Monday, 31 August 2015

Craven something deeper from horror

Horror directors are often mischaracterised as schlock merchants; exploitative hacks, happy to pander to the basest instincts of a lowest-common-denominator audience. In a genre that regularly suffers from an absence of wit, characters become little more than ciphers, kept alive long enough to lose their shirt, and their virginity shortly thereafter, before being hacked to pieces in gory detail. And the films themselves? Many struggle to pad out ninety minutes, with little in the way of story, dialogue or a compelling motivation for the killer or their victims. 

And so it was, in 1996, that Wes Craven decided to bite the hand that had been feeding him for over twenty years, with Scream; a film that managed to assassinate and resurrect this most maligned of genres with one slash of a serrated hunting knife. Unusually for Craven, his role here was as a director for hire - the screenplay was all the work of Kevin Williamson, a young screenwriter who'd grown up on the films of Craven, Carpenter and Cunningham. 

An auteur in the truest sense, Craven usually scripted his own movies, but something in Scream (at the time, called Scary Movie) spoke to his frustration with the genre he'd made his own. And although much of the arch dialogue and knowing references bit their thumb at well-established cliches, Craven knew that he was exempt from much of this criticism. Because Craven never played by the rules. He wanted us to believe that the hills had eyes, and that his horror films had a brain. 

Wes Craven was never supposed to be a film-maker. His strictly religious upbringing meant he had no access to TV or movies, and only began his love affair with film when he went off to college. Academia seemed more suited to his quietly introspective and intellectual demeanour, which is why he started out a Professor of Humanities. After some behind-the-scenes work with his friend Sean Cunningham, who was later to create the Friday 13th franchise, the pair concocted a low-budget concept for a horror film. 

Depicting the graphic rape and murder of two teenage girls at the hands of a gang of drug addicts, and the violent revenge exacted by one of the girls' parents, Last House On The Left was a gruelling and unpleasant experience. But even in those early, lo-fi days, where Craven's ambition greatly outweighed his technical proficiency, critics were aware that there was a thoughtful intelligence behind the graphic cruelty. After all, few low budget horrors crowding the bill at the local drive-in could lay claim to being a contemporary re-telling of an Ingmar Bergman classic.

Last House On The Left was followed in 1978 by The Hills Have Eyes, which depicted a family fighting for their lives against an inbred posse of mutants in the desert. The story was inspired by the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic clan, and once again featured graphic violence, dark humour, and a subtle commentary on the nature of 'civilisation.' As in his debut, Craven was keen to explore the tipping point between civility and retribution, since he was fascinated with our own dark reflection. When pushed to the limit, he argued, we all have the potential to become as feral and bloodthirsty as our tormentors. 

The early eighties were initially a fallow period, as Craven tried his hand at comic book movies (the forgettable Swamp Thing adaptation) and religious cults (Deadly Blessing), before creating the most iconic horror character of the last thirty years. A Nightmare On Elm Street was dismissed by every studio in Hollywood as a late entry in the already out-of-favour slasher cycle. A relentless barrage of derivative and tedious films had worn out their welcome with an undiscriminating audience with a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for seeing nubile young teens being chopped to pieces by an anonymous psycho in a mask. 

Thankfully, Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema, saw something different in Craven's script. There was a teasing surrealism to the dream sequences, strongly written lead characters, and an enigmatic villain with a truly unique weapon - inspired by mankind's primordial fear of animal claws. In Freddy Krueger, Craven had created a genuinely iconic villain who was to Fangoria magazine what Princess Diana was to the Daily Express. The parade of sequels (most of which, with the exception of Part 3, had no input from Craven) may have turned him into the Bob Hope of horror, but Craven's unrelenting original made him terrifying, unpredictable and unforgettable.   

Buoyed by his first truly mainstream hit, Craven explored other areas of the genre - rarely recapturing the same level of financial success, but always with the same creative vigour and vision. Many fans argue that 1989's Shocker was probably the low point in his career, as his mandate to create a 'new Freddy' was a little too obvious. As a psychopathic TV repairman with a psychic link to his estranged son, Mitch Pileggi seemed to enjoy his one outing as Horace Pinker, but even Craven's most devoted fans could tell that this was no franchise starter. Even so, Shocker enabled the auteur to pointedly satirise the wasteland of late eighties TV, culminating in an inspired chase and fight sequence that saw hero and villain interrupting multiple broadcasts across a number of channels. 

Craven was back firing on all cylinders in 1991, when he turned his disgust at stories of teenage victims abducted and imprisoned in seemingly ordinary suburban homes, into a coruscating satire of Reaganomics. He even cast Ed and Nadine Hurley (from TV's Twin Peaks) as a hyper-real take on Ron and Nancy, literally devouring the urban underclass, when they weren't applying the old adage of 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' with a brutal literalism. The film failed to find a mainstream audience, but those that recognised the political subtext, could see that here was a master at the height of his craft. 

