Has Britain Really Got Talent?

The downfall of the TV talent show

Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) is one of our most loved TV shows, attracting an average of 9.9 million viewers a series. The show allows anyone to participate by offering the public a platform to show the nation what they can do; an opportunity which does not often arise in the competitive entertainment industry. Like so much of our television, BGT has been affected by COVID-19, with the show having to be filmed in two halves of the year. This weekend the final was broadcast to the nation, watched by a virtual audience and with socially distanced judges; the winner was Jon Courtenay, a comedic pianist. But what is the point of talent shows, and has this one gone too far?

BGT entertains the nation on a Saturday night, and is famous for being the reason behind many success stories. Its stars include singers Susan Boyle and Paul Potts (who even had a film, One Chance, written about his rise to stardom), while similar talent shows like The X Factor have united groups such as One Direction in 2010. But as well as helping to create big stars, the point of this talent show is not that you have to be extremely talented, but that everyone gets a chance to perform what they enjoy doing, and that the nation loves to watch.

We want to see the contestants’ journeys and to invest in them. As viewers, perhaps we feel part of something when we watch and judge in unison. The show highlights our desire to have a collective identity as British people, boosting national morale, and making us feel proud of other people’s passions. Aren’t we all chuffed to bits when we see that our people are jolly good sports and call them the bee’s knees! And does it really matter if they’re awful? After all, if everyone was extremely talented, what would be the point of the judging?

BGT is great because it is inclusive, but does it dilute the real talent that’s out there by having such a wide variety of acts? How can a spellbinding magician be judged against a group of street dancers? The show is also degraded by its ambition to please the audience. We love to spend our evenings criticising other people and laughing at their bad performances. Part of the joy of programmes such as this is the feeling that we are superior to the contestants and that we could do better; in our eyes, the bad performers deserve their 10 minutes of fame as much as the good! Hence the production team go out of their way to find people that are not ‘talented’ but purely entertaining, and not always in a good way … so is it really about finding talent, or just entertainment? Often, it’s not the person with the most talent who actually wins, but the person who has won the hearts of the nation, or defied social norms.

And it happens on other TV shows too. Strictly Come Dancing often sparks outrage on social media when contestants are unfairly advantaged, or when a horrendous dancer gets further in the competition than more talented competitors. Social media has removed the innocence of reality TV and made it more malicious. Previous contestants and even the presenters have suffered from the attention and pressure put on to them; they are criticised for how they dress and for the judgements that they make. Mental health issues are now more important than ever.

So has the classic ‘talent show’ lost its direction? If the talented don’t always win, what’s the point? Yes, we all love it when the underdog triumphs in the face of adversity, but this isn’t always how life works, especially when millions of punters bring their own prejudices to the judging table.

Britain undoubtedly does have talent. Buckets of it. But perhaps our way of judging it is spiralling out of control.

Amelia VI