Spotting Talent

31 05 2009

[You can listen subscribe to this podcast by searching ‘James Townsend’ in your iTunes Store]

Good morning,

As one eminent broadcaster has suggested, this week has dominated by parasites and plebiscites. He didn’t go on to suggest what particular news stories he was referring to, but I’m sure we all have a pretty good idea.

Last night I was pleased to be able to settle down in front the Britain’s Got Talent final, televised live for the nation’s entertainment. I’ve spoken before about my high regard for that particular programme, but for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, let me explain it to you.

In a veritable orgy of attention-seeking on the one side, and human curiosity on the other, hundreds of the British public are given a platform for three minutes, and invited demonstrate that they, indeed do have some talent. The contestants are whittled down in the traditional fashion of Pop Idol, Popstars, and X Factor. Once ten finalists have been found, the nation is invited to vote for the winner, and this is where Britain’s Got Talent deviates from the traditional form.

Here there is no recording contract to be won, no millions of pounds, or even the promise to change anybody’s life very much. The winner’s prize here is altogether more down-to-earth: It is the opportunity to perform their talent at the Royal Variety Performance, with an audience of Her Majesty The Queen. Of course, all the other things are pretty much guaranteed, but it is this which is held to be real bounty.

So, what is it about this rather tacky television programme that endears it to attention? Well, it most certainly not the idea that we are discovering the most talented individuals in our midst. In fact, if we were to use Britain’s Got Talent as a gauge of the nation, we would probably conclude that whatever talent Britain does posess, it is not very remarkable and certainly not worth making a television programme about.

Some people take great enjoyment from watching the public humiliation of those brave contestants who palpably possess no talent whatsoever. That is not for me, indeed it is one of the more regrettable aspects of the programme. Having said that, more than any of its peer programmes, Britain’s Got Talent manages to treat its contestants with at least some dignity and the judges always give their opinion with courtesy.

But for me, there is a rather pious attraction to the programme. Britain’s Got Talent is real, in a way that very little of our popular culture can be. In the final last night we saw one act – Two Grand, which featured a seventy-three year-old grandfather singing alongside his teenage daughter. When else do we see pensioners on prime-time Saturday night television?

Of course, this fellow couldn’t really sing, but that didn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that the break dancing octogenarian who dropped out in the semi-finals couldn’t really break dance. In fact the repeated stress of thumping against the studio floor tore the skin on his arm, causing a great deal of blood to flow and much embarrassment for everybody concerned. The point is, though, that we were reminded that these people do exist, that they have a sense of humour, and they have their own lives – independent of our ignorant stereotypes.

The same point extends to fat people (Stavros Flatley, the supremely talentless father and son Cypriot dance team comes to mind here), and of course ugly people.

The story of Susan Boyle would be a very very good one had she not unfortunately failed to win the competition last night. Nevertheless, for those of you sufficiently IT savvy to download a podcast, but not sufficiently to use YouTube – here is that story.

Susan Boyle is a forty-seven year-old unemployed spinster from Blackburn in Scotland. On her arrival at the Britain’s Got Talent auditions, she claimed never to have been kissed. She was a pretty much comprehensive sad case. So, when she marched onto the stage and explained that her dream was to be like Elaine Paige everybody laughed.

Oh, one other thing – Susan Boyle is astonishingly ugly. Our conditioned response was to assume that because this woman lacked good looks, she also lacked talent. Well, as soon as she began to sing we all realised our mistake. Susan can sing. She can sing very well, and what beauty she lacks in her face, she makes up for in her voice.

Anyway, the crowd went wild. But more importantly so did the users of the internet. At the last her audition video has received over one hundred and fifty million YouTube hits.

So, she didn’t win last night – a potent combination of media pressure, nerves and complacency on the part of her voters meant that she lost out to Diversity. But even in her defeat Susan Boyle demonstrated the best of British talent. She was generous, dignified and good-humoured as she left the stage.

On Friday evening of last week I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Godfrey Bloom. He is a UKIP MEP, currently campaigning for re-election in the European Elections happening this Thursday. Godfrey is a jolly fellow, who is always keen to engage with young people and was visiting the New Generation Society here at the University of York. (Website:

We discussed the likely turnout on Thursday, and how the scandal of MPs’ expenses (is it *still* going on?) will effect it. Godfrey would be absolutely delighted if he could recruit the sort numbers Susan Boyle manages to attract. I don’t think he would expect them all to vote for him, but he wants them to vote and he wants them to care. Of all the damage the recent scandal has done, one of the most frustrating is that the European elections will either be ignored or hijacked by the Westminster agenda.

Well, the University of York has been enjoying its own plebiscite this week, and I’m pleased to report that there weren’t too may parasites hanging around. Indeed, if you do manage to squeeze any profit out of the meagre sums being passed around I’m inclined to let you keep it as a just reward.

In addition to a series of by-elections for Student Union positions, there were a number of motions put forward by the Welfare team for our approval or otherwise. One in particular garnered a considerable amount of publicity. The suggestion was that disabled toilets should be renamed simply ‘WC’, thus providing a psychologically safe space for Transgender students as well as those requiring enhanced access.

It is difficult to put together any meaningful opposition to this, though some tried, except to ask whether there aren’t more pressing issues that could be profitably examined by the student population.

The whole affair somewhat passed me by, but did remind me of a quote I discovered in the course of researching my dissertation. The dissertation was looking at the fierce and lengthy debates in Parliament surrounding the erection of a statue to Oliver Cromwell in 1895. After debating the issue well into the night for the second time in a week, one member said this:

“I am delighted that our state of affairs is so healthy, we can afford to spend so much attention on a matter of such little importance”

I would never to want to detract from the good work of the Transgender campaign. But I rejoice that while the credibility of Parliament crumbles before our eyes, the politics of York’s campus is so healthy that even the labelling on a toilet door justifies a full referendum.




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