Thursday, 29 December 2011

Envelope Please...

January is just around the corner, which means we'll soon be thrust headlong into 'awards season'. Two long months of self-congratulatory back-slapping, as the great and the good of the creative arts gather together in order to pay homage to themselves. But as all those talented and immaculately presented performers start pressing the creases out of their best party frocks, spare a thought for the also-rans. There's a whole world of entertainers out there, who show up week after week, learn their lines and give their all for the camera - but aren't likely to be trampling the shag on any red carpets over the next eight weeks. I'm talking about all the reality TV stars who keep us glued to our sets in a heavily medicated stupor. Isn't it time they received awards for excellence in their line of work too? With that in mind, here's my shortlist of winners for the first Reality TV Awards...

The Emergency Numbers Are On The Fridge Award goes to Simon Cowell, who left his precious firstborn to its own devices, while he focused on launching the X-Factor USA. At first, the novelty of three new judges, alongside safe-pair-of-jazz-hands Louis Walsh, seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, this was televisual equivalent of giving the housekeys to a gang of joyriders and hoping your child will still be breathing when you get home from dinner.

The Future's Shite, The Future's Orange Award goes to the cast of TOWIE, who have managed to inspire a whole generation to paint themselves the colour of Etruscan ceramics. An honorable mention also goes to TOWIE star Chloe Sims, who refused to stop at spraying herself with Sadolin One-Coat, and has undergone a series of unnecessary cosmetic procedures that have made her a dead ringer for Daffy Duck when he inexplicably shows off a full set of teeth.

The Out of the Frying Pan Into The Deep Fat Fryer Award goes to the cast of Desperate Scousewives. With a name that boasts more wit than anything else in the entire series, the show managed to achieve the impossible by making viewers long for the authenticity and like-ability of the Essex crew. Despite its desire to show Liverpool's finest living the glamorous life, Scousewives ended up making most of the bedsits in Albert Square look like the model of aspirational living.

The Marquee Mark Award goes to surprise ratings winner The Great British Bake-Off, which attempted to distract us from the woeful state of the economy by telling us we'd all be happier if we knew how to make a mille-feuille from scratch. Millions tuned in every week to see Mel and Sue providing a running commentary to endless scenes of amateur bakers trying to perfect a shortcrust pastry. Along with Kirstie's Handmade Britain, The Great British Bake-Off was like porn for Daily Mail readers, full of explicit shots of sturdy women wiping their chipolata fingers down a striped apron. These shows provided a tantalising glimpse into a bunting-strewn fantasy world, as imaginary as Narnia or Middle Earth, where every day is the Summer Fete and everyone walks away with a rosette pinned to their blouse.

The Enough About You Let's Talk About Me Award goes to Nicole Scherzinger. She's an attractive woman and a talented vocalist, but as an X-Factor judge, she managed to make the certifiably insane Paula Abdul seem well-adjusted by comparison. When she wasn't busy hallucinating or telling sub-par performers that they were destined to change the world, she made everything in the show about her. The highpoint of her stint on the judging panel came when she wimped out of voting to save thirteen year old Rachel Crow. As the irritating moppet dropped to the floor in hysterics, Nicole rushed to the stage to show off her own photogenic tears, ensuring that Rachel barely got a look-in. 

The Sorbet To Freshen The Palate Award goes to The Devil's Dinner Party, a lame attempt at fusing several successful TV formats into one giant Eton Mess. In each show, six strangers are invited to a dinner hosted by Pip Torrens, who conducts himself like the creepy emcee at an S&M club. Since no real mention is made of the food, we're stuck listening to the tedious conversations instead, as the contestants attempt to win votes as the most popular guest. The format had potential, but Pip's ridiculous voiceover made it seem as though we were witnessing a battle of Machiavellian wits. In fact, all anyone had to do to be in with a chance of winning, was smile agreeably and avoid calling anyone else at the table a cunt.

The Bullshitting Bride Award goes to Kim Kardashian and the rest of her ghastly klan, for their collective assault on the sanctity of marriage. Despite the fact that gays are being accused of tearing at the fabric of society for wanting to walk up the aisle in matching suits, Kim and her mother (the Lady Macbeth of Beverly Hills) saw the chance to make a quick buck off that most sacred of unions. Kim managed to squeeze a courtship, proposal, engagement and wedding into a single season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The resulting two-part special edition of the show wasn't just a ratings winner - it also netted the temporarily happy couple $18 million. Just ten weeks later, the newlyweds were officially separated, with Kim announcing "After careful consideration, I have decided to end my marriage. I hope everyone understands this was not an easy decision. I had hoped this marriage was forever, but sometimes things don't work out as planned." She has a point - look what happened when Ross married Emily. TV show marriages never work out if the suitor is just a guest star.

The Does Your Mother Know Award goes to Steven Tyler, who brought his own sleazy brand of rock-star swagger to American Idol this year. The craggy-chopped Aerosmith frontman was unwilling to let his uniquely weathered countenance get in the way of some age-inappropriate flirting with a barely legal contestant, commenting on 16 year-old Victoria Huggins' skirt "Ooh, yeah. Just the right amount showing. That's nice." Any ordinary pensioner would be added to the sex offender's register, Steven just added another couple of years to his contract as an Idol judge.

The Why Bother Keeping Up The Day Job Award goes to McFly, who according to reports are still a fully functioning boyband, but spent most of 2011 racking up the phone votes to win two separate TV contests. Just days after bandmate Dougie swigged a blended emu liver to be crowned King of the Jungle, Harry Judd swivelled his hips in an Argentine Tango and ended up raising the glitter ball of victory. Dont be surprised next year if the other two show up on Celebrity Coach Trip or visit Mel and Sue's marquee to show off their sausage plait.

In conclusion, our final award goes to this year's breakout reality TV star - Hilary Devey. With a voice that makes Christian Bale's Batman sound like Katherine Jenkins, and shoulder pads that could dislodge a door frame, the fearsome business woman made an indelible impression on every would-be investor who tiptoed nervously into the Dragon's Den. Finally, here was a fire breathing titan worthy of the title.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Winners and Losers

Oh God. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Two weeks after saying goodbye to Little Mix and their Cannonball (although I think she prefers answering to ‘Jesy’) here I am again, staring down the barrel of another four-hour finale. Only Simon’s in this one, in body if not in mind.

As usual with the X-Factor, there’s always one breakout star that everyone’s talking about. Unfortunately, this series it’s Steve Jones, and no-one’s being especially complementary. In fact, looking back at my notes from this show, it’s really a tragi-comic single-hander. Like something Alan Bennett would write if he liked talent shows. The first show opens with Steve, floundering around in his bow-tie, PUTTING the emphasis on all THE wrong WORDS. Making this particularly uncomfortable is the fact that we all know he’s been dropped quicker than Christina Aguilera’s salad fork.

We’re provided a momentary relief from his awfulness, as he introduces the judges. Over the course of this series, they’ve each been working on their own distinctive hand gesture to give to the audience when their name is called. Now we’re at the final, it’s become like a carefully coordinated routine – LA Reid does kissy finger and a royal wave, Nicole does prayer hands and a dramatic bow, Paula offers her blow-kissy double hands, followed by ‘rock-on’ fingers, and Simon goes from military salute to exaggerated wink. Watched in rapid succession, it’s like American Sign Language for ‘Why aren’t you watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta instead?’

In an attempt to salvage what’s left of his once-promising career, Steve has obviously been on a presentation skills training course. Three days in a Trusthouse Forte outside of Guildford, practicing open palms and finger-thumb gesturing. When he’s not gripping his microphone tightly with both hands, he uses this training to ask for Paula’s famed insight. She comments how proud she is that the acts are so separate and distinct. I would love to see conjoined twins in next year’s final, just to watch her flounder.

