Ten finalists performed but there could only be one winner. Was it the right one? Here are all the talking points from the variety contest’s socially distanced grand finale…
Jon Courtney crowned winner but was he worthy?
From the moment he was scheduled last in the running order, shortly before the voting lines opened, it seemed that Mancunian comedy singer Jon Courtenay was destined to triumph. The fact that his original composition, titled Small Things That Make You Happy, broadened out from clichéd observational comedy to reflect upon 2020 in lockdown only sealed the deal.
The lyrics cleverly incorporated the Queen’s “We will meet again” address to the nation, Captain Sir Tom Moore, home-schooling, clapping for the NHS, wearing masks and stockpiling loo roll. It ended with the rousing sentiment that “Britain’s talent will be that we all carry on”. Simple, old-fashioned and really rather poignant.
Courtenay had been Ant and Dec’s golden buzzer choice during the audition stage and duly became the first ever golden buzzer act to go on and win. He succeeds singing Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery as champion, scooping a £250,000 cash prize and that coveted spot on the bill of the Royal Variety Performance.
However, was the 47-year-old from Chorley really the most gifted performer here? His song was a sub-Victorian Wood number with a whiff of Richard Stilgoe. I couldn’t help feeling that viewers were voting for their own experiences over the past seven months, as much as they were voting for Courtenay. Understandable, I suppose. Britain’s Got Sentiment, too.
Musical theatre medley proved what we’re missing
Tonight’s guest performance was a welcome showcase for West End theatrical talent during these testing times. After seven months of shutdown, famed impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh presented a razzle-dazzle 10-minute musical extravaganza from the combined companies of Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Mary Poppins.
Sixty performers came together to conjure up an epic, stirring show-stopper, with stars including Michael Ball, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Matt Lucas (fresh from the Bake Off tent and that Boris Johnson impersonation). It opened with a sobering montage of empty theatres, before Mary Poppins flew in, the jazzhands came out and some huge high notes were hit.
It was a crucial show of support for a struggling sector, not to mention a vital reminder of the exhilaration of a live show and the world-beating talents of our theatre industry. Sir Cameron came out at the end to make an impassioned plea for venues to fully reopen by next spring, while Michael Ball confirmed that Les Mis: The Staged Concert will return to the Sondheim Theatre for six weeks from 5 December.
Yes, the music will sing out again for Christmas. Let’s hope for more such announcements soon. The nation is a poorer place without theatre - in every sense.
Britain’s Got Complaints, more like
This was a series which saw BGT unexpectedly become the most radical primetime show on TV. Two of its four judges have used their platform to protest against racial inequality. Led by Ashley Banjo, streetdance troupe Diversity’s Black Lives Matter-inspired performance last month received 24,500 complaints and prompted ITV to take out press ads in support of the routine’s message.
Another 1900 were made over Alesha Dixon's BLM necklace the following week. When a social media naysayer told her and Banjo to keep politics out of entertainment, Dixon replied “Kiss my black a**”.
There were a further 733 Ofcom complaints last week over comic Nabil Abdulrashid’s edgy jokes about race and religion, then hundreds more relating to Amanda Holden’s risqué frocks (tonight’s was another see-through number but a relatively demure one).
In total, a whopping 28,000 people complained to the watchdog about this series, making it the most complained about TV show of the decade. By comparison, this final was fairly controversy-free. Well, apart from…
Another edgy routine from nearly-man Nabil
After his semi-final set caused a stir - he even received death threats, ridiculously - South London stand-up Nabil Abdulrashid said: “I promise to do no jokes about racism or Islamophobia in the final if I experience no racism or Islamophobia between now and then.”
He clearly did experience those things, sadly, but it only made his routine here another feather-ruffler. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “Unapologetically black”, Nabil tackled the anti-BLM brigade head-on. He cracked jokes about the Edward Colston statue-toppling and Winston Churchill being black. He ridiculed Islamophobes, vegans and Jeremy Corbyn.
The judges were wincing almost as much as they were laughing. This was urgent, uncompromising and refreshingly radical fare, smartly woven into a gag-packed set and smuggled onto primetime Saturday night telly.
