Category Archives: Entertainment

Balancing Act: Keeping Politics Fair And Fun

Turn on a British TV this month, and the first programme you see will almost certainly have something to do with one of two topics. Neither of these two topics is particularly enthralling as a basis for a semi-humorous televisiophile blog post, but I feel that I would be ignoring the elephant in the room if I blogged about, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Fuller House (but look out for next month’s post, sitcom lovers!).

One of the afore-mentioned topics that’s filling up the airwaves is football. I will not be writing about this.

This leaves me with the good old EU referendum (June 23rd, guys! Two days to go! Get your cross-writing muscles ready now!). Much like the Scottish independence referendum before it, the debate on the EU seems to have been raging for years without anyone saying anything remotely useful, leaving the general population (i.e. the people who actually have to make the decision) confused and irritated by the whole thing. Thank goodness, then, for topical comedy. The most recent series of Have I Got News for You did its best to perk things up, but was in the unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, who can say?) position of finishing its current run a month before the referendum actually takes place. However, as always, when we say goodbye to HIGNFY we say hello to Mock the Week, which started up again two weeks ago.

The first thing to say about Mock the Week is that I can’t really decide whether I like it or not. Sometimes, if the right guests are on, it’s very funny, especially since it can be snarkier and more cut-throat than HIGNFY. But, as others have commented, it’s a little too scripted, a little too smug, and it does sometimes seem to have that boys’ club mentality, particularly since they seem to go out of their way to make the single female guest (mandated, of course, by the BBC) look like the Token Woman. (Maybe, just once, out of seven comedians, more than one of them could be female? No? OK.)

Anyway. What I noticed most about Mock the Week on this occasion was that the EU referendum got comparatively little airtime. Granted, the first question was technically all about the EU, but since it was ‘If this is the answer, what is the question?’ and the answer was ‘4%’, most of the jokes were related to non-EU topics such as Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp, Sepp Blatter and other celebrities who have either done something very bad or fallen victim to the Curse of 2016. Once the answer was revealed (4% was the difference between Remain and Leave voters in the most recent poll, if you want to know), there was a little more Europe-related comedy: a few jokes about scaremongering on both sides of the campaign, some light criticism of various politicians, including Josh Widdicombe’s astute observation that “Michael Gove looks like a satirical cartoon of Michael Gove”, and then it was on to Euro 2016, the Megabus mascot and Noel Edmonds’ cancer box. Either the BBC is so afraid of appearing biased one way or the other that it’s managed to reign in even the Mock the Week team; or, as Hugh Dennis suggested, “We’ve got to make this last three weeks – we can’t use all the jokes now”.

Perhaps because they kept the EU ref refs on the down-low, it seemed to me that they did a very good job of keeping things even-handed and not showing bias one way or the other, despite the fact that all of them probably lean substantially to the left and are likely to be voting ‘In’. In fact, there was very little in the way of argumentation or debate at all – they just carried along with the same kind of ‘politicians look a bit weird’ humour that gets bums on seats but can hardly be called politically motivated.

Not so The Last Leg on Channel 4. The first episode got straight into the nitty-gritty of the issues by kicking off the series with everyone’s favourite bearded Labour Party stirrer Jeremy Corbyn. The JezCorbs segment was halfway through the episode, and he was immediately subjected to viewer questions that were surprisingly incisive for hash-tagged tweets, starting off with ‘Why have you always been Eurosceptic but are now pro-Remain?’ (Answer in brief: being part of a slightly flawed group is still better than not being in the group at all.) Jezza was a good speaker, if not a particularly jolly one (lampshaded by another Twitter question: “Why are you on a comedy show if you have no sense of humour?” Burn.) Overall, though, he acquitted himself well enough that large swathes of the programme were, by sheer dint of his presence, pro-Remain. (And anti-Trump, but then he is a functioning human being.)

