Watching ITV's Britain's Got Talent last night, I was confirmed in my view that Simon Cowell should be regarded as providing a vital public service. He should even be accorded the status of national treasure.
During this time of political and economic crisis, this show is the most effective booster of national morale we have. The clue is in the title: Britain. The set is unashamed in its use of the Union flag. The prize for the winning act is the chance to sing in front of the Queen. It has the feel of an old-fashioned variety show, and generates a warm kind of patriotism. The participants are young and old, black, white and Asian. It is inclusive. It shows people trying and maybe failing, but it is mostly good-natured. It showcases odd little skills that people have mastered, as well as fruitcakes. Choirs and groups of dancing mini-majorettes remind one that round the country, people put in time to go to practise classes to perfect activities which often go unnoticed. And thank God, there is no overlay of distancing irony. It is, right now, the most important use of culture in its widest sense. The arts establishment, so exercised now by the need to show the importance of culture in a recession, must look on with a bit of envy, and wonder how they do it.
There is something else too. Cowell is regularly reviled for the supposedly heartless way in which he punctures the illusions of the hundreds of contestants who come before his various panels, convinced that their God-given creativity is going to take them to the top. But he should instead be congratulated for his refusal to ingratiate and patronise.
His is just one of the louder voices to emerge from television's current love affair with all forms of contest. These shows are predictably condemned for being modish exercises in crass populist sadism, the equivalent of throwing Christians to lions. But the critics are missing the point. The fashion for competition on television actually represents one of the healthiest trends to emerge in broadcasting for decades, and one that shows conclusively that all mustn't, and shouldn't, have prizes.
Cowell and his fellow judges are providing a desperately needed outlet for our smothered tribal memory that to be the best is a good thing, that a desire to be inspired by the sight of talent rising to the top is perfectly natural. Suppressed for so long in the name of engineering a more "fulfilled" society, it has seeped out onto the television screen and hence right back into the centre of our lives.
And we should be grateful: in a time when, according to a recent report by the think tank Civitas, a full 73 per cent of us can, if we wish, justifiably wallow in official victim status, and when the politically correct promotion of self-esteem takes precedence over any activity that might hurt the feelings of others, such shows can claim to provide the very best in public servicing broadcasting – not in a form that would be immediately obvious to Lord Reith perhaps, but genuine nonetheless.
Perhaps Cowell should be given some sort of role within our state education system. It's here, after all, that the child-centric ethos of past decades has produced generations of children who have been told that the necessity for striving, practising and mental self-discipline all come a poor second to their innate, infinite creativity. Anyone who has witnessed a softened-up school sports day, or a classroom being encouraged to clap a fellow pupil simply for getting a right answer, will realise that children are being sold down the river. Life is not all about feeling good about yourself. For once, television might actually be setting a good example.