This winning streak continued in 1994 when Craven boldly decided to revisit his most successful creation; this time adding a meta-commentary about the role of horror films in a world with no shortage of real-life terrors. Craven was always a firm believer that the genre offers a cathartic release for audiences, and chose to explore this through a story which saw the cast of the original Elm Street returning to play themselves. Long before Larry David applied a similar conceit to improvisational comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Craven envisaged a heightened reality that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. In the process, he made informed observations about humanity's need to contain evil through story-telling, and managed to make Freddy Krueger genuinely terrifying again. Scream may have popularised the meta-horror subgenre, but Wes Craven's New Nightmare invented it. 

In reflection, it's easy to see the appeal of the Scream franchise to someone like Craven. Not only did Williamson's script offer some ingeniously structured set-pieces, it gave him ample opportunity to interrogate the clichés and conventions of a genre that often favoured insides over insights. Once again, he also demonstrated a sharp eye for casting, assembling a surprising ensemble that included Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox and The Fonz. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns saw the scares dwindle as the glib dialogue increased, but all were shot with ruthless efficiency and a keen eye for staging. 

Along the way, Craven also tried his hand at Oscar-baiting melodrama, scoring a nomination for Meryl Streep as a music teacher, an ill-advised vampire comedy with a 'difficult' Eddie Murphy, and a fast-moving thriller shot in almost-real-time. But it's only right that he should be remembered as a master of horror.

Wes Craven passed away today at the age of 76, from brain cancer. Part of the reason this news came as such a shock, was that he had shown no signs of slowing down, with novels, TV shows and films still in active development. Still, he leaves us with an incomparable legacy of classic films, that will continue to frighten and inspire future generations. 

But even as we look back at his career, it's worth remembering the now-legendary strap line from his film debut. The posters might have screamed "Keep telling yourself, it's ONLY a movie..." But whenever Wes was involved, it was always something more.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Counting the Costa

In case you missed it, today’s Daily Express front cover is yet another lazy attack on the BBC, screaming indignantly that “This is how the BBC is spending your money,” over the revelation that Songs of Praise is being filmed at the migrant camp in Calais. Now, I’m as annoyed as anyone that Songs of Praise is still on the air, but the fact is, the BBC has never been short of critics for what some see as institutionalised profligacy.

Similar accusations were levelled at the corporation back in the early 1990s, when it was revealed that the BBC was building a huge complex on the Costa Del Sol for its bold new serialised drama. Costing somewhere in the region of £10m, the critics were piling onto Eldorado before a single awkward, barely audible minute had even been filmed.

It could have all turned out so differently. In those heady days of pre-Maastricht enthusiasm, there seemed to be a genuine desire to embrace an informal European Union. At that time, the only acknowledgement of a bustling, dynamic Europe on our TV screens was the curious Henry Kelly-fronted quiz Going For Gold. Here, a retired dinner lady from Bolton could effortlessly wipe the floor with a PhD from Luxembourg, simply because all the questions were in English. We were, as a nation, cautiously optimistic about feeling more connected to Europe – intrigued by the possibilities of open boarders, if not exactly cock-a-hoop at the idea of a continental breakfast in Bridlington.

In the seven years since its debut, EastEnders had grown into a ratings juggernaut – regularly besting Coronation Street - despite its oppressively downbeat tone and the kind of styling that made its cast look as if they’d crawled from the wreckage of a burning meth lab. What was needed was a sunny, cheerful, multi-cultural froth – focusing on a diverse group of ex-pats, unfolding sofa beds, regretting the sangria, and suspiciously sniffing the unfamiliar cheese on the Costa.

Created by the ‘can’t-fail’ duo of Tony Holland and Julia Smith, Eldorado attempted to mine its mostly light-hearted drama from the interconnectivity of a community that found friendship and love could overcome any linguistic boundary. Or, at least, that was the idea. The reality, was notably less auspicious.

For a start, the race to begin filming required a number of short-cuts to be taken on the casting front. Filling out the core British cast with native German, French, Spanish and Danish speakers was a noble venture, but the casting directors forgot to check the English capabilities of their European performers.

Within their own homes, the characters would converse in their native tongue, which managed to disguise a multitude of sins. Bizarrely, the powers-that-be had decided that viewers didn’t need subtitles to follow these scenes; ignoring the fact that even Meryl Streep would struggle to convey the complexity and nuance of unpaid spa bills in Danish. Elsewhere, the actors were forced to communicate in English, a task that many of them made seem about as effortless as riding a hostess trolley around Brands Hatch.

Not that the British cast members fared much better – many of them delivered their own dialogue as though they were being prompted off screen in semaphore. Unsurprisingly, only the older performers had any chance of redeeming themselves; when they weren’t struggling with what appeared to be some hastily-fitted dentures.

As if the dialogue and delivery weren’t problematic enough, matters weren’t helped by the appalling acoustics created by the purpose-built set. Unlike regular British soaps, which tend to alternate between outside broadcasts for exterior shots and studio locations for interiors, Eldorado was all shot on location. The sound bounced around the whitewashed walls, creating a kind of echo-chamber, where every line sounded somehow less convincing with every reverberation.