It was also the cherry on top of a remarkably diverse series for such a mainstream show. Most other shiny-floored contests wouldn't touch many of these issues with a bargepole but BGT has fought racism this year, becoming a flagship for representation and diversity. Even half its judging panel were young black Britons.
This year of all years, Nabil Abdulrashid would have been a timely winner. It wasn't to be but expect to see more of him on our screens soon. He’s a fresh comic voice and unapologetically funny.
What, no Simon Cowell?
There was speculation earlier in the series that BGT boss Simon Cowell would return in time for the final but it wasn’t to be. The stack-heeled svengali is still in Malibu, recovering from a broken back - sustained, in undignified manner, by falling off an electric bike.
Cowell, who turned 61 this week, is reportedly getting round-the-clock care and on the road to a full recovery. There were a few shout-outs to him this evening but it was surprising that he couldn’t even record a video message for the occasion.
This series felt his absence. Although Ashley Banjo did a solid job as stand-in judge, it altered the balance of the panel. The quartet were a little too positive and prone to platitudes, missing Cowell’s straight-talking mean streak. With Amanda Holden promoted to head judge, there was a lack of gravitas and authority.
We also missed his giggly silliness, especially when faced with an animal act or random oddball, not to mention his teasing, tongue-in-cheek bromance with David Walliams. Get well soon, hirsute svengali. Your show badly needs you back. Oops, sorry to mention bad backs.
Overlong finale to an overlong series
BGT often seems to go on forever but this 14th series has been an especially epic endeavour: 10 months in the making and spanning six months on-screen, including its Covid-enforced summer hiatus.
At more than two-and-half-hours with eight ad breaks, this final was a stamina-sapper too. Safety measures meant it departed from the usual live format, with the 10 acts pre-recording their performances on Friday night for safety reasons, then the winner crowned live.
Surely it didn’t need to be so ponderous, though. Fewer recaps and less padding could have trimmed it down to two hours. Viewers were less likely to nod off or flip channels in frustration, while more youngsters would have been allowed to stay up late to watch. An earlier start time would have helped the latter too. A 7pm until 9pm time-slot would have been vastly preferable to 7.30pm until 10.10pm.
Ant and Dec earned their wages once again
They're the best-paid presenters on British TV, reportedly paid £6.7m per year apiece in an exclusive “golden handcuffs” deal with ITV. Nights like this demonstrate just how Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly are worth it.
Flipping between pre-recorded and live segments, with a dystopian-style virtual audiences and the clock ticking, is a delicate juggling act. The cheeky Gordie chipmunks made it look effortless. Their slick patter and witty links kept proceedings zipping along. A riff about who announced the winner and Ant’s Phantom Of The Opera lip-syncing were both laugh-out-loud funny.
They even shifted gear for a heartfelt segment about their Britain Get Talking campaign to tie in with Mental Health Awareness Day, deftly handling the tonal shift.
Too many illusionists ruined the magic
Did everyone get magic sets in their Christmas stocking last year or something? A whopping five out of the 10 finalists performed tricks of some kind. “An awful lot of magicians,” as judge Amanda Holden admitted at the top of the show.
A couple of them had a gimmick - Magical Bones‘ addition of streetdance, James and Dylan Piper’s family angle - but for a variety contest, it sure lacked variety. Admittedly, four of the five qualified for this final thanks to the public vote, so perhaps viewers are just magic-mad at the moment. If that’s the case, broadcast execs might consider putting it on TV more often.
Ultimately, it was notable that none of the magicians made it to the top three. Did they split the vote or were they just too samey? The Pipers and Damien O’Brien, whose impressive routine incorporated mobile phones and social media, can both consider themselves unlucky. They were comfortably the pick of the conjurors.
Online leaks took edge off big reveal
Five finalists had been chosen by the judges during the semi-finals. The remaining five acts were picked by the public vote and unveiled at the start of this grand finale. However, many fans were left fuming after the list was leaked on social media hours before the broadcast.
Since their performances were pre-recorded on Friday, the information was clearly “out there”, as were paparazzi snaps of them leaving the studio, but largely kept secret to retain an element of surprise.
Sharing such spoilers on Saturday afternoon simply isn’t in the spirit of the show - especially when the only reason it wasn’t entirely live was due to a global pandemic. Poor form, spoilsports. You don’t deserve nice things.