By this morning the video of Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed A Dream will have been viewed over 40 million times.
You’ve got to hand it to the Britain’s Got Talent team: this was great television, edited like a romantic film, with quirky “comedy” music as she ate her sandwiches and confessed she’d never been kissed and then a huge instrumental climax from the real Les Miserables for her standing ovation. But even without the manipulative editing it was still genuinely touching.
Susan’s voice is nothing special: there are thousands of amateur singers out there with similar renditions of that tired old standard. What Susan Boyle was all about was little to do with talent and everything to do with the audience itself. Close your eyes and think of a beautiful 25 year old and you’ll notice wavering and strained notes. Open them again and see Susan Boyle’s innocent, overweight squashed face and terrible gold lace dress, and the contrast overwhelms your judgment.
This isn’t about her; it’s about us. It’s about the ironic wolf whistles as she comes on stage, and Cowell’s rude eye-rolling when she says she’s 47, and the embarrassed giggling as she rolls her hips and says she wants to be Elaine Paige: Yeah, right, we all say, and wait for her to be shot down. Then she sings, and it’s a wonderful moment, a Paul Potts moment, when the fat man sings and wins. It’s moving because, as Amanda Holden said, “everybody was against you”. The audience had already damned Susan for being ugly and overweight and for presumptuously coming onto its stage. But wow, the circus freak can actually sing, so we’ll layer the soundtrack, cut to a standing ovation, and make the viewers cry. Pure Hollywood schmaltz, and it worked.
The problem is, what should the producers do next? Allow her to carry on wearing those ghastly dresses and no makeup for the rest of the series? Or do they engineer a “swan” moment, and reveal her, eyebrows plucked, straight from the plastic surgeon? If they do, presumably the joke won’t work anymore, so will her voice then be any more special than the others? I guess they’ll keep her as she is until the Final. But won’t that be just as cynical and manipulative?
I encountered a similar problem with my own Susan Boyle moment. A few years ago, I produced a series called Star for a Night. On the first audition day my researchers came rushing in: I had to hear this girl. Hannah Morris was about fifteen, with buckteeth and glasses, nervously clutching the sheet music of My Heart Will Go On from 'Titanic'. She was so tiny; I looked at her in disbelief. Her voice brought the house down and she won the show. But when we came to the final “Best of...” programme at the end of the final series, Hannah had got herself contact lenses and a proper hairstyle. She had a recording contract and was no longer the geeky schoolgirl. Trouble was, she was now nothing special at all.
Sometimes preconceptions work in reverse. We were auditioning in Bristol when, amongst the I Dreamed a Dream wannabes (God, how we grew to hate that track) was a sweet little 14-year-old from Devon with cascading blonde curls.
“I’d like to sing You Make me Feel like a Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin”, she whispered. Our jaws dropped open. If ever there were a mismatch it was this pretty child and that adult song. Then the music started and out came the deep voice of a blues singer. We all cried. The girl was called Joss Stoker, a name she later changed to Joss Stone.
I wish Susan Boyle the best of luck for her future, but exactly whom the producers decide she should turn into for that future, now that’s a huge dilemma.