The show itself went through three key phases, during its tragically short life. The first, was its chaotic opening, as a complex tapestry of faces, names and language skills attempted to deliver tons of expository dialogue and background character details that could have been ripped off wholesale from Blind Date – filed under “What’s your name, and where do you come from?”

The show’s creators were clearly struggling as well. They seemed to be aiming for a light screwball tone for much of the first few episodes, but as a consequence, this left half the unprepared cast acting as if they’d suffered a head injury. With no discernible plots to pursue, and a knack for conversation that made Siri seem warm and engaging, many of the secondary characters floundered. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the need for a dramatic overhaul was announced.

With new producers on board, briefed to clean house with extreme prejudice, the second phase of Eldorado took a decidedly dark turn. Those performers whose line delivery was about as reliable as second class post, were given their marching orders – and probably still needed help following the directions. As the actors were issued with one-way Ryanair flights back to Luton, their characters were hastily written out of the show. And given how irrelevant most of them were, the writers seemed to revel in their own ruthlessness.

Fizz, initially set up to bring a touch of youthful glamour, went missing overnight, only to die off-screen when her body washed up under Brighton Pier. This revelation came in the form of one of those two-hander episodes so beloved by EastEnders, but lost much of its impact delivered by a hyperactive Nick Moran in a badly-lit apartment. Likewise, the sudden revelation that bumbling middle-aged restaurateur Bunny was actually a predatory, opportunistic paedophile, seemed needlessly dark. 

At around the same time, Gavin and Alan Hindle who, in another life, could have sustained a whole series of Magaluf Weekender, were dispatched back to Nottingham when one of them contracted schizophrenia in the time it takes to brush the sand off a deckchair.

And then there was the double-whammy of Javier. First, he was revealed to be Paco, the not-so-imaginary secret lover of Freddie, the only gay in the villa, on the eve of his wedding to Ingrid. But before viewers had a chance to process the first decent cliff-hanger in Eldorado’s history, Javier died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the very next episode. Given that most soaps feel the need to reveal their hand slowly – Bobby Beale will probably have an OBE by the time the whole of Albert Square discovers his secret – this rapid-fire approach to revelations rewarded those of us who’d stuck with the show through its so-bad-it’s-good era. We thrilled to the idea that anyone could and would be wiped out at a moment’s notice. Think Game of Thrones, but with a few more crocodile-shaped lilos.

The axing of all that dead wood, did allow certain other characters to shine, albeit not always for the right reasons. In particular, the creators’ desire to celebrate the diversity of Europe often fell into caricature and cliché.

Put-upon housewife Gwen was such a sad-sack that we half expected to see King Edwards stencilled onto her blouse, and her belligerent drunken Scottish husband made Rab C Nesbitt seem subtle by comparison. In contrast to Gwen’s never-ending despair, there was Isabelle Leduc, the French housewife and aspiring novelist who was a constantly simmering volcano of sexual longing. Delivering all her lines as if she was hyperventilating into a brown paper bag, she was forever punching away at a typewriter in a shimmering nightie, or cheating on her mahogany husband whenever he disappeared to give another tennis lesson.

Olive the English busybody was an elderly Mail-reading spinster, and 'Snowy' White was a feckless Irish handyman straight out of the Builders episode of Fawlty Towers. Then there was Marcus Tandy. A slick-haired snake oil salesman who dressed like he'd fallen out of a Bacardi ad, Maaarrrrrkkuusss was forever barking orders into a phone so large that it pushed the very definition of ‘mobile.’ And that's just scratching the surface of this lukewarm gazpacho of multi-culturalism quietly curdling in the midday sun.

And yet some indefinable quality, barely visible to the naked eye, kept viewers coming back. Not many, admittedly. Six months in, and it sometimes felt like there were more people appearing in Eldorado, than actually watching it back home. By this point, the show had evolved (as much by accident as by design) into a pretty compelling soap opera, but unfortunately; it was too little, too late.

The final phase of Eldorado’s short-lived time on BBC One came, ironically, after the axe had already fallen. Alan Yentob decided to cut his losses and called time on Joy’s bar. By this point, the cast members surviving those dark early days had finally grown into their roles, the sound engineers had fixed the audio, and the producers had delivered some genuinely gripping drama.

As it hobbled to its unavoidable conclusion, one year after that inauspicious debut, the fans finally had a show to match its initial promise. Sadly, the rumoured ending, expected to involve the entire cast being driven off a cliff during an excursion, never materialised. Instead, after 159 episodes, the final credits rolled on a brave, foolhardy experiment, with lyrics added to its plink-plonky theme, now entitled “When You Go Away.”  The final shots saw cheeky bad-boy Marcus Tandy and Pilar “You’re gettin’ right up my nose” Moreno ride off into the sunset, after a failed assassination attempt.

A few weeks ago, someone with far too much time on their hands uploaded the entire series to YouTube, so it can be preserved in all its tarnished glory. So treat yourself to a guided tour of Los Barcos. Stop by Joy’s Bar for a happy hour cocktail, be serenaded by the ageless (and largely tuneless) Trish Valentine, or try renting one of the eight films in Spain’s most under-stocked video library. You’ll be sure of a warm welcome, even if Eldorado was never afforded the same privilege.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Two kitchens or two Jags? Why we shouldn’t give two shits.

