When the Britain’s Got Talent judges come to Cardiff they always stay at the St David’s Hotel. What they do in there I don’t know.
I’m not free to pass beyond the bright atrium, not welcome to ascend the elevator shafts’ steel gullet and ride like Danny Torrence among the building’s shadowy sinuses. Rather I am left stood before the big white building, cold wind blowing in off the bay, as I ponder the secret lives of celebrities.
Who do they smile at when they’re alone? Do they have to worry boring things like shaving and tying their shoelaces? Probably not.
Perhaps if I could rummage through their wastepaper baskets, sift the water of their ice buckets, examine the soiled serviettes and food scraps they leave on their room service trays. Maybe then I could give you some answers… But no, Benjamin Pell’s grubby excavations are now considered beyond the pale. Privacy is at a premium these days and if you can’t buy discretion beyond the doors of a five star hotel then it’s probably time we admit that we’re living in a zoo.
Still, you couldn’t hope for better game keepers than these hotel staff, they greet my enquiries with death mask deceit.
They deny the very existence of the ITV talent contest, they swear on their branded ties that there’s no such thing as an Ashley Bango and that Pudsey the Dog is but a facet of Charles Baskerville’s terror.
Maybe they have stayed somewhere else?
I’m joined outside by a group of photographers representing a series of international picture agencies. These are men who have sewage running through their veins, men who travel the country hunting their allusive prey armed with a step ladder and a long lens, men whose toil props up the MailOnline’s Sidebar of Shame, men who I am regrettably on the same level as, at least for today.
We discuss loudly – subtly is anathema to them – whether or not the judges are inside.
The loosed lipped jabber persists even though we’ve all seen Simon Cowell’s Rolls Royce park in the hotel car park.
A big black beast, caught in the scope of two CCTV cameras, parked sideways across three spaces, cones and police tape separating it from the modest Aston Martins, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes driven by the other guests.
Later he will be chauffeur on the five minute drive to the Millennium Centre where hundreds of screaming mouths will move noiselessly in the car’s mirrored windows, their glass as dark as Cowell’s aviators which he will not remove despite the pleading of a pale and faltering sun.
Of course we know Cowell is inside. Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams too. Maybe even Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, as well.
We know it surer than I know I will never be able to afford a Rolls Royce but all this handwringing speculation serves a purpose beyond simply staving off the frostbite.
It is part of a delusion which, by dent of my chilly vigil, I am now invested in.
Yes, it involves the hotel staff – think of them as the arbiters of chicanery – they know we know that they know who is inside regardless of what they say.
But the real mirage is spun between the photographers and photographed.
The photographers (and I) pretend we don’t know if they’re inside because the tacky rush of uncertainty creates a sense of a little legitimacy around what we do.
It also props up the idea that we are engaged in some kind of antagonistic relationship with those we are trying to capture, which is what we want to believe because in reality, they want to be photographed, their apprehensive lingering in the lobby, their coy glances beyond the revolving doors. It is all part of foreplay which proceeds the shutter’s snap.
I’m not say that this the case all the time, when people are out with their children or basically trying to live their lives as something other than a PR exercise, then a leering photographer is probably the last thing they want to see.
But in this situation the intrusion of the flash is entirely welcome, it is simply part of the fluff and nonsense thrown up in the show’s wake (if you like you can consider this article an example).
Pictures of the judges on websites and newspapers create awareness of the show – that much is obvious.
But then the show’s producers also send a film crew to record the photographers at work. I guess this is an attempt to document the glamorous sense of spectacle which supposedly surrounds these UK wide auditions.
So now I’m caught in the frame, looking cold and confused, yet more footage for some bludgeoning montage which in its breathless transitions will romance the eye in a way my frigid words can never hope to.
What a marvel, the ability of ‘reality TV’ to subsume all around it and incorporate it within its monolithic entertainment.
Yet even in writing that sentence I know its power to stimulate is nothing compared to a good jump cut.
We say reality TV but I don’t think many people believe that what we’re seeing constitutes reality. There’s none of the clumsy, awkward character that makes life life. None of the cloying, difficult, doubt which visit jubilant tears upon you as you try to sleep.
Sure it’s real, but only real enough to be entertaining.
It’s blistered histories walkin’ easy on compressed soles, a little pain but none of that exposed puffy, pussy flesh. It’s something to relate to – Haven’t we all got a dead nan or two? – something which makes us look inside ourselves but not too far.
Many of us indulge in a kind of ironic enjoyment of this sort of show, I’ve been part of the knowing audience, the audience who consider themselves better than the ‘actual audience’ (whoever they are) because we are in on the joke.
Oh how we laughed.
Laughing alone in our living rooms with a thousand other lonely cynics, laughing along with snide Live Blogs or sneering Twitter feeds, our laughter’s derisive tone separating us from the other 11.9 million smiling at their televisions.
