Real men do watch reality television
From Strictly to The X Factor, guys are getting in on the act, writes Christopher Middleton
These days, ultimate domestic authority is no longer a matter of who wears the trousers, but of who holds the TV remote. And on a Saturday night, in the average household, the finger on the channel-changing button is unquestionably female.
It's been that way for the past six years, in our home, certainly. Ever since the start of Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor.
For the first five series or so, I used to view the living room as a Saturday night no-guy zone: a strictly women-only area, not to be entered until the last sobbing screen contestant had been sent home, and real-life wife and daughters cleared off the soft furnishings in time for Match of the Day.
Recently, though, I confess, I have found myself starting to watch these shows. Maybe it's to do with the football starting ever later (sometimes not until 11pm). Maybe it's because, like those river fish you read about, we chaps have overdone the oestrogen-ingesting and have started to become all feminised in our tastes. Maybe, more prosaically, it's because when I used to call up my mother, to complain about being exiled from my own armchair, she'd say she was watching Strictly, and could I call back later.
Either way, I used to watch these programmes perched temporarily on a sofa arm, and with a permanent sneer on my lips.
Over the past couple of series, however, I have slid imperceptibly and inextricably down into the cushions, and these days, am to be found viewing proceedings not through a filter of scorn, but through a thin mist of manly tears.
Ask me in the cold light of a Monday morning if I feel ashamed about this, and I'll nod my head sadly to the effect that I do. Ask me at 10pm on a Saturday night, even (or 9pm on a Sunday, don't forget the results shows), if I feel a bit, well, grubby, and the answer again is yes.
After two and a half hours of having your emotions manipulated by some invisible masseur, you can't help feeling a bit wrung-out, like a used towel.
But in the heat of the programme, when the pasa doble is pounding, the sequins are sparkling, and you can see from those boy or girl bands' faces just how much they want it, just how much work they've put into it, and how completely and utterly gutted they'll be if they go home tonight, then I'm sorry; I can no longer pretend I'm not enjoying the whole experience.
The question is, why? I mean, up until I got hooked on these shows, my favourite Saturday night programme had involved a panel of experts (acidic Alan Hansen, flowery Mark Lawrenson, bland Alan Shearer and upbeat Gary Lineker) passing judgment on the sweaty endeavours of a cast of regulars (Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard et al).
Why, then, would I want to watch a panel of experts (acidic Simon Cowell and Craig Revel Horwood, flowery Louis Walsh and Bruno Tonioli, bland Alesha Dixon and Dannii Minogue, upbeat Cheryl Cole and Len Goodman) passing judgment on the sweaty endeavours of a cast of regulars?
Ah. Now I understand. These shows are actually sport, or a kind of sport-plus, really. In which not only are there lots of reassuringly masculine participants, many with rugby or soccer pedigrees (Gavin Henson, Peter Shilton, and so on), but there's a crowd-pleasing number of attractive female players (Felicity Kendal, Patsy Kensit), plus, best of all, you can watch it with women beside you, and not have them keep asking about the offside rule.
And don't underestimate the drama, either. As in any Shakespearian play, you've got goodies, baddies and the ill-starred-from-the-start (step forward the middle-aged X Factor contestants, such as Storm Lee and the wild-haired Wagner Carrilho).
There are bravehearts and buffoons, there are beauties and there are Bottoms, and, at the end of it all, unlike your average night out at the cinema or theatre, you get to decide who is doomed and who is saved.
Yes, it's repetitive, yes it's the same recipe each week. It's finger-licking TV fast food, of course it is, and it's to be gobbled down at one go.
Fortunately, though, the programme that follows straight after The X Factor results show on Sunday, is the wonderful Downton Abbey, a costume drama for the altogether more gourmet gawper.
Put them both together, and you've got the perfectly balanced diet.