That time of year is here: that time when the nation grinds to a halt so that the virtual world of reality television can dominate our Saturday nights. Simon Cowell is on our screens with Britain’s Got Talent alongside Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams. A fresh batch of first-rate loonies – and also some genuinely talented people, let’s not forget – have plucked up the courage to stand up on stage in front of four famous faces, and potentially, if mad enough or exceptional enough, will appear on television in front of millions.
But what’s most interesting about these talent-finding contests, be it X Factor or BGT, is how the producers find the material necessary to make television gold. We love a contestant who looks like David Gest and sounds like Whitney Houston – but we love them even more if they’re back story is tragic or just plain weird. People who make us gasp in shock or bawl into our Saturday night curry is the reason why Simon Cowell is laughing all the way to the bank.
There is a large stretch of time between the audition process and the program finally being aired on television. Why? Well, behind the scenes of BGT there is a small army busy trying to find juicy information on the contestants. Youtube is scoured for any amusing videos that people have already posted – indeed, many acts don’t even have an audition: BGT comes to them.
Anthony, a runner for Syco (Cowell’s production company), told me about an act that was found this way: a woman and her performing. A terrible home video, complete with pathetic tricks, but with the potential to provide at least brief amusement. She was contacted by BGT and almost immediately after walking on stage and performing for a matter of seconds she was very loudly ‘buzzed’ off by all four judges. The production team knew she wasn’t going to make it through the audition process but sought her out simply to make good TV. “She marched straight off stage, swearing abuse at Ant and Dec about how she had been made to look a fool on national television”, said Anthony. Of course the woman made the choice to answer BGT and go on stage to perform, but one must question the ethics of a program that deliberately seeks out vulnerable people who are apparently so desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame – even if it is at the expense of their dignity.
It doesn’t always matter if they have buckets of talent. They could be the next Mariah Carey but if they haven’t got some sort of interesting story behind them then we won’t put them through.
The country’s insatiable appetite for auditionees with a ‘story’ is known as ‘poverty porn’, and forms a huge part of showbiz culture. The crux of these shows is based on people tuning it to see certain characters who go on emotional journeys that people at home can empathize with. We want someone to attach to so that we can follow their story through to the end.
Anthony surprised me by saying “It doesn’t always matter if they have buckets of talent. They could be the next Mariah Carey but if they haven’t got some sort of interesting story behind them – be it a lost relative whose dream it was for their child to appear on BGT, or even that they’ve had something radical happen like a sex change – then we won’t put them through. Sadly, it isn’t only about talent. Talent alone doesn’t make laugh-out-loud TV.” It seems that we as a nation like to feel that we’ve discovered someone – given them a chance, a ray of hope – all from the comfort of our armchair.
Would we have loved Susan Boyle as much if she hadn’t looked the way she did? It sounds all too judgmental and superficial but the exact reason why her BGT audition became a worldwide phenomenon was because we just weren’t expecting a scruffy, 48-year old Scots-woman to bellow out ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ like that. And that begs the question, is she really that talented or did her looks amplify her talent? Rob Leigh, a blogger for Mirror.co.uk thinks so, “Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was spirited, sure. But was it charismatic enough, technically accomplished enough or even demonstrate enough potential to see her installed as the bookies’ 5/2 favourite to win the whole shebang? Absolutely no way. And genuinely comparing Susan Boyle’s off-key warbling as being on the same level as Julie Andrews and Elaine Paige is just inane.
Looking especially to those who become aware of Susan Boyle via the hype machine – are you really moved to tears by the power of her singing voice, or the self-satisfied knowledge that you yourself would NEVER have pre-judged the ‘unlikely’, ‘drab-looking’, unemployed, never-been-kissed, self-deprecating, bullied-at-school, ‘quintessential cat lady?’ It’s true – as a nation of reality-television obsessives, talent must go hand-in-hand with a success story.
Going to watch the live BGT auditions in Manchester in January was an experience. The venue is far smaller than that used for the X Factor and you are in scarily close proximity to the judges. It’s a fun atmosphere, although you are encouraged to ‘boo’ and ‘jeer’ just as much as you are to cheer. In the few hours I was there, I spotted many acts that were chosen purely for comedic value. From a lady with erratic budgies and a mini-carousel, to a man who I’m sure was putting on a German accent.
It certainly felt like a modern-day freak show that was at times cringe-worthy. I could see who had been put through the many preliminary auditions just to be embarrassed on camera. Simon Cowell has in the past come under fire by mental health charities for pressuring mentally unwell people to appear on the show only to be buzzed off to hundreds of boos and shouts. However, despite the sinister side of the talent shows, the people who work there couldn’t be happier. Surely that means Simon Cowell is doing something right.
I spoke to Lily Evans, Ant and Dec’s runner for BGT 2012, somebody whose job means the world to her. Of course these reality television shows can be seen to exploit people, but they also serve to offer those with no chance of success a lifeline. Even Susan Boyle, who referred to fame as “a lot like a giant demolition ball” and was reportedly a little closer nervous breakdown than is strictly desirable, said on ‘NBC Today’, “I’m having a wonderful time. I don’t want it to end. It’s just incredible. It’s indescribable, really.” The unfortunate fact is that until the viewing figures start falling, then these shows are going to keep coming – and that means people will continue to be pursued to appear on them.
Reality television will never change. The reason we love it is simple: we love to see people succeed and we love to see people suffer. However, both Anthony and Lily beamed when I asked them if they loved their jobs. Not once did they mention this perhaps darker side to the glitz and glamour of the show. As Lily says “I wouldn’t exchange where I am, and what I’m doing for anything. I’ve made some amazing life long friends, learnt so much, and am even more driven in the industry than I even have been before.” These words mirror those of 2009 BGT winners Diversity: “We had such excited emotions, so mixed. Until that point, the nerves were unreal. There were tears. When they said our names we were running around in circles and jumping up and down. I’m sure my knees actually gave way.” It would seem that no obstacle, physical or mental, can stand in the way of the reality TV buzz.
For all the latest BGT news, views and satire, check out the Channel Hopping blog at nouse.co.uk/blogs