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May 02, 2009
On Wednesday, BBC2’s The Speaker drew to a close. From open auditions across the nation to a nail-biting final where three teenagers fought it out to be crowned “Britain’s Best Young Speaker”.
This has been a seminal piece of television. I was lucky enough to speak live on air as part of Nikki Bedi’s BBC Asian Network show on Wednesday morning, and when she asked me why I loved the show I couldn’t help but be a little cliché: it showed us all that the teenagers of Britain aren’t just a lot of hoodie-wearing, happy-slapping ASBOs waiting to happen; they’re intelligent young people who have something worthwhile to say.
If you haven’t been watching, or haven’t yet had the chance to catch up on iPlayer then stop reading now.
One of the youngest participants, 14-year-old Duncan from Bristol, was awarded the title that hundreds had wanted so much. The big question, predictably: did he deserve it?
A few days ago, I would have said, “No,” without hesitation; you only have to backtrack to a previous blog entry to see how I thought of Duncan as a speaker. I was still smarting from the exits of Thomas (wonderfully calm and elegant in his manner) and Haroon (passionate lyrical poet) the week previously, and thought that Kay Kay was now the man for the job. “He’s a born politician!” I told Nikki, “You can’t help but like him when he starts to speak.” But after the last two episodes, I have to re-assess what The Speaker has actually been all about.
For anyone not familiar with the format, a group of ten teenagers was mentored by different types of public speaker, and each episode saw an elimination. Mentors have been as varied as Deborah Meaden (from Dragon’s Den), Kate Silverton (BBC newscaster), The Earl Spencer and Alistair Campbell. They gave away ‘Love in a Jar’ at Covent Garden, acted as tour guides in Althorp House and carried out a live news report; lobbied for public causes in a town they barely knew and spoke to the nation on a live videocast. Some of the speeches were outstanding, whilst others made me cringe, certain speakers inspired and others were just difficult to watch.
Yet this wasn’t your standard fare ‘reality tv’ – there was no grand prize, no public vote, no heart-wrenching sob stories. Watching this felt like being part of something meaningful. Is that too strong for a television programme? Well, if we take the media as a reflection of society then Britain currently celebrates mediocrity, gains most of its humour from the appalling state of politics and sees the personal lives of public figures as headline news. To see something that looks to help young people develop in a way that may actually help their future was actually quite inspirational. Because this wasn’t just about those who were lucky enough to participate. It was also about all those watching from their sofas, realising that they could do as good a job, or perhaps better.
So what was it about the final week that made me think differently about the eventual winner, and indeed the show as a whole? It was simply the change I saw in Duncan when he was placed in the bottom three on Tuesday’s show. I’d always liked Kay Kay’s Obama-esque style, I’d always found Maria’s Glaswegian lilt both charming and warm, and (despite her seriousness at the beginning) Irene always caught my attention. But somehow Duncan managed to transform from an over-eager, fidgeting child into a young man whose voice I wanted to listen to.
As I said to Nikki, it makes me wonder what sort of Duncan we would have seen had he been placed in the bottom three earlier in the series, as I believe he should have. But when it came down to it, he was the one who had made the longest journey, the person who had grown the most as part of the show. And that’s why I think that in the end, the judges made the right decision. Bravo, Duncan! And all the best with the career in broadcasting that you hope to pursue
My congratulations to all of those who were part of the chosen ten on The Speaker – I genuinely hope this isn’t the last we’ve heard from you.