Do you ever have nightmares? You know, ones where you’re being chased by zombies or gunmen and you run and run, ducking and hiding and, at one point, you think you’ve got away from them but then, just as you can almost taste freedom, they catch up with you and you realise that you can never, ever escape?
I feel like that about Britain’s Got Talent. I have deliberately avoided the programme this time around, tired of the mocking of the deluded, wrung dry with the emotion-by-numbers, even wearying a little of Ant and Dec’s 'We’re on your side' shtick.
Then, this week, I attended a literary event in which a well respected author was speaking about his novels, which are concerned with fame and family. Eventually he got on to our culture’s recent fascination with talent shows and televisual humiliation. “And of course,” he said, “many of you will have heard of Susan Boyle who has several million internet hits since she appeared on Britain’s Got Talent.”
Well that it was. I came home, immediately youtubed her and, like the rest of the nation, went, “Wowzers”. For anyone who has been living on an arctic shelf this last few weeks, Susan Boyle is a singer who appeared on Britain’s Got Talent two weeks ago. At first glance, she was a dead cert for one of the deluded: She was dumpy. She was frumpy. She looked like a cross between a member of The Wurzels and Hazel from EastEnders. 47-years-old, she could easily have passed for 67. She had never been married and, she said, “Never been kissed,” and the way she said it, you knew it was probably true.
And so the audience were all ready to crucify her, chortling when she said that she wanted to be like Elaine Paige, shaking their heads at her evident delusions and perched on the edge of their seats just waiting for her to open her mouth and sound like hell made audible.
But no. She was, in fact, astoundingly good. She wanted to be like Elaine Paige but she could be even better than Elaine Paige. Something in the tone and emotion of her vocals, the discrepancy between her appearance and her talent, and also, perhaps, something in the lyrics of the song, (“I had a dream, my life could be so different now from what it seems…my life has killed the dream I dreamed,”) made this a completely unforgettable performance.
True, people shouldn’t judge by appearances – but we do. And every time another artist-in-waiting is groomed and asked to diet and undergo plastic surgery to reach the ‘norm’, it just increases this expectation that talent is as much about how palatable you are to an image-obsessed society as what you can do.
But underneath this expectation is, I think, a fear. If we cannot accept fat, lumpy, imperfect performers then what does that mean for us – fat, lumpy, imperfect as we are?
Which is why the audience – and now the world – adore this woman so much. We love an underdog (and I’m not talking about the man who thinks balancing coasters on his dog’s paws is an act fit for royalty) and Susan Boyle has challenged our self-created, society-encouraged rule that charisma only comes in pretty packages.
Of course, I don’t for one minute believe that Piers, Amanda and Simon were not completely aware that they had an unlikely star on their hands when she walked out in front of them. Nor do I believe it was anything less than a set up last week when 12-year-old Shaheen “luckily” swapped his chosen track, ‘Valerie,’ for a Michael Jackson belter, at Cowell’s behest, and blew the audience away.
But, then, when you watch programmes like these, you sign up to the small print whose terms and conditions include having your emotions manipulated, your intelligence insulted, and your view of the human race tested to its limits by a man trying to stuff a gazillion Ferrero Rocher down his gob. (Shame he didn’t get in. The Queen bloody loves that kind of thing.)
And so – I’m hooked. I’ll have to tune in for the heats because I’m desperate to hear Susan sing again. Apparently Simon Cowell wants her to remain au naturel, though I’m sure it won’t corrupt her innate talent and untainted spirit to give her eyebrows a bit of a pluck.
Sorry, by the way, if you wanted to avoid knowing anything about Britain’s Got Talent this year. But really, it’s the ninja in your nightmares. There is no way out.
Britain’s Got Talent, ITV1, 8.30pm