Apart from this interlude, though, there was generally a pervasive sense of having no opinion one way or the other, largely due to having no idea what was happening. The three hosts (Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker) all carefully avoided the question of what they personally thought, and there was a lot of chat about the enormous amount of nonsense spouted by both campaigns, complete with “Bullshit!” buzzer. They briefly ventured to state some facts, mainly regarding economic claims, before we moved to mocking the people in charge on each side (cue videos of Jean-Claude Juncker drunkenly kissing foreign dignitaries and Boris hanging off his wire) as well as the attempts of both parties to engage the youth: the Leave campaign producing branded condoms and beer mats, and the Remain campaign enlisting June Sarpong, T4 presenter of the late 2000s.

The overall feeling of the Last Leg opener, then, was one of “getting Brissed off with the whole thing”; in fact, the only people to demonstrate an actual opinion seemed to be the audience, who cheered and whooped for JezCorbs and booed the pro-Leave frontman of Right Said Fred when he won an arm wrestle against the Pro-Leave Johnny Vegas (it sort of made sense in context).

This week’s episode was a little different, since large parts of the show dealt with other topics arising from a horrific week of awful news stories, discussed, by and large, with dignity and compassion. Since, as a result of the terrible news, both EU campaigns were suspended for several days, the show also veered away from explicitly discussing the referendum (Mock the Week’s second episode, due on Thursday, was withdrawn for the same reason). Again, therefore, no political biases were evident, and most jokes were at the expense of everyone’s two favourite tyrants, “wigged prick” Donald Trump and “secretly gay ultra conservative” Vladimir Putin.

Speaking of whom…

You expect topical news shows to be up-to-date, but it seems unreasonable to expect it of a sitcom; or DOES IT??? Power Monkeys would beg to differ.

In its original incarnation last year, Power Monkeys was called Ballot Monkeys. It was aired in the run-up to the General Election, it took place on board the (fictional) campaign buses of the various parties, and, crucially it was written and filmed the day it was shown. This astonishing feat of televisual speed and stamina led to a very funny, very topical show; and, if the first two episodes of the new series was anything to go by, they’ve managed the same astonishing feat again.

Power Monkeys follows the chaos and hysteria leading up to the referendum, with scenes variously set on the Brexit campaign bus, the HQ of the Conservative Unity Unit, Trump’s battle plane and Putin’s government offices. Stars include Jack Dee, Claire Skinner (Outnumbered), Amelia Bullmore (Twenty Twelve), Archie Panjabi (with a much more convincing accent than in The Good Wife) and Stacey’s brother off of Gavin and Stacey.

The first episode was broadcast the day after the Farage interview and Hillary securing the Democrat nomination for president; it made reference to both of these things, as well as the extension of the voter registration deadline and, naturally, Noel Edmonds’ magic cancer box (how we all long for those heady days two weeks ago when that was the biggest news story). Episode two included references to Russian football hooligans (“The flare? No. That was festive. We use them like party poppers”), John Cleese coming out as pro-Brexit, the sheer absurdity of the Thames flotilla, and recent polls putting ‘Leave’ ahead (“Huh. We’d better make it seem like we have a plan”).

As with Mock the Week and The Last Leg, the general theme of the programme is that everyone involved in politics is bonkers. The pro-Leave campaign is full of crazy scaremongerers whose claims are ripped straight from the headlines of The Sun (“I’ve just tweeted that since we’ve joined the EU, the number of verrucas has risen sharply”), while the Conservative Unity Unit is a diverse bunch of weird people who are constantly at each other’s throats. Then, of course, there’s the antics of Trump and Putin, whose existence has the dubious advantage of making our home-grown British politicians look slightly less awful. It should be noted that neither the Big T nor the Big P actually appear themselves; what we see are their secretaries, assistants and aides being generally useless and commenting on their masters’, erm, foibles (“Don’t hover! Litvinenko used to hover!”).

