Christina Patterson: Britain's got talent, but a lot of it's wasted

Susan Boyle said she was relieved not to be 'sitting at home being unemployed' with a talent she couldn't use

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My name is Christina and I have a confession. I have never watched The X-Factor. I've never watched Britain's Got Talent, or Pop Idol, or Dragons' Den, or The Weakest Link. I've never even watched Strictly Come Dancing.

I did, when I was checking the BBC's website, and discovered that the biggest news of the day was the fact that a former shadow home secretary, who used to be very keen on chaining pregnant mothers to their hospital beds, had herself been put in a harness, and lowered on to a stage, watch a clip of this taking place. In those 90 seconds I was flooded with the same feeling – of sweaty-palmed mortification – that I had when I wet myself in school assembly and was sent home in alien pants.

I did once watch 10 minutes of The Apprentice, but I felt so terrible for the participants' mothers that I had to give up. Clearly, if your sons or daughters were conscripted into some kind of child militia, and were then brutalised by warlords, and you accidentally caught some footage of them on the news behaving monstrously with machetes, you would feel pretty awful, but at least you could turn to whoever you were watching it with and say that some random factors had kicked in to wreck the lovely manners they were taught. There is, as far as I'm aware, no conscription for The Apprentice. Parents around the land can only watch and wail and weep.

And, like pretty much every member of the world's population that has access to a computer, I've seen a YouTube clip of Susan Boyle. Luckily, by the time I saw it, it had been made safe. At the beginning, you could see the wires sticking out, the wires that could well be ticking to disaster. But although the wires were still there – the wild hair, the bushy eyebrows, the plump figure in a toddler's party dress tiptoeing on stage and then wiggling its hips as the first pre-emptive strike against anticipated cruelty – you knew that it would be all right, because you knew that it had been all right, that the singing spinster who came on stage as a freak had been allowed, by the jeering, and then cheering, crowd, to leave it as a star.

Happy ending. Phew! But TV talent shows, as far as I can gather from not watching them, don't exist to make the participants happy. They exist to make entertainment, and the entertainment doesn't seem to have much to do with the all-must-have-prizes model we offer, presumably to maximise the shock later, in our primary schools. The entertainment could be some dancing or singing, but an on-screen breakdown would, you could see from the eye-rolling in the audience, and the sinister glint of Simon Cowell's shark-like teeth, have been just as good, if not better.

And so, when the 47-year-old virgin, who had hardly left her home town, or her cat, or, until her recent death, her mother, had, as she was shunted from TV freak show to non-stop media circus, the odd wobble, everyone was thrilled. Every swear word, every hip wiggle, every swallowed-back tear was a headline. Fat Frump Cracks Up was pretty much the gist of it.

On Sunday night, Susan Boyle gave an interview to a man who once edited a newspaper so keen on entertaining news that it sometimes made it up, a man who was also there the night that the sneers turned to cheers. Susan Boyle was used to the sneers. People had, she told Piers Morgan, been making "snide comments", and "jibing" at her, and calling her names, all her life. At school, according to a friend, she was called "Susie Simple". Her classmates threw stones at her. She was "always on her own". There was, said Boyle, when Morgan showed footage of the friend talking about the routine cruelties that were the warp and weft of her life, and which made me want to lie on the floor and howl, "nothing worse than psychological cruelty". Physical things "can heal", she said. "Psychological scars don't."

Boyle, by the way, looked great. She looked pretty. She looked relaxed. She looked dignified. When Morgan asked her what was the worst thing anyone had ever said to her, a shadow crossed her open face, but she didn't cry. "Somebody called me a retard once," she said, "but it's not true. These people," she added, "can't help who they are. And they attract more love." Of the children who bullied her, she would only say that it was a shame "that other people couldn't have parents who showed them a good example." But she was grateful, she said, for what she had now. She was just relieved to have left behind a life of "sitting at home being unemployed" and "having a talent" she "couldn't use".

This country is teeming with Susan Boyles. They may not have such spectacular talents, and they may not have her stamina, or her ability, on a daily basis, to brave the kind of setbacks that would have most of us refusing to leave the house, let alone exposing, and singing about, our dreams in front of sneering media moguls, and they may not have the "very nice" family to support and protect them that she clearly had, and has, but there are several million people in this country who don't work, and quite a lot who have never worked, and who have never had the opportunity to find out if they have a talent, and, if they do, how to use it. And a TV talent show is as likely to help them do that as a Mumbai slumdog is to become a millionaire.

A still depressed economy following a global crisis, in a time of state-slashing Tory-dominated government, is clearly a less than ideal time to be addressing the shattered dreams, and lost potential, of this country's Susan Boyles. But the truth is, there's never a good time. It was a woman from Grantham who liked to talk about graft and grit who set in train a cycle of worklessness that has blighted several generations. A Labour government which poured money into education and job-creation schemes seems only to have made the cycle of dependency worse. It has taken a true blue Tory to address the issue in a way that might just have a chance of slowing the juggernaut of dependency down.

At the Tory Party conference, Iain Duncan Smith said that he would "break down the barriers to work and ensure work pays better". He also said that the Government had "concern for the poor running through its DNA". While some of us might doubt that biopsies (preferably painfully acquired) from George Osborne would confirm this, few could question Duncan Smith's commitment to making the lives of poor people better.

As someone who has spent serious chunks of time on some of the country's worst sink estates, he knows that the problems associated with not working – depression, inertia, ill health – can be just as acute as those associated with poverty. This week, he has suggested that some people on benefits might be required to do four weeks of "mandatory work activity", in order to "give them a sense" of the discipline, and rewards, of work. Not, as some figures on the left are implying, a taste of the workhouse. Not months. Not years. Four weeks.

Of course it would be better if there were jobs for all the people who were unemployed. Of course it would be better if such jobs as there are were in the right place. And of course you shouldn't cut the benefits of people who have tried very hard to get a job, and failed. But if you want to change anything, if you want, as Susan Boyle might put it, to dream a dream, then you have, however big the obstacles, to make a start.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter/queenchristina

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