Our UK correspondent and talent show cynic Chris Hooper attended the spectacular Britain’s Got Talent live semi-final, and discovered a beating heart underneath the flaming bras.
I’ve been invited to the semi-finals of ratings juggernaut Britain’s Got Talent and was intrigued to uncover the broad appeal. Because on the surface it looks pretty bonkers. I received Production Guest tickets from Fremantle, the production house, and told to go to a special entrance. I envisaged being hurriedly ushered into a swanky green room by a plucky production assistant called Jax, wherein I might throw back some champers with Simon Cowell while the studio audience waited patiently outside.
It didn’t quite turn out like that, as I was instead directed to a huge queue of people standing down the side of the building. All around us thousands of football fans spilled out of the nearby Wembley stadium, chanting ‘bollocks’ and other obscenities – some of them with actual blood gushing down their real-life faces.
Not to downplay the awfulness of the football yobs, but I was actually more worried about the Nazis. A few days ago these very studios were evacuated when nearby builders discovered an unexploded WWII bomb had been lurking underground since the Blitz, waiting to blow us to smithereens. That bloody swine Adolf Hitler: still at it from beyond the grave, the knob.
I can’t help but imagine the building exploding, the blast setting off Fremantle’s supplies of confetti cannons and fireworks into colourful skyward plumes. It would be a magnificent and vibrant death. Although I know it’s par for the course to be blown away by reality TV, I would also prefer my intestines to continue life nestled comfortably inside my skin for a bit longer. (Also, I’m assured there is no actual danger at all.)
I’ve heard one of the acts is a dog who can hypnotise men, lovingly labeled ‘hypno-bitch’ by the UK media. I want to be hypnotised by hypno-bitch more deeply than I crave the warmth of another person’s touch. I ask someone in the queue if we’ll see her but I’m told with an eye roll that she didn’t make it to the semis – but there IS a dog who can burst balloons with her mouth. This doesn’t sound like a talent that warrants getting to the live semi finals of a televised talent show to me – but I do like dogs so I keep my quizzical eyebrow in check.
As we’re taken through to the studios there are children squealing with happiness and hyperventilating at the sight of the studio set. If there’s ever an indication that television is not dying, it’s this. They may as well have been sliding down rainbows into swimming pools of cash, such was their feverish joy.
For the more world-weary among us, a bubbly man in a starry suit policed all the fun, making us smile more broadly, and cheer more loudly. His job was to wring every atom of madcap enthusiasm from our cynical hearts. We had to practice clapping until we were perfect, so my hands were red raw before the acts had even begun. One upside is that I am now amazing at clapping. It was like being in a mad communist state: in the end, you believe the clapping. The clapping is everything. I’m clapping right now.
The only problem is that I’m increasingly nervy about being uncovered as a horrible fraud. I’ve never seen an episode of the show and I’m not sure I understand the appeal of its yearly parade of oddballs. It’s a little bit Victorian Music Hall, which is fine if you’re a Victorian chimney-sweep – but I’m not. I’m sophisticated (I like to watch the Real Housewives throw fancy wine on each other during arguments).
As a British human I must be one of the few who hasn’t seen the show (though obviously I sobbed through the Susan Boyle bit on YouTube; I’m not a monster). It’s currently the most watched series in the UK and it’s doing some pretty big business on TV ONE as well.
Anyway, I soon realised that other people in the audience were much more full of joie de vivre than me; I looked around at them and they were mostly in their glad rags, thrilled to be on television. Old men wore their Sunday best suits. The kinds of ladies who are all called Sue wore funky new tops. I realised that for people less evil than me, this was a big, fun night out. It wasn’t just the kids who were thrilled by the magic of TV, it was everyone. We were inside the telly and it was fantastic.
The set is impressive and the floor is as shiny as I’ve been led to believe. A bald bouncer sat in front of me, stopping people from going to the loo. Leaving is the ultimate transgression, and we were warned that we were all replaceable with a mysterious and unseen backup audience. Imagine being the B-audience for a Britain’s Got Talent taping. What a world. I hope they’re okay, wherever they’re being held.
Suddenly, the set bursts into explosions and flames and dancers swooshed round. Cheeky Ant and Dec came out, and I can still only see them as PJ and Duncan from British kids drama Byker Grove. (If you haven’t seen Ant getting blinded in a horrifying paintball accident you’re missing out on one of TV’s greatest treasures.)
