It takes a powerful magic to keep Brits quiet on a Saturday night just ask the nation's beleaguered police. Yesterday evening, pubs and clubs fell silent as 20 million people tuned in to a TV show to see a question of global significance finally resolved. The final of Britain's Got Talent wasn't just about whether Susan Boyle Scotland's least processed export since steel-cut porridge oats would triumph. Nor were viewers drawn simply by the lure of car-crash television amid frenzied media speculation that Boyle or some other vulnerable contestant might crack on camera. The BGT final was nothing short of a referendum on Britain, a chance for a country beset by economic woes, battered by political scandals and humbled on soccer fields to vote itself a new and better image. (See TIME's photo essay "Susan Boyle's Road to Fame.")
Piers Morgan, the oleaginous foil to David Hasselhoff on BGT's U.S. sister show, America's Got Talent, reprises this role in Britain, pouring oil on any waters stirred up by sharp-tongued fellow judge Simon Cowell. It was Morgan who at the start of last night's final revealed the real meaning of the event. "How good it is we have something that takes the world's eyes off our greedy bankers and corrupt politicians," he said. In Britain, where Morgan is still remembered as the former editor of the salacious tabloid newspaper the Daily Mirror and who was forced to resign after it published faked photographs his tone of moral outrage might have rung a little hollow. But under the spell of BGT, a vast swath of Britons suppressed their congenital cynicism and concentrated on rooting for their favorites and for Queen and country. (See TIME's video "Susan Boyle and Me.")
Yes, Her Majesty hovered over the proceedings, an unseen metajudge. The winner, as the show's relentlessly cheery hosts Ant and Dec continually pointed out, would not only trouser the $160,000 award but also and here the duo lowered their voices in awe perform for the Queen at the Royal Variety Show. The annual gala requires the Queen to sit through a hodgepodge of musical numbers, pasteurized comedy and novelty acts, a torment that might have been secretly devised by republicans to drive the monarch into retirement. Nevertheless, all the contestants dutifully averred that such an opportunity would be the highlight of their existence. "It would be the biggest thing in my life," said Shaheen Jafargholi, a singer from Wales who at 12 has arguably not had much time to rack up memorable experiences. His challengers were similarly enthused about the chance of a royal performance. They included 11-year-old body-popper Aidan Davis and Hollie Steel, 10, a chanteuse whose crying jag during the BGT semifinals sparked debate about allowing children to participate in such a gladiatorial contest. "I would like to perform in front of the Queen so I could make her heart melt," said Steel, winsomely.
But winsome didn't win the day, and nor did hard-luck stories. The public ruthlessly booted out 2 Grand, a grandfather-granddaughter singing duo, even after 76-year-old John Neill confided that "this is the first time I've felt happy ... since I lost my wife." And Boyle, the bookmakers' favorite and an international talk-show darling since her endearingly awkward audition clip clocked up more than 100 million views on YouTube, lost out too.
Her popularity in Britain had been tempered by the "Boyle backlash," a phenomenon created and christened by the national media which at first hyped her natural talent and then attacked her for being overhyped. Newspaper reports that Boyle was behaving erratically in the days before the final raised questions about whether she should really be competing at all. "[The BGT producers] have a whole army of doctors, psychiatrists and experts all available to any contestant at any time. They have all been taking great care of Susan," said Morgan.
Boyle bewildered and bruised but plucky might be said to personify Britain more closely than her fellow contenders. But this was about rebranding the U.K., and a street-dance troupe called Diversity yup, Diversity fits the bill so much better. Three sets of brothers plus a quartet of their friends, ages 12 to 25 and from a range of different ethnic backgrounds, used high-octane athleticism to propel themselves them into first place. This victory, said their leader and choreographer, Ashley Banjo, sends "a message that age, ethnicity, background is not important." As Diversity reprised their winning act in a snowstorm of confetti and a hail of applause, viewers across the country shared their exultation. Never mind talent Britain's got pride.