It’s fair to say that the music performances in tonight’s show are going to be nowhere near as interesting as big Steve’s attempts to hold onto his job. So let’s make cursory mention of Josh’s gruff duet with Alanis Morrissette. Flat, tuneless and ineffective, it perks up a little when Alanis takes to the stage. She’s trying her best to look interested, but I’m sure she’s thinking “I used to chew on Ryan Reynolds, and now I’m singing in a fake wood with Fozzie Bear.”

Despite all the bluster and braggadocio before the show started, the debut season of X-Factor USA has been less than epic. It’s almost as though the disappointing ratings have forced a few budgetary cutbacks. Need an example? Well, those god-awful bits where we cut to a sports centre full of screaming supporters in the contestants’ home towns don’t even have a host. I mean, how much would it have cost to dump Kelly Osborne in Ohio for a couple of hours? Instead, they’ve just stuck a microphone in the hands of Josh’s grandmother. I’m sure she’s a game old bird, but the world of broadcasting didn’t exactly miss out on a bright shining talent.

Chris is on next, once again using his drug abuse as a bargaining chip. If we don’t vote for him to win, he’ll be firing up the crystal meth before the last glitter cannon has blown. He’s mangling an Avril Lavigne song, so it’s only a matter of time before she joins him onstage to show him how to fuck it up like a pro. Neither of them is in tune, and they’re rattling through more keys than a Victorian jailer. I’m also getting the vibe that this week’s theme is ‘Canadian guest stars’. Wouldn’t it be great if Melanie got lumbered with Rita MacNeil, the woman with a hair-lip who sings about Nova Scotian miners?

Before we get to that, the judges try their best to avoid mentioning how bad Chris’ vocals were, and Steve’s on hand to point out “You just did a duet with Avril Lavigne." Big help, fella. Meanwhile, Paula’s trying to make a point about relevance, but then goes on to say “That song Complicated is the antithesis of the foundation that you're built upon." Simon’s as confused as I am, so he offers up his own nugget of wisdom – “That could be a record.” And this from the man who gave Mr Blobby a recording career. Forget about Josh’s Grandma, now it’s time to hear from Chris’ next-door neighbour in Santa Cruz, California. Somewhere in Florida, Melanie Amaro’s dry-cleaner is getting very excited.

And here’s the young lady herself – Melanie gets to sing I Believe I Can Fly with R Kelly. Ordinarily you’d expect there to be some chemistry, but at 19 she’s probably a few years too old for him. She sounds shaky and nervous, rushing through the song in too low a key. Weirdly, R tells Steve "This girl is on her way to the mall," which must be a subtle way of saying that, if she doesn’t win, they’re hiring in the food court. The judges declare that I Believe I Can Fly is “One of the most important songs written in the last 50 years.” You know, that song from Space Jam. Fucking muppets. Meanwhile, in Florida, we get to hear from Melanie’s bishop and “her friend Edison”, who shrills “You just killed it girrrrrl.” Bishop Fernandez tells Melanie that he’ll be praying for her, but Edison shouldn’t be surprised if a few unwanted prayers come his way too.

Halfway through and it’s time for an intermission act from Cirque Du Soleil’s ironically titled show - ‘Michael Jackson Immortal’. It’s all rather pointless, but offers a brief moment of commentary when the dancing robots suddenly start flashing dollar signs.

For his second performance, Josh does an acoustic version of At Last. The song’s meant to be dreamy and languid, but Josh growls and bark his way through it, like he just got a parking ticket and found a cat shit in his favourite hipster loafers. Simon tells him "This is what we call the five million dollar song." Who calls it that Simon? This is a new show, so that’s not a thing yet.

Chris is still leveraging his drug addiction, even mentioning the fact that he’s eight months-clean in his second song. When they feel the pressure, most addicts speak to a sponsor, Chris performs a piss-poor, mid-90s sounding rap. Simon's on his feet, so I can only imagine there's a spring piercing the leather squab. He opens with his now trademarked "I'm going to say something to you..." and follows it with "That was your five million dollar song." Christ, he’s really trying to push that – he’d have better look making ‘fetch’ happen.

Closing the show is Melanie, who’s singing "The song that made such a difference on our lives, and her life." Maybe over-egging that one just a touch, Simon. Anyway, he’s chuffed that an enormous weight has gone off her shoulders, and I’m fighting the urge to make a cheap joke. Thankfully, Melanie nails ‘Listen’, smartly choosing a song with lyrics that reflect some of her experiences on the show. Nicole blubs "You made me feel I wasn’t alone. You empowered me." But Melanie looks like she just passed a kidney stone the size of an armchair. Time for one final visit to the screaming people of Sunrise, Florida, where an older gentleman is yelling for his life into a microphone. I can’t hear a word of what he’s saying, but someone’s going to need a throat lozenge tomorrow morning.

So now we move onto the grand finale – two more hours and we’re home free. Paula starts by saying "I can't think of a better way to open up this competition." Because she's obviously never watched the ‘paintball with live ammo’ scene in Child's Play 3.

Steve's coming to terms with impending unemployment, if his little happy dance is anything to go by. He’s been telling the press that if he wasn’t working with Nicole anymore, he’d be calling her constantly. I guess given the choice between listless interviews with petulant 14 year-olds or tapping the chief Pussycat Doll, Steve knows which side his bread is lubed.

Time for a quick reminder of all the stellar talent that missed out on the final, as they return to the stage for a performance of Edge of Glory. You know how when someone gives a bad performance and Simon calls it karaoke? Well, this is what happens when everyone in the karaoke bar gets up and sings at once. It's utterly abominable, and only improves marginally when our finalists join them. Melanie is struggling to walk in her heels, but we can forgive her given that she's the only one who bothered to remember the melody.

LA comments "Watching them all come back it brings back so many memories." Actually, they're called flashbacks. Nicole screams "Let's have some fun!" and means every none of it. And Paula, dear sweet deluded Paula, tells them "This stage is our gift to you, and what you do with it is your gift to us." I'll take a voucher thanks.

Since the votes have already been counted, the contestants don’t have to try anymore, so we wander through three fairly uninspired Christmas songs. Melanie does a good job of All I Want For Christmas, but Steve wanders on sighing “Fabulous stuff”, like he’s reading the heating instructions on a packet of soup mix. After a dull VT of family members crying, Steve pushes Melanieto tell him “What's going through your head right now?" She just shakes her head at him and looks devastated. See Steve, this is what your technique does to people.

Chris croons a horribly jazzy version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, interspersed with those mid-90s "ohs" and "yeahs" that seem a little more excusable when he's doing the R&B stuff. Simon admires Chris for being an inspiration to people out there. He has a point - that last performance almost drove me to meth.

But remember, it’s not really about the contestants – it’s all about our imploding host. So the highlight of the night has to be when Steve asks Nicole what she's doing for Christmas, and then pushes her for an invitation. In proper nightclub style, she pretends not to hear him the first couple of times, until he makes it more explicit. She's not impressed, and contemplates tipping away the Pepsi she left unattended during the break.

Josh sings Bells Will Be Ringing, and it's just as good as anything a half-decent Joe Cocker tribute act could muster. LA Reid complements him for making him realise it's Christmas, because the18-foot tree wasn't enough of a clue. Nicole is very grateful to be his mentor, since he makes her want to be better. But that's OK, I think most of the audience at home want her be better too. Josh gets teary watching his supporters’ messages, and says that his life is finally beginning to make sense - if only we could say the same for his mentor.

With all the performances out of the way, it’s time for half an hour of filler. So we get Justin Bieber dressed as a Power Ranger shouting through a Christmas song. Halfway through, he's joined on stage by Stevie Wonder, who appears on his patented roll-out keyboard platform. It’s exactly like the thing in Jabba’s palace which hides the secret trapdoor, so I’m keeping everything crossed that Justin’s about to be fed to a Rancor. In a move that sums up everything that’s wrong with Simon Cowell's world view, Stevie gets dragged back into the darkness, as Bieber stays on stage for a medley of songs from his new Christmas album. He's Master Know-it-all.

