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I have a few guilty pleasures in life. Most of them simply couldn’t be repeated here (that reminds me I must buy some more butter and get that mink glove washed) but one that I will finally own up to liking is the annual freak show that is Britain’s Got Talent (oh, the irony!) Screened annually around May/June, with the final timed to coincide with the summer half-term holidays, Britain’s Got Talent is the latest commercial behemoth from the mind of Simon Cowell. It’s essentially a rework of the old New Faces/Bob Says Opportunity Knocks format, with rather more sponsorship and advertising and, arguably, rather less talent. The prize is a mighty one – the winning act receives a cash boost of £100,000 and a slot on the next Royal Variety Performance, performing in front of the Queen herself (who almost certainly dreads it as much as everyone else, but is too polite to say so). Like anything else touched by Simon Cowell (well, not everything, I’ve not seen Simon Cowell toilet paper yet) the show has gone on to be a global phenomenon, with countless international varieties.
Anything goes here and anyone can enter doing whatever they like, within reason. I suspect that a ping-pong ball jettisoning ladyboy from Bolton would be excluded on the grounds of public decency.
This review is still not sponsored by the Fishy Finger pizza from Dominos. You can rate at the end of the review, if you haven’t gouged your eyes out with the irritation from constant sponsorship messages.
Since the series started, the judges have remained the same, except for a brief dalliance with Kelly Brook, who only lasted a couple of regional heats before Simon decided that she wouldn’t put out and sent her away with a flea in her ear (or something).
Piers Morgan, former newspaper editor, has always struck me as a curious choice for a judge on this show, but seems to have discovered a new-found popularity. He doesn’t exactly have his finger on the pulse, and seems to like and vote through the most bizarre acts possible. An endorsement from Morgan is essentially the same as your gran telling you that you look nice when you’re off down the rave up, but ladies of a certain age seem taken by his charm and sophistication. As much as it’s possible to warm to a sychopantic idiot, Piers has worked a little of his charm on me over the last few years and I can now just about watch him without ripping my ears off.
Amanda Holden (she of the expensive dress) is the tart with a heart on the panel and is certainly lured by the promise of naked male flesh. She’s not frightened to ogle the fellas and offsets the blatant sexism of her two male peers who leer over anything with boobies. Holden is the queen of the cliché, repeatedly telling people that they’ve ‘raised the bar’ and that they ‘made something their own’ but she’s actually quite likeable and has a better sense of fun than the other two. I suspect that she had something to do with the departure of the younger, bustier Kelly Brook.
Simon Cowell is, as ever, the bad guy of the piece, at least to start with. His opinion generally more closely reflects my own, although as the competition wears on, he seems just as lured by the sugary charm of the whole thing and starts being nice to people. If they’re honest, all the acts crave Cowell’s approval. It seems to be the case that if he of the rather high waist line likes what you do then you’ve made it, although a flash of thigh is the easiest way to endear yourself if you are of the female persuasion.
This review remains unsponsored by a very irritating pizza company who believe that it’s appropriate if their pizzas start talking suggestively
Pictures of Britain's Got Talent
Spelbound - 2010 winners
to each other.
There are essentially two key stages to the show. The auditions run for several weeks, with a pre-recorded selection of some of the best and worst acts to get on the stage in each of the regional heats. To keep things lively, they don’t focus on one location per week, but flit backwards and forwards between the various cities as the mood dictates. At this stage, the talent hopefuls must perform in front of three judges, who will, between them, decide whether the act should go through to be considered for the next stage. Technically, the show offers barely any support at this stage. The acts must bring all their own props and music, and are basically responsible for everything that they do. Once on stage, the acts must survive the wrath of the three judges, each of which can buzz the act off. If all three judges buzz, poor Dorothy Flangebucket is on her way home. Watching and gurning from the sidelines are those cheeky Geordie chappies, Ant and Dec, who humanise the proceedings a little more by secretly mocking the acts from the sidelines and then congratulating them when they get through to the next round.