But when the laughter stopped did we feel more real? Did our brouhaha set us apart from the fakery? Did we manage to retweet our way to the truth.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad way to spend an evening if your dealer won’t answer his phone. It is fun, it is funny, I don’t think these contestants need to be ‘helped,’ or even particularly pitied, I mean, I know personally I’d rather scoff at Mr Methane and DJ Talent than consider what I see of myself in them.
Uncomfortable truth: I no longer see anything as having value except through the eyes of others.
Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking of third person goblets of praise: “It was a really well observed and powerful article”.
I’m hearing talking heads discussing my work on some BBC Four documentary: “Smith’s big breakthrough really came when he went to the Britain’s Got Talent auditions – the experience changed him”.
In the deepest folds of my callow heart I feel fame is somehow entitled to me, and that fame, rather than being a by-product of success, is success itself.
I value fame and all its gaudy trappings above anything else, and I believe that fame should be, no, will be thrust upon me not because of hard-work and hard-won achievements but by virtue of my being me.
So while much has been made of contestants’ handle on reality I don’t really think I’m in a position to comment on that.
Inside the Millennium Centre potential contests are vetted ahead of the recorded auditions. Four women in their twenties sit at camping tables, their hunched bodies already displaying the telltale signs of RSI, as stacks of questionnaires heap up before them.
In front of them is a queue snaking ten rows deep, dozens of excited faces hemmed in by the belt barriers. For each of them this may be the moment their entire life has been building towards. Their big break. But for the patient women at the tables it’s just bureaucracy, the countless tick boxes of TV production, a magic code which turn tedious flesh into two minutes of reified static.
There’s a small stage behind the women, but no-one appears on it, the real performance is outside. ‘Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen,’ beneath the shadow of this inscription a red carpet and a large Union Jack has been laid out.
The judges will arrive here and hundreds have turned out to see them, the crowd pinned back by metal barriers, as a man with a megaphone tells them to be patient, it won’t be long.
When I arrive at 1pm many of them have already been queueing for more than two hours, jostling for the best spots around the cold steel cordon, given that it can’t be more than a couple of degrees out there, their dedication is little short of frightening.
I think about what would happen if the crowd were to turn? What if they were mobilised by some radical BBM messages or provoked perhaps by a bad taste joke about a subject of national sensitivity?
And which of the officials would be responsible for stopping them? There are a bewildering array of jackets – Black ones, florescent ones, ones marked Britain’s Got Talent, or Applause Store or simply Crew.
They’ve all got their white plastic ear pieces buzzing out commands, but I’m not fooled, I can see they’re not suitably equipped to deal with the sort of riot situation which could be sparked by say an impromptu appearance by Susan Boyle…
And anything can happen: This is TV.
“I’m a member of the press,” I tell the nearest security guard. “I’m with that photographer over there, the ginger guy with the olive jacket”. And with that I’m inside the cordon. I didn’t even have to show any ID. The places you can get with a suit.
There are a dozen or so photographers in the ‘press pen,’ strictly they are in competition with each other but in this instance they are united in their impatience with the proceedings. They either chat about lenses or exchange war stories telling how X made them wait for Y number of hours in the cold then had the temerity to walk out wearing a baseball cap.
To our left there is a large camera crane, soon it will move in sweeping arcs taking in the crowd, the dozen flags emblazoned with the Britain’s Got Talent logo and the large screen carrying the same design (every few minutes a shooting star sweeping across the LED to take its place between the letters T and L).
Some of the crowd are behind us, they are a sad little subsection whose view is soon to be blocked by the photographers who, at the slightest sniff of a celebrity, will climb up on their step ladders to make sure they get a nice full length frame of their designer outfit.
I feel sort of bad that the people behind me have waited for hours and now all they’re going to see is the back of some bored reporter’s head. But we’ve been placed in this prime spot for a reason – the facile glamour, the flashes, the photographs.
The first to arrive are McPartlin and Donnelly, they pull up in a black Mercedes-Benz people carrier, welcomed by the creaking of a hundred craned necks and the insectile whirr of a thousand shutter clicks.
They do a quick loop of the crowd, shaking hands and signing autographs before the camera crews are brought in to shoot the segments you see at the start of the show and either side of the ad break.
They wheel out a disparate bunch of a characters, who I can only assume are contestants on the upcoming series, tomorrow’s stars or laughing stocks.
There’s a purple haired girl in an ill-fitting silver dress, a heavy set man with bleached blonde hair and a sorry silver Freddie Mercury jump suit, a gaggle of schoolgirl air cadets in matching red berets and the raw components of a boy-band – pre-makeover one wears a black quilt complete with pre-packaged jokes about the cold weather.
“Quiet please for the links,” says one of the producers. Preempting the weary howl sure to puncture the polished delivery of the first two takes (and why? So if and when you watch the show you can say to your friends and family, “Hey, you hear that person in the background screaming as if they’re being garroted? That’s right it’s me.”)
“Hello and welcome to Cardiff,” McPartlin and Donnelly could well share a pair of lips, finishing each other’s sentences so smoothly that they seem to be speaking in unison. “With a spot on the royal variety show and half a million pounds up for grabs let’s find out what the Welsh capital has to offer.”
