Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Boyling Point

Susan Boyle's BGT audition from

This is going to end badly for Susan Boyle, I just know it. With over a million hits on YouTube already for the jaw-flooring Britain’s Got Talent audition that turned initially derisory guffaws into whooping great roars of approval, Susan is well on the way to certain notoriety. Lasting fame and her longed-for career in music could be something else entirely.

Both judges and audience were visibly confronted and humbled by their open prejudice towards her distinctly non-televisual appearance and bold determination. Many who watch the repeat will self-reprimand for judging the book by its cover. Just because a woman doesn’t resemble Gwen Stefani, they might reason, doesn’t mean she can’t carry a tune. I'm not convinced the studio judges and audience entirely succeeded in facing down their inner gargoyles. What they seemed to be saying is it's still okay to taunt the ungorgeous until they redeem themselves with a dazzling display of mitigating talent. Susan may have conquered the moment by virtue of surprise but does she have the personal resilience and professional repetoire to win, or even survive this contest?

TV people aren’t daft. They know they need to keep upping the psychological ante on these talent shows to continually engage a mass audience. The obvious banana-skin moment would have been that this lumbering oddity brimming with self-confidence mounted the stage and sang like an orang-utan with a hangover. Cue yawn for talent show cliché. Most of the time the air-punching blancmanges in tutus who vow to make entertainment history in their big moment turn out to be the kind of flotsam that should rightfully have gone down with the Good Ship Lollipop. But 2007 winner Paul Potts proved that this expectation could be turned on its head with the opening of a larynx. In this currency, Susan Boyle is talent-time gold.

But here’s the worrying thing. No question she’s Princess Fiona on steroids but where is the matching Shrek for happy-ever-aftering my dear? The world now knows two things about Susan Boyle from her BGT appearance – she’s never been kissed and she's more than a little keen to remedy that situation. In the service of that ambition, she’s developed quite an attachment to the late Jade Goody’s best girl-pal, general tease and nuisance-at-large Piers Morgan. Just because she really can sing, doesn’t mean Susan is not delusional in other star-struck ways.

Leaving aside the wanting of taste, I strongly suspect that this sexual naïf may not have fully explored the detailed contents of the dream she dreams. Scottish paper The Herald reports that Susan is already purring the praises of Piers when she’s not otherwise engaged crooning about castles on clouds.

‘It's Piers this, Piers that. She absolutely loves him,’ one of Susan’s neighbours gleefully informed The Herald.

My crystal ball tells me there’s no Morganite marriage in this pulp princess’s future. The question is how is brother Piers planning to manage the potential conflict of interest here? What if Susan isn’t just having a bit of a laugh and has genuinely fixated on the unlikely dreamboat? Having been guaranteed a huge audience for the season, producers are going to have to spend no small amount of time handling and grooming their new star. How far are they prepared to go? Piers by candlelight – now there’s a hideous thought.

A third piece of important information about Susan Boyle hasn’t been as widely reported. She has unspecified ‘learning difficulties’. Susan says it’s for this and her odd looks that she was ridiculed and bullied as a child and is still vilified. The youngest of nine siblings, she was encouraged to stay at home as a carer for her aged mother, who died recently. Perhaps she’s not as vulnerable as this might suggest. She did spend some time in theatre school before being called home. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, her many siblings will demonstrate their caring allegiance, as some of her local supporters have.

Susan Boyle sings I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables creditably and with a great deal of passion. But it isn’t a technically difficult song to sing, i.e. it ain’t no Nessun Dorma. Paul Potts, who memorably ‘nailed’, (in talent show speak), the famous aria from Turandot on BGT is about to kick off a tour of Australia. The superficially odd-looking tenor has done admirably in the two years since he won the inaugural show but he was quite a few centimetres further from the eight ball than Susan Boyle to begin with. His much publicised mangled front tooth was easily fixed. It’s a mystery to me why he hadn’t sorted that sooner. I had a Bond Street dentist in London whose patients included a Prime Minister and even he charged less than a week’s pay for a cap. Paul Potts had also had plenty of amateur operatic experience and no one expects opera singers to look like Hugh Jackman.

There’s ample career scope for tenors in tuxes dispensing opera-lite to busy culture vultures, but the on-audience for the Susan Boyle experience is much tougher to imagine. And here’s where the people manipulating her trajectory need to take stock now. Not even Susan’s heroine Elaine Paige sells albums like Paul Potts does. There’s no future for Susan in musicals unless there’s another revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Her best hope is in panto – and I mean that in a kind and helpful way. I hope someone’s got the sense to guide her in that direction. What I fear is that the abashment everyone felt for initially maligning Susan on the basis of her appearance will morph into a misguided collective championing of a patently impossible dream. For Susan’s sake I hope I’m wrong.