Books: A Point of View: Britain Has Talent |
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Britain Has Talent : on glamour versus talent

(S05E05, broadcast 24th and 26th April 2009)

"The singer not the song"
— looks and/or talent?

By now every media commentator in Britain on every subject including global warming has delivered his or her opinion about Susan Boyle, the woman of unremarkable appearance who went on Britain’s Got Talent and proved to have such a remarkable voice that an aria from Les Misérables acquired the celestial overtones of a solo passage from a cantata by Bach and even such exalted arbiters of taste as Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell were reduced to helpless protestations of awe. Limping along a week behind the action, I can only hope, as I add my groat’s worth of opinion to a mountain range of accumulated wisdom, that I have something to say which might prove useful. All the obvious things have been said. But it is sometimes worth asking whether all the obvious things that have been said are quite true.

Barely had the last ringing note of Susan Boyle’s beautiful voice faded in the air before the first media commentators were out of their box to lash Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell for their coarseness in having concurred, with their facial expressions, in the loutish mirth of the studio audience that had greeted Susan Boyle before she began to sing. I looked at the footage carefully and I’m bound to say that I didn’t find either Mr Morgan or Mr Cowell looking any more crass than usual. They seemed to me to be striving to be polite while they contemplated her admittedly unshowbizlike appearance, just as she seemed to me to be striving to be polite while she contemplated them: two men whose faces are surely fated to inspire laughter, in the way that faces do when they belong to the kind of man who is deeply, sincerely concerned with the impression he is making.

Mr Morgan, at some stage early in his career, decided that an air of irrepressible shrewdness should be basic to his image, and after many hours of training before the shaving mirror he managed to perfect such a look of penetrating scepticism that if he had been in the front of the crowd when Jesus Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount he would have put Our Saviour off his stroke.

Mr Cowell, for his own part, has a set of teeth so uncannily perfect that you can see why he has to spend so much time in America, the only country that will admit such a display of radiant gnashers through Customs without X-raying the rest of the body they are attached to, to see if any part of it is made of enriched uranium. Yet Susan, face to face with these two improbably refulgent paragons, was unfazed, and launched without hesitation into her song.

Within four bars she had established herself as a talent. As Seamus Heaney, a great critic of his art as well as a great practitioner, has told us, we recognize a true poet’s voice immediately by its inherent strength, its integrity, its coherence and its clarity. We recognize a true singer’s voice in the same way. Susan Boyle has got it, and even the more oafish members of the studio audience, who could have come by time travel straight from the Roman Colosseum on a day when children were being fed to the lions, were instantly won over. When Susan finished, there was a fitting tumult.

The next bit, however, was harder to interpret than some of the commentators let on. They assumed that Mr Morgan and Mr Cowell had no advance knowledge that Susan would have a voice. I suppose it’s possible, although I must say it seems unlikely to me. I spent twenty long years working in the front line in television studios and I seldom saw circumstances in which a surprise of such magnitude could be kept secret. But really it doesn’t matter much whether the two men were choosing their words of praise on the spot, without acting, or whether they had had time to think the words up. What mattered was what they said, and it was very instructive. Mr Morgan was the more blatant in letting the world know that he was stunned. The message from both men was that they had expected Susan’s performance to be as nondescript as her appearance was lacking in glamour.

By emphasizing these previous low expectations, they underlined their subsequent large-heartedness in praising her to the skies. Many commentators were able to spot that both men were suffering from an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, in which, while expecting the rest of us to admire them because they were so ready to admit they had been wrong, we would not despise them for having held such low expectations merely because the lady was not a glamour-puss.

With those commentators I was in agreement. The conceit shown by Mr Morgan and Mr Cowell was deeply off-putting and if I had been on a special judging panel to judge the judges I would have told both of them to beware, because a name made from giving opinions in a television studio is a name written in water. There is no more perfect recipe for self-delusion than to suppose that being a television personality is some kind of achievement in itself. The best insurance to stop it happening is to keep a recording of, say, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony nearby in order to remind yourself of what an actual achievement is.

Susan was a lot closer to the world of achievement, as opposed to the world of mere celebrity, than the two men. But right here is the area where the commentators have not yet gone, and ought to. Because the laws of nature had not been repealed, only momentarily jolted, and it remains a law of nature that appearance is a factor even in the world of serious singing.

The judges of Britain’s Got Talent know quite a lot about the technicalities of putting a song over in a way that Ant and Dec might say wow to, but they don’t know much about serious singing, which is a different thing. The facts, alas, say that in every opera house in the world the chorus contains at least half a dozen people with voices as good as Susan’s, and most of them won’t become stars, so all the hoo-hah about Susan’s sudden stardom was at least partly illusory, based on the dangerous notion that overnight prominence on television will always change reality permanently.