In one nice touch, Justin invites Drew onstage, to fulfil her dream of meeting her idol. Stevie also gets ushered out to take a bow. And then Steve joins them and fucks it up with another excruciating four-way - there's literally no buzz he can't kill. He's the guy that turns up at a car-key party in a milk-float.

Time to drop one and move on. Without wanting to give the game away, this shouldn't be tough. Let's just say that I don’t suppose the producers broke a sweat working on Chris' winner's song. And there you go, I was right. He seemed to know it, even though Steve claims he can "Hardly believe it." Chris is gracious, saying God has blessed him. But we've known for a few weeks that Melanie has God in her camp. The Creator spent most of last night with his omnipotent digit poised over the speed dial for her number.

Steve introduces the five most shocking moments of the series, and weirdly it's not just his show-reel. Instead, we get a poignant reminder of what happens when you reduce the age limit to allow pre-teens to compete. Rachel joins Steve onstage in full-on pageant queen mode and tells him to his face that she's gunning for his job. Well, might as well get it out in the open. Funnily enough, she takes to the autocue like a pro and nails her segment. Steve skulks off into the darkness to contemplate his shortcomings, having been bested by a thirteen year-old.

Leona Lewis is here to provide the soundtrack for another four-minute highlights video, and remind people what professionalism looks like. Simon still looks as proud as punch, even though he's spent the last 12 months switching her to voicemail whenever she calls.

Paula's asked to summarise the evening - she says it's one of the best job experiences she's ever had. My sister once had a job experience where she had to nurse a chinchilla as it was put down. I think I’d choose the dead rodent over this.

As we lumber gracelessly towards the finish, we get another guest slot from Fifty Cent. The set designers have tried to create a penthouse environment for him, with a chaise longue, a baby grand and a roll-top bath. And they’re all dripping with whores. It doesn’t exactly fit with his introduction as a world-changing philanthropist, but hey-ho. Pitbull and NeYo also show up, to do one of those weird fusion tracks that seems to have replaced R&B. There's a euro-disco beat, then a guest rap appearance, and a main vocal that's been auto-tuned to hell. It's like whizzing through Now 87 on fast forward.

In another cost-cutting exercise, there’s no winner’s song. So Josh and Melanie nod and wink their way through a turgid duet, before Melanie is finally crowned the winner. Simon tries to summarise what a great series it’s been, but his eyes are as lifeless as Steve’s career. The contestants all rush onto the stage to congratulate Melanie, leaving our hopeless host to try and find her in the throng: "Can we push through, sorry. Melanie's the winner of the X-Factor, there she is." How much did he get paid for this, and where can I send my CV?

Monday, 19 December 2011

There's treasure everywhere

This New Year's Eve, as most people are toasting 2012 and wondering how they're going to get home once the drinks have dried up, I'll be raising a glass in remembrance of a precocious six year-old who breathed his last, sixteen years ago to the day. For many readers like me, Calvin's sudden disappearance from the comics pages represented the end of an era. As he and his loyal friend Hobbes sailed down a snowy hillside one last time, we knew we'd never see him again. Which made their upbeat call-to-action "Let's go exploring" that much more bittersweet.

Comic strips are a largely under-appreciated medium, not least by the papers that pay to syndicate them. And yet there are a handful of genuine artists out there, willing to pour their heart and soul into those little monochromatic panels. More importantly, there are millions of readers for whom those little strips are a momentary highlight in an otherwise forgettable day.

I first discovered the genius of Bill Watterson when I was sixteen, by which point Calvin & Hobbes had already been running for six years. The early rough edges of Watterson's illustrative style had been ironed out (in particular, he'd perfected the dinosaurs which regularly stomped their way across Calvin's overactive imagination) and the supporting characters had found their own distinctive voices. Calvin's alter-egos Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet and Stupendous Man had also made a number of appearances, meaning that I entered a world that was already fully formed.

On the surface, there was nothing particularly remarkable about another standard four-panel black and white strip. What drew me in was Watterson's unique drawing style and the expressiveness of the lead characters. But I soon discovered that there was also a depth to the writing that I'd never seen in any other cartoon. In one of the all-too-rare commentaries that Watterson added to a compilation of strips, he admitted that his first love was illustration, and he'd had to teach himself to write in order to give the characters something to do. But this typically self-deprecating perspective does a disservice to Watterson's incredibly perceptive voice.

Take the following exchange for instance, which takes place as Calvin attempts to justify his decision to draw a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex piloting an F16:

Calvin"The hard part for us avant-garde post-modern artists is deciding whether or not to embrace commercialism. Do we allow our work to be hyped and exploited by a market that's simply hungry for the next new thing? Do we participate in a system that turns high art into low art so it's better suited for mass consumption? Of course, when an artist goes commercial, he makes a mockery of his status as an outsider and free thinker. He buys into the crass and shallow values art should transcend. He trades the integrity of his art for riches and fame.... Oh, what the heck. I'll do it."
Hobbes: "That wasn't so hard."

Try finding that in Fred Basset or The Perishers. 

This dialogue also represents Watterson's somewhat idiosyncratic, and increasingly rare, world-view. As a former ad-man, Watterson had grown increasingly frustrated with the venal banality of marketing, but was equally turned-off by the pompous pretentiousness of the art world. By choosing to express himself in a comic strip, he found he could puncture both worlds with pin-sharp precision. 

As the strip grew in popularity, Watterson repeatedly rejected his syndicate's desire to merchandise the characters, arguing that commercialisation would diminish their magic and invalidate many of the opinions he espoused through their dialogue. Many have speculated about how many hundreds of millions of dollars Watterson turned his back on, by rejecting the countless offers to license cartoons, stuffed toys and t-shirts featuring his characters' likenesses.

Whereas Jim Davis was quite happy to turn Garfield over to the manufacturers of press-on windscreen dolls, Watterson was concerned that a cuddly Hobbes toy would force readers to decide once-and-for-all that the tiger was an inanimate object who only existed in his playmate's imagination. Likewise, he argued that an animated series would irrevocably tie each character's voice to a single performer. Instead, he preferred to let readers decide how they sounded in their own heads. Even now, all these years later, the only official merchandise available is the series of paperback collections, for which Watterson produced beautiful water-colour covers and introductory stories.

These annual compilations also give readers the chance to fully appreciate Watterson's artistry, since they reproduce his famed Sunday strips in all their full-colour glory. Having being tied to four static panels for the other six days of the week, a full page layout allowed him to really let 'er rip. Insisting on colouring every illustration himself (as his contemporaries farmed out the task to underlings), Watterson used the opportunity to play with form, function and style. Perhaps the most effective of these experiments was the hyper-real style he developed to depict Calvin and Susie's attempts at playing house, which usually devolved into an outtake from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Given the different lead times required for producing a regular weekday strip and a Sunday instalment, it's remarkable that Watterson also managed to occasionally incorporate the larger colour format into several of his long running stories.

To those unfamiliar with the magical world inhabited by this young boy and his stuffed tiger, all this talk of integrity might sound a little po-faced. In fact, Calvin &  Hobbes remains the single most hilarious strip ever published. Even as its author struggled with deep philosophical issues (the characters were named after 16th-century theologian John Calvin and 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes) he never forgot to make his strip laugh-out-loud funny. From Calvin's parents' bitingly sarcastic interplay, to his own love-hate relationship with nemesis/paramour Susie Derkins, the writing was sharp enough to make Frasier Crane feel like a dullard. But Watterson was equally adept at illiciting a laugh with the bare minimum of dialogue, such as the time Calvin daydreamed that he was flying through the clouds courtesy of a propellor-beanie hat. Or when he blew a gum-bubble so large that his entire head popped with it. 

Despite his innate grasp of sarcasm, Watterson wasn't immune to occasional bouts of sentimentality - at one point producing a genuinely touching series of strips depicting the death of an injured raccoon, that Calvin had attempted to nurse back to health. The final panel in the series offered no punchline or glib commentary, just the erudite observation: "What a stupid world." In its own way, this surprising change of tone was just as haunting as the much-lauded final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth. 

