ON the night of Saturday, April 11, 2009, at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow, a lesson was handed out to the world about the inadvisability of judging by appearances. We were enjoined to evaluate our own prejudices and, if you will permit me a cliché to ram home the point, never to judge a book by its cover.

The occasion was series 3, episode 1 of television show Britain’s Got Talent. I will be quite candid with you here and confess that I have never seen the show. Not my kind of thing.

Had it been called Britain’s Got Syphilis, I might have watched out of curiosity. But “talent”? No. The show is on ITV, so one can imagine the demographic to which it appeals and its definition of talent. I’m willing to bet that not one act from the prog rock genre, featuring a 30-minute Moog synthesiser solo layered with occasional flute, has appeared on the show.

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That said, even I can tell when someone has a beautiful voice. For the purposes of research, therefore, I have watched the show on that YouTube, and it is worth dwelling on what took place that night if we as humans are to progress as a species.

Susan Boyle strode onto the stage. She’s sometimes described as “shy” but, if that is so, she disguised it well that night. I think I am right in saying that, in the world of entertainment, and particularly in popular music, practitioners are expected to look like gods.

They are not supposed to look like you or me, you know, the plain, the unprepossessing, the ordinary. Susan Boyle was one of us, or at least the female us, a “wee wifey” as she has described herself. That night, she was wearing a matronly, shin-length dress. Only the ribbon round the waist added a note of ersatz sophistication, itself at odds with the jejune character of its wearer.

She strode confidently on stage and came to a halt at the microphone. The atmosphere in the auditorium seethed with cynical mockery.

She sensed this. She expected it. She drew strength from it. And that strength came from knowing she could sing, not just well but superlatively.

The three high-profile judges appeared not to believe what they were seeing. In the pre-performance banter, Susan rolled her hips. They rolled their eyes. When she spoke of her singing ambition, cutaway shots showed audience members shaking their heads in disbelief.

Everyone was expecting her to make a buttock of herself. Then she started singing. After only a few notes, the sceptical judges raised six eyebrows in surprise. Hither and yon in the auditorium, jaws dropped. Then the crowd broke into fervent cheers. Ant or Dec said to the camera: “You didn’t expect that, did you?”

I don’t know how much of this is scripted but, really, that’s neither here nor there, because, as Led Zeppelin have observed, the song remains the same.

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In this instance, it was I Dreamed a Dream from the musical Les Miserables. Susan crooned. She warbled. I am no expert in the technicalities, but I believe she may also have trilled.

By the time she’d finished, two of the judges were on their feet and applauding. Piers Morgan said: “Without a doubt that is the biggest surprise I have had in three years on this show.” How so? Because he was judging by appearances. Now he’d the decency to say: “That was stunning, an incredible performance. Amazing. I am reeling with shock.”

Amanda Holden, looking genuinely moved, said: “I am so thrilled because I know that everybody was against you. I honestly think that we were all being very cynical, and I think that was the biggest wake-up call ever.”

Simon Cowell said: “Susan, you are little tiger, aren’t you?”

Susan purred: “Oh, I don’t know about that.”


Neither did she know that, on that spring evening in Glasgow, she was taking the first step on a journey that would take her to a £22 million fortune and from a council house in West Lothian, to, er, the same council house in West Lothian.

As the YouTube video of the show went viral worldwide and her LP I Dreamed a Dream became the UK’s best-selling debut album ever, attention turned to where Ms Boyle – SuBo as she was quickly dubbed – came from.

What community had nurtured this lady with the angelic voice? In which part of heaven was it located?

The answer was Blackburn. Parts of West Lothian form an area that gets, if I might mix my musical genres, a bad rap. When one celebrity allegedly said of Susan’s village, “Blackburn – what a ****hole”, comedian Frankie Boyle (no relation) explained: “In his defence he was just reading the sign on the way in.”

But it has its compensations, with several country parks in the county, and easy access to the big cities east and west. Despite the mining area’s only association with crooning hitherto being the word “bing” (as in Crosby), the community had backed Ms Boyle all the way.

She has rewarded it by remaining there, even indeed in the same council house where she was raised with her four brothers and five sisters.

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The house has had a slight makeover, as indeed has the lassie herself, in particular losing weight after an epic battle with sweeties and cakes, which she described as the “bane of her life”.

Now aged 60, it was only after she’d found fame that the “brain damage” she was diagnosed with as a child turned out to be Asperger’s Syndrome. Previously called “Simple Susan”, she now learned her IQ was well above average.

What a journey she has been on, and all the time staying true to her roots. Through all her supposed disadvantages, the gal came good, giving hope to those with talent who might not look the part. That appearance in 2009 took great courage and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get to become an icon.