The morning after the Opposition Leaders’ debate, and Nigel Farage is busy attacking the BBC for its “liberal bias,” arguing that it packed the audience with lefties, solely to jeer at his Dad’s Army-era world-view. And true to type, this will initiate yet another debate about the BBC’s perceived lack of objectivity. Never mind the fact that the right wing has such stranglehold on the majority of our news media that ITV is considering adding “News for Hard-Working Families” to the opening titles of its six o’clock bulletin. 
But look – see how easy it is to lose sight of the real story? Instead of leading the coverage with Farage’s complaint, journalists should be doing their job. Perhaps they could argue that even the most UKIP-favourable polls have the ‘people’s army’ topping out at around 12%. That means 88% of any random sampling of people is likely to be anywhere from ambivalent to violently opposed to Farage and his chaotic rabble of unreconstructed racists, sexists and homophobes. No wonder then, that the trout-faced lunatic encountered some vocal opposition from the crowd last night. He must get that wherever he goes, except that in most cases he can’t blame the BBC for the boos. He probably thinks that it’s Kirsty Wark leaving flaming bags of feces on his doorstep. 
Sadly, today’s politicians are masters of obfuscation rather than diplomacy. So instead of addressing difficult truths with well-articulated rebuttals, they simply change the subject. In the popular US drama Scandal, ‘political fixer’ Olivia Pope regularly advises her troubled clients to “Change the narrative.” It’s a simple enough tactic, made even easier when our complacent news media are willing to chase the stick every time it’s thrown. And it’s getting worse.
In the five years since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into their unholy union, we’ve seen unprecedented attacks on vast swathes of the population. Zero-hour contracts replacing reliable employment, job seekers forced into unpaid placements in massive organisations, and a whole class of people mischaracterised as scroungers, cheats and layabouts. 
Now, with a new election looming, and the opportunity to kick the coalition out on their pin-striped arse tantalisingly close, attention has finally switched to the people in power, rather than the ones silently pouring their drinks, parking their cars and cleaning their kitchens. Unfortunately, the news media still seems unwilling to unpack the real issues at the heart of the debate. Instead, they keep amplifying the government’s talking points.
Yesterday, you may have noticed that all the right-wing tabloids were falling over themselves to level accusations of hypocrisy and double standards at the Labour Party. It seems that the Tories’ out-of-touch Bullingdon Club ethos is rendered moot; if it can be proved that prominent Labour figures occasionally shop at Waitrose or drop the kids off at school in an A-Class. 
So instead of coming up with a tangible rejoinder to accusations of wealth inequality under our current government (and a Conservative Party manifesto that determined to make matters worse), they're pointing their fingers at the opposition and simply attempting to smear Labour with the same ivory-handled brush.
"Look," they cry, "Ed Miliband has a nanny, and house that's big enough for two kitchens. Such rank hypocrisy for a party that claims to be for the working man [and woman]." As a consequence, the public do as they’re told, concluding that, where politicians are concerned, they’re all as bad as each other.
In fact, this notion of the ‘Champagne socialist' is an asinine non-argument. It’s rhetoric that’s long been favoured in the U.S., where Republicans have spent decades attempting to portray the Democrats as the party of snooty elitists, in order to encourage working class people to vote against their own best interests. Now, our own news media is employing similar tactics, and no-one has the balls to take these venal, disingenuous toadies to task, for repeating the same old fallacies.
Here’s the shocker - being in a position of wealth does not preclude the desire to see a more fair and equitable society. Or, for that matter, the determination and drive to make it happen. Likewise, having money, and empathising with those who do not, are not mutually exclusive concepts. This is something that our current government (and their complicit friends in the press) struggle to comprehend.
I've always argued that, when it comes to determining the suitability of our public servants, intellect and IQ are far less relevant than emotional intelligence. Whether it's blithe comments made by politicians about how easy it is to live on the minimum wage, to the on-going campaign of misinformation about the benefits system and its dependents, inequality is always exacerbated by an unwillingness or inability to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes.
That's why we should refuse to sit silently by, as people who want to make the world a little fairer, a little more equal, and a little more liveable for the majority, are lambasted for having the audacity to enjoy the trappings of a successful life themselves. The fact is, a life of comfort and convenience is something to which we all aspire. There's certainly no shame in that. It's just that some of us are a little more willing to try and afford other people the same opportunity.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Lessons to be learned - The Apprentice Week 1

Ahead of the tenth series of The Apprentice, which kicked off this week with an overpopulated double bill, the BBC ran a cleverly edited compilation, designed to bring the uninitiated up-to-date, as well as celebrate some of the show’s former glories. Less than five minutes in, it became clear that there was a clear editorial agenda at work. What had started out innocently enough as a mildly irritating celebration of 21st century entrepreneurialism, quickly descended into a farcical soup of hair-gel, mangled metaphors and hubris.

