Sunday 25 February 2018

Simon's show still has the X factor

Amid all the focus on Simon Cowell's departure, there's no appreciation of how good 'The X Factor' is, says Eilis O'Hanlon

The X Factor without Simon Cowell is like Hamlet without the prince. It's ER without George Clooney, Dallas without JR, Dynasty without Alexis, the Muppets without Miss Piggy. Everything looks vaguely familiar, but the spark isn't there. The lights are on but no one's at home.

That's the theory anyway; and it's not altogether without merit. Simon Cowell has a certain dark ambience, which brings to all the shows in which he's involved an edge of unpredictability and danger.

He has a charm to which viewers, even those who dislike him, can't help responding. No one apart from the deluded contestants ever believed that the appeal of The X Factor was in watching a bunch of second-rate singers claw their way to a Christmas No 1, followed, in most cases, by immediate oblivion and a future of daytime TV and panto turns in British seaside towns.

It was the gladiatorial element of the battle between the judges that kept interest up through the long months from auditions to series finale, and when it came to orchestrating that symphony of discord, Simon Cowell had no match.

Taking him out of the equation was like trying to make I'm A Celebrity minus the bug eating contests. You might be slightly ashamed of yourself for enjoying the gruesome spectacle, but honestly, without the chance to watch some ex-star of EastEnders gagging on a witchety grub, what's the point of tuning in at all?

There's also something distinctly postmodern about this year's show, as if the acts are merely playing pre-rehearsed roles based on classic characters of old -- with Kitty Brucknell as this year's Katie Waissel, the slightly kooky performer who has lots of talent but the audience just won't love her; and Frankie as another Jamie Cope, or a younger Storm Lee, so desperate to be a rock star that it almost hurts. (Question for Frankie: how many rock stars ever made it big by being on a glorified version of Opportunity Knocks? Answer : none). You just know he's destined to end his time grumbling that it wasn't for him anyway, because the show's producers "wouldn"t let me be myself".

Even when the audience boos Gary Barlow's putdowns of the most obviously deluded contestants this year, it's almost like a nostalgic imitation cheer to someone doing a tribute act of their favourite former love-to-hate-him judge.

Having said all that, one thing remains undeniably true: The X Factor is still a great TV show. When it comes to sitting down on a Saturday night with a glass (or, better still, a bottle) of wine and zonking out on mental candy floss, nothing comes close. In the blizzard of disappointment that has surrounded the departure of maestro Cowell, we're in danger of forgetting what fun it is.

To listen to some of the criticisms that have rained down on the show's head since it began its current run, you'd think that the diva tantrums and knife-edge eliminations of old had been replaced by Prime Time-style discussions on fiscal rectitude. Barlow's a teeny bit boring, but he generally plays the alpha male role with ease.

Louis Walsh has settled back effortlessly into his traditional clown at the feast persona. Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue aren't missed in the slightest. Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos have been great.

Tulisa is feisty, tough, passionate. There were a few tears earlier on, which raised concerns that it was all going to get a bit girly, but she rediscovered her inner street fighter after Bullygate, when Misha B was accused live on air of being mean to fellow contestants, and mentor Kelly went off on one spectacularly in response. The frosty silence that followed made the North Pole seem balmy.

This week, Barlow allegedly advised his fellow judges to "stop bickering", but if he had any sense he'd leave it well alone. There has been a less conspicuously nasty atmosphere in the auditorium this time out, with no boorish intimidation of the less favoured acts, and that's a welcome development; but with judges, conflict is what we want as viewers.

The past two weeks, with Kelly flying off back to America after her fight with Tulisa, leaving her girls to battle on alone, culminating in two of them being in the bottom two last Sunday, was X Factor drama at its classic best.

Viewing figures are down this year, it's true. It was beaten by Strictly Come Dancing for the first time in four years last Saturday -- all the more galling when Cowell's US version of X Factor is topping the ratings, albeit in a less competitive midweek slot and with an audience only half as big as for the most recent season of American Idol. But the British version is still drawing in a massive audience by any standards.

Last Sunday's elimination of Sophie was watched by more than 13 million people. That's greater than the entire population of Ireland, Norway, Luxembourg, Estonia, Montenegro, Cyprus and Iceland combined. If that's failure, we could all do with more of it. So maybe a few people have gotten impatient with the endlessness of the show, which does seem to go on forever, with interminable ad breaks; and maybe this year's contestants are less of a vintage crop then before.

It may even be that lots of us are still sulking a bit, like jilted lovers, because Simon's gone and left us for a more glamorous mistress. But instead of complaining about what The X Factor isn't, we should keep celebrating it for what it is.

It's almost as if the critics this year made a collective decision not to give X Factor a fair wind, having presumed in advance that the narrative arc of the show would be one of dashed hopes and faded glory. The only story that they wanted to tell was the one where a tipping point was reached and then it was downhill all the way. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while. All they're doing is giving succour to the naysayers who never liked the show anyway.

You know the type. They're the ones who would never deign to sully their weekends with anything so vulgar and low brow and, horror of horrors, popular. They'd rather we were all watching a documentary on the Palestinian diaspora. They're the ones who practically caused a typhoon last weekend with their collective sigh of relief on realising that someone they considered to be an intellectual had been elected to the Aras.

Well, stuff the lot of them. The X Factor is terrific. Stop agonising about it and just enjoy. Now, who fancies another glass of wine?

Sunday Independent

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