A few weeks ago I spent a long weekend editing a programme for STV called, Susan Boyle: Two Weeks That Shook Show Business. I’ll assume you know who Susan Boyle is. The programme was to play on the Bank Holiday Monday, dividing the double episode of Coronation Street and going up against East Enders on BBC1. No pressure, then. The producers quickly decided to structure the two halves of the show thusly: part one would illustrate the story, the humble beginnings, the audition on Britain’s Got Talent, the YouTube sensation, the twittering celeb couple and global super-stardom; part two would analyse the phenomenon, offering possible explanations and suggesting where it might go next.
Part one would take care of itself, but part two was tricky, basically because we didn’t really have any idea why the story had gotten as big as it did. All of us working on the programme knew the story, of course, you could hardly escape it, but the why of it was quite baffling. Luckily, the crew came back with some very insightful interviews, with Pop Idol winner Michelle McManus being particularly eloquent and perceptive. So, over the course of four days (with the Saturday shift extending to about four in the morning, only for Sunday’s to start eight), we lived and breathed Susan Boyle. The picture that emerged was of a talented woman who had dedicated her life to the the care of her elderly parents, and when they had both passed decided to take her best shot at a singing career, fully aware that if success eluded her it wouldn’t make her a failure. She knew, I think, that it was the attempt that mattered, giving her all. That’s why she took the initial jeers and skyward glances in her stride: she wasn’t going to let anything stop her from doing her best. What happened then was out of her hands, but she’s handled it with the same philosophy — as long as she tried her best, nothing else matters.
The programme got 27% of the TV audience that night, beating East Enders’ 25% and the ITV network by 10%. That’s a success. I know our hard work on it wouldn’t have initially made viewers choose it over East Enders — Susan herself was the draw. I do like to think, though, that when they arrived they got something a bit more thoughtful and considered than they might have expected. A few of my pals in the business (who can be a tad cynical) praised it for not sensationalising the story any more than it had been already, and for not trying to pretend Susan was something that she’s not (while still being respectful and complimentary of her and her obvious talent). The Scotland on Sunday bemoaned the lack of an interview with the 1:24 girl or backstage info (like whether the judges really had no idea what to expect from Susan), but concluded: “for what it was, 2 Weeks That Shook Showbusiness was still pretty good.”
One observation I’d make is that much of her success is because of mainstream media’s failure to understand Twitter. I don’t blame them: as everyone who uses Twitter knows, it’s impossible to understand Twitter unless you’re doing it. It simply defies explanation. Boyle’s story went ‘global’ because it went American, and that only happened thanks to a pair of tweets from Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. That’s it: one tweet apiece. Kutcher’s was something along the lines of, “That made my night,” to which his wife replied, “You saw me getting teary.” To anyone not tweeting all day it may be easy to take that as ‘Demi Moore announces to the world her admiration and love of Britain’s Susan Boyle!’ She didn’t announce anything of the sort. Well, she did, but she didn’t. That’s where Twitter’s unique form of communication lies — idle musings, random thoughts, passing notions. Sure, plenty of people tweet things of great importance to them, but it’s clear to me from the slightly indirect tone of both tweets that they were meant primarily for the other’s spouse, rather than all their fans and followers. As such it was tenuous to suggest that she’d captured the heart of Hollywood. It’s a tiny point in the Boyle story, admittedly; the fact is that once it had been brought to the Americans’ attention via Fox and CNN they lapped it up, so does it really matter how it got there?
But why did they lap it up? Clive James wrote and read a piece on Radio 4 where he praised her voice but made the point that voices as strong grace opera choruses and am-dram groups up and down Britain. It’s a lovely voice, don’t get me wrong, but is it really that extraordinary? Is her talent the equal of this five year old from Korea who can play any piano piece she hears but once, Mozart-style?
For my part, when a female singer is introduced to the world I usually find her vocal talent sufficient to justify the dedication of the managers and publicists that got her her break, but the back of my mind will always whisper, “Lucky for them she’s gorgeous, too.” The implication, of course, is that an equal talent in a more homely personage will be ignored. I haven’t heard anyone in the business say this explicitly, apart from snide remarks on X Factor like “you don’t have the right ‘look,’ dear,” nor have I seen any research to suggest that for every good looking singer I’ve heard of there’s at least one unattractive one who’s doomed to lead a ‘normal life.’ It’s just a feeling I have because, deep down, I know I’d rather look at an attractive woman than an ugly one. Comely over homely. It’s self-evident, obvious, but it’s also harsh, shallow and unbecoming. So, do I like the Susan Boyle character because it affirms that I can see past the glossy veneer, thus proving I’m really a good guy? Do I like her only because it makes me feel good to like her, to flatter my own ego?
There are other reasons to like her, of course, more objective reasons: her handling of the sudden media attention, for instance, seems Herculean to me. Though she’s lacking any technique at all in dealing with journalists (all her interviews consist of barely-useable one-word answers) she seems perfectly happy to deal with them anyway. She was interviewed by Larry King from her living room and was completely unfazed by the heavyweight champ of talk show hosts. When a film crew ambushes her on the streets of Blackburn, she chats amiably and with humility about her new situation, and while she is unpolished, she carries herself with considerable grace. And though she may not be Kiri Te Kanawa, she can sing. As McManus pointed out, she has a great deal of talent and she’s on a talent show so why shouldn’t she find success?
So cutting this particular show was a revelation for me and hopefully for the viewer too. Come her next appearance, I wish her all the best. Whatever happens it’s difficult to see her suffering any bad will now. She’ll forever be a hero in her own community and if she’s remembered outside of that, it will be fondly, I’m sure.