Of course, thousands of acts apply to go on Britain’s Got Talent and many don’t even get to perform on the stage. Teams of producers will vet the acts briefly (and in a rather cut throat fashion) to ascertain whether they are of any entertainment value. Shock acts often seem to get a chance, as do people with obvious mental issues and it’s unsurprising that the show has courted a lot of controversy for turning into something of a freak show. What is even more surprising, however, is how some of the acts get any further than this stage. Amanda and Piers together will often vote through utterly talentless/weird individuals, much to the chagrin of Mr Cowell who, outvoted by his idiot peers, must sit through the whole act again in the semi-finals.
The appeal, of course, is in watching people get buzzed off or at least willing the judges to do it. The buzzers themselves make a wonderful sound – rather like a giant wasp farting – and the looks of indignation from contestants that believed themselves to be the next Celine Dion are pretty priceless. The judges do let some people go on far too long and in previous series some of the reasons would be very predictable. Amanda, for example, is not a fan of women who use their bodies to gain attention and often has a swipe at them. Simon probably has the lowest boredom threshold and is often the first to buzz, along with a ‘what the f?’ expression or hand gesture.
Unlike X Factor, where you have the auditions, then the boot camps, then live finals, there’s a bit of a gap in the middle where those who get through the auditions are further screened to go into the final stages. We don’t really get to see any of this but can only assume that the three judges have some kind of voting system, as Piers and Amanda’s freak choices nearly always crop up again.
So now you’re probably getting really tired of these constant interruptions from a pizza retailer.The review still isn’t sponsored by them and, if anything, is probably making you more and more reluctant to buy one of those festering, bread-based calorie overdoses.
The Live Semi-Finals
Firstly, it irritates me intently that this stage is referred to as the semi-finals, as there are, in fact, five of them but in the absence of a more suitable name, I can see why they do it. Screened consecutively over five nights, these semi-finals (grrr) show us eight of the best acts (ha!), with only two that can go through to the big final. A public vote (another money-spinner) decides the favourite and then the next two go to an entirely predictable judges’ vote, with only one of the two going through.
At this stage, the show’s producers have more input into the acts, lending props, special effects, backing dancers and choirs as required to liven things up a bit. You’d expect that by this stage, the acts would generally be pretty good, but some truly awful acts still make it to this stage. 2010’s Most Useless included a male Lady Gaga impersonator who was clearly ill and an older male Madonna impersonator, encouraged by his wife for reasons we shall never know, resplendent with a glorious camel toe down the front of his grotesque outfit. Thanks to a stand in visit from Louis Walsh whilst Simon was ill, the ubiquitous pointless Irish act got through too, this time comprising an elderly gentleman dressed as a leprechaun doing the whole Riverdance thing. Yes, my eyes actually bled.
Increasingly, the show is becoming dominated by street dance acts, with the lion’s share of the acts comprising dance troupes strutting their stuff. It’s a curious thing to get through in such quantities, but seems driven by the fact that one such act, Diversity, won the entire competition in 2009. It means, however, that there’s actually a bit of a lack of real variety here. There are hardly any comedians or magic acts and if you don’t like watching dance then the competition is almost entirely a no-go zone. There’s also the issue of age here, in that unlike X Factor there are no minimum age restrictions so you tend to get lots of little muppets singing or dancing and going for the cute vote.
This is where the show can potentially go horribly long. Rather like Ciao where the sympathy vote often cuts the mustard, the general public seems terribly inclined to vote for people because they’re very young or because they look like they’re about to wet themselves. In many ways, it’s still not really about who is the most talented, or who would be the most appropriate act to put in front of the Queen (although I still long for a Transylvanian transsexual pole dancer to make it through, brandishing a silver thong bearing the message God Save The Queen.) There’s also an important factor here in the running order. Nearly every act to go last gets the highest vote, almost as though people come into the show at the very end and vote for the only one that they’ve seen.
The ‘drama’ of the judges’ vote is more than a little contrived, often clearly set up so that Simon has the casting vote, which plays to his sense of power. The judges pontificate and look pained, when in fact secretly you suspect that Cowell has already made it quite clear who he wants to go through. The casual manner in which the losers are effectively told to bugger off is slightly harsh, but driven by ITV1’s rabid advertising schedule, methinks.
Fancy a pizza? No, me neither.