With every passing year, the contestants became more and more outrageously self-satisfied. Prompted into uttering ever more banal declarations of accomplishment, the would-be Apprentii were never really in contention for a job. They were just bright-eyed village idiots, tricked into the stocks with the promise of a six figure salary and an Amstrad Email Phone. Anyone tuning in for genuine insights into the fast-moving world of big business was shit out of luck. Instead, this was a pinstriped sitcom, with helicopter shots of the Square Mile to replace the canned laughter. And if you think I’m over-stating things, let’s take a look at what I learned about the cut-throat world of business from the first two episodes of Series 10.

Volume and repetition trumps comprehension

You only needed to watch the girls blinking incredulously as Nick helpfully popped on his Countdown mortarboard and offered the synonym “Moral turpitude,” to know that they never had a clue what their own team name ‘Decadence’ meant. Over on the boys’ team, they spent 48 hours constantly imploring each other to “let me finish,” without any of them ever making a point. Stephen, Canary Wharf’s answer to Hollywood Montrose, was a particularly audible proponent of the “I’m sorry, can I finish speaking” school of conversation. 

It’s all about sounding business, not doing business.

Whether they were talking about buying “two kay-gee” of products, unaware that it had just as many syllables as ‘kilos,’ or bemoaning the fact that “We forgot the capital,” when they’d left their purse back at the house, the girls did a great job of sounding like five year olds playing at being business women. I’d like to think that, had they failed either of this week’s tasks, they’d have headed off to La Cabana café in search of Romy and Michelle’s “businesswomen’s special.”

Wearable technology may be the future but it’s still a way off

The brief in this week’s second show, was to create a piece of ‘wearable technology’ which, according to the voiceover, is a market that’s “worth millions of pounds.” Way to go, researchers. Unfortunately, both teams completely missed the brief, and tried to stitch random bits of kit into the most generic garments they could find. The boys contravened every privacy law ever drafted, by plugging a webcam into the kind of shapeless grey sweater that Susan Boyle would watch Take The High Road in. The girls realised that every woman craves a black jacket with solar panels as epaulettes, and a USB phone charger in the pocket. Plus, flashing red LED stitched into the lining, so she can go to parties dressed as a traffic hazard.

If you want to get ahead, stand out

The early shows of The Apprentice are always a logistics nightmare, as clusters of anonymous suits run frantically down alleyways and talk into their mobiles as if they’ve never used a phone. The key, therefore, is to get yourself noticed, and two candidates achieved this with aplomb. First project manager Sarah shared her valuable business insights; advising her team members to use loads of lippy, short skirts and high heels. Since they weren’t selling their bucket of cleaning supplies (£250, thank you very much) to Stringfellows, this advice went unheeded. Over on the boys’ team, Robert was head and shoulders above his colleagues. Literally. So elongated that he could trigger Napoleon Complex in a giraffe, he relished his lanky frame, and chose to dress it like he was renting out deckchairs on the Margate seafront. Sadly, when Lord Sugar advised the boys to pull up their socks,” it was clear that Robert’s time was up, since he never wears any.

Always pass the buck

With responsibilities being handed back and forth like a gift-wrapped turd, this week’s double-bill showcased countless examples of blame-shifting. This lot didn’t even wait until they were in the boardroom to start stabbing each other in the back. While Robert ignored Lord Sugar’s suggestion that he PM the boys for the wearable tech project, the girls took it in turns to push responsibility onto each other: “I sell scarves, I don’t do styling.” And if your ideas end up being terrible, you can always pin it on that passerby you asked for their opinion, blaming it “on our customer research.” Top tip – never ask a woman in a lemon yellow twin-set for fashion advice. Or Nick, for that matter, who confidently stated that the shapeless grey sweater could “have a chance in the market.” Doncaster, maybe.

And finally, never let the penguins get hold of the rubber gloves.

Not unless you want to create the next Feathers McGraw.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Checking for signs of live - X-Factor

Turn down the volume, freebase a couple of Berocca, and make sure the fridge is well stocked – tonight sees the return of the live shows. Ordinarily, I’d be complaining about how long it took to get here. But, to be honest, the early phases of this year’s contest have felt decidedly rushed. Maybe it’s because there are no real stand-out vocalists. Or it could be that we’ve bypassed the parts of the contest where personalities tend to come to the fore; with the main part of bootcamp being discarded in under five minutes. Either way, if I’m going to complain about anything being a bit slow going, it’ll be tonight’s 150 minute marathon.

Since we saw them last, crying on a variety of sun-bleached patio furniture, all 103 contestants have been given their makeovers. Turning to ‘Blue Steel’ for the camera, they’re looking like a million dollars (Monopoly money); and ready to hit the red carpet. Of the TV Quick Awards.

“Get ready Britain, it’s about to get loud,” bellows voice-over man Peter Dickson at a volume that could drown out an eruption at Eyjafjallajökull. Leaving enough a pause between O and Leary for Dermot to curate another compilation of tedious bedsit rock, Dickson introduces our bored-looking host. After the obligatory spin, Dermot welcomes our four “fearsome music megalomaniacs.” Something must have gotten lost in translation though, since we’re stuck with Simon, Louis, Cheryl and Mel B. The outfits are all predictable choices, but Mel gets a special mention for looking like a bricklayer trying to sneak his way into the Wrens.