But what’s curious about this set-up is the omission of a pro-Remain group. The original series featured Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and UKIP in comparable measures and was equally scornful of all of them. This time, there’s no specific group of lefties; apparently the Conservative Unity Unit is pro-Europe, but this doesn’t clearly come across in the dialogue – most of the jokes in those scenes are at the expense of David Cameron personally, which means that the limited amount of explicit anti-pro-Remain mockery all falls on Jack Dee’s character, who hits right back with razor-sharp snipes at the leaders of his own party (“Don’t mention the British Virgin Islands, or the British Islands as they’ve been called since Boris paid them a visit”). This is odd because, as Mock the Week and The Last Leg have beautifully illustrated, the pro-Remainers have their fair share of nutcases, ripe for quips about playing it safe, prophesying the apocalypse and being under the heel of Angela Merkel.

The makers of Power Monkeys have stated that they’re trying their damnedest not to show their own hands, but the result of the set-up described above does, inevitably, come across as a slightly sneaky nudge towards ‘Remain’. This is probably a more natural reaction to the whole farrago than scrupulously toeing a central line so as not to offend or influence anyone; but, at the same time, it feels a little bit uncomfortable, maybe because everyone else is trying so hard to avoid taking a stand. Still, if campaigning with facts is dull, and campaigning with lies is unethical, maybe campaigning with comedy is the only option.

So let’s be sensible about this, OK, guys? For the next two days, let’s concentrate on the task at hand, try to sort the facts from the rubbish, keep a civil conversation going, vote accordingly, and then, whatever the result, go forward as a diverse but courteous United Kingdom. And then we can all focus on a cause close to the hearts of every man, woman and child in the country: ripping the shit out of Donald Trump.

Anyone for #Chicken?


Douze Points!: Why Eurovision Is Awesome

A couple of weeks ago, in light of the upcoming EU referendum, YouGov conducted a poll to find out the British people’s thoughts on one of the most pressing social/political/cultural questions of the day, with SHOCKING RESULTS: a majority of Britons, if given the choice, would leave the Eurovision Song Contest. What has this country come to?!?!?!

Actually, my summary of the results there is not strictly true. 47% of people polled (out of a sample of 2033) said ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Wouldn’t vote’, and the remaining split was 60-40 in favour of leaving Eurovision – that’s 646 people, or 32% of the total sample. Now, 646 people may not seem like much, but, assuming that YouGov conducted a stringent poll with a representative sample, the future looks bleak for Eurovision.

Those who know me will correctly surmise that I find this VERY upsetting. First of all, if you don’t like Eurovision, you don’t have to watch it – but that doesn’t mean that no one else should be allowed to watch it either. Why would you vote to stop other people enjoying something? I’m not a massive fan of organised sports, but if there was a vote on whether the Home Nations should leave UEFA, would I vote ‘yes’ just so I wouldn’t have to find something else to watch whenever matches were broadcast? Would I…? (Hold on, I’m thinking…) No, of course not. What nonsense.

Anyhoo, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s discuss exactly why leaving Eurovision would be so terrible. There are SO MANY REASONS. The outfits. The choreography. The special effects. The body positivity. The chance to practice naming the capitals of Europe. The inexplicable subtitled translations of the songs not in English. The awkward switching between languages during the presenters’ pieces to camera. The moment of excitement when you discover which British celebrity (always unrecognisable to viewers in any other country) will be announcing our scores. The little videos of tourist attractions and cultural experiences in the host country, dubiously linked to whichever song is coming next. Did I mention the outfits?

And then there’s the fact that it’s one of the few things I actually prefer to watch with other people. I’d much rather watch a drama on my own, so that no one can see me alternately getting super excited when nice things happen to my favourite characters and bawling my eyes out when disaster strikes. With comedies, I’ll go either way – seeing other people laugh can make something funnier, provided there’s no unnecessary chichat that causes you to miss the next joke. But Eurovision – that requires camaraderie, companionship and concord (and preferably a few drinks). If your friends take the same view, then everyone can get together for that most enjoyable of television-based social events: the Eurovision Party.