That's why those of us who've discovered the treasure that's everywhere in Watterson's world, appreciate it so much. He managed to be funny without being contrived. He was sometimes scathing, but never bitter. And he could embrace his sentimental side, without ever lapsing into mawkishness. It was a tricky balance that he managed to maintain for ten glorious years. His insight into both children and child-rearing seemed uncannily accurate, especially since he enjoyed an utterly unremarkable upbringing of his own, and had no parenting experience to call upon. But to anyone who recalls the fearlessness of infancy, the joy of snowman-building, or the trials of an unrelenting babysitter, his cartoons are like an express ticket to a magical communal childhood. 

When Watterson declared that he was hanging up his pen and retiring the strip, there was a genuine outpouring of grief as fans wondered how they'd cope without their adventure-seeking pals. And it seems that time has done nothing to diminish their appeal, as a recent pastiche called Calvin & Bacon (by webcomic artists Dan and Tom Heyerman) proved, when it went viral almost overnight. My own tribute to the incomparable twosome came in the naming of my two dogs. Somewhat appropriately, one of them has grown up to be impulsive, energetic and curious, whilst the other is rational, cautious and reserved. I'll leave you to guess which is which.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

They think it's all over - give it six months

This is it folks, we're about to find out who's won the second-most coveted title in music after MTV's Best Video With A Message. Of course, when I say 'about to', I mean in around four and a half hours' time. Just like last night, ITV plans to stretch tonight's final like a pair of Anne Diamond's Spanx. So bite down on a leather strap, make sure your glass is full of neat alcohol, and let's get started.

From the thousands who applied, only two remain. But sadly this is a singing competition, rather than a remake of Battle Royale, so all those hopeless also-rans are all still out there somewhere. Only two minutes in and there's already been more screaming than a Friday 13th marathon - this is going to get worse before it gets better.

Dermot's given up on the lame dance routines and has turned up in full black tie. Mine's the prawn cocktail thanks. Coming up later are Coldplay and Westlife. Talk about the bland leading the bland. The judges make their most dramatic entrance yet, descending on a slow-moving lift: Ground floor, perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery. So that's Kelly's outfit sorted anyway. As for Louis, he's been rifling through Hugh Hefner's wardrobe and settled on a red satin dressing gown. However, I think it's safe to give the Bunnies the night off.

"Expect flashing lights and maybe a couple of old friends" warns Dermot ominously, but his words are about as comforting as "It's fine once you get in." Here's one of the boybands that made the live finals, but given how much they swapped members, it's hard to tell which one it is. Joining them onstage are Misha B, Janet, Sophie and Two Shoes, followed by Craig, Johnny and Sami. They're doing a fast-paced recap of every song you got sick of hearing this year - like a horrendous Capital FM megamix. For some reason Goldie has also turned up - someone needs to tap her on the shoulder and tell her she's a few weeks late. She's wearing an odd outfit, combining one of Beyonce's glittery bikinis and Nanette Newman's marigolds.

Marcus has to choose his best performance of the series, and he's wisely chosen Higher and Higher. It suits his Motown vocal style perfectly, and it's uplifting without being anodyne. More importantly, it'll still appear to the millions of kids who've never heard it before. He's giving it 110 per cent (© Simon Cowell) and it's fantastic, with key changes that are intentional rather than accidental. Louis calls him a "born little pop star" which doesn't sound nearly as complimentary as he intended it to. Meanwhile, Olly and Caroline are still marooned in the stands exchanging platitudes with shouty scousers, and proving once and for all why they're best left on ITV2. 

Do you know the Muffin girls, who live on Drury Lane? Don't worry if not, they're here now to reprise Don't Let Go in front of 'fousands' of people. They make an explosive entrance, firing out from beneath the stage and managing to land on both feet. Thank goodness there were no weight miscalculations, otherwise they could have been fishing Jesy out of the rigging. They're singing well, but they need to learn how to moderate their facial expressions when vocalising. I don't know whether they want to win the contest or go ram-raiding. Olly has found some Minimixers in the audience, so he does some beatboxing as they attempt to rap: L to the I to the T to the T to the L to the E to the MIX. Now I'm no urban music expert, but I've always thought that rhythmic spelling is best left to cheerleaders, rather than rappers.

With round one out of the way, it's time for the customary seasonal songs. "Ready for Christmas? It's about to arrive" drones Gary in his distinctly unfestive monotone. Oh sweet baby Jesus, they've saddled him with Last Christmas. I won't even compare it to Wham's original - it barely lives up to Whigfield's cover version. Still, he remembered to shout out the 'Merry Christmas' bit, and managed to make it sound a little more effective than JB's now legendary "Mewwy Cwissmas" when JLS murdered it a few years ago. Since we're at the final, none of the judges are going to criticise the performance, so there's just lots of well-meaning blah. Speaking of which, Olly and Caroline are still doing their half-arsed vox pops - this time with a salad-dodging Adele lookalike in opera gloves, and the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. 

Tulisa introduces Little Mix using the exact same wording as last time, but with all the enthusiasm of your Mum leaving a voicemail. The girls look half dressed, and they're attempting an almost-acapella Silent Night. They're not quite as good as they think they are, so some of the more melismatic moments threaten to get away from them. Louis is scribbling frantically, looking awfully pleased with himself. I thought he was making a list of the girls' hometowns so he could tell them all to vote, but it turns out that his proud bon mot was "Little Mix, big future". Yeah, fuck you Dorothy Parker. 

More stupid audience blather, as we realise that this week's motif is finalists rendered in food. Last night, Marcus was recreated using Marmite on toast, and tonight someone's turned up with a 'Little Mixican' pizza. As we return to the stage, the judges are asked for their most memorable moments, and it's as teeth-grindingly predictable as you'd expect. Gary tells us that he came to put a "musical stamp" on the show, but ended up with Goldie's legs wrapped around his head. Poor bloke, I wouldn't even wish that on Robbie. 

To accompany a black and white recap of the story so far, Westlife are here with their farewell performance of a song originally written and recorded by an American Idol contestant. This is a world where music is just a commodity to be passed around, like a joint at a sixth former's party. Fair play to them, they're doing it live and it's not half bad, but I only say that because the footage of the contestants' journey was so dull that I had no choice but to actually watch them sing.  

There's just time for yet another recap, in case you missed all the other ones, along with some stock phrases. No point me transcribing them, so please feel free to reorder the following words as you see fit: journey, amazing, first audition, can't believe I'm here, Wembley, journey, final, let anyone down. 

The contestants are finally ready to unveil this year's winner's song, and it's Cannonball by Damien Rice. Another melancholy epic to help tip those seasonal suicides over the edge. But of course it's been rearranged to make room for a choir, a key change and gigantic swell in the final chorus. Who cares if it kills the meaning of the song? It's not like this show has ever been about the music. The changes are most noticeable when Marcus yells "Courage, teach me to be shy!"  He's singing so hard that the veins in his forehead manage to displace the Botox. I have a feeling he's going to wake up with curiously stiff ears. "If I was looking for the perfect pop star and fed everything into a computer..." I don't want to think about what other horrors might lurk in his hard drive. Gary's either crying or he's coming down with a nasty case of pink-eye. Either way, he needs to start washing his hands in the bathroom. Let's have some video messages from Marcus' family, and Robbie Williams. Well, he was hanging around the studio and had a spare couple of minutes. 

Tulisa's sleeping pills are kicking in, and the autocue's still stuck on her original introduction. "This is it guys..." Again. The Concrete Mixers are doing the same song, but their interpretation is a little softer. Jesy sings that she can't see what's going on. But it might help if she opened her eyes. Just saying. The girls harmonise well, but there's a little too much vibrato on some of the vocals. They've also pared back the arrangement to such a degree that what should have been the dramatic breakdown feels like they were ready to give up and walk offstage. The problem is, X-Factor loves to take these minimalist records and reconfigure them as epic tear-jerkers. So the acts have two choices - either keep it bleak and soft, or rip its balls off and throw it at the wall. The girls' rendition sat somewhere in the middle, neither fish nor fowl. Not to worry - the judges seemed happy enough, so what do I know?

