surely that feels a bit patronising? Singh reads it unfazed. He is, after all, used to being woken up by calls from Mirza in the middle of the night to discuss a few ideas that can’t wait until the morning.
Apart from Jackson, Mirza, who has also danced with a number of Bollywood bigwigs including Sunil Shetty and Anil Kapoor, cites Amitabh Bachan as one of his major influences. “I used to have the middle parting in the hair and would jump off the sofa dancing to Sholay,” he says. “But then I saw the Thriller video and was like, ‘that’s great and all Amitabh, but see you later.’
In fact Jackson had such a profound effect on Mirza he recalls spending up to five-hours a day freeze-framing each move and practising it in his bedroom. “Back in the 80s people thought there was no such thing as a slow-motion player, but I was lucky enough to have one so I had a real headstart.”
Yet the idea of performing did not dawn on him until 1996 – a decade later – when a relative visiting from Pakistan asked him to film a video to take back to the family. “That’s when I realised you actually miss a lot of your moves in the mirror. When I saw myself back on tape I thought ‘that’s quite good actually. There may be something here.’”
Singh meanwhile had an act incorporating a mixture of bhangra and street dance, which took him to a Westminster talent show in 2000, where Mirza was also competing.
Both found themselves drawn to each other’s talents. “I saw Suleman dance and thought…” But Singh can barely finish the sentence before Mirza interjects: “And can I just say I had exactly the same reaction when I saw this geezer.”
But music forged their performing connection. Hearing the Tigerstyle track, Singh introduced it to Mirza who at first admits to initially “dismissing it”.
Singh claims ownership on the idea. “I just put this track on and said: ‘Suly, do your thing.’ Realising it was Billie Jean, Mirza improvised a few moves. “But when the bhangra beat kicked in I pushed him aside and made moves of my own.”
The act eventually evolved into their set piece – the one used to audition for Britain’s Got Talent last year. “I knew we had something, we just had to get it onto a bigger platform,” says Mirza, even after performing the act numerous times to friends and at shows.
As well as Michael Jackson, the show has automatically forced people to reassess their conceptions of East and West, evident by the amount of interest they’ve generated in the blogosphere. Both men, who have previously stated their show is about “overcoming conflict”, say their ultimate aim is to “entertain”.
“I’m like the Western guy and he’s the immigrant; he comes on, shows me what he can do with his talent and we’re a better force together,” says Mirza. “It’s quite a hidden message, and we don’t want to bash people with it. But if people pick up on it that’s great.”
Ever since the show their life has changed. “Now you find yourself followed to the shops or even when you’re at the cinema, you realise some people are actually watching you instead of the movie,” says Singh. These are words of a man who nine months ago was still a PC World sales manager at Heathrow Terminal Five. “They’ve left the job open for me, which is really kind.”
Talking to them it is clear that Signature, through Singh’s self-effacing humbleness and Mirza’s frenetic ambition counterbalance each other well. The question is how they will evolve their repertoire, especially now that their formula is so well-known.
For now though, if Michael Jackson does make a comeback, he’ll certainly owe part of his UK revival to Mirza’s defence and unwavering enthusiasm. “He will come back, I know it,” Mirza says, with a knowing smile. And what about Signature’s future after the noise of Britain’s Got Talent finally dies down later this year?
“We’ll keep on surprising,” he shoots back.