Of course, the Eurovision Party is not a heterogeneous phenomenon. Such events may vary considerably, since there are, understandably, numerous ways to celebrate one’s love for all things camp and European. A couple of years ago, the party I attended was food-based, and guests brought along a selection of foodstuffs themed to one or more of the participating countries. (For reference, possible choices include French bread, Danish pastries, Swiss cheese, Belgian chocolate, Polish sausage, Greek yoghurt, Swedish meatballs and Turkey. Much eating was done that day.) A few years before that, we went for the sweepstake angle: each participant was assigned a random country around which they would theme their outfit and foodstuffs, and if their country won they’d get the kitty, to which everyone had contributed. (My country was Portugal. I dressed like Carmen Miranda and brought Nando’s. I did not win the kitty.)

This year (Saturday 14th March 2016, BBC1, 8pm – jot that down in your copybooks now), the theme is going to be Serious Scoring. The procedure is very simple: there will be a Master Scoreboard, upon which the countries will be listed in order of appearance; guests will score songs according to personal preference; and points will be totted up at the end in order to ascertain how far the mood of the room matches that of the good people of Europe. And lest you think that this doesn’t sound particularly spontaneous and fun, let me point out that we haven’t decided yet whether we’re going to score all countries as they appear OR wait until the end and use the official Eurovision points system (12, 10, 8, 6-1). We’re crazy like that.

What should be clear from all this is that Having A Good Time does not equate to Using Eurovision As An Excuse For A Party And Not Actually Watching Any Of It – no no! Rapt attention must be paid to the actual show, songs especially. Now, note that in my list of ‘great things about Eurovision’ above, I didn’t actually include ‘music’. After all, one man’s Elvis is another man’s scraping a rusty cat across an old barrel of chalkboards; and, it must be confessed, many Eurovision songs are really not very good (and I absolutely include a number of British entries in that). But this is not true of them all. Some of the winners have become astronomically famous (generally for the right reasons) – Lulu, ABBA, Celine Dion et al. – and don’t even try to tell me that Love Shine a Light wasn’t an absolute belter of a song. (Here’s a link to it, in case you need reminding.) Plus there’s pretty much guaranteed to be a few great poppy numbers to get you dancing, as well as at least one surprisingly impressive ballad sung by an unprepossessing woman from somewhere like Iceland or Malta. I mean, there are twenty-six countries in the final – you must be able to find something you like (especially since the range of genres is starting to open up since Lordi burst onto the scene with their ridiculous outfits and crazy heavy metal classic ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ – yes, I’m still impressed).

Plus, viewers in the UK will obviously need to be listening closely in order to catch Graham Norton’s snarky commentary gems, which have quickly become as legendary as Terry Wogan’s. I do occasionally wonder if Norton is occasionally too mean, which would be a slight affront to the jolly Eurovision spirit, but then I remember that he’s just as bitchy when it comes to guests on his show and elsewhere. Hell, he got in some zingers at the BAFTAs last week, in particular throwing shade at Aidan Turner’s hair (“A man bun at the BAFTAs. How very modern.”) and, indeed, at the whole of the UK’s television production industry (*deadpan voice* “Yay. Us. Aren’t we great.”). So really that’s just his way, and our way, and it is pretty damn funny, although if the other countries are listening in then that might explain why we always do so badly…

So, with the party organised and the food prepared, what are we expecting from the show this year? Well, Sweden are hosting, which is a promising start – their presenting game when they hosted in 2013 was exceptionally strong, in particularly Petra Mede’s fantastic half-time song ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’ (“Our people are cold but our elks are hot”; cue three girls dressed as meatballs). As for the actual songs, I haven’t watched the semi-finals so I really haven’t got the faintest idea what’s going to happen or who’s singing what. The only exception is the UK’s entry, Joe and Jake’s ‘You’re Not Alone’,  which I’ve heard on the radio – it isn’t exactly my cup of tea (I find the cross between ballad-y singing and a heavy beat a bit confusing) but is certainly much less appalling than some of the dross we’ve put through in the last few years.