The Live Final
Billed by ITV1 as the television event of the year, the final is a rather bloated telethon that runs for something like three hours and features the ten finalists, again performing live in front of the studio audience and millions of sad people at home. By this stage, there isn’t much buzzer action going on and the judges become even more sycophantic than ever. Even Cowell now starts to make concessions, notably in 2010 when he praised an 81 year old granny for making the sort of mistake that would have led to a savaging on the likes of X Factor. In the live final, it’s the viewers at home who choose their winner by telephone vote and it’s not always easy to predict who will win. Everyone expected The Hairy Boyle to win in 2009, but she was ousted at the last minute (thank goodness) by Diversity, although she has since gone on to sell more albums than should be allowed.
A brief summary of the 2010 finalists for those who might be interested:
Twist and Pulse – a duo of teenagers who put on a sort of dance-based comedy act with lots of groovy moves and cunning musical samples. For me, they were the best of the competition for innovation and sheer entertainment value and you could see the £ signs flashing past Simon Cowell’s eyes with the idea of endorsement opportunities. They came second in the end, which was respectable and predictable.
Liam McNally – a cheesy little school boy from Manchester with one of those angelic little voices (think Aled Jones on the snowman) that’s very high and very unappealing. I couldn’t help thinking that the older audience members probably voted this chap through. I also couldn’t help thinking that his life at school was about to turn to hell.
Paul Burling – a talented comedian/impressionist who put on a great show, changing his material markedly from the semi-final and showing a fantastic range of impressions. He’d have been a likeable act to go through but didn’t have that pizzazz that captures audiences.
Christopher Stone – another unappealing singer, who is an accountant by day. Stone’s voice was perfectly positioned to see a career in the West End, but was nothing any more remarkable than dozens of singers working that career professionally.
Tina and Chandi – a pleasant lady with a lovely dog that was far too old to be parading around on television. Whilst the dog had rather more talent than some of the humans in previous rounds, it struck me that she shouldn’t really be on stage in glaring lights performing to show music and should be curled up at home dreaming of bones.
Connected – a desperately awful boy band that chose desperately awful boy band songs to sing. Accomplished enough for their age, what everyone seemed to be missing was that, like it or not, there’s an aspect of sexuality to boy bands that meant a group of thirteen year olds was just wrong.
Kieran Gaffney – an unquestionably talented drummer putting on an unquestionably dull show. They had to suspend him and his drum kit in the air just to try and keep us awake. Bizarrely, he came third.
Tobias Mead – a talented enough young dancer, who failed to realise that without a Warington-based story of abuse and misfortune, his act wouldn’t be enough on its own to win the hearts of the audience. I so would.
Janey Cutler – the singing granny. With a voice not unlike Edith Piaf gargling with razor blades, Cutler was gutsy but frail (requiring hunky men in suits to bring her on and off the stage). She badly messed up the song on the night but the audience and judges were forgiving nonetheless. Me? I’d have buzzed the old boot and told her she was sh*t.
Spelbound – the series winners, who combined talent with copious naked male physiques and an inability to spell. I couldn’t help finding their act a bit dull by the third round, but audiences disagreed and they went on to win and they were fit and naked, so it can’t be bad. They’re planning on spending the £100,000 on sun bed vouchers, I understand.
No, I don’t want a bloody pizza.
The Final Verdict
There’s something rather curious about BGT that compels me to watch, even though I know I shouldn’t. It’s not always a case of ‘may the best man win’ but we’re all watching it for the ritual humiliation of one weirdo after another getting booted out. It’s entirely exploitative of course. Many of these individuals probably suffer irreparable psychological trauma from having their dreams shattered so callously, but the show remains a triumphant ratings winner. Now into its fourth year, like most of these things, few of the acts have actually gone on to do anything worthwhile, with Diversity and The Hairy Boyle the only acts to have careers of any longevity.
But the format works very well. The entire series is condensed far more than the likes of X Factor, which means that it’s over in a relatively short space of time and there are plenty of laughs to be had. Ant and Dick make perfectly amicable hosts (I actually quite like them if I’m honest) and it could never be argued that the show doesn’t have its water cooler moments. This is car crash TV, without a doubt and damn www.tvcatchup.com for allowing me to watch it online instead of going out and doing real life things.
Britain’s Got Talent is shown on ITV1, with a separate show, Britain’s Got More Talent on ITV2.