Imagine the worry and uncertainty of the more than 13 million teens and twenty-somethings who applied for the last Teenage Talent Prize – then imagine those 13 million young people having to chuck everything they’ve ever known about themselves in the pool in hope of failing or being discovered.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened to 16-year-old Aden Walton from East Sussex. He doesn’t have the showbiz milieu and the huge personality of 15-year-old Kevin Rudolf or 15-year-old Jack Russell, Sylvester, presenters of Channel 4’s Last Laugh in Vegas. But when British media companies invest in adolescents and young people, the prize is one of the most sought-after in showbiz.
It was a big night for young people. All the finalists sang a song and then the judges picked the best of the best, a well-established singer from BBC Radio 1, Bradley Orr, 15, from Horsham, West Sussex. Then, rather suddenly, the line-up changed. The winner was abandoned. For the rest of the evening nothing was said to the contestants except “Election is over”. Alarmed reporters scoured the faces of the finalists on their way to a news studio. Suddenly and unexpectedly, 28 young people failed to progress through the night. Adrian Chiles, asking a bewildered contestant if he had any further information, looked downwards: “We’ve got more.” He and co-host Christine Bleakley revealed that each of the finalists was going to have to be eliminated based on a system that combined the votes of 6 million people across the UK who – in a “tying decision” – had cast an internet ballot.
By the time the Champions package, which included an expense-paid seven-day trip to Los Angeles, was revealed, it seemed utterly surreal. Aden Walton, the singleton who dreamed of a career in the music industry, was heading to LA for a week of tours, work, mentoring, working out, and then a long weekend at a Californian spa in January.
If there is a showmance in the show, then it is impossible to see anything amiss in this story. After all, the one thing that is certain about such a showmance is that it is not erotic. It is more likely that the contestants are so caught up in the intensity of the moment that there is no way for them to imagine that they could easily part.
More than an hour passed, and then, not one, but two young people, just shy of 18, emerged from the audience to announce their divorce from the show. It was to be followed by the announcement of winners, and we ended the night with a daffy-looking ginger seven-year-old, Kai Woolley, giving his rendition of Unchained Melody. It was as if he had been thrown to the wolves and not learned to defend himself. Or was it – and it could be – that it was calculated by the producers that this moment of jubilation would go down best with these young and impressionable losers. In many ways the same may have been true with the reality TV show Iain Lee hosts. A former winner of Chopped and Guy in the Ark, Lee talks with gusto, irony and aggression, without benefit of cynicism. He could not help but feel that the Young Person was just a figure in the background, an unwashed but equal to everyone else.
Perhaps not so ironic. I expect he was thinking about Justin Bieber and not late Troubles priest James Wilson – or, at least, of the parallels that came to mind to me when I read that a music publisher tried to pursue legal action against him.
When teenagers in the UK and beyond open their hearts to us in these words, the producers know that they are plunging into a sea of emotion and vulnerability. The children want to talk about their difficulties, their hopes, their nightmares. Often, we do not take time to really listen, but instead move past the pain, praising them for being honest, courageous and charismatic.
For Aden Walton and his fellow losers, we should not send these children away. We should learn from their difficulties, hoping, perhaps, that the TV show can prevent them from perishing.