Suffice to say that we probably won’t win, but then there’s no special reason that we should – we have a tendency to enter half-arsed generic songs, we never have any particularly eyecatching costumes or staging, and, oh yeah, we spend the other 364 days of the year complaining about those bloody Europeans. Quite frankly, it astonishes me that so many Brits spend so much time whingeing about Europe, its countries, its people, its governance, its food, its weather, its music and its languages, and then wonder why people don’t vote for us in Eurovision once a year. Honestly, the nerve of those Eastern Europeans / Scandinavians / Iberians / Balkanites, always voting for their neighbours with whom they share a border, a culture, a history, an outlook, a language and a tendency to actually be nice to each other! Why do they hate us so much?! What’s the point of even being a part of Europe if we don’t get to win automatically just for being British?!



So in conclusion, Eurovision is great. It brings people together both at home and abroad. It gives Brits the opportunity to hear other languages and see other people doing stuff a bit differently. It has catchy music (sometimes). It’s a massive continent-wide party. And it’s an opportunity for eating lots of delicious food. I vote ‘In’.

One last treat: I shall leave you with my favourite Eurovision song of all time: Ukraine’s 2007 entry, Verka Serduchka with ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’. Good luck getting that out of your head for the next twenty years.


Gif credits:

Captain-America-In-The-Impala on Tumblr

Great British Crystal University’s Got Talent: An Examination Of Why Normal People Want To Compete On Television

Last week something rather exciting happened – I went to one of the regional Britain’s Got Talent auditions. I wasn’t auditioning, mainly because the Queen doesn’t want to see someone get up on stage and translate 19th-century French literature or embroider a bookmark (mind you, The Great Pottery Throwdown…). No, I was working, by which I mean hustling contestants back and forth down a corridor, asking them whether they’d come far, and trying to stop the amateur magicians from setting fire to the little dancing girls in their puffy and highly flammable tutus. I mention this not because I have an exclusive story to share about how Ant and Dec take their tea (I didn’t even get to meet them – stupid Australia and its stupid celebrity jungles), but because I watched all these people queuing up to be on TV and it made me think, “Why? Why would you do this?”

Now I’m no stranger to the ethereal pull of celebrity. One of the dearest possessions of my youth was my autograph book (contents: lots of Disneyland characters and Dave Benson Phillips); I own more wearable fan apparel than Hot Topic; and at the merest mention of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, elves, round doors or breakfast, I’ll immediately whip out my story about the time Sean Astin offered to play thumb wars with me. But, good lord, actually being famous – even for five minutes – must be terrifying.

Take talent competitions, for example. I’m going to be optimistic (/wilfully naive) and say that by the time the live shows begin, most of the bad contestants have been quietly rejected, leaving only those who are pretty good at what they do, whether that’s singing or dancing or beatboxing or baking or hunting for bargains. And yet they still fluff it, all the time. Think of all the people on The X Factor who’ve failed to hit high notes, forgotten the words, done a ball change instead of a box step or burst into tears in the middle of a song; recall the nonsensical catchphrases, bizarre product names and God-awful poetry that have been churned out as ‘good’ business ideas on The Apprentice; and what about Great British Bake Off‘s Custardgate (the year before Bingate, in case anyone’s keeping track), in which Deborah made the fatal error of using Howard’s custard?! These people aren’t complete newcomers to their chosen talent, so why are they sometimes so crap? I can only assume that the pressure is simply too much to bear: you want so much to do well and impress people that you lose all perspective, and everything you thought you knew becomes a distant memory as you suddenly find yourself desperately warbling a song about a man who can’t put his pants on properly because he hasn’t eaten breakfast.