I was weaned on Gimme 5 so McPartlin and Donnelly are more familiar to me than many of my own actions. The presenters have grown up before my eyes, aging gently, the accumulation of years seemied as absent from their faces as when I looked at mine in the mirror.
But in person they are reassuringly laughter lined, they grimace between shots before flashing stage smiles when the cameras are on them. They are careful not to stretch their smirks any longer than the duration of a take… the cheeky grin: the very thing which perpetuates the illusion of preternatural boyhood simultaneously destroys it.
When the judges do arrive I’m struck by similar imperfections. Walliams looks all of his 41 years while Dixon has a bit of lipstick on her right incisor. Please don’t think I’m relaying these details by way of schlocky gossip, rather I think they register as nuances which reveal them as human.
Think of them as hints perhaps that the famous are subject to the same joys and miseries as the rest of us. They are aren’t they? There’s that very noble strain of journalism dedicated to debunking these charlatans by revealing their latest fad diets, wardrobe malfunctions, family tragedies etc etc.
I’ve seen hundreds of photos of celebrities spilling out of clubs looking ‘tired,’ or taking their children to the shops or whatever else I find myself looking at in the endless spiral of procrastination which ends up eating too many of my days.
But these strangers, though they invade my living room, my office and even my mobile phone I’m still unable to recognise them as people, not like my housemates or colleagues or even fellow commuters.
In a way they seem more than people, I’m not saying they’re aliens or lizardmen or nymphomaniacal psywarriors, but the accumulative effect of seeing thousands of images of them gives them a presence which greatly exceeds that of their tanned and toned bodies.
But then they also seem like less than people at the same time, like their existence in this high-volume world of certainties means I find it pretty much impossible to picture them in situations which I define as being (more or less) real.
There’s plenty of things I can’t see them doing, be it waiting in a queue, or stubbing a toe, or heating a microwave meal, or simply hearing a word (starchart) which contains within it the agony of distance.
…I spend my life doing these things but maybe, if I could just make it onto the TV then perhaps I would be somehow exempt from them, and my life would take on a new and depthless bliss.
“Up here, just to your right, that’s lovely,” the photographers shout at Walliams. Dixon. Holden. Cowell.
There’s around 15 minutes gap between each judge and during this time the photographers crouch down over their laptops uploading, editing and emailing their pictures as quickly as possible.
Their images will be seen by people across the planet, but what is in it for those who’ve waited four hours for a handshake and an autograph? What do they get other than an insincere soundbite and little black squiggle?
The undoubted trophies of the day are photographs alongside the judges, but a thumbstroke away from being published on Twitter or Facebook or Flickr or wherever, these seem to be bragging rights which justify the frostbite.
But what is it about these humans that to these ends other humans will stand for hours in the freezing wind, conversations hanging like clouds above them, shivering fingers barely able to pull cigarettes out of their purses
Or as a one of the photographers put it: “How can Simon Cowell attract as many people as the queen?”
Cowell and the others, their fame is based on having been on TV a lot, that’s not to say they’ve never exemplified any qualities, skills or talents during this time but I get the impression that to many in the crowd these things are a kind of after thought.
I mean there’s a few jokes about Mis-teeq and at one point someone shouts “eh-eh-ehhh,” at Walliams, but in both cases it seems the judges former achievements are little more than dust trails of an incendiary success the trajectory of which has taken them far from any earthly grounding.
One theory, which I struggle to write down as frost bite has turned my left-hand into a gnarled and unresponsive claw, is that these people are here in pursuit of that old, elusive prey: “The real.”
Maybe they’re searching, in the tinted windows and the black mirror of the TV camera, for something which goes beyond images beamed into a box. Something which vindicates a belief in being there.
If modern life is just about “being on one end or the other of an electronic data transfer,” then maybe this is a chance to lift back the curtain and experience something real.
But then can this be said to be real if everything I’ve experience today has been carefully stage managed, running to a split second schedule monitored on a producer’s iPad?
The absence of spontaneity turns the show girl into a statue. And I’m stood here stony faced wondering when I’m going to feel anything…
How is it that you can be in the biting cold, cold which makes you aware of what a precarious purchase your features have on your face, cold which makes you realise how you take your circulatory system for granted, how can you be here freezing and yet your prevailing sense be one of detachment?
Don’t get me wrong, I got a jolt, the same one I get whenever I see anyone even a little bit famous. A small starstruck shock which I’m unable to rid myself of, though god knows I’ve tried.
It’s a stab of recognition keener than seeing an old friend or lover. It’s closer to seeing a ghost. A spirit which you never thought would reveal itself to you as having a physical form.
“I can’t believe I’ve seen them in the flesh,” is this idea being articulated into cries as the judges swan around.
As these reified glitter people pass by a distance of a couple of feet, it seems to me that all the arm shaking and air clawing is dictated by the presence of the cameras.
It’s less about experiencing something outside the world of screens than putting yourself inside it, giving yourself to the hollow screaming mass in a collective attempt at translation into the infinity of entertainment.
“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”