Britain’s got manipulation – Updated

18/04/2009

Britain’s Got Talent introduced Paul Potts to the world and it’s done the same for Susan Boyle.

Who’s Susan Boyle? Straight Furrow (and we’ll pass over why a farming paper is covering this at all) described her as a frumpy middle-aged woman who astonished judges on a television talent quest.

But did she astonish them?

There’s no doubt that their faces went from unimpressed to wowed as they got over her appearance and were captivated by her voice. But did they really not know how well she could sing before the show was filmed?

After all she had to audition to get that far so isn’t it possible the judges might have heard a wee whisper that her voice was stunning and maybe even have been encouraged to appear especially underwhelmed by her initial appearance to contrast with their excitement once she started singing?

Even if the judges hadn’t been prepared, putting her on the show without any grooming or wardrobe preparation suggests the producers wanted her to look that way so the contrast between her appearance and her voice would have maximum impact.

And it did.

Not only was she a hit on the show, YouTube has taken her to the world where it’s been watched by tens of millions of people. Boyle’s now the favourite to win the show with its 1000,000 pound prize and she’s already in discussion with a recording company.

Doors are opening to a new life so much better than the old one which has been anything but charmed.

Boyle is 47, unemployed, perpetually single and lives alone with her cat, Pebbles, in Bathgate, West Lothian – a town apparently dubbed “a dump” by Britain’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan. Boyle’s sunny (if gauche) demeanour masks a sad life: the youngest of nine, she was deprived of oxygen at birth, which led to learning difficulties and, as a result, a childhood marred by bullying. Forty years later, it was her mother – whom she lived with and cared for – who wanted her to audition for the ITV talent show. But she died in 2007, leaving Boyle suffering from depression and anxiety.

Then she got the audition:

Simon Cowell was at his sneering best. . .  Girls in the audience sniggered and there was a snort of barely concealed derision from Morgan.

Everyone concluded that this podgy woman with a frumpy frock, a wiry hairdo and heavy brows fell into the comedy-audition category. They settled into their seats for a good laugh, knowing she would massacre the song from, as she put it, “Les Miserabs”. But then Susan Boyle started to sing.

And . . . there followed one of those transcendent moments that make TV history. Boyle’s voice rose pure and clear over the huge Glasgow theatre. Before even the first refrain, the sniggers had turned to applause.

It’s like a real-life Cinderella story with every chance she will live happily ever after and I hope she does.

But I do have some reservations about the way the whole thing was manipulated. I watched the YouTube clip with a grin and listened with tears in my eyes. Then I watched again and I wondered, what would have happened if she hadn’t had an extraordinary voice?

The sniggers turned to cheers when she started singing but if she hadn’t sung so beautifully would they have turned to boos and instead of the outpouring of warmth would there have been scorn because the woman with ordinary looks also had an ordinary voice?

Even now, her appearance is part of the story because appearances count – and not just for women because Paul Potts straightened his teeth after he won an earlier competition.

But there is something about the way it was done with Susan, the feeling that there was a deliberate attempt to encourage the sneers at her appearance that leaves me feeling that we’ve all been manipulated.

It was very good television but it wasn’t good behaviour.

UPDATE: Whaleoil has a similar view

UPDATE 2: Julie posts on the Susan Boyle phenomenon at  The Hand Mirror with a link to what if Susan Boyle couldn’t sing? by Dennis Palumbo at The Huffinton Post.

Also at THP Andy Borowitz  posts on the issue.


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