So why do it? Well, obviously for the fame. And not just the ‘Get your thighs circled in red by Heat magazine then sell your wedding to OK‘ kind of fame either – it seems like a few people do manage to use the whole talent show process to their advantage. The number of cookery books released by GBBO contestants after appearing on the show runs into the dozens (witty titles include Edd Kimber’s Say It With Cake, Miranda Gore Brown’s Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can, Joanne Wheatley’s Ready, Steady, Bake!, and John Whaite’s John Whaite Bakes); and there are several people who’ve come out of singing competitions and actually managed to make a living as musicians, including Girls Aloud, Liberty X, Gareth Gates, Leona Lewis and ubiquitous pop-merchants One Direction. It’s a tiny percentage of the people who compete, and an even tinier percentage of the people who rock up to the auditions and queue for hours in the rain to get the chance to sing the chorus of an Adele song to a TV producer.

And, to be fair, some competitive TV programmes do look quite fun. I’m not the most active of people, but even I think it would be awesome to have a go at the Total Wipeout giant red balls. A long string of other contestants would already have made a complete mess of it, so you’d be in good company, and if the challenge is basically impossible for any creature without wings or a built-in propeller then you wouldn’t feel too awful about unceremoniously tumbling into the water, legs flailing like a drunken daddy-long-legs. Or, another show that would be amazing to take part in – The Crystal Maze. Screw the fame and the fabulous prizes (abseiling in the East Midlands, anyone?) – all a Crystal Maze contestant wants from their time on TV is the chance to get their hands on one of those crystals. A whole generation of Brits has surely dreamt about trying to unlock a small piece of shiny-ish plastic from a tiny cage as the room fills with water and people they thought were their friends scream at them and Richard O’Brien prances about in a leopard-print zoot suit. Well, that or plunging into the world of wonder and enchantment that was Fun House (it’s a whole lot of fun, prizes to be won, real wacky place etc.).

For me, personally, it seems like being on a good old-fashioned quiz show would be good fun. I love ’em, and they seem like the kind of thing I’d be quite good at… until the cameras turned towards me, at which point I’m 97% sure I’d throw up and run away (AKA ‘do a Mia Thermopolis’). Because, I mean, imagine being on University Challenge. Imagine actually sitting opposite Paxo (as well as some three million viewers) and having to do maths in binary and remember the reigns of all of Britain’s monarchs and recognise Così Fan Tutte from the first three notes played by the bassoon. No wonder the contestants often look absolutely petrified, and no wonder they sometimes mess up a bit, like the poor girl from Glasgow University last week who knew the right answer to a question but for some reason, unbeknownst even to herself, heard her name announced and immediately said something completely different. Massive kudos to her, though, for putting it behind her and carrying on with it. Equally massive kudos to her team-mate Brejevs (my personal favourite for this series, now sadly departed) for playing in his second language, and especially for staring Paxo down when his answer to the question about Chinese lunar modules was technically right, but not what Paxo had on the card. (“I asked for a translation” – you got one, mate, just not the one you expected. Synonyms, bitches!)

That said, some other quiz shows do seem as if they’d be a bit less scary to play. Not Mastermind, obviously, since the whole black chair / spotlight combo was clearly dreamed up by secret government ‘enhanced interrogators’. But something like Eggheads or The Chase – I think I’d be too busy wanting to wipe the smug pudgy smiles off the Eggheads’/Chasers’ smug pudgy faces that I’d forget how afraid I was. Or, of course, Only Connect, the other show that makes up Quizzy Mondays (I didn’t come up with that name – it was the BBC continuity announcer – but I wish I had because it’s so fantastically lame). Contestants on Only Connect always seem like they’re having a lovely time, perhaps because Victoria Coren Mitchell is (a) very sweet about saying how hard all the questions are and (b) so bonkers that viewers will be focussed on her anyway, regardless of how badly the players do. I mean, they don’t tend to smile much during their introductions, but that’s because the introductions are filled with the most banal facts known to man. I originally assumed that these just happened to be the most diverting stories that contestants had to offer, but the more I watch, the more I think they’re doing it on purpose – the fact that a person has watched Flash Gordon over a hundred times simply cannot be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them. (Interestingly, I recently saw a very early episode on Dave, and even during the intros the contestants were laughing uproariously. Then again, much was different back in the heady days of 2008. For one thing, the beloved lion, horned viper, two reeds, water, twisted flax and Eye of Horus had yet to appear, with the clue icons being the – quite frankly run-of-the-mill – first six Greek letters.)