A brief attempt to plug the next show on ITV's uninspiring schedule fucks up royally, leaving Dermot listening to his ear-piece as Philip Schofield and Christine Bleakley blather over a static shot of their bored-looking audience wearing christmas hats. Dermot seems pretty embarrassed - better late than never I suppose. 

He cheers up momentarily to introduce Coldplay, who are here for the fill-in-time-until-the-results-are-counted slot. The stage has been daubed in neon paint, so I half expect to see the Blue Man Group on drums. Lasers are firing, glowsticks are being waved and the crowd is going wild. Chris Martin starts out on the acoustic guitar for the first song, then switches to the piano which he manages to sweat all over. If that's what he gets like after one song, I'm amazed he can get through a whole concert without turning to dust. Not the best advert for a macrobiotic diet. I know they're one of the biggest bands in the world, but neither of these songs has any substance to it - they could have been written by Louis' magic computer. 

At long last we're ready to find out the winner of X-Factor 2011. Our finalists and their mentors take to the stage, amid random bursts of flame. Let's hope that's not what happens to their fledgeling recording careers. Little Mix are the winners, and although I was backing Marcus, it's probably the right decision. After what happened to Joe McElderry, Leon Jackson and Shayne Ward, it's clear that Syco don't have a clue what to do with young male singers. Since Little Mix have surpassed everyone's expectations and seem to be genuinely nice girls, maybe they've got a chance at filling the void left by Girls Aloud. Their encore of Cannonball ends with a ticker-tape explosion, which means that my enduring memory of this series will be Kelly Rowland attempting to fish silver confetti out of her bra. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tonight's not quite the night

After three interminable months, we've arrived at the final weekend of X-Factor. To be honest, it feels a little premature. But that's because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, so the winner's song needs to be installed at number one a week in advance. Of course, cynics would suggest that scoring another Christmas number one is more important than establishing a robust career for a new recording artist. But let's silence those voices. For now.

We open with eerie black and white footage and a voice-over from one of the muffins, saying "To be a group in the final, and a girl group, it's just sick." I'll tell you what's sick - taking four hours to find out who's won this thing. They're going to drag this out as long as they can, so expect plenty of recaps, flashbacks and crap hats. Scratch that one, Matt Cardle's not in tonight's show. Instead, we can look forward to the finalists performing with their mentors, as the nation breathes a collective sigh of relief that we were spared the sight of Louis and Kitty giving us a rendition of Rene and Renato's Save Your Love.

With contempt and Lynx bodywash oozing out of every pore, Dermot treats us to an extended dance routine that sees him racing across London in a black cab. It's obviously a pastiche of Austin Powers, without the humour or entertainment. Dermot reminds us of that incredible recording contract that one of the contestants is going to land, hoping that none of us have read the tabloid stories about how little of the £1 million the winner actually sees.

For the second time this series we're treated to Live and Let Die, which temporarily raises my hopes about what fate will befall the unfortunate contestant who doesn't make it through to tomorrow night. Despite being slapped on the wrist by OFCOM for flogging her bottled stank, Tulisa's happily waving it around again. I guess it can't hurt now.

If we were playing cliche bingo, I'd have already scored a full house and would be onto my second glass of Gala's finest Cava - "Every step of the way," "I've come so far," and "I don't want to fall at the last hurdle". It's like a family reunion full of people you don't really want to spend any time with.

The finalists open the show with a rendition of Take That's Greatest Day, to remind us that even good songwriters can have an off-day. Amelia's sleepy eyes make her look as bored as I feel, but Little Mix are presenting themselves as a credible girl band. For once they appear to have been styled together in the same room, rather than each picking a seperate changing room and hoping for the best. After the break, Dermot welcomes us back to a "very quiet and understated final." Ha ha. That was irony. Well done to the script-writing intern who came up with that gem.

"Everybody, get... ready... for... Marcus... Collins" croaks Gary, with all the excitement of someone reading the shipping forecast. This week Marcus flew back to Liverpool in a helicopter, and revisited his school in his little red bow tie. A few years ago he'd have been bullied mercilessly for that. Now he gets a hero's welcome, so that's nice. Later on he visits his mum and is joined by Gary, who does his best 'man of the people' bit by asking for a nice cup of tea and "a gossip off Nana and Grandad." Unfortunately, time restrictions deny us the scene where Nana asks "Who's this boring tosspot?" But we did hear Grandad say "he was a little bugger". Many a true word spoken in jest.

Liverpool looks excited to be welcoming another local finalist, perhaps encouraged by the fact that Rebecca Ferguson's second placing last year didn't seem to do her career any harm. For his first song Marcus is doing Hey Ya! The performance starts out as a tribute to Catch Me If You Can, complete with half a jumbo jet sticking out of the backdrop and sixties-styled stewardess dancers. By the time they're joined by a bunch of glowstick-waving air-side staff in high-vis jackets, it's starting to look as though Heathrow is trying to sneak through their plans for that third runway without anyone noticing. Marcus has a great voice, but this song is right in the middle of his range, so it sounds flat and tuneless throughout. When the judges bleat on about song choice, this is what they're talking about. "You're what this show is all about." says Louis, and I'm starting to suspect that he's having a private joke at everyone's expense - he's secretly planning to get through the entire weekend by only using his stock phrases. "You are showing out" shouts Kelly. Come on, his trousers weren't that tight.

The move to Wembley isn't the only big change this year. Another tweak to the format has done away with the regional broadcasts, which usually involve a sports centre full of random acquaintances, and a yelled interview with a confused looking Lady Mayoress. Instead, we've got a rabble of local supporters in the crowd, being hassled by Caroline Flack and Olly Murs.

Back to Dermot, who says "Now the only remaining group, whose mentor is hoping to achieve what none of them have ever managed before..." Sadly, he's cut off before adding "...emerging from this car crash with even a trace of credibility or integrity". He's talking about Little Mix and Tulisa, who went on a whistle-stop tour of some of England's most salubrious locations: High Wycombe, Romford and South Shields. The north east is our final stop, and maybe it's just the Geordie accent, but I swear that Jade's mum described her daughter as a 'little store'. Like Budgens.

The girls enter on motorbikes, with engines revving. It's all very rock n roll, but the effect is killed somewhat as the dancers backpedal their hogs silently off-stage. They're doing You Got The Love, with a bit of Janet Jackson and plenty of Cheryl Cole in the choreography and styling. As for the girls, they're dressed head-to-toe in slashed denim, as if the cast of Prisoner Cell Block H got caught in a thresher. Louis screams "I love everything about you. Girl power back in the charts. Vote for Little Mix." He is, you know - he's having a laugh at our expense. Gary complements them on working out the "spacing on stage", and I just hope that's not a pop at poor old Jesy.

Kelly says that Amelia is ready to tear the house down, which I'm taking as a coded warning that we wouldn't like her when she's angry. Kelly and Amelia embrace in slow motion, which is probably because they didn't spend enough time together in Middlesborough to fill out the whole segment. As Amelia leaves her family home, there's a semi-naked pink man waving her on. I remember spotting him in the audience last week. Maybe Amelia sees this apparition everywhere she goes, like a camp version of The Grudge. Amelia's singing Ain't No Other Man, and although she makes a good job of it, she's no Christina Aguilera. For a start, she's about half the size. The judges mention the fact that Amelia went home, and then came back to the contest. That's the first I've heard of it. Oh God, the pink guy is here in the studio, and he's speaking. Does that mean everyone else can see him too?

