“HELLO!”, “Hi”, “Good morning,” pipe up Wilkes Academy students as if on cue at the sight of their principal and West End stalwart Jonny Wilkes, casually strolling through the corridors.

Wherever he goes, chins shoot up, backs noticeably straighten and a flock of teenagers, munching on sandwiches crouched on the ground, jump to their feet and stand to attention – all before greeting him in unison.

But this is not the forced toadyism of pupils for their headteacher. Their reverence and admiration is clear for anyone to see. And the polite reception is not reserved for him.

The pitter-patter of a student racing down the hall behind us to proffer a glass of water I had even forgotten I’d asked for, with a warm smile and ‘Have a good day’ to boot, says as much.

The importance of respect in a business of egos is drilled into every pupil from the moment they enter the labyrinthine studio on Westmead Industrial Estate.

“Respect is the most important thing for me,” insists Jonny, who has little time for the growing legions of churlish wannabes, expecting opportunities to fall from the sky. “You might be the most talented person in the world but without respect or appreciation it means nothing. We want to teach them values. My dad always used to say, if you open doors for ladies and say please and thank you it will take you places in life. I believe that. Nothing in life is for free, as much as the youth of today want everything handed to them on a plate. If you want to be a success in your career and your life, you’ve got to work hard. And it all stems from the foundations of being a nice human being.”

Old-school at heart, and not afraid to show it, he does not hide his ambivalence towards the X Factor generation. Show business today is lightning years away from the industry built on sheer sweat and hard work he grew up in.

“Our society is different today and that’s the one thing that scares me a bit. Talent shows are what they are, they are glorified versions of things like Opportunity Knocks,” he shrugs. “Things like the X Factor are a fantastic opportunity. My worry is that everybody can have their five minutes of fame but it’s about where they go after.

“The industry is cut-throat and if you let it go to your head, you’re not going to last every long. You’ve got to expect that every job could be your last so you have to work hard, you’re only as good as your last job.”

Arming his students against the pitfalls of the age of reality TV, where toil has lost, to an extent, its currency, weighs heavily on his mind, he admits. Though there is no doubt in his mind that thorough training and values will separate the wheat from the chaff.

“If you want longevity in this industry and a career beyond your five minutes of glory you have to have got solid training and that’s what we’re here to give them,” he says.

“I wish I had had this formal training,” he adds wistfully. There was nothing like this for me in Stoke-on-Trent. All the talented kids that were around never got the opportunity and I want to nurture that here.”

His lack of formal training – expect for dabbling in amateur dramatics from the age of six alongside life-long friend Robbie Williams, and “mainly showing off”- did not hamper his stellar career.

Although his path could have taken quite a different turn had he stuck to his original plan to become a footballer. But rudderless and increasingly disenchanted with the prospect, he started to play hooky and was swiftly “dropped by Everton because of my attitude,” he confesses. “I wanted to go out with my mates, chase girls and I didn't want to go to training. I wasn't willing to eat, live and breathe football. I always ask the kids I work with, 'How much do you want this?' You must work really hard for what you want in life, in anything.”

Taking matters in her own hands, his mother entered him in the Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year competition which he went on to win at just 17 by wowing judges with his version of Kiss by Tom Jones – while other contestants played it safe with well-honed classics from the musical theatre repertoire. A year later, he became the youngest ever entertainer to headline his own show in Blackpool, Jonathan and the Space Girls.

“I had four backing dancers,” recalls the 38-year-old fondly. “I got £250 a week. I had the time of my life and I learnt my craft by actually doing the job. I'd go and watch acts like Cannon and Ball, Bradley Walsh, Jim Davidson, Frank Carson and just learn from them.”

He later enjoyed a brief singing career but itched to get back to his first love, musical theatre. From Grease, We Will Rock You and Guy and Dolls to Chicago and a saucy turn as Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Show, his CV is a parade of every West End hit.

“It’s all a bit mental when you write it all down,” he says in his West Midlands lilt. “I did release a record which went top 5 in 18 countries but I realised I wasn’t a very good pop star. I’m not very cool,” he adds proceeding to proclaim Robbie Williams as the pinnacle of cool. “I was more interested in theatre. And I didn’t want to be in the limelight anymore. I had a little taste of it and I’ve seen first-hand from my mates what it can do, the press intrusion. I’ve got a private life and I enjoy it,” smiles Jonny, who presented ITV’s You’ve Been Framed!

When he moved to his wife Nikki’s hometown of Royal Wootton Bassett, launching his own performing arts academy could not have been further from his mind. But Nikki’s powers of persuasion wore him down.

“If you said to me, this was what I’d be doing, I would have said, ‘Shut up, I’ve got lots more performing to do’,” he laughs heartily. “I feel like I know what I’m doing here. It’s the first time I’ve gone, ‘You know what, we’re really good at it and we can make a difference.’”

Wilkes Academy launched eight years ago as an under-16s training programme, initially run out of local school halls, with his “best mates” Ant and Dec and Robbie Williams as patrons. He also started a satellite branch in his native Stoke. In a bid to stop the exodus of talent to other performing arts schools in London and the likes, he took a leap of faith and opened a full-fledged college at Wilkes Academy’s headquarters on Westmead Industrial Estate offering formal BTEC Level 3 qualification four years ago.

He pulled out the big guns and recruited a faculty of performers and movers and shakers at the top of their game. Not only for the connections and doors it could open for his students but to surround them with working professionals with a firm anchoring in show business, and solid West End kudos – like him.

The college also acts as a talent agency and many of his students have featured in commercials, including for Iceland and Sainsbury’s. Most recently, a gifted few were handpicked to perform at the Brit Awards after-party while a group of female dancers backed Little Mix on their comeback appearance on the X Factor last year.

“I can go to bed and think I’ve made a little difference,” he grins. “I get a buzz from performing but I get even more of a kick now watching my students perform and progress. The biggest thing for me now is going to a West End show, opening the programme and seeing ‘trained at Wilkes Academy’. Wow.”

To find out how to apply, go to www.wilkesacademy.co.uk, call 01793 618228, or email info@wilkesacademy.co.uk.