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· Talent’s got Britain. Cowell’s got the world.

By Michelene Wandor.

ROUND IT COMES AGAIN. The French Open (tennis). Impending Wimbledon (more tennis). Another summer marked by competing drought and rain. Plus an intensive week of nightly viewing, culminating in a winner (talent). Britain’s Got Talent is, as ever, hosted by Ant and Dec, the Cameron and Clegg of ITV. One of the pair (which pair?) has a baby face, the other a pointed chin; otherwise they are Geordie Jedwards. Even they (which pair?) play the game of not knowing who is which.

Some clichés to get out of the way first. In it to win it. Someone’s life is about to change forever. Fighting for their lives. Life-changing night. I’m really nervous. I’m going to do my very best. I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I don’t want to go home. There must be a universal hymn sheet handed out to every talent show presenter, competitor and judge, who are then told to ring the changes on each empty phrase. Next time we might even hear the hyped-up audience chanting the clichés.

Lead-up weeks give us tasters of ‘auditions’ held all over the country. We are not privileged to see who chooses the singing sensations, dud front-room performances, dance acts, and the requisite pet dog numbers. But in the final week, we, the audience, are ‘in control’, through our phone-in votes. Well, maybe.

In earlier rounds, the judges (this year Amanda Holden, David Hasselhoff and Michael Macintyre) decide who goes through. In the semi-finals, phone-in votes pick one finalist and the judges decide on the other. Such tweaked ‘rules’ stress the importance of popularity (public vote), while holding on to the shreds of some professional assessment. Concepts of ‘semi’ and ‘final’ are stretched to enable the producers to create a series of variety shows, giving us two nightly hours of TV during the week, and more on Saturday. Five semi-finals produce two finalists each. The grand final(e) on Saturday had ten finalists.

Newly buffed and coiffed, Simon Cowell returned for the last week. The judges emerged, all lights, buzzers and sparklers, with Amanda Holden Oscar-glamgarbed, and the Hoff hunky-handsome. Macintyre’s shirts were more subdued than his usual stand-up performance choices. I spotted him at one of my local cafes recently, and would like to tell readers it is true that the camera can add avoirdupois to a celebrity.

BACK TO THE TALENT. Cowell reminded us that, along with the £100,000 and a spot at the Royal Variety Performance, the winner’s career is assured. We know this from other talent shows, but the performing dog is now well out of the bag after Susan Boyle. Coming unhappily second, her career nevertheless took flight, and the same is pretty well true of all those who end up as finalists in these shows, even if they get less top-grade publicity. The rules of the game, though, must emphasise that there can only be one winner, and that, by definition, means that we must ‘believe’ that everyone else is a loser. How else would tension be ratcheted up?

It was pretty clear from this year’s last ten, that virtually any one of them might win. Now I sound like the judges. Sorry. You could hear the rustle of recording contracts for low-key Michael Collings and his guitar, Paul Gbegbegae and his virtuosic piano, Jean Martyn (a latter-day female Reginald Dixon), New Bounce (close-harmony lads), Ronan Parke (singer, favourite to win), and, of course, the actual winner, singer Jai McDowall. You could imagine the booking contracts for Razy Gogoner (bendy dancer), Steven Hall (telecommunications engineer who surprised as all with his ordinary-Briton, semi-satirical dance precision), Les Gibson (impressionist) and James Hobley (passionate young dancer).

There were glimpses of behind-the-scenes hassles. Those who were judged on Monday for Saturday had longer to prepare their final performance than those judged on Friday. Some earlier candidates had been taken over by producers, and ‘given’ unsuitable songs/backing/staging. What we see in this final week is not always the ‘raw’ talent. But then, this is showbiz. We must have high production values, even while the perennial reality/exploitation axis is always there. The candidates probably have little option: if they don’t want to do as they’re told (because that’s what it comes down to), they either have a rough time, or have to leave the show. Partly, of course, that’s exactly what the deal is: becoming professionalised. Disappointment and rejection is as much the name of the game as is success.

AT THIS POINT I think about audience collusion, and my role in that. Luckily, I can clothe myself in the magician’s triple cloak of voyeur/viewer/critic. If any of the competitors ever reads this, I would say, always argue/fight for what you want, if you have serious doubts about the advice you’re getting. Don’t kid yourself that anyone ever gets used to disappointment or rejection. The free-lance artistic/showbiz life can have lots of good things going for it, but it’s a career with constant, often unfair and unnecessary, re-auditioning. Track record does not necessarily always count.

And yet, with all my cynicism, I still watch some of these talent shows. Strictly is riveting, as celebs start off petrified or cocky or cavalier, and then knuckle down to seriously learning a tough new skill. Those who stay the course, develop a whole new professional strand for themselves. This show is about pezzaz (and often stupid costumes and light show), but it is also about learning and real achievement. Forget X-Factor. It’s not my g-g-g-g-generation. Dancing on Ice is the chill floor-buddy to Strictly, admirable for what the celebs learn, but always somewhat incomplete, and the brown support tights are horrendous. Now if the men began to wear tights…

WITHIN THE ROTATING JUDGING panel, Amanda Holden has always been one of the staunchest defenders of the unexpected, the passionately committed and the outlandish on Britain’s got Talent. These can turn out to be the cream (or scum) on the top of Great British Amateurism. Of those who didn’t make it to Sumptuous Saturday, one act in particular stays in my mind, because I (almost) had a vested interest. Gay and Alan came on, and played delicate melodies on wonderfully synchronised handbells. I was convinced I knew Alan from somewhere. The memory soon returned. In years gone past I went on a lot of early music courses, and I remember this couple as recorder players. Gay spoke proudly on national television: they met, played recorders, fell in love, married, and now wanted to spread the word that handbells could also make sweet music. The judges loved them, though the great British unwashed finally didn’t. You can’t get much more unexpected than that.

Coda: I have not taken up handbells, and I never vote.

Michelene Wandor’s two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets. She performs with the Siena Ensemble and reports regularly for The Fortnightly Review.

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