Britain’s Got More Entertaining
SIMON BAJKOWSKI muses on the changing face of Britain’s Got Talent, suggesting that since this series runs off the back of an oh-so-familiar precedent, the post-modern viewer requires something different from the BGT experience. Enter Messrs McIntyre and Hoff.
Limp dog shows, weak singing acts, bizarre comedy performances: yes, the Britain’s Got Talent juggernaut has been steadily rolling into exam term, but this year with some notable changes. Quite apart from the frankly awful title theme remix, which gives the impression that my laptop has frozen, the show is now much, much, better. The reason? Getting rid of Messrs. Cowell and Morgan in the judges’ seats.
Don’t get me wrong, they were both highly qualified ‘judges’. You don’t get to be the editor of a national newspaper before the age of 30 unless you are in touch with the public, and Simon Cowell knows the entertainment industry inside out.
Yielding success is both men’s bottom line though, and this isn’t what BGT is about, or certainly not what it likes Joe Public to think it’s about. Both men have shown a ruthlessness- both laudable and loathsome- to get to the top of their profession. The show undoubtedly involves making money and winning ratings as part of ITV’s seemingly endless conveyor-belt of reality TV, but finding stars is not as key as on other flagship programmes like X-Factor. The end prize is a Royal Variety performance, because very few contestants are manageable in the mass market. Diversity are perhaps the biggest buck to this trend, while SuBo and Paul Potts have confirmed the view that singers have immense power in society today (go to a Tim Blanning talk on this if you haven’t already), but a prolonged celebrity career isn’t the selling point of the show.
No, BGT is a celebration of the great dynamism and character of the aforementioned Joe Public, with talents ranging from bellringers to distinctly marmite artists (as in artists working with marmite, not made from it), from Matrix emulators to dolphin impersonators.
Because there is less pressure for long-term success, the show makes room for something else. Michael Collings, another sensation of this year, is a media delight, coming as he does from a caravan park and proposing to his girlfriend in an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, before knocking the judges over with a fairly cracking voice.
As much as it was the voice of Collings that won applause, the “sherbet leisure wear” played a very important part. The expectancy that he was going to be awful heightened the enjoyment of his performance, showing social prejudice to be both overturned and reinforced at the same time.
Indeed, what are Boyle and Potts if not great celebrations of social failures? One a Welsh mobile phone salesman shorn of confidence, the other a mad, old Scottish woman who had never been kissed, their success came as much from their voices as the mixture of sympathy, pity, and astonishment tthey provoked in viewers. Those reading this as unfairly cynical may have a point, but question if they both would have won the show had they been middle class dullards with decent looks and boldness. More likely they would have been seen ambivalently and asked why they weren’t on X Factor.
These two contestants brought the revival of the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ lesson in mainstream British media. It was with nothing short of shame that we reflected on our initial attitude to the auditioning SuBo; baying for failure, delighting in her delusion. It was the narrative that got the media so excited. This series, with a kind of post-modern reflexivity, we wait for acts with talent that defies their bathetic exterior, as if each Michael Collings happily reconfirms the lesson of ‘appearances deceive’.
While the show’s title lays emphasis on ‘talent’ then, ultimately this series this comes below things like entertainment, heart, effort, and a sense of ‘deserving it’ karmically. Embarrassingly awful participants are being put through now simply for providing laughs, in a quintessentially British good-natured fashion. BGT is feel-good television at its very best.
This moving of the goalposts also changes the role of the judges. How inappropriate would Cowell’s ruthless ‘honesty’ show up against the joy of eccentric dog-acts and crappy 90 year-old granddads. It’s amazing to think that such a prominent part of the show has never had a primary focus on entertainment. Now, the judges’ slots are equally if not more funny than many contestants, as anyone who saw The Hoff hopelessly failing to understand regional accents can testify. By now we know the formula, we might as well have fun at every stage of the ride.
So if he really considers it, Cowell will sack himself before the semis – everyone is happy enough without him. Anyone who wants a less banal and pleasant affair should stay fixed on BBC on a Saturday night watching Dr. Who and Spiral, but BGT provides the epitome of easy-watching entertainment; Cowell not judging makes it that little bit more so.