(Published at The Telegraph’s blogs website on April 6th, 2012)
As Sir Thomas Beecham once said, you should try everything once, except incest, Morris dancing and an evening in with Britain’s Got Talent. OK, perhaps he didn’t put it quite like that, but I like to think that, were he around today, he wouldn’t think twice about adding ITV’s weekly extravaganza of exploitation and mediocrity to his list of exclusions. As the premier showcase and facilitator for the nation’s indecent obsession with getting on the telly and becoming famous for failing to do anything remotely noteworthy, it has elevated tackiness to an art form.
In less cynical times, its grandfather, Opportunity Knocks, was a warm, generous and encouraging affair. Britain’s Got Talent, on the other hand, is manipulative, hard-edged and, at times, shockingly unpleasant. On those seduced by the mirage of instant stardom – the genuinely talented, the deluded and the emotionally unstable in equal measure – it inflicts ritual humiliation for the sole purpose of pandering to the baser instincts of the viewing public. But this is hardly news. The zeitgeist is the zeitgeist, and BGT merely reflects it. Its role in amplifying and perpetuating it, however, is a separate discussion.
Of course, nobody has to watch the show if they don’t want to, but occasionally an act seeps into the wider public consciousness to the extent that further avoidance becomes impossible. Which brings me to this recent tabloid headline:
Rarely can so short a sentence have been a repository for so much that is so wrong. A detailed deconstruction would probably yield a masters-clinching thesis for any enterprising student of popular culture. Cynicism, exploitation, cultural vandalism, and creative laziness – most of the ills of mainstream entertainment today, distilled into fifteen words. And at their centre, the latest hopeful innocent setting out on a road that ends in sacrificial slaughter on the twin altars of celebrity and Simon Cowell’s wallet. Now, I’m sure that Jonathan Antoine is surrounded by wise and loving people who are counselling him on what to expect from the tiger whose tail he has just grabbed. However, on the offchance that I’m wrong, I’d like the opportunity to sit him down while I parse that headline, starting with the two scary words at its beginning ….
You’d imagine that anybody, no matter how star struck, would pause for thought before entrusting their future happiness to a man who appears to be channelling both Mephistopheles and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Cowell’s appetite for luring wide-eyed naïfs into Faustian arrangements requiring them to sign away their lives on the siren promise of fame and riches seems insatiable. He also has an alarming habit of making them disappear when they fail (as most do) to deliver the required boost to his bottom line. Given that he is on record as saying that his main motivation in life is making vast sums of money, this is no surprise. How suitable it makes him to steer an obviously fragile young man through the glare of the media spotlight is another matter altogether, especially when it is painfully clear that he sees that very fragility as a part of the vehicle for cashing in.
”opera singing wonder”
I may have mentioned this before, but whatever it is that’s going on in these programmes, it isn’t opera. The deception is now being perpetrated so frequently that it may well be time to enquire as to whether an offence is being committed under the Sale of Goods and Services Act. It’s a trend that began around fifteen years ago when a former lawyer from Tuscany turned up with a tenor voice, which (if you overlooked the need for a microphone, the thin whiny vocal tone and the absence of anything remotely resembling a talent for interpretation) sounded just a tiny bit like that of Pavarotti. His name was Andrea Bocelli, and he had one thing that not even Pavarotti in his prime possessed: blindness. Ker-ching! The marketing men went wild and the dam burst. Since then the cavalcade of “opera singers” with a USP based on either a hard-luck story or their very ordinariness has been pretty much non-stop. Paul Potts, Russell Watson, Katherine Jenkins, Jackie Evancho (God alone knows what’s going through the heads of those responsible for what’s happening to that child) and now Jonathan Antoine. In every case it’s the same story: inadequately or prematurely trained voices delivering earnest ballads and anaemic facsimiles of arias that have as much to do with opera as a box of Chicken McNuggets has with fine dining. No matter. The viewers get to marvel at someone very ordinary doing something incredibly difficult (albeit badly), and are conned into believing that they are receiving a gentle infusion of culture. High art without the need to concentrate. Yet there is a far more malign subtext in play here, for which I turn to the most depressing part of the headline ….
“the new SuBo”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Susan Boyle’s voice. It’s perfectly pleasant. However, the chances of her having a singing career would have been negligible were it not for BGT’s cynical juxtaposition of the aural with the visual. Or to put it more crudely, you wouldn’t expect that sound to come out of someone who looks like her. If that appears cruel and manipulative it’s because it is, and it is precisely the modus operandi that the show employed in its handling of Boyle. Deliberately brought on stage at her first audition looking and behaving like someone you’d cross the street to avoid, she confounded the appalled, sniggering audience by producing a more than acceptable performance of “I dreamed a dream”. Cue widespread astonishment and delight. Victorian circus sideshows used to operate on similar principles. It’s demeaning, and it’s the treatment that Simon Cowell seems to have in mind for a seventeen year old boy who is reported to have already had one nervous breakdown for which he is still undergoing psychiatric treatment. Still, one can always marvel at Cowell’s chutzpah in openly declaring that he’s going to pull the same degrading stunt twice. “Hey, look at this big fat lad with the weird hair. Guess what – he can sing.” Identical trick, different gender. How’s that for paucity of imagination and condescension towards his audience?
In the case of Antoine’s it’s a heartbreaking scenario, as here is a young man who possesses a voice that, with some serious work, has the potential to be crafted into something truly special. The official BGT clip circulating on YouTube of him delivering an inept rendition of ‘The Prayer’ with his soon-to-be-former partner is probably familiar by now, but this video of him singing a solo version of ‘Ave Maria’ is far more interesting.
There is plenty wrong with it – unsurprising given his age. His technique, such as it is, is founded predominantly on brute force; he croons in his lower register; his breathing is all over the place; and he displays the same rhythmic uncertainty that was evident in his TV performance. Yet none of this can prevent the raw material that might be honed into a big vibrant baritonal tenor voice from shining through. At the tender age of seventeen, all things are still possible for him. Reports that he has been accepted by the Royal Academy of Music are confusing. They don’t specify in what capacity, and the notion that any conservatoire would permit a first-year undergraduate to embark on a venture such as this is bizarre, to say the least. Nevertheless, if he were to commit to a music college full-time on a serious course of study, while continuing to work through his personal issues, he could emerge after four years with a magnificent and highly marketable instrument. This doesn’t necessarily push him into an operatic career – that isn’t for everybody. But at least it would provide him with choices that will be closed off to him if he travels much further along his current path. It might well earn him some instant fame and money, but he runs the risk of becoming little more than a novelty act with a big but undisciplined voice. One that is likely to wear itself out prematurely. Nothing is guaranteed, but the prospect of something more substantial and fulfilling lies within his reach. The last thing one wants for this troubled, uncut diamond of a talent is one day to have to watch him eating witchetty grubs in the Australian outback.