Britain’s Got Talent – week one

Opening night brought handbells, hula hoops - and a haunting rendition of Tracy Chapman's Fast Car...

Because Britain’s Got Talent got “Britain’s Got” in the title, it’s tempting to try to work out what it tells us about the nation. We can, however, only draw limited conclusions because this is The X Factor’s grinning, gap-toothed cousin, even more obsessed with eccentrics and outliers.

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The good news is, they are in fine health, each in their own misshapen world. For a start, it soon became clear that Britain’s oddballs are getting more bedroom action than most of us.

Shaking their things were Donelda Guy, an oversexed-agenarian who I’m positive introduced her performing dogs as Mega and Beaver; Marawa, a memorable young woman with a leopardprint catsuit and 59 fortunate hula hoops; and Antonio Popeye, who said his horrid eye-bulging routine had helped him score chicks, although people who get warmed up by a man who appears to have a potentially fatal strobing thyroid are another stratum of society altogether.

A Dadaist interlude was provided by Blair Christie, who was painted blue. After a long, solemn spiel about his unique act, he did a three-second dolphin impression using a balloon and some wave-shaped card. You had to admire such an elaborate set-up for such a small joke. Turner Prizes have been won for less.

Gay and Alan Cooper had no interest in making their physiques or clothing like other people’s. They were too focused on handbells. “Our dream is to see handbells recognised much more widely as an instrument,” said Gay. “Not just as something for Christmas.” None of the usual piles of unwanted handbells in Oxfam this Boxing Day, if Gay gets her way.

The Coopers’ doorbelly version of My Heart Will Go On won’t cause the national handbell-mania they crave, but Alan, with his bobbed hair and neck-only beard, was a star. He picked up his handbells at or just after the last possible moment and flicked them disdainfully. I might get some of my old handbells out of the loft, but I already know I’ll never play them quite like Alan Cooper.

King of the episode – pipping genuinely good nine-year-old comedian David Knight – was Michael Collings, a lovely, happy 19-year-old from a caravan park in Saltash, which is across the Tamar from Plymouth and even less glamorous. Michael, sallow in a bright orange sweat top and hunched awkwardly across a chair, played a wondrous cover of Fast Car by Tracy Chapman: deft acoustic guitar and a voice full of yearning tenderness.

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Michael could, as they say on The X Factor, have a hit with that tomorrow. But my fave was Steven Hall, a 53-year-old Cumbrian phone engineer. In person he was a droning pedant with grey suit and hair. Who knows what lies beneath such exteriors? We got a glimpse with Steven’s dance medley of Thriller, The Birdie Song, Riverdance and many, many more: it was madder than a chicken in leggings, yet carefully planned and deliberately funny. In the context of this show, it made sense.