Bang A Gong

British Idol Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle duetting with a cat, yesterday.


I came to the Susan Boyle story late.  Britain’s Got Talent isn’t my type of show, and she doesn’t make my kind of music (or Michael Barrymore’s, apparently).  Channel flicking on Saturday night, however, I did catch a bit of the final, and what I saw was rather worrying, for reasons that will now be all too obvious.  ‘That woman’s got learning difficulties,’ I found myself saying, ‘don’t they realise that?’

Following a brisk bit of Internet research, it turns out that yes, they did know that, and so did loads of other people as it had been in the papers.  Which is fine, no reason for her not to compete, as long as they were taking it into account, I thought. Later on, I found out that Boyle had lost to a Transformers-inspired dance troupe, and that, I presumed, was the end of it.  

Except that it wasn’t, of course, and as you all know, the story’s since moved on in a darker fashion.  But in-between the contest and Boyle’s anxiety-induced incident that led to her current stay in the Priory, I found myself intrigued by the idea of someone with learning difficulties doing so well in a show such as Britain’s Got Talent (normally they get knocked out in the preliminary rounds after being publicly mocked by smug millionaires) and did a bit of background reading.  Two things struck me as being of particular interest, and somewhat worrying.  Firstly, it seems that Boyle may not have put herself forward for the programme in the first place, but was actively sought out by the production team, who were already aware of her (thereby somewhat demolishing the ‘well, she shouldn’t have applied if she didn’t want the attention’ defense).  Secondly, in the week leading up to the final, she expressed a strong desire not to take part, but was nevertheless somehow talked back into it, with mixed results.

I don’t want to go into that much analysis of it, as that’s what the columnists at the Guardian are for (and I wouldn’t want to deprive them of any of the frothing comments that come their way online), but this does seem to have been a situation where a vulnerable adult with a temper, who had been managing their own stress levels all their life, recognised that they were reaching breaking point, but found themselves in a situation where they didn’t have an independent advocate, and were not taken seriously by the people around her, many of whom had a financial stake in making sure she performed.  Anyway, as a good citizen, I complained to Ofcom who, I understand, aim to do nothing.

What I really want to talk about here are the roots of Britain’s Got Talent, namely a seventies American programme called The Gong Show.  This was the first time that a talent show’s main selling point was not how good the acts were, but how bad.  It was devised and hosted by one Chuck Barris, a man who will surely go down in history as one of the most important figures in television.  British shows such as Blind Date and Mr & Mrs are variants on formats he created.  Barris also claimed to have been a hit-man for the CIA in his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (made into a film by George Clooney), but this might be a lie.

The format of The Gong Show was simple.  Barris would introduce acts of varying degrees of weirdness to a studio audience.  Like Britain’s Got Talent, there was a panel of three judges, who sat in front of a large gong.  When a judge could bear an act no more, they would hit the gong, and the act would have to stop.  Not all the acts were bad, however.  Some, such as The Unknown Comic (a comedian with a paper bag on his head) and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (essentially just a man dancing in an amusing manner) became viewer favourites,and would come back regularly.  Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) was just one of the performers who would go on to become professional entertainers.

Now, on the one hand, this programme reintroduced the idea of the freak show as entertainment, and when watching the clips, the sound of the crowd jeering some of the acts is not pleasant.  Crucially, however, I would argue that it has one fundamental virtue above it’s bastard offspring, Britain’s Got Talent.  There was hardly anything to win.  Whereas Simon Cowell dangles fame, fortune and a full showbiz career as a carrot, thus drawing in the unintentional comedy acts he needs simply by playing on their sheer desperation, The Gong Show’s top prize was $516.32.  All that was really on offer was a chance to take part in the carnival.  And even if the performer’s role in the carnival was to be gonged off the stage, there was always a sense that they weren’t being rejected due to their strangeness, but in a weird way, embraced because of it.  The gong was almost a symbol of belonging.  ‘Gabba, gabba, we accept you, one of us.’

In Britain’s Got Talent, the buzzers are a means of division, separating the acceptable from the freaks, ‘us’ from ‘them’.  This year, someone who had spent her life being a ‘them’ was seemingly sought out and let through the barrier as a gimmick.  Now she’s stranded in the world of ‘us’, wondering how she’ll ever get back home.

Anyway, here are some Gong Show clips.


3 Responses to “Bang A Gong”

  1. Dan Lacey Says:

    Much appreciated insight.

  2. Thanks, and great painting by the way! Sorry, I couldn’t resist using it. Here’s a link to more of Dan’s work.

  3. Best thing I’ve read on Britain’s Got Talent.

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