Tag Archives: X Factor

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.

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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?

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

** Bit of satire for you there.

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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.