It came just when we all needed it and it hit — literally — just the right note. Susan Boyle's performance on “Britain's got talent”, which has become an international You-Tube success with 40 million views at last count, has encouraged and inspired us all.
Britain has a dreary note at present. The latest figures for family breakdown have just been published, revealing that cohabitation and divorce are the hallmark of Britain's lifestyle, marriage figures are the lowest since records began, and huge numbers of people face a lonely old age. Teachers have once again been explaining their plight — large numbers are physically attacked and assaulted by pupils annually, with serious injury not uncommon. Our politicians continue to make headlines for dishonesty: things reached a nadir with the revelation that the Home Secretary's husband had claimed expenses from the public purse for renting out a couple of porn movies for home viewing.
Then, just in time for Easter, came something that reminded us all of the huge possibilities in human life, and the joy of things.
Just in case you don't know the story: “Britain's got talent” is a reality TV show. Anyone can apply to appear. If you think you are the next Luciano Pavarotti, you seize this chance to prove your worth. A panel of judges — famous for being fairly ruthless and headed by cynical journalists like Piers Morgan, former editor of a major tabloid newspaper, award points. It's make-or-break stuff. A packed theatre watches and relishes it all — and, as it's live on TV, success or failure is broadcast nationwide.
Susan Boyle was so nervous that, in the chat with the judges before she was due to perform, she couldn't even give her home address properly. The judges like to make the performers feel daft. Even asking “So where do you live?” can be an exercise in humiliating the frightened person on the stage before them, and they enjoy this. Miss Boyle started to explain that she lived on the west coast of Scotland, in one of a small collection of — and here she stopped, momentarily, wordless with sheer nerves. She wanted to say “villages”, but agonisingly the word wouldn't come. Then it did — “villages, that's the word”, and we all saw the judges faces as, with raised eyebrows and curled lips, they took in the reality of this country bumpkin. Strong Lothian accent, shyness covered by clumsy cheerfulness, with somehow the manner of an overgrown schoolgirl.
And then she sang. Clear and true, her voice, singing “I dreamed a dream…” from Les Miserables, soared above the cynical expectations of the packed audience, a voice of great beauty, strong and enchanting, sending the judges eyebrows hurtling heavenwards and opening their mouths in dumb astonishment.
As she sang, the audience, impelled by sheer exuberant enthusiasm and unable to contain its delight, rose to its feet in a storm of applause — and above this ovation the glorious song soared on, reaching its top notes and rounding off with a magnificent strength that showed that superb mix of real talent and hard-won polish that marks the top performer. It was absolutely magnificent, and if you haven't seen it, you really must, because it's a tonic!
It gets better. Song over, the singer, not realising what a terrific hit she had been, started to leave the stage. But the audience — and the judges — wouldn't let her. You can watch on YouTube her astonishment as she turns back, rather awkwardly, and starts to recognise her magnificent success. The judges award her top marks. The audience roars its applause. Backstage, all is glee and exuberant congratulations. And Susan Boyle, her unaffected happiness expressed in a down-to-earth mix of incredulity and good cheer, is the centre of a magnificent experience that is just wonderful to watch and share.
Now comes the best bit. Susan Boyle is middle-aged, unmarried, a practising Catholic, born the ninth child in a large family. She spent many years caring for her elderly mother. She is jolly, with an infectious grin and a great cheery laugh. She epitomises a way of life that is routinely despised: hard-working, chaste, cheerful in the face of life's everyday difficulties. She developed her singing talents with persevering dedication. Her lifestyle and the belief system which has nourished it are absolutely the reverse of the angry, self-regarding, me-first mentality which is meant to be the way to get ahead in modern Britain. Instead, she's been formed by faith, family, courage, good humour, and honest work.
I felt a personal interest in watching the judges' faces. Piers Pugh-Morgan arrived as a junior reporter at the South London News, where I was working in the 1980s. He was a keen young wannabe journalist, fresh from a good independent school and a prosperous family home. Life had treated him well and would continue to do so: he became a competent reporter, a cheerful member of the office team, writing efficiently, tackling the bigger news stories with relish. His has been a success story: top job on a tabloid newspaper, mixing with Famous People all the time, photographed here and there and everywhere, producer of gossipy diaries, now a co-host on reality TV. He made a slight adaptation to his name – double-barrelled doesn't go down too well in modern Britain and sounds a bit too posh.
If there was cyncism and an abundance of self-confident know-it-all amusement on his face as he first confronted Susan Boyle, these were attitudes that were certainly shared by the other judges and by the audience. The cameras panned to show it — wry smiles and rolled eyes. Everyone simply knew that Susan Boyle was going to be a hopeless case, a delicious opportunity for a laugh. And then something happened — that beautiful singing voice, the joy that erupted, the sheer exuberance at the break-out of raw talent honed by the discipline of rigorous work and training.
Piers' eyes welled up. It was a magic moment. Susan Boyle gave us all an Easter message.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.