You know what? Maybe I could do it. Maybe we all could. I mean, I’ve been on the radio and it really wasn’t that hard. (I had to read out the names of some sharks on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House – that’s what you get for going to a live recording of a programme and apparently looking like someone who might be able to read stuff into a microphone.) Maybe if you ignore the cameras and pick something you’re quite good at, competing on TV would be a nice day out and something pleasant for you to remember upon Christmas Day. Crawling round a maze carrying bits of rope? Doable. Mixing a bit of flour and sugar together? Easy as pie. Sitting in a chair and answering questions about stuff you really like? No probs.

One day, my friends. One day. And on that day, I will sit behind a shiny blue desk, keeping a perfectly straight face, as Victoria Coren Mitchell turns to me and says, “And to my right we have Screen-Eyed Monster, a television runner, who once nearly played thumb wars with Sean Astin.”

And I bet I would’ve won that too.

Playing Favourites with TV Talent Shows

Ah, autumn. The acrid smell of bonfire smoke, the fast-encroaching night, the crunchy red leaves that turn to sloppy brown mush as soon as the rain hits… and, of course, the autumn TV season. The delights this year are too many to mention (Downton Abbey, the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special, Sherlock, The Wrong Mans, Have I Got News for You, Atlantis, Agents of SHIELD, Moone Boy – OK, so I may have mentioned one or two). But this particular post deals with those two most edifying of shows, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor (if you’re not a fan of either, read on anyway, please).

Neither The X Factor nor Strictly is my special favourite talent show. That accolade went to the now apparently defunct series of programmes dedicated to finding a new star for a variety of musicals directed by Andrew Lloyd Webber – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do, I’d Do Anything, Over the Rainbow and the appalling Superstar, which caused the demise of the whole concept (ITV has many virtues, but in the case it took a fun, warm, jolly BBC show and turned it into a trashy, cold, stagey piece of nonsense. It’s fine, I’m completely over it).

But nonetheless we must talk about Strictly and X Factor because they are huge – I trust I will not have to use the phrase ‘talent show behemoth’ to make the point. Strictly, of course, takes a bunch of minor celebrities and teaches them to dance, and we viewers get to vote for whoever has (a) the lightest feet or (b) the heaviest and therefore most humorous feet, while X Factor takes a bunch of not-yet celebrities and teaches them to sing, and we viewers get to vote for whoever (a) sings the best or (b) looks most like our other favourite singers. On X Factor, the winner gets a recording contract and a butt-load of publicity, while on Strictly the winner gets… actually, I’m not sure what the winner gets. Some kind of glittery plastic trophy, I’d imagine.

Of course, any talent show has both terrible and wonderful elements, quite aside from the quality of the contestants. The Great British Bake Off: terrible = the dissonance between Paul Hollywood’s looks and his voice; wonderful = cake. Britain’s Got Talent: terrible = performing dogs (even Pudsey. There, I said it); wonderful = surprise opera singers. Masterchef: terrible = the hyperbole (‘Baking a soufflé DOESN’T GET TOUGHER THAN THIS’*); wonderful = this song.

So there are terrible parts about all talent shows, even the major ones. This week’s X Factor, for example, included a nasty new segment where each singer performed one by one, and some were chosen by the judges to sit in the special winners’ chairs at the side of the stage – BUT if all of a particular category’s chairs filled up and there were still singers left to audition, one of the chair-sitters who’d already been told they were through to the next round could be replaced by one of the new singers. In theory, it sounds complicated; in practice, it was brutal, and everyone – judges, contestants, viewers, the papers – hated it (except, presumably, whatever sadistic producer came up with the concept, placing viewing figures firmly above behaving like a human being). But even after this stage of the competition is over and the voting process becomes marginally less cruel, my bugbear will continue to be Louis Walsh, who to my mind is inexplicable. He’s managed some of the UK and Ireland’s most successful bands (Westlife, Boyzone, Girls Aloud, JLS), and yet he seems completely unable to recognise musical talent when it warbles at him. Innumerable are the times when the other three judges have said, ‘Hmm, I like you but you’re not right for this show’ and Louis has retorted, ‘What are you talking about? S/he’s perfect for this show!’; or, in contrast, when the other judges have said, ‘You, sir/madam, are the greatest singer since the human voice was invented’ and Louis has grumpily added, ‘I wasn’t that impressed’. In principle I support a politely challenging viewpoint, but all the time, Louis? ALL THE TIME?

