Monday 19 March 2018

How the X Factor lost the wow factor

The X Factor judges Louis Walsh, Tulisa Contostavlos, Kelly Rowland and Gary Barlow
The X Factor judges Louis Walsh, Tulisa Contostavlos, Kelly Rowland and Gary Barlow

Judith Woods

Last year, it was unmissable. Now it’s pretty well unwatchable. I've fallen out of love with one of our greatest family shows.

A very peculiar thing happened on Saturday night. The phone rang. And I answered it. To put this in context, the voice on the other end of the line was shot through with such baffled discombobulation that I almost wished I hadn’t.

“Sorry, I expected your answering machine,” it said. “I never thought you’d pick up – I mean, it’s a Saturday night, X Factor is on! OMG, is your telly broken?”

“No,” I sighed, my lower lip atremble. “It’s X Factor that’s kaput. A busted flush. Out of whack. Woefully unfit for purpose – the purpose being oddly addictive, if shamefully banal, entertainment.”

And with that, I laid down the receiver and returned to the sofa with a heavy heart, wondering whether I should abandon my nine-year-old daughter and join my husband in the relative discomfort of the kitchen to watch Terror Weapon of the Somme on Channel 4. But as that would have been even more parlous parenting than usual, I compromised by playing iScrabble on my phone instead, casting an occasional glance at the screen.

And you know, every time I did, I felt a little bit (I can’t believe I’m saying this) bored. Where was the breathtaking son et lumière of a new star being born from the gas and dust clouds of the burnt-out wannabes? The Sturm und Drang of the talented and the temperamental clashing over musical directions? The heartbreaking personal journeys from respectable call-centre operator to high-kicking sequinned floozie?

They may well have been hidden in there somewhere, sandwiched between the fey wee lassie with the Pre-Raphaelite hair whose name eludes me and one of the identikit skinny-jeaned boybands whose names also elude me, but – and here’s the real tragedy – I didn’t care enough to pay attention.

Last year my husband joined us on the soft furnishings long enough to know the difference between gung-ho Mary from Tesco and nectar-voiced, if cripplingly shy, Rebecca Fergusson.

We shed a metaphorical tear for Gamu, a beauty who sang like an angel and was unaccountably axed – nothing at all to do with the inconvenient downer of a deportation threat. No, really. Heck, we even joined the nation in booing creepy and embittered Storm Lee and weird skinny rapper Cher Lloyd. And why? Because the X Factor was cool, a must-see, its ups and downs the currency of playground conversation, appointment television at its most divert-all-calls urgent.

And now we are joining the nation in falling out of love with the show that pretty much defined family viewing for the past seven years. Audience numbers are plunging – down two million compared with the same point last year – and the number of telephone votes has also taken a tumble.

I’m not sure why this should be. Because I’m the first to admit that come Saturday night, my viewing expectations and demands are so common denominator, bog-standard low, that I have been known to tune into Channel 5.

After a long week, both of work and of intense intellectual engagement with the family – Daughter One: “Mummy, how much does the sky weigh?” Why, the same as 570,000,000,000,000 Indian elephants, darling. And Daughter Two: “Mummy a wibble pants, I love Daddy” – I just need a large glass of wine and a little diversion.

I thought I would miss Bambi-eyed Cheryl Cole, but – no Cheryl, please don’t cry again – I don’t. Maybe it’s the absence of chemistry among the new judges – although, to be fair, Kelly Rowland and Tulisa are satisfactorily fulfilling the main brief, which is carefully to maintain a dress sense that wildly oscillates between fashion-forward harlot and frumpy harlot. Sexist? Yes. True? Also yes.

Could the problem, then, be stodgy Gary Barlow? He tries hard to fill Simon Cowell’s high-waisted trousers with a bit of grumbling and the odd attempt at a fixed death-stare, but simply doesn’t possess the crucial Pantomime Baddie gene.

And don’t get me started on his dismal song choices. I can fully see why he bombed as a solo artist, given the wilfully obscure numbers he selects. Now, kids, I’m no Dave Lee Travis, but I know a thing or two about laying down wicked hot tracks.

And I’ve never heard of any of the songs he saddles his protégés with. Not one. Neither, crucially, has my nine-year-old, who is a member of the programme’s key constituency and just the sort of sparky self-starter who might be persuaded to sneak out of the room and register a telephone vote, at (my) great expense. But even she isn’t nearly as engaged as she used to be.

Rather alarmingly, the only thing we do know about this year’s intake is that one of the male contestants (I forget which, possibly the youth with the unfortunate Rod Stewart hair and Spandex pants) has a list of girls’ names tattooed on his bottom and has pulled down his trousers to show them off. Nice.

But mooning, and shock votes to throw contestants out of the competition, can’t make up for a tired format. Or the current crop of hopefuls who don’t really stand out, from each other or anyone else for that matter.

One girl popped up this week I swear I’d never clapped eyes on before, and who I can only assume had been previously mislaid in the folds of Misha B’s vast taffeta landslide.

Despite tabloid attempts to whip up controversy with whispers of romance, claims that Kelly Rowland is a diva or Louis Walsh feels sidelined, there’s a growing sense of apathy.

Compassion fatigue has set in when it comes to the cynically promoted sob stories and it’s hard to hear the oft-repeated phrases, “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me”, or, “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do in life”, and not shout: “That’s because you are only 17 and the biggest thing to happen to you so far has been puberty and GCSEs!”

Viewers seem to have been more beguiled by the gaudy allure of grown-ups on Strictly Come Dancing: the ballroom show had 9.6 million viewers when it finished at 8.15pm, while the X Factor, which was 30 minutes into the show at that point, had 8.8 million.

As to who might take the coveted X Factor crown this time, I have no idea and not much interest. I may well be in the room when the final comes on, but I can’t imagine I’ll be watching.

If you’re wondering what to do on a Saturday night, I would like to recommend a low-cost, low-tech, highly rewarding alternative, where age and experience count for much more than silly hair and swagger: a haven of peace amid the pounding basslines and soaring middle eights, the suggestive gyrating and the bum notes.

Come closer and I’ll whisper. Turn off the telly and dust off the Scrabble: it will be the best R&R you’ll have had for years.

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