They herald the arrival of the chosen ones, the judges, who appear at the top of a staircase, flanked by sexy dancers. Amanda Holden’s hair is like a waterfall made of sunshine, Alesha Dixon looks Beyoncé-level polished, and David Walliam’s face continually breaks into a silly infectious grin. And then Simon Cowell comes down the stairs: a legend of TV to me, since the original Pop Idol in 2001. I find myself getting unfeasibly excited that we’re going to share some oxygen.
Simon, like everything else on TV, looks much smaller in real life. Astonishingly so. I think I could pick him up like a new bride. I can’t help but notice that he has quite high shoes and a silky bum pillow placed on his chair to give him a little extra lift. TV is really all just one big lie. (Sidebar: he is a fabulous gent, patrolling the audience in ad breaks saying hello to fans and graciously posing for selfies.)
My spirit sinks when the first act is revealed as a hip hop dance crew. I don’t know what is wrong with my broken heart, but it will not swell to the elbow poppin’ rhythms of a hip hop dance crew. This one, however, is HARRY BLOODY POTTER THEMED and involves a West Side Story-style dance battle between Slytherin and Gryffindor. Fine, I’ll clap along. Unfortunately, during the denouement of the piece, the boy playing Harry falls arse over tit and ends up on the floor leaving Draco Malfoy standing over him as the victor, which I thought was a brave and stunning twist on the whole good versus evil thing.
Next up was a scantily-clad sexy brother and sister rollerskating act, who danced around and around with their hands all over one another. Amanda Holden told them, ‘you made me feel sick, in such a good way,’ and I could definitely relate to that comment a great deal.
Other acts included a boy-child singing a sweet love song about his oncoming descent into puberty, an impressionist who had to keep telling us who he was impersonating, and a lovely mum who could hold a tune, but the tune was a bit boring (Simon agreed with my take on it).
But something was happening during the show. It was sometime during the dog act, when I had gone hoarse by cheering for that canine popping balloons with its mouth. Which, it turns out, is totally mesmerising. I rose to my feet and punched the air as this little British dog, Cally, broke a world record by popping 100 balloons in 42 seconds, snatching a ten-year-old title from an American hound. I was feeling a bit – less evil? The audience was feverish and I was cheering and I loved that dog. What a good dog. We chanted her name into the commercial break. I still have the screams ringing in my ears.
Then came Cor Glanaethwy, a 167-person Welsh choir (my god, the production hotel bill must be insane.) They sang in Welsh so I don’t know what they were going on about, but the audience were all given little candles to hold and the haunting melody rolled through us with such a devastating emotional totality that for a second I think I was in the kind of mental state only a sinister cult leader can coax you into, to get you to do weird stuff.
One of the more risqué acts was Ruby Red, a menopausal burlesque troupe who came out dressed like Lollypop Ladies and quickly stripped into bras and undies and danced around, albeit quite slowly. The best bit of their act was the finale, when fireworks erupted from their boobs: I’m not sure if lactating fire was feminist symbolism or not, but they certainly looked empowered to me.
Closing the show was the nutty Lorraine Bowen who sang a wonderful, tuneless song of her own composition about space being a wonderful place. Simon pressed his big red ‘eff you’ buzzer which is surprisingly confronting and loud in real life: it put Lorraine off, to the point where she chastised him after her performance. I love Lorraine with all of my heart.
After a 30 minute break, the results came in. It’s genuinely tense as they’re read out – the pauses are so pregnant you can almost smell the amniotic fluid. Ruby Red came last, and Lorraine and Cally the dog don’t make it to the top three: what is wrong with the voters at home, have they no EYES? A huge cheer goes up for Cor Glanaethwy as they’re crowned the winners. Then it’s up to the judges to decide who goes into the final. They go with the hip hop dance crew. And my insides don’t buckle with hate – I’m genuinely happy for them. This show has changed me on a cellular level.
As I slipped back out into Wembley, the arch of the stadium in view, there were beer cans strewn around in the street and a few drunk football fans still staggering about. I think I understand BGT a little better, this little enclave of glittering chutzpah. It feels a bit like anything is possible, that there can be magic in the world: flames can burst forth from a middle aged lady’s breasts; a dog can become a world record holder; that secret dream you dared to have about being a star can come true and let you flip a finger to all those people who called you a loser. It is nuts – and maybe I was just brainwashed by the man in the starry suit – but it’s truly quite sweet and wonderful.
Britain’s Got Talent airs on TV One Thursdays at 7.30pm