In the audience for the Britain’s Got Talent final, EMMA JONES, has something akin to a religious experience.
Celebrity and religion are very similar, according to umpteen showbiz reporters and the odd philosopher. Both are run like the Wizard of Oz. Only showbiz does it better. And often has an actual curtain.
A few years back, Britain’s Got Talent colonised the sabbath for its showstopper finale, and quickly became peak Sunday night viewing. This year, I was one of the Chosen People.
I got a VIP pew at Cowell Cathedral, also known as the Hammersmith Apollo (thanks to my mate, who knows one of the judges). Unlike church, BGT takes place in the evening, after the shops are shut, when people are in the mood for their dose of delusion. From outside, the Apollo looks like a shabby Methodist hall, which has been hired out for the day. But it has convenient tube links to get the punters in and out quick. It scrubs up surprisingly well on telly, even though it’s just a stage and an auditorium.
Like an ancient religious order, BGT has two beautiful high priestesses – Amanda and Alesha – dressed in long, flowing robes. Nowadays we only see such attire in church when worn by men who don’t approve of cross-dressing. Or self-reflection.
There’s the old school vicar, David Walliams, complete with his risqué jokes and ambiguous sexuality. Simon Cowell stands aloof. His word is gospel. He is less fallible than any pope. Excommunication awaits any disciple – I mean judge – who challenges his authority.
Ironically, the talent is clearly more the product of evolution than creation. The quasi-Darwinian process of cultural selection means that the winner reflects the mood of the nation, at a particular moment in time.
The creatures who walk the stage are highly adapted to their artificial showbiz environment. But they do not thrive in nature, because the sort of mutations required for thriving at BGT leave most contestants incapable of successful procreation in the outside world.
This year the directors of the show decided that the mood was empathy. A virtue common to most religions, except when it comes to women, LGBT, and other religions. But in the House of BGT all genders and sexualities are welcome.
There was understanding aplenty for the plucky Geordie TV presenter going solo without his best mate. There was compassion for the contender doing gags, with a voice synthesizer.
As I sat ringside, I imagined how it easy would be to have an emotion-fuelled epiphany, in the same way millions all over the world had when Susan Boyle first nailed I Dreamed a Dream. The true star of the show revealed to me, glowing in effervescent light, sending chills down the back of the spine – that sort of thing.
I once went to an evangelical rock concert at a Minnesota high school where the kids, high on religious ecstasy, ran impulsively to the stage, dripping tears of joy. But precision stage management, combined with the technological aircraft carrier that is high-end TV production, means that the second-coming at Hammersmith is drip-fed.
Television is clunky. Every five minutes or so there is a break in the action for live takes with the performers backstage. During these pauses the judges do ‘meet and greets’, or talk to family members who have come to see them. Except Pope Simon, who disappears with alarming frequency in a puff of smoke to his dressing room. Who knows why? To turn water into wine perhaps?
Amanda Holden’s kids sit behind me, with their father and grandmother. They, like their mum, are perfectly turned-out in their best dresses, and impeccably behaved. Similarly, Alesha Dixon’s mum sits next to her daughter. At one point, Amanda’s kids are led up to the altar to see their mother, who is fanning herself down with a script. As she ‘suffers the children to come unto her’, a mobile make-up artists powders her face, then she gets up to stretch her legs.
Her dress looks like it’s spun from pure gold, so I imagine it’s a nightmare to wear.
Spitting distance from the stage, it’s as difficult to discern who will win as it is to work out the which of the judges are drinking prosecco, not tea. Not even Amanda’s family, or the PR I talk to, know who will win. Take that you non-believers if you think it’s all a fix.
Sound quality is much worse in the theatre. Only the Welsh opera singer is audible – he must have practised in a chapel. Stage lights and resplendent female judges aside, it’s just like all telly behind-the-scenes – rough-and-tough.
In a former life, I was an occasional television presenter for the Big Breakfast live show where I prized my eyes open at 4am with hot showers and drew them on again with kohl eye pencil. On the red carpet for the National Television Awards, I kept my four-month-old baby in a cupboard backstage.
The BGT final was a long night which required endurance, and a strong pelvic floor, from the audience as much as the acts. If they get up to go for a wee during filming, the bouncers will kick them out, we are told.
In the end though, despite feats of Vietnamese acrobatic excellence, the consensus was that 37-year-old Lee Ridley, aka Lost Voice Guy, had to win. And the smile on his face when he did so was the biggest triumph of the night.
Balancing another bloke on your head and leaping onto a platform 15ft in the air is all very well and that, but us Brits like something that pulls at the heartstrings, and sounds like a story from God’s book.
‘See, there you have it, British people can vote for the right thing.’ I said to my friend, finally having my spellbound delusion. Lost Voice Guy did a fine job of proving that disabled people can be as funny as everyone else. The slogan on his T-shirt – ‘I was disabled before it was popular’ – acknowledged that minorities are at least having a moment, and that Stephen Hawking’s showbiz-endorsed life – and especially death – probably helped.
The runner-up had Asperger’s; B Positive NHS Choir sang to raise awareness about sickle cell disease; we all felt good for a moment. Of course, shows like these do have a history of championing the underdog. Susan Boyle, the queen of BGT also has Asperger’s syndrome and, funnily enough, is also a devout Catholic.
I left the Hammersmith Apollo, party bag in one hand and glow stick in the other, redeemed and remembering why I believe in showbiz.
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