The first order of business is a quick reveal of the four Wildcard acts. This is where each judge gets to choose a previously dispatched performer to return to the show in another judge’s category. In a depressingly predictable segment, Louis chooses fishy Lola, and Cheryl picks creepy Stevi. The other two acts don’t even get a face to face invitation to come back to the X-Factor, as Mel and Simon make their decisions via Skype – making full use of this year’s product placement deal. Of course, for the lucky acts selected, boyband Overload (which is how we’ll be feeling by the end of tonight’s show) and Jack Walton, the pressure’s on to look surprised, even as a camera crew sits in their living room waiting for them to take a call from one of the judges.

With sixteen acts now assembled, there’s just one more bit of housekeeping to cover off. Dermot warns us with grave sincerity that tomorrow night we’ll experience a double elimination. I had that once after a dodgy kebab. Nasty business.

Anyway, let’s crack on shall we? Kicking off the first live show is Paul Akister, who’s worried about all the “massive personalities” in the house, and has taken to pretending he’s listening to his headphones to drown them out. The talk is still focusing on Paul’s previous appearance on X-Factor, when Louis decided against taking him to the live shows. Viewers of a nervous disposition should also be aware that another familiar face is returning to the show this season. That’s right – everyone’s favourite lunatic in a hooded onesie, Brian Friedman, is back with his own unique brand of choreographed misdirection. Despite Brian’s best efforts, Paul’s performance of Ella Henderson’s Ghost is lackluster at best. He’s ditched all the falsetto, so it sounds like Adam Levine with a head cold. It doesn’t help that he’s got all the stage presence of a coat rack, with a single cheap leather jacket left dangling from it. I think the audience likes him, but they also roared with approval for Mel B, so we can surmise that their judgment is impaired. Simon advises Paul to forget about the past, despite most of his feedback making explicit reference to it. And Louie gets booed, so he doesn’t even get a chance to tell us how old Paul is.

Lola Saunders was gutted to be sent home, so it’s likely that her relationship with her mentor is going to be a little frosty. There’s lots of talk about how she’s gone from 0-60, which should at least prepare her for the National Express when she gets booted out midway through the series. We’re only two songs in and already we’ve got Emeli Sandé to suffer through. Someone thought it’d be a good idea to dress Lola like one of the fighting gypsy girls in From Russia With Love, and although the vocal is solid, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m watching another long lost Slater sister. It’s also a shame the hairdresser was too busy with Blonde Electra to do anything for Lola. Louis starts running through his cliché wheel and comes up with ‘voice of an angel’ and ‘you deserve to be here,’ and Cheryl calls Simon ‘Captain Fashion,’ which makes his fuzzy tits ripple with ill-concealed pride.

Having been brought back as a wildcard act, Overload have decided to rename themselves, using leftover suggestions submitted for the other boyband. They’ve come up with Overload Generation, which is as incomprehensible and pointless as their mentor. Tragically, they’ve chose Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl, but not changed any of the gender references. As a consequence, it’s five over-styled young guys, one in a skirt, singing about the curious novelty of opposite sex attraction – a bold choice on International Coming Out Day. In fact, it’s the gayest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in a shop that sold rubber fists. Weirdly, Cheryl says “It’s all a bit typical for me,” which has me wondering where she’s been spending her Saturdays. Simon calls the middle singer gormless, which will have to suffice as a name until they’re voted off in a couple of weeks.

According to Simon, Jay James has been one of his favourites since the start of the show. Technically, since before the start of the show – you know, when he was signed to a label and opening for Rebecca Ferguson. Simon’s not the only enthusiastic member of team JJ – Brian comments “Everything about this is working for me right now.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t include the lighting scheme, which makes Jay look translucent; except for the ridiculous veneers that he could have borrowed from Rylan for the evening. Here’s yet another tedious middle class white performer destined for one of those ‘authentic soul’ appraisals. At one point, he sings “I’ve been here too long,” pointing at the stage. You’re telling me. The feedback from Louis is predictably surreal: “You remind me of a young Kevin Costner,” as he imagines spying coyly on Jay while he showers in a waterfall. All the other judges seem fixated on what a huge risk Jay took, as if he’d just replaced a two minute mid-tempo song with a motorbike leap over ten double deckers.

Stephanie Nala reckons she’s struggled, since appearing on Britain’s Got Talent as part of The Luminites. Determined to make her mark, Stephanie has chosen ‘Everything I Own,’ which I can only assume was inspired by the wording on the Syco management contract. Her soft, high voice would be great for pop records, but as a live artist she’s got all the impact of an asthmatic chipmunk doing warm-ups on a treadmill. The arrangement is reggae ultra-lite, and would make Ace of Base sound like Eddy Grant. Simon tells her that there was something missing, but can’t quite bring himself to say it was the tune. As Louis argues that no-one’s heard of the song, Cheryl responds that it’s been heavily Shazamed all week; unwittingly underlining Louis’ point.

