Underrated: Simon Cowell

The impresario has a bracing honesty and has added to the gaiety of the nation

Media Underrated
Simon Cowell: A force for good? (illustration by Michael Daley)

It’s fairly safe to assume that if there’s one person who doesn’t underrate Simon Cowell, it’s Simon Cowell. The undoubted, pre-eminent impresario of television entertainment today — a sort of modern age Lew Grade — he takes an unashamed, almost artless pleasure in his influence, his public popularity and the extraordinary wealth it has brought him. As a judge on talent shows The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, this music executive and talent-spotter now has one of the best-known faces on both sides of the Atlantic, and he obviously loves every minute of it.

Millions of viewers are happy to bask along with him, while the haute bourgeoisie hold their noses and tut-tut at the sheer ghastly vulgarity of it all. Smart aleck commentators joke about his Botox and his obvious pride in his “moobs” (man-boobs, for the uninitiated). They miss the point and not just because of the dreary snobbery they exhibit. For Cowell deserves a good deal of credit for a number of quite unconnected developments, not all of them immediately apparent.

First, and most recent, was the support he showed for Israel when he donated around £100,000 to the Friends of the Israeli Defence Forces. Cowell’s father was Jewish, as is Lauren Silverman, his partner and mother of their recently-born son Eric. He is hard to read politically, although that might be because he appears to share with the public a general lack of interest in politics. But on this issue, he stuck his neck out, departed from the usual showbiz line on the conflict and put his money where his sympathies lie.

Cowell experienced some blowback in the form of nasty and overwrought attacks from the Twitterati (“blood on his hands”, etc). The same happened to the comedian Joan Rivers, who in her characteristically trenchant way spoke up for Israel only weeks before her recent sudden death and in doing so made herself enemy number one in many liberal eyes.

Stands such as Rivers’s and Cowell’s are significant because they are brave; if you depart from the usual bien pensant line in the creative industries, you can quickly find yourself behind enemy lines. We can pretty much set our watches by the predictability of celebrities’ views; we know exactly what to expect from Stephen Fry or, heaven help us, Russell Brand. But a TV researcher trying to find somebody on the British cultural landscape — whether actor, singer or writer — who will voice support for Israel will find his or her work seriously cut out.

Cowell has been a force for good in other less obvious and perhaps unintentional ways. If Middle Eastern issues figure only in the peripheral concerns of those of us settling down on a Saturday night to enjoy The X Factor, of one thing we are keenly aware: his bracing honesty when faced with the stream of hopefuls who come before him and his team. He was perhaps more biting (and therefore more entertaining) in the early years of the show; maybe fatherhood is mellowing him. But the truth is that in his scathing evaluation of these sometimes hopeless and deluded acts he was performing a minor public service.

While competition as a virtue has been gradually squeezed out of the state school system in favour of a kind of fluffy empathy, it has found instead a hugely popular outlet on the nation’s TV screens. It can surely be no coincidence that the massive increase in programmes dedicated to finding a winner — whether it be in singing, dancing or cooking — has come at a time when competition in the real world, especially the public sector real world, has been experiencing an ongoing low-level ideological assault.

Cowell’s harsh judgments on his would-be stars are not just entertaining to those watching. To those on the receiving end, it may well have been the only time in their lives they have been challenged with truths rather than patronised. Cowell pays them the compliment of not being ingratiating. He is effectively saying, sorry but no, not all must have prizes. Viewers therefore take his judgments seriously, and discount the lachrymose, pain-sharing outpourings of his fellow-panellists who suck up to the public in the hope of a bit of brief popularity.

And there’s another thing. Cowell’s shows have revived a national custom many had given up for dead in our brave new multi-platform, internet-obsessed age: Saturday night family television viewing. This might be of little concern to many readers here, but the way in which television can bring a significant part of the country together is one of its virtues which, until talent shows like Cowell’s came along, was fast becoming a misty memory. Indeed one could go further: Britain’s Got Talent, with its parade of novelty acts and speciality skills, and its breathless promise of a place for the winner in the line-up at the Royal Variety Performance in the presence of the Queen, has even managed to generate a totally benign, warm sense of patriotism among those who watch it. Such shows have all added to the gaiety of this nation at least, and we have Simon Cowell to thank for it.