In the opera house, music ought to matter more than anything but it remains true that one of the reasons people flock to hear Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča singing together is that they look the part almost as well as they sing it. Things shouldn’t be that way, but strangely enough they have become more and more that way in the last forty years, during the very period when feminism as a train of thought has done so much to educate us about the restrictive nature of expectations based on pulchritude.

When I first started attending Covent Garden in the early 1960s it was still quite common for the soprano to be an unlikely stimulus for the tenor’s cries of passion. Today, most of the sopranos look like film stars. It could be said that the more our primitive male prejudices are broken down, the more we all become free. But one of the consequences of freedom is that ticket-buyers are free to choose, and it is likely to remain a fact that ticket-buyers of both sexes will choose to see the imported dreamboat.

Susan might very well, after this, get a job in the chorus and even sell a lot of records, but if the press expects more than that it could be adding yet another chapter to a long story in which discoveries have been shoved onto the boards to fulfil a role in a fairy story which is fated not to turn out well. So unless all concerned are very careful, there might be a worse injustice on its way for Susan than getting laughed at when she was first exposed to the audience of a show that depends on a regular supply of contestants who are there to be made a fool of. She might be trapped by an even more pitiless expectation: that she will go on being a big star beyond the point where she became a star because she didn’t seem as if she could.

Susan’s future has undoubtedly been altered but we can only hope it has been altered for the better. At whatever level of musical theatre, there is no automatic equality. It all depends on people having unequal characteristics, and one of those is appearance, in which there is no justice. In view of that fact, a man might try not to bellow with scorn when he sees a woman he regards as a frump. And then, when he evolves into a man a bit better than that, he can try not to look quite so smug when he congratulates himself for admitting that the frump has done something remarkable, and so on.

I was there to see my generation of males being educated by feminism. I was one of the males who most needed education, and I am all too aware that the process is endless, and can have many setbacks. To many women, our purportedly civilized West still looks like a man’s world. Perhaps it always will, and one of the things that freedom has confirmed has been a man’s freedom to remain prejudiced. But in Afghanistan right now there are women risking their lives to protest against religious laws that could mean they would never be allowed to leave the house without their husband’s permission. We might think that nothing could be worse than Mr Morgan generously assuring Susan, and I quote his sensitive words, ‘Without a doubt, everyone was laughing at you.’ But it’s a free country, we were free to judge the judges, and Susan had her moment of triumph, which she carried off with far more grace than she was shown.


Strictly according to the label on the tin, Britain’s Got Talent came through for Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan, who went on to great things, if that was the kind of greatness that you cared for. Simon Cowell was already conquering America, and later on he completed his conquest, gracing red carpets like a less desirable version of Catherine Zeta Jones. Since I have no interest in Simon Cowell’s field of expertise — it is concerned mainly with the kind of music I no longer have time to listen to — I can give no details of his later career trajectory, but not to know about the progress of Piers Morgan is impossible, because his every move is tracked by all media, which are largely staffed by people who knew him in his less exalted incarnation and now hope that he will fall under a bus. At one stage a whole year went by when he was going to replace Larry King on CNN, but for some reason the ink never dried on the contract, so speculation went on. Being looked at to replace Larry King must have been a bit like being looked at to replace Methuselah, or perhaps the Mummy from one of those movies where every cave is full of bats.

Anyway, finally the replacement took place, as it were, and the eagerly cherubic features of Piers Morgan appeared on screen to make us forget, if we could, just how drained of life Larry had looked in those last few thousand celebrity interviews. On a smaller scale I have done the same sort of job myself, and it’s a good living compared with, say, assembling knock-off designer handbags in an Asian sweat shop; but one hopes that Piers has assembled a few good long thick books for the long nights of waiting for the rush to die down after the mad excitement of interviewing the Rev. Jesse Jackson. A few books, and perhaps a few opera records. My prediction that Susan Boyle would get into trouble proved true, but against my further prediction she soon got out of it. She made more records and I sincerely hope she is happy, although my cruel point about looks in the music world must, I’m afraid, still stand. If it were not true that female pulchritude counted, Puccini would not have composed the way he did. Nor would he have fallen in love with so many sopranos, to the distress of his wife. But if Puccini is a fountain of sensuality, and the totality of Italian opera little short of a waterfall of desire, it all adds up to nothing beside the throbbing libido of Wagner. Worshippers of his genius try to tell us that Tristan und Isolde is about lust transcended, but there is a lot of lust to transcend, and Tristan got that way because Isolde looked good. It helps if the soprano singing the role looks good too. Nowadays she is likely to, which is a bit unfair on any plain girl who can sing the notes. But even if Wagner had been interested in fairness, as an artist he would have been obliged to conclude that Nature wasn’t.