The nation's hymens are about to collectively rupture as JLS and One Direction take to the stage in one giant X-Factor super group. JLS are on first, and open with their recent single "She Makes Me Wanna". I have an issue with this song, and it's the same problem that I had with Meatloaf's "I'd Do Anything For Love..." - so many unanswered questions. They're joined onstage by One Direction who perform "What Makes You Beautiful". Their collective vocal proves why no group has ever won the X-Factor.

Poor old Louis, sitting alone at the judges' table, thinking about what could have been. According to reports in the press, he's spent £30k on a hair transplant to keep up with the younger judges. Although I'm glad he didn't emerge in a wifebeater to show off a new tattoo on his arm (plugging Old Spice, natch), I question his investment in a follicular overhaul at this late stage. I have it on good authority that sticking a hair transplant on a man with Louis' idiosyncratic charms, is referred to in cosmetic circles as 'turd polishing'.

Time for the duets now. Marcus and Gary are singing 'She's Always A Woman', which Marcus has dedicated to his mum. Perhaps he should have reviewed the lyrics before making such a magnanimous gesture. They're both wearing velvet smoking jackets, which has me recalling that crushingly awkward Christmas duet that David Bowie performed with Bing Crosby. Their voices blend well together, but the standout moment has to be the lyric "She can't be convicted, she's earned her degree". And we've seen the graduation photo to prove it. Back to the audience, and someone's made a portrait of Marcus' face using Marmite on toast. As Olly takes a bite, a dark corner of my soul hopes that it's not really yeast extract that he's munching.

Little Mix say that Tulisa is the most amazing person in the world, prompting Nelson Mandela to sob into a scatter cushion and wonder about where he went wrong. It's no exaggeration to say that this is the first time I have ever heard Tulisa sing a note, so I don't know whether I'm pleasantly surprised or predictably disappointed. Thankfully, the Magimixers are doing a great job, and most of the vocal heavy lifting on their Alicia Keys medley. Or at least they were, until Jesy does a bit of awkward beatboxing that looks as though she's trying to get rid of a piece of Juicy Fruit without anyone noticing. One of the Mixers says they wouldn't have wanted to duet with anyone else, which is just as well, since it seems like the producers struggled to score any decent acts. Oh, and I take back what I said earlier - the mayor of South Shields is in the house. Which means that somewhere in the north east, his own house is probably getting robbed.

Amelia and Kelly are doing their best to show a united front, as Amelia says "I'd never in a million years think I'm pals with Kelly Rowland." Probably best that she keeps reminding herself of that, or it could get ugly. As much as I might find Amelia irritating, I have to admit that she and Kelly pulled off the best duet of the night, as they ripped River Deep Mountain High to bits. Amelia gushes that she couldn't have asked for a better mentor. Not even one who might have kept her in the competition for the entire run?

Olly tells us that someone's created a special Amelia Lily cocktail, which looks like a fishbowl of Pepto-Bismol. "What's it called?" he asks the young waitress next to him. "It's the Amelia Lily cocktail," she replies, suggesting that they spent more time chopping the fruit than coming up with a name for it.

As the technicians start tallying the votes, it's time for a couple of guest performances. First up, it's time for the triumphant return of Leona Lewis. Her pop-star status in something of a no-man's-land at the moment, but there's no denying that hers is the career to which every X-Factor contestant aspires. Tonight, she's singing Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. Coming up after the break, Tommy Steele having a crack at Radiohead. Not really - now it's Michael Bublé's turn to show us how it's done. The intro footage tells us that Bublé is the best selling male artist of the decade. Let's just pause and think about that for a moment. Happy to move on? Good, me too. It looks as though Michael has been celebrating his accomplishment with a slap-up pie or fifteen. Tonight he's singing one of the greatest Christmas songs ever made - Darlene Love's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Dermot asks whether that's off the Christmas album, proving that the researchers are working just as hard as the script-writer. Asked about his forthcoming ITV Christmas special, Bublé tells us that singing with Gary and Kelly was the highlight of his career. Even the judges laugh at the insincerity of this. 'Tis the season for contractually obliged appearances.

And now the moment of truth. Who's going through to the final, and who's looking down the business end of 18 months' worth of PAs at industry award ceremonies? Little Mix are through and they genuinely deserve it. Marcus and Gary are smiling, Kelly and Amelia not so much. That only gets more obvious when it's finally announced that Marcus is safe, leaving Amelia and Kelly offering up more forced smiles than the guests at someone's fourth wedding. Coming up next on ITV - Piers Morgan spends an hour interviewing Peter Andre. And for that reason, I'm out.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Big girls don't cry, but little ones do

Hold onto your hats folks, there's an articulated lorry packed full of drama heading your way. Starting with a close-up on Simon's evil eye, we're warned by the voice-over guy that the battle lines have been drawn. Simon promises a big fight tonight, before changing his opinion and telling us that now it's war. One more take and he's going to be offering up mutually assured destruction.

Someone's obviously had a word in Steve's photogenic ear and told him to be more energetic. He's trying his best in his dull grey suit, but since no-one's bothered to turn down the music volume, it's like watching a mime trying to apply for a bank loan.

Stop the presses, Steve attempted a funny by going for some banter with Simon, but his boss shoots him down by admitting that he wasn't listening anyway. Crash and burn, you big wax muppet. Steve tells us that this is dance music week, which has got Paula wetter than one of Nicole's tissues.

Melanie is opening tonight's show, with her take on one of the biggest songs of the year. If you're not already sick of Someone Like You, in ninety seconds you will be. Unless you've spent copious amounts of time in the kind of bar that has a dark room instead of a cloakroom, you may be unfamiliar with this 140 bpm version of Adele's pitchy growler. Nicole tells Melanie that she's a rock-star diva, but I don't think Nancy Wilson is going to have too many sleepless nights about the competition. Simon complements her on the performance, and says that he's noticed she's been getting better, ever since she revealed her true self. To put things into perspective, she just started speaking with a Virgin Islands accent - it's not like she hitched up her skirt and revealed a cock.

Steve is back in the audience to do his intro's, which smacks of Bruno Brookes hosting the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops. LA Reid introduces Marcus, who's wearing a hat and doing a lackluster version of Ain't Nobody. Chaka Khan is an amazing singer, but she's got one of those distinctive love-or-hate voices. Sadly, Marcus seems to be emulating the latter. Having seen Brian Friedman putting his all into the choreography, its disappointing to see Marcus dancing like a not-drunk-enough secretary at her first office Christmas party. Nicole's a believer, and tells Marcus that "God has a plan for you." I think Simon just got a little hard when he heard his new nickname. Simon also complements Marcus, telling him "I don't like people who play the victim." Which is true, he prefers to make those decisions in the editing suite.

Steve reminds us that the winner will receive a $5 million recording contract AND an appearance in their own Pepsi commercial, as if they're equivalent prizes. Which gives you an idea of how much of that signing fee they'll actually see. Rachel is singing 'Nothin' On You' and it's veering dangerously close to Minipops territory. In this week's first weird outburst, Paula tells Rachel that her voice transcends all generations, whereas Simon mentions that she used to do "stand up comedy years ago". So whilst her contemporaries were potty training, Rachel was rehearsing mother-in-law jokes.

Josh is having a go at 'We Found Love' because the world has been crying out to hear a Joe Cocker/Rihanna mash-up. Despite an impressive vocal effort, it's quite evident that Josh would be less embarrassed if he'd been caught sodomising an alpaca in a branch of Footlocker. Simon and LA give him a tough critique, and tell him he's lucky to have a second song tonight. I'm really rooting for Josh to get through to the final, if only for the grand homecoming segment, when he'll finally get to return to the mystical land from Where The Wild Things Are.

Chris is closing the first half of the show, doing another Rihanna song - no wonder she's happy to pop up on the results show every couple of weeks. Chris is OK at what he does, but he's bringing back some uncomfortable memories of Vanilla Ice and Snow. Simon asks LA why he chose to include a travellator in Chris' performance, as though the music mogul was up on stage moments earlier, adjusting the speed with a socket wrench. Still, it's not everyone who can sell a song whilst making their way across Terminal 5.

