I can’t say I have been a devoted viewer of Britain’s Got Talent, but I have seen a few key moments on YouTube, and I did watch one whole episode, the one where a Welsh man who claimed he had never sung before came on stage and sang really well, despite looking like he might be sick with nerves. I also saw a young boy go on and sing a song, and Simon Cowell stopped him in the middle of it and demanded that he sing a different song, and there were gasps from the audience and his fellow judges, and from the young boy’s mum, and Ant and Dec, and the second song turned out to be a better fit for the boy’s voice and everybody agreed that Simon Cowell was a genius.
There’s no point in being snobby and patronising about mass entertainment – I’m actually glad ITV has found a massive audience for something and a new revenue stream; I do truly believe we need ITV to survive its financial woes – but I think we would all do well to just admit that it’s not a talent contest, it’s a drama. And a cost-effective one, as you don’t have to pay the actors, and Simon Cowell gets to make money out of anyone who gets through with actual talent. (A costume drama costs a lot more to make than one in which the actors wear their own clothes, and pay for their own transport to the set in the early stages.) They make it open to all talents from juggling to passing wind and enticing animals do unnatural things as if perhaps we were still living in medieval times, but it’s only ever going to be singing talent – or dancing talent – that’s worthy of the top prize, because that’s the marketable kind of talent.
It was impossible not to be drawn into the Susan Boyle story, the true parts of which seem to be that she really has lived her life without having sexual intercourse, which is fairly unusual for a 48 year old outside of holy orders, and was deprived of oxygen when she was born. She looked after her mum until she died in 2007. She has always sung and auditioned for Michael Barrymore’s My Kind Of People, but was rejected, it is thought, because of her appearance. She’s taken singing lessons, and has, it is said, appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. (I assume videos of all her early public appearances our out there in the public domain – I don’t have enough interest to seek them out.) Anyway, the producers of Britain’s Got Talent are not looking for talent, they are looking for stories, and Boyle’s was a humdinger.
It’s true: if she’d been even moderately good looking or conventionally attractive, there would be no story and her perfectly serviceable voice would have never been heard by millions. It’s all in the apparent disconnect between what society deems to be a good looking face and body and how nice a singing voice is that comes out of that face and body. Ha ha, Susan Boyle is a funny looking middle-aged woman from Scotland who pretended she had never been kissed but later played that down, and who lives with her cat (double ha ha for living with a cat, apparently).
Now look what’s happened. The global digital media now moves at such a pace, Susan Boyle, a woman off a talent show on ITV1 in this country, became a world icon in a matter of days. Remember, nobody – apart from the producers of Michael Barrymore’s My Kind Of People (who must now feel like the man who didn’t sign the Beatles) – had heard of her on April 10, 2009. Now she is so famous, Matt Lucas can dress up as her in Heat – ha ha! Unfortunately for Susan Boyle, and fortunately for Britain’s Got Talent and ITV and Simon Cowell, she lost on Saturday to a group of 80s dancers, who all fell over when they found out. The Sunday papers said her dream was over and dishonestly ran pictures of Susan Boyle looking grumpy and weird and severe, which she did until the result was announced, when she relaxed and smiled and wished the 80s boys well and then did a crazy dance and lifted her skirt high enough for millions of people to see the top of her thigh.
And yesterday, while the papers said her dream was over but that also she stood to make eight million pounds in the first year of her professional career (and probably the last year of her professional career, but who cares?), she checked into the Priory. Whoever’s writing this script should be delighted with the way it’s going. How much of it is Susan Boyle’s understandably fraught behaviour (swearing at the telly in a Wembley hotel, for instance; threatening to quit the day before the grand final), and how much of it is a fiction fed to the media and gleefully reproduced is always going to be hard to divine, even when her autobiography is rushed out for Christmas, as I understand it will be. (Those of us who have written books and waited years for them to actually get in the shops will be especially cheered by this.)
Of course I feel sorry for Susan Boyle. Richard and I had some cruel fun at her expense on the podcast last week – much of it deriving from her tabloid nickname “the Hairy Angel”, which is offensive on just about every level, a bit like when they called Jade Goody a pig. But making fun of Susan Boyle is not making fun of an actual person, it’s making fun of a partly fictional creation. I feel sorry for the actual woman underneath all the “hair” of her myth, but it’s too late for my sympathy now. Her ludicrously fast rise from obscurity (or wished-for fame) to disproportionate fame must be a bit like “the bends”, which divers get when they come to the surface too quickly. I’m glad it’s just “exhaustion” – that’s a relatively small price. She is, after all, a blameless individual; all she wanted to do was sing for people. At least she already believes in God, so will not have to find Christianity while in rehab.
I’m surprised Simon Cowell has any skin left on the palms of his hands – he must be constantly rubbing them together. In all of this, he is the one man who can’t lose. Mind you, he looks and sounds like a dick, and no amount of money can repair that. At least Susan Boyle can sing a bit.