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‘I have lived so long. Why am I still here?’ Simon Cowell’s beady little eyes seem to say

Patrick Freyne: Britain’s Got Talent is back, its name now less a triumphalist boast than a pleading sales pitch from a waning superpower

Britain’s Got Talent is back (Saturday and Sunday, Virgin Media One). The X Factor in its pomp was Leni Riefenstahl does pop. Britain’s Got Talent is Leni Riefenstahl does English end-of-the-pier vaudeville. The title is less of a triumphalist boast nowadays and more a pleading sales pitch from a waning superpower. “Look at our workforce,” say chortling British enterprise tsars Ant and Dec. “Behold our dog acts, our puppeteers, our mimes, our jugglers, our child dance troupes. We’re not just about weapons manufacturing and financial services. We also have trumpeters who got so bored they figured out how to make music with a stretch of garden hose. Can AI do that? No. It doesn’t want to for some reason.”

And so, once again, Simon Cowell returns from the uncanny valley where he slumbers in a vat of brine listening to Showaddywaddy’s Greatest Hits on repeat. John Updike referred to fame as the “mask that eats into the face”. Cowell’s mask is ever constant, with his Stickle Brick hair, apple cheeks, buttons for eyes and a grin like the undimmed headlights of an oncoming Tesla. He looks for all the world like one of those Easter Island heads in a jet-black wig and tinted glasses. I’m not convinced he isn’t one. He is also, for the record, what you get when you ask the Dall-E AI art program to draw Colin Farrell.

Cowell’s traditional role has been to glower at the stage and encourage the audience boos upon which he feeds with delight. (“Nom nom nom,” says Simon Cowell’s damned soul, nomming on those delicious boos.) In the past, hapless members of the public would be sacrificed to Cowell and his ilk, and the mob would bay as he destroyed a deluded eccentric’s hopes and dreams live on television. Thus a good harvest would be assured.

More recently top scientists have discovered that crushing people’s spirit is a bad thing, so now Cowell seems a little bit lost, forced to temper most of his dream-crushing instincts in deference to nurturing appreciation. Sometimes beneath his little red sunglasses I see confusion about his status. “I have lived so long. Why am I still here?” his beady little eyes seem to say, caught in a vice between the apple cheeks and the Stickle Brick hair.


There are others in Cowell’s judging pantheon. Amanda Holden has two expressions, “open-mouthed astonishment” and “on standby”, which is basically just Amanda Holden waiting to do “open-mouthed astonishment”. Occasionally a single tear rolls down her cheek, indicating some capacity for emotional connection or, possibly, a dust allergy.

Alesha Dixon’s most notable qualities are a mischievous glint and an inability to wear jackets properly, frequently leaving a whole shoulder out of the sleeve like a toddler or an Athlone man after a fight. “You can put your whole arm in that sleeve!” I find myself shouting at Alesha Dixon more than I’d like. Some day I think I will enter Britain’s Got Talent and my whole act will be about how to wear a jacket properly.

The former Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli is a relative newcomer. He is capable of doing all of the emojis with his body and head (“astonishment”, “cry-laugh”, “grimace”, “shrug”), and of the four judges he turns most frequently to the audience for gratification. This is because he can still recall what it’s like to be among the messy throng of rough-hewn humanity, something that is but a distant memory to his deathless companions.

There’s a lot of joy in the actual performances, in fairness. On the first episode of the new series we get a woman who comes onstage with a small pack of dogs and, instead of launching an attack on the judges, makes her pets do dance routines, much as dogs do in the wild (I assume). The dogs are different sizes, which is very amusing in both this act and nature.

There’s a talented receptionist who dreams of musical theatre and sings Tomorrow in a manner that touches Simon Cowell’s blackened heart. (She ululates in the traditional talent-show manner, starting softly before getting louder and louder until her head is vibrating.) Another woman sings The Winner Takes It All through the medium of belches. The choice of song makes this feel like a melancholic masterpiece.

There’s a troupe of child dancers who make me reflect on how, if child labour were legal, it might be entertaining. And then some Korean taekwondo aficionados fly around the stage, smashing wood with their fists and bare feet. Their talent is, basically, breaking stuff, so it’s a good metaphor for 15 years of Tory rule.

There’s also an ominous signal of things to come in the shape of a quartet who sing songs from The Greatest Showman while using deepfake technology to make their faces resemble each of the judges. If anything, these deepfakes are a little too expressive, engaging in emotions well outside the judging panel’s normal repertoire but it’s still a bit chilling. “Where did they get my face?” whispers Bruno in what should be horror. It’s a reasonable question. I’m pretty sure we’ll all be asking this sort of thing before the decade’s out, as robots metaphorically and maybe literally skin us alive.

In many ways the talent shows of the early 21st century were ahead of the cultural curve. Programmes such as Britain’s Got Talent pioneered having the most famous people on an entertainment show facing the stage, with their backs to the audience, so we could better see them react to stuff. They are the stars. Most of the good-natured vaudevillians who show moxie on the Britain’s Got Talent stage do not ascend to stardom. There’s not much of a career path for melodic belchists, canine hoofers or hosepipe trumpeters. Reacting to stuff like enfleshed emojis is the core entertainment skill of the age.

By the 2020s, at least on social media, reacting to stuff has become what human culture is all about. The last artwork of the species is likely to be a video called something like Teenager Hears The Beatles for First Time or Old Person Reacts to Teenager Hearing The Beatles for First Time or maybe Puppy Watches Old Person React to Teenager Hearing The Beatles for First Time and then probably Robot Confused by Puppy Watching Old Person Reacting to Teenager Hearing The Beatles for First Time Accesses the Nuclear Codes.

We are all Simon Cowell now, observing and judging. We are in a death spiral of retromaniacal abstraction, and when the robots rebel Cowell will be sitting nearby, hitting big red buttons and shrieking, “Where did they get my face?”