Steve leads into the ad break with the revelation that last night, the contestants received some news that changes everything. Turns out, they're singing their own song choices, instead of those chosen by the audience. Did anyone else just feel the world spin off its axis?

Melanie's doing 'When You Believe' - the song that got Leon Jackson's career off to such a great start. Given that it was a Christmas number one, you'd think it would be memorable, but it's one of those drippy power ballads that you've forgotten before the singer's even finished performing it. Not to worry, Melanie is far and away the best singer in the contest, so she should be safe. Now it's time for her customary speech after her song. Steve's not going to be happy because he's going to have the producers yelling in his ear to rush Paula and Nicole's feedback. Nicole got goosebumps all over, and in her minimal outfit, we can pretty much see the evidence. Simon gives a shout-out to Clive Davis, who gives us a royal wave. The crowd goes wild because they think it's Tony Bennett, who just left his wig at home.

Marcus reveals that, if he doesn't nail this, he could be going home. Did he just read the instructions about how the show works? This time around he's singing A Song For You, which must surely hold some kind of a record for the number of times it's been trotted out on one of these shows. The performances tonight are only 90 seconds long, but like a true pro, Marcus made it feel like quarter of an hour. Nicole has been stealing Louis Walsh's script notes, telling him he reminds her of a young Al Green. Beats the shit out of Lenny Henry I suppose. Alternatively, LA Reid compares his protege to Muhammad Ali, but I'm sure that Marcus is just shaking because of the nerves.

Steve says "It's another of the girls, Simon Cowell". Does he not want to keep this gig? Rachel Crow is singing Music and Me, which should have been her song choice last week when they were rifling through Michael Jackson's back catalogue. That early MJ sound suits her voice perfectly, but she's been dressed like Jeanette Krankie in a rare appearance out of schoolboy drag. Speaking like a true Toddlers and Tiaras finalist, she tells Paula "My mission is just to inspire the kids."

Steve points out that Nicole's not paying attention, and she looks embarrassed, like a dog caught attempting to apply its lipstick. Growling so hard that I can hear the nodules forming in his throat, Josh is doing 'Something', and making Shirley Bassey's rendition sound whispered and low-key. Of course, he's a great singer, with a scruffy Gruffalo edge, but to those who are getting excited about his future, I have two words: Bo Bice. Paula says adjectives don't adequately describe his brilliance, but she's never allowed herself to be troubled by the limitations of language. Nicole has a rhyming dictionary, calling her artist a "male Adele" (pronounced Mell-Adele) and then referring to his performance as Krajcik-Magic. Guess who's angling for a song-writer's credit on her next album.

Chris is going to be performing his own composition, and so Stevie Wonder calls him to tell him how inspired he is by the young artist. In other news, Anne Widdecombe receives a letter from Joan of Arc, complementing her on her pioneering feminism. The song is nice enough, in fact his vocals are the best they've been all series, but it's got a Jason Mraz b-side feel to it. Paula invokes the universe and its mysterious ways. But compared with her little monologues, the universe is like Janet and John.

And now we move onto the results show to see someone's dream end. The show opens with LeRoy's older brother Lenny Kravitz, who doesn't seem to be putting too much effort into pretending to play his guitar. Just as he gets warmed up we switch into Are You Gonna Go My Way, one of the most annoying wedding DJ records ever made. It's always a worry when someone appears on these shows to plug their new material, and resorts to a reprise of their greatest hit within sixty seconds. Not the most compelling recommendation for the new stuff. Weirdly, the judges are already seated behind the table - suggesting that this show is going to be filled with content. But with just five acts left, and an hour to fill, I can't help but be suspicious.

To fill in the running time, we're treated to a backstage expose of what goes into the choreography, make-up and wardrobe. During this segment, we get to hear from Kristofer (seriously) Buckle and his spectacular gayface, talking about how people cope with "having six hands on them at once". For some people, that's just a regular weekend. There's also lots of talk of shirts coming off and hairpieces being thrown aside. Whatever it takes to keep Simon happy.

The judges and their acts are welcomed one by one. So spare a thought for Paula, standing alone at the judges' table, doing her wide armed slow clap. Josh is safe, prompting Simon to chew the inside of his cheek. Chris is also safe, and launches into one of Dermot's patented slow spins, before making a heart shape with his fingers. On this show, no cliche is left unmolested.

Melanie, Marcus and Rachel are backstage, and Steve "genuinely can't believe" that one of them is going home tonight. They're all talking about their fans, and "loving everyone out there" and having God's support. Steve tells them that they're not going to find out who's through just yet. And regrettably, neither are we. Instead, here's Mary J Blige to teach these chumps what a real star looks like. Remember my vertical light beams of victory? Well, no-one got them this week, because they were being saved for Mary J. She's pretty ace, but the song sounds a little twee for her, like Tiffany & Co setting a chunk of granite in an engagement ring.

Good grief, now there's even more recapping, as Steve reads laboriously through the judges' notes. The final act breezing safely into the semi-final is Melanie Amaro, which was utterly unsurprising. Rachel has switched up her eerie professionalism to 11 - we're in Village of the Damned territory now. Marcus is a little more sanguine about the whole thing, but that's because he's spent more time stuck in the bottom than a proctologist with big hands.

They're preparing to do their 'save me' song, which should be interesting given that they used up their original choices in the second half of last night's show. Marcus' choice is a tuneless mess, like he's actually singing for his life, rather than just a chance to be ignored three months into a winning contract with Syco. Interestingly, Rachel's incredible talent is paling in comparison to her obnoxious sense of entitlement. "Do I have to?" is a familiar cry from 13 year olds, but usually it's reserved for the moments when they're asked to clean their room. Not when they're given the chance to sing for survival. After Astro's outburst a couple of weeks ago, we should probably be thankful that she didn't start off by refusing. But she didn't look too gracious to be there.

It's all so predictable as Simon and LA opt to save their own acts. Which puts far too much power in the hands of Paula and Nicole. Why not give them a briefcase full of enriched uranium while we're at it? Nicole is getting upset, so the thirteen year-old counsels her from the stage, leaving Nicole with no choice but to take it to deadlock. The audience isn't happy, and Nicole pretends she's lost the ability to speak. If only Paula could develop a similar affliction.

The act with the lowest number of votes is Rachel, who suddenly reveals that she's actually a child, and not a forty two year old woman dressed a pink pleather jacket. Dropping to the floor and sobbing uncontrollably, she's comforted by her mother who promises that it's all going to be OK. "Do you promise, do you promise?" she screams, and it's all a little disturbing. Meanwhile, Steve stands there like someone who's just walked in to find his grandparents spit-roasting the vicar.

Rachel briefly manages to compose herself long enough to tell the audience "I love you so much for voting for me, even though you didn't." See, she's not even out of her teens and she's already mastered the passive aggressive back-handed compliment. This kid's gonna go far. You know what, nothing says entertainment like watching children cry. After this, I might throw on Who Will Love My Children, and go straight to the scene were the twins are sent to separate foster homes because one of them has epilepsy.

Sensing that the cameras are focusing too much on the devastated 13 year-old, Nicole rushes to the stage to offer up her own photogenic tears. That's right Nicole, as always, it's all about you.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

'Tis the season to be jolly

Most people have a favourite Christmas movie. Old school film fans will try to convince you that nothing comes close to the tear-jerking majesty of Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Friends with kids tell me that Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (actually Henry Selick’s, but Tim’s the guy with his name in the title) is their regular Yuletide pleasure. And people who like their seasonal cheer with a side-order of high-caliber bullet wounds tend to plump for a Die Hard/Lethal Weapon double bill. 

But in my house, there’s only one movie that gets watched every Christmas without fail. In fact, I may have watched it more times than any other movie in my collection – which fills me with no small amount of shame. But to be honest, I can’t imagine spending the holidays with anyone other than the Griswold family.