Jack Walton is the dull, skinny boy from Leeds who has trouble sounding remotely enthusiastic about anything. He’s trying to give himself a motivational speech: “I’ve got to prove to myself that I can do it,” but there’s eight million viewers who’d beg to differ. He’s singing an earnest balladeer version of Only Girl In The World, but at least he’s thought to change the gender references. He’s strumming away, but it’s the least convincing guitar work I’ve seen since Jason Donovan lamented the number of broken hearts in the world. Cheryl commends him, saying “I would never have thought to put that twist on the song.” Then again, she wouldn’t have thought of singing it live either. Simon reckons all the chicks are gonna love Jack, because Simon’s guide to passing as a heterosexual was published when there were still four BeeGees.

Chloe Jasmine has had a tough week, and sobs that she doesn’t understand why the press are picking on her. The fact that she’s pathologically incapable of mustering a genuine sentiment can’t possibly be the reason. Brian’s delighted that Chloe is doing a jazzy version of Britney’s Toxic, because “I wrote this video, I get to do it again to make it Chloe.” Oh Brian, never change. The performance is every bit as affected as you’d expect – like an annoying regional theatre version of The Rise of Little Voice. Tuneless, flat, and about as genuinely satisfying as a carob snack bar, poor Chloe is exuding all the warmth of a polar bear with chilblains. Cheryl steps up to bat for her artist, arguing “We should embrace people’s uniqueness,” because posh white girls are the true underclass.

After an ‘ask the fans’ contest, Louis’ overpopulated boyband has selected Stereo Kicks as their new name. I’m not sure what inspired it, other than the likely reaction most people will have when they eventually hear them on the radio. Just like Louis’ other boyband, they’re doing a Katy Perry song, but even with eight members, there’s not enough oomph to raise a Roar. Instead, it’s more of a strained mewl, and by the time the light show, drums and pyrotechnics kick in, we’ve forgotten they’re even singing at all. As they stand there, looking like a bunch of animated pencil toppers in plaid, Cheryl disses Louis’ lack of imagination. "You could have did something different," she argues, as my living room explodes in a chorus of “Oh no she better don't.” Louis  reckons "We've got the next big boyband here." But only in terms of headcount. Cheryl declares herself a little overwhelmed by eight boys – she really ought to try a night out in Vauxhall.

Brace yourself folks. Time for the bastard child of Chico and Wagner, as Stevi takes to the stage. A life-sized plush of Droopy the dog, Stevi smiles and jokes throughout his rehearsal, despite being an aching vacuum of nagging despair. I just can’t take him seriously, with those eyes that look like a pair of underdone eggs sliding off a breakfast bar. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily mean – after all, he’s made a bold creative decision by rearranging the entirety of Livin’ La Vida Loca for a single note. If the performance wasn't enough to make you question your sanity, the sight of the backing dancer ripping open Stevi's shirt to reveal his newly manscaped chest will do it. As for me, I've just experienced another spontaneous double elimination. In the interests of fairness, Louis charitably observes “You’re not the best singer in the competition.” Christ, he’s not even the best singer in his own suit.

Lauren Platt can’t believe that, just a couple of months ago, she was collecting her GCSE results, and now she’s here.  As her mentor, Cheryl chooses to play the empathy card: “I know how it feels to be you…” Wait a minute, Cheryl has GCSEs? Finally, someone has figured out how to slow down a song and bring out its strengths – Lauren’s performance turns the overplayed Happy from a mobile network jingle into a nuanced and enjoyable performance. As far as the styling and staging goes, they’ve over-egged her youthfulness a little bit. Standing mid-stage, surrounded by balloons, she’s looks like a nervous eight year old, terrified that a clown is going to appear and wish her a happy birthday.

“We’re crazy,” squeal the newly shortened Blonde Electra, as Brian concocts an elaborate performance involving “unicorns vomiting glitter.” Or whatever else passes for a Tuesday in his house. Unfortunately, I’ve already used up my best joke on Blonde Electra. As has Louis, by putting them through to the live shows. They look like a nightmare, and I’m convinced they’re miming for at least some of this, since neither of them has shown the slightest aptitude for singing at any point throughout the competition. As they repeatedly sing “We’re the Kids In America,” I can’t help but wish they still were. The feedback amounts to little more than an overuse of the words “wacky” and “bonkers.”

Ben Haenow (Haenow) talks about the contestants’ house as being a combination of prison and Glee, which makes me think he should be writing these recaps. He’s overwhelmed by the size of the “gaff” – a clever choice of words designed to remind us of his earthy man-of-the-people persona. “There’s a few rooms I haven’t been in,” he confesses, leaving me to wonder whether the bathroom is one of them. His performance is painful to hear, as he strains on every note. All that gravel and vibrato, it’s like listening to someone laying a driveway. Mel says she’d have taken him in a different direction (away from the studio), and Simon says he’d actually prayed to find someone like Ben. So there we go – God may have his fingers in his ears, but Beelzebub’s more than willing to grant a few wishes.

