Britain’s Got Talent is rarely in the headlines nowadays, and when it is, it’s usually because it has become caught up in some drama or other concerning the personal lives of Ant and Dec, or Simon Cowell.
This may be why ITV has been apparently blindsided by the backlash against Diversity’s Black Lives Matter-themed dance routine at last weekend’s semi-finals. It’s been so long since anyone paid attention to this dull-but-reliable ratings-grabber.
The performance, choreographed by Diversity leader Ashley Banjo, was a hard-hitting and sombre rumination on a summer in which the world has been turned upside down and racial injustice finally confronted on a global scale. This was a powerful piece of theatre, partly set to the poem The Great Realisation by Tom Roberts (a viral verse arguing that the Covid-19 pandemic has given the world a chance to reflect and start over).
During their performance, Diversity also “took the knee” in support of BLM. Banjo, meanwhile, was brutally “handcuffed” and knelt on by a figure dressed as a police officer, a reference to the killing of George Floyd.
This message apparently went down badly with Britain’s Got Talent’s core audience of families and, more generally, people who just prefer to watch underdog comedians, animal trainers and singing pensioners having a shot at the limelight. The outcry has been ferocious. As of Thursday, Ofcom reported more than 10,000 complaints – making this one of the biggest TV controversies of the decade.
It has, for instance, dwarfed the fuss around Kim Woodburn and Coleen Nolan’s row on Loose Woman in 2018, which culminated with Woodburn storming off while shouting “I wouldn’t want to sit and talk to lying trash like you!”, and which received 7,912 complaints. That said, the Diversity furore is a long way behind the Celebrity Big Brother “punch-gate” scandal, also of 2018, in which Roxanne Pallett wrongly accused Ryan Thomas of hitting her (25,327 complaints).
Did ITV make a mistake in turning over its biggest post-teatime franchise to an unflinching articulation of what it means to be black in Britain today? Or did they understand that there would be pushback, but think it important to take a stand anyway?
Banjo himself has expressed few regrets. “Silence was never and will never be an option. Change is inevitable,” he posted on Instagram. “Get used to it.” On Twitter, he added that he had received “thousands of messages of hate and ignorance… Thank you. You [the critics] highlight exactly what needs to change. Sending nothing but love to you all.”
Britain’s Got Talent’s creator, Simon Cowell, has missed the controversy as he is recovering from a back injury (Banjo is his replacement judge). But fellow judge Alesha Dixon has come out in support of Diversity.
“They can kiss my black a--,” she wrote under an image he’d posted that declared: “We the Great British Public will only support you if you entertain us and do not say anything about racism.”
The abuse directed at Banjo is obviously unacceptable. Racial injustice, moreover, is clearly a subject which needs to be protested on the airwaves. In the case of Diversity, the crux of the issue would appear to be whether Britain’s Got Talent was the appropriate forum to deliver that message, or whether a brave and dignified gesture has backfired.
While many will consider it the correct thing to have done, the thousands bombarding Ofcom clearly don’t agree. They presumably believe that the ITV talent show should be a safe space for those wishing to take a breather from the turmoil sweeping the world.
They may even feel that the broadcaster was in breach of its implicit promise that Britain’s Got Talent is where you go when you want to forget about the strife beyond your front door. If you can’t escape from it all on a Simon Cowell-produced ITV variety series, then where can you?
Everyone can agree that Britain’s Got Talent has carved out a niche as a sleepy backwater specialising in comfort viewing. In 2019, the competition, in which members of the public vote for their favourite entertainer, was won by 89-year old Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery, who sang in his ceremonial scarlet coat. The previous year, the gong went to “Lost Voice Guy” stand-up Lee Ridley. This is not a crucible where social justice is hotly debated.
More generally, Britain’s Got Talent really doesn’t do controversy. Its big moment was a full 11 years ago, when Susan Boyle shocked Cowell and his fellow judges at the open auditions by warbling like an angel. In the intervening decade, the only headlines have revolved around a plunging frock occasionally sported by judge Amanda Holden and the revelation that 2015 victors, Jules O’Dwyer and Matisse, used a "dog double".
Banjo led Diversity to the winner’s podium in the same year that Boyle stunned Cowell. Ever since, he and his dancers have been one of the great success stories to come out of Britain’s Got Talent, and worthy ambassadors for British dance more generally. Perhaps he felt an obligation to take a stand on the series where his TV career began.
With Ofcom still deciding whether to investigate the complaints, the furore looks set to rage on. As it does, it will be up to ITV to consider whether “BGT Does BLM” was a risk worth taking. It isn’t unthinkable that the broadcaster will conclude the opposite – that the performance has ultimately done more harm than good.