Strictly, though much more jovial, also has its fair share of irritants. The music is one of these (though this may be rather a specialist grumble). I understand that the Song Choice Master wants people to hear songs they know, preferably with lyrics, but you can’t just pick any song with the right tempo and expect it to be suitable for dancing a paso doble. I mean, everyone loves a bit of Shania Twain (fact), but when was the last time you heard ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ and felt your feet slide naturally into a cha cha? And dancing the tango to Duran Duran? Come on, now. It’s especially distressing because it is possible to make great ballroom dancing music out of popular songs – Exhibit A: the fabulous tango version of ‘Roxanne’ from Moulin Rouge! As if that wasn’t enough, I get annoyed by the fact that I’m not allowed on the show simply because I’m not famous. I’m good at ballroom dancing, dammit!

But, all of that said, these kinds of talent shows have obviously become immensely popular and show no signs of disappearing (apart from How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, sob). The key, I think, is a simple one: we like to be rooting for one of the contestants. The point was well made on Radio 4 a few weeks ago, during the programme It’s Not What You Know (which you should listen to, by the way, if only for the dulcet and delectable tones of Miles Jupp). One of the guests said that she could watch pretty much anything (motor racing, synchronised swimming, darts) as long as she had chosen her favourite competitor; it didn’t matter why she picked them (‘Sometimes I like their hair’), only that she had, and she was now invested in the programme because she had an opinion about it.

So here are my choices for this season’s competitive shows. Great British Bake Off: whoever makes the best chocolate cake. Masterchef (when it returns): whoever makes the best chocolate cake. Never Mind the Buzzcocks: Phill Jupitus, because Noel Fielding wears stupid clothes. Only Connect: the Board Gamers, because the captain is the one with the funny hair from last year’s University Challenge. Relatedly, University Challenge: Exeter College Oxford, because it’s my alma mater and we never do very well, bless us. Strictly: Rachel Riley, because she’s very sweet and incredibly patient on both Countdown and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, both of which are probably hell to work on, for very different reasons.

And now X Factor – hmm, that’s a tricky one. It would have been Tenors of Rock, because they could actually sing and were a bit different from some of the clone-a-likes thrown up in the other categories, but of course they were unceremoniously booted out during the Sadistic Chairs of Hell round because they ‘don’t represent today’s music’ (i.e. they’re actually quite talented**). Out of the girls I like Hannah Barrett, because, man, can she properly sing; in the ‘Overs’ category (without getting started on the patronising title and the absurdity of the fact that the category starts at the decrepit old age of 25), I’d be chuffed if either Lorna Simpson or Shelley Smith won; most of the boys seem identical to me (not helped by many of them singing the same songs), so I’m going to have to vote for Paul Akister; and Brick City are my favourite of the groups because they were the only ones who managed not to make their harmonies sound like kitty murder. So there we go. If/when all of those get knocked out, I guess my X Factor dream, like theirs, will be over, and it’ll be back to watching reruns of old westerns where you can confidently get behind the one in the white hat in the safe knowledge that he’s definitely not going to get voted off.

Cake, anyone?


*Does one even bake a soufflé? I neither know nor care.

** Bit of satire for you there.


Just in case you didn’t click on it earlier, this song is genuinely amazing. It will make your day. Possibly your life. Mash-ups don’t get funnier than this.