As the show continues down its oddly heterocentric course, Mel introduces Jake Quickenden as “one for the ladies,” despite the fact that the most publicity he’s had in the last two years came from a naked spread in Gay Times. Jake’s spending a lot of time working out with his shirt off, which is probably wise, since his performance of She’s The One won’t be key to his popularity. Cheryl comments that she’d like Jake to focus more on being a great singer, rather than being better looking – a classic case of pot calling the kettle “well fit.” Sensing Jake’s disappointment, Dermot weighs in, adding "It's a hard song to sing..." Yes, if you're not very good at singing.

Fleur East’s story is about how she left it to the last minute before having her big moment. The judges keep commenting on how she came from nowhere, but given that she made it to the live finals ten years ago, I suspect that either they’re not paying attention, or they’re just hoping that we’re not. Fleur seems lovely, and is smart enough to pick Meghan Trainor’s current number one for her performance. Still, it’s more than a little ironic to hear a song about plus-size body confidence being sung by a sentient six-pack.

Only The Young come across like one of those performance groups that tour American high schools, telling kids to tie their cocks in a knot until they’re married. Keen to do something different, they launch into a saccharine rendition of Jailhouse Rock, which offers about as much sizzling pelvic action as RoboCop. Apparently, they know exactly who they are, which at least means they’re not suffering from multiple personality disorder. Hardly surprising, given that there’s barely one between them. Cheryl applauds their ‘professional chemistry,’ as if she’s still in a L’Oreal ad, and reminds them that “You love stuff from the past.” In that sense, they got lucky with Louis as their mentor.

Finally, it’s time for Andrea Faustini, who still looks like he spends his weekdays making up the numbers on police line-ups. For some unfathomable reason, he’s selected Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, and manages to do a fantastic job, despite its inherent terribleness. It’s good enough that I can forgive having to sit through two and a half hours – kind of like watching all of Gone With The Wind just to get to the bit where the girl falls off the horse. By this point in proceedings, the stylists have clearly just given up, dressing him like a lazy vicar who’s just lost his jacket. Simon calls Andrea a ‘bear,’ and Louis reckons everywhere he goes, people are talking about him. He must be spending an awful lot of time at XXL.

If you’re still here, let’s take a quick peek at Sunday’s results show. As Cheryl’s words “What the bloody hell is this?” ring in our ears, we’re treated to countless interminable recaps and reminders of last night’s tedium. Simon jokes that Louis is going to be voted off, but we all know that even an anti-personnel device couldn’t shift the grinning pillock from his seat. Dermot gamely trots through the numbers for voting, but by the time he gets to Jake he looks like he needs a brown paper bag and some Lucozade.

Next up is the group song, and they’ve wisely selected Anything Can Happen. Partly because it describes their haphazard approach to the notes, and partly because they’d struggle to do it worse than Ellie Goulding herself. Chloe, in particular, seems to struggle with the harmony, but she doesn’t strike me as someone who blends well with others.

Tonight’s first guest is Pharrell, who according to Dermot is one of the biggest stars on this or any other planet. I bet even the Wookies on Kashyyyk are fucking sick of Happy. He may have the Midas touch, but it’s failing him on this performance of Gust Of Wind, which has merely turned to shit.

Taylor Swift makes a slightly better go of it, clapping and snapping her way through Shake It Off in a bejeweled two piece. Despite looking like Christine Baranski, and having the kind of cloyingly sweet personality that’s like chewing tinfoil, she’s hard to dislike. As the audience whoop their approval, and Dermot does that awkwardly ingratiating flirting that passes for onstage bantz, Simon’s smiling smugly, as if he had anything to do with Taylor’s career.

Two acts are going tonight, so it’s time to reveal who’s safe. Fleur, Ben, Lauren, Paul, Lola, Only The Young, Chloe, Jack, Jay, Stereo Kicks, Andrea and Stevi are all through to 80s week. Jake gets the last free pass, and Blonde Electra are given the boot with barely a pause for breath. They’re probably regretting eating those pencils before coming on stage.  

Now it’s just down to Overload Generation and Stephanie to sing for their lives. The boys are up first, and haven’t improved from last night. The one in pretend glasses keeps pointing at the others to tell them when to sing, and one of them keeps bleating like he’s got Shari Lewis’ hand up his guts. They’re all great at that classic boyband dance move – pretending they’re milking an invisible cow with one hand.

Stephanie doesn’t do much better, but can at least console herself with the fact that Brandy’s original of Have You Ever wasn’t much better. She completely gives up on the melody halfway through, and simply vibrates her way to the end of the song like a handful of loose change on top of a washing machine.

Simon and Cheryl chose to save Stephanie, whereas Mel and Louis go for the boys. Ain’t that the truth. So Louis takes it to Deadlock on the first show out of the gate. Not that it helps his act – Overload Generation scored the lowest votes and now they’re going home. Stephanie makes no attempt to look remotely sad for them, but even I feel bad about the clip of them confidently announcing “We’ve come to the X-Factor to win it.” The last word goes to the boys themselves, who thank the audience for all the support they never got.