Originally released in 1989, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was the third in a loosely connected series of films about the misadventures of Chicago-based Clark W Griswold and his long-suffering family. It’s also remembered as something of a turning point in the career of writer John Hughes, as he moved away from the broad comedy of his earlier work, to the more schmaltzy, family-friendly fare that typified his 90s output. Although he followed it up a year later with the more successful Home Alone, it’s the misadventures of the world’s favourite inventor of non-nutritive cereal varnish that fill me with Christmas cheer. So here are ten reasons why Christmas Vacation is my pick as the ultimate festive film:

1) For some reason best known to a generation of coke-addled studio executives, the eighties were awash with incongruous animated title sequences. Despite following such undisputed classics as Mannequin and Troop Beverly Hills, Christmas Vacation manages to hold its own, thanks to a charmingly designed cartoon short showing that even St Nick can fuck up. It helps enormously that Santa’s blight before Christmas is accompanied by one of the best theme songs of the last thirty years. Performed by the legendary Mavis Staples, Christmas Vacation sticks in your brain like a particularly aggressive tumour.

2) Neither of Clark and Ellen’s kids escape unscathed from their family holidays, but Hughes tended to save the serious injuries for petulant daughter Audrey. Having marched his clan through waist-deep snow in search of the perfect tree, Clark is convinced he’s finally found it. But as he implores the kids to marvel in its beauty, Audrey remains unresponsive. Ellen whispers tenderly, “She’ll see it later honey, her eyes are frozen.”

3) When Hughes wrote Home Alone in 1990, he left behind his love of believable dialogue and witty dialogue, and replaced it with scene after scene of Joe Pesci being smashed in the face with an iron. He clearly used Christmas Vacation as a testing ground for this PG-friendly slapstick, but chose his moments wisely. It also helped that he had, in Chevy Chase, a comedian as confident with physical humour as he was with the wordplay. In particular, Chase’s repeated encounters with ladders are the standout moments, particularly the scene where Clark attempts to hide his presents in the roof-space. The sudden appearance of the attic ladder is short, swift and brutal. It’s also fucking funny.

4) Randy Quaid may now be best known for trying to avoid prosecution for residential burglary by seeking asylum in Canada, but I prefer to remember his glory days as Cousin Eddie in the Vacation movies. The undisputed king of boorish, redneck morons, Eddie secures his place in film history, clad in a dog-eared dressing gown and emptying his chemical toilet in Clark’s driveway, shouting “Merry Christmas - Shitter’s full!”

5) Clark may get the Christmas tree he’s always dreamed of, but it’s not without its problems. For a start, the straining branches end up being released with such force that half the living room windows get blown out. But this pine-scented outburst also leaves Clark drenched in sap, which leads to another stand-out moment of physical comedy. Anyone who’s ever struggled to wash real pine sap off their hands will empathise as our sticky hero finds himself attached to a magazine, his wife’s hair and, finally, a table lamp. Again, it’s Chase’s straight-faced sincerity that really sells the silliness.

6) Every neighbourhood has one house that overdoes the Christmas lights, inadvertently triggering air traffic control incidents as passing planes intermittently attempt an impromptu landing in a cul-de-sac. But Clark Griswold’s efforts put most British lighting displays to shame, making the Blackpool Illuminations look like a solitary energy-saving bulb hanging in a halfway house. After much frustrating back-and-forth, trying to get his fairy-lights to come on, Clark’s spectacular arrangement is finally revealed in all its retina-singing glory. The choir sings, the power supply surges and the next door neighbours are temporarily blinded. Clark’s noble efforts have even inspired a dedicated website (, a tribute to excellence in exterior illumination.

7) Americans tend to have their big festive meal on Christmas Eve, which is when we see the Griswolds tucking into their giant roast turkey. Unfortunately, Ellen’s sister Katherine has taken charge of the bird, and is a little concerned that she may have left it in the oven too long. It looks golden and delicious, worthy of pride-of-place positioning in a lavish Dickens adaptation, but as Clark pierces its skin with the fork, the whole thing bursts open like Norris’ chest in The Thing. A foul belch of smoke clears to reveal a dry cavity where the meat should be. I’m usually still laughing as the camera takes a slow pan around the dining table to see the extended family crunching their way through an inedible pile of turkey scratchings.

8) With family strife taking up most of the film, there’s not much room for cameos or supporting roles. But Bill Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle Murray, scores major points for his performance as Clark’s gruff, impersonable boss. He’s indifferent to the feelings of his employees, choosing to cancel their annual bonus and replace it with a one-year membership to the Jellies of the Month club. Just so you know, that’s a real thing that people give as gifts, entitling the lucky recipient to a new jar of preserves every four weeks. Admit it, you’d be pissed off too. Murray’s finest moment is when he tries to avoid having a conversation with Clark, explaining that he’s in the middle of a very important call, before picking up the phone and barking “Get me someone… and get me someone while I’m waiting.”

9) One of the trademarks of the Vacation series is the moment when Clark finally uncorks the rage that’s been building with every ill-conceived misstep. Venting his spleen in a profane outburst of anger, Clark makes his boss, and the afore-mentioned Jelly Of The Month Club voucher, the focus of his ire:
"Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is! Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"

10) For all its broad slapstick and even broader characterisation, the film has become a holiday favourite because it manages to genuinely capture both the magic and misery of a family Christmas. Based on a short story Hughes wrote about his own childhood Christmas, it manages to feel believable and sincere, even as Clark rockets down a hillside on a sledge polished with industrial strength cooking oil. The truth at the heart of the film, is that Christmas is a time for unreasonable expectations, nostalgic reminiscences and the dawning realisation that nothing is ever as good as we remember it. More importantly, the family may irritate the shit out of each other, but they manage to love each other regardless, just like the real thing.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Misha B gets the Shorty straw

Well, this is it folks. After what seems like an eternity, or at least time enough to gestate a baby elephant, we're about to discover who's made it through to the final of X-Factor. The excitement is palpable, especially judging by the bulging veins on Kelly's neck. Speaking of which, she's one of the performing guests tonight, alongside pubescent platinum popsqueak Justin Bieber. Someone stand-by with a crash-cart please, just in case this embarrassment of riches gets too much for me.

With his batteries now running about 23%, Dermot looks like a man beaten. He's going through the motions now, conveying all the seasonal joy of a child who's discovered that behind every door on his advent calendar is a picture of Norman Lamont. Tick those boxes - Bieber's in the house, thanks for buying the charity single, here's your finalists - does anyone care anymore? About anything?

I'm sure it was picked for its inspirational lyrics, but the group's mimed performance of Wilson Philips' Hold On, suggests the fact that they’re as fatigued with the whole format as we are. Hold on for one more day? There's another week of this shit to get through. Come to think of it, this song would have made a far better charity single, even if it is cheesier than a pack of Ritz sandwiches.

Since half of the results show is just rehashed footage from the night before, I'm going to take a similar approach. So here's a recap of the recap.

Misha challenged us to imagine a world without music, and by the end of the show I think we were all trying to. For her first performance she wore a dress made from shredded vinyl, a subtle reference to what this show has done to the industry. For her second song she tackled Pink's Fuckin' Perfect, but sadly stuck to the radio-friendly version. Still, credit where credits due - it takes huge balls to respond to those unfounded bullying accusations by performing an anti-bullying anthem. Gary even broke character to point out that this entire show is an offensive tabloid construct designed to build people up and pick them apart. He told Misha in no uncertain terms that there was no way she could win, thanks to Tulisa and Louis' ridiculous attack. Misha looked gutted. Or hungry. I don't know, her expressions are hard to read.

Amelia, who becomes less and less likeable every time I hear her speak, boomed that she was really happy with her performances last week, so it's nice that someone was. And Louis kept imploring specific regions of the UK to vote for certain acts, as though he was unaware that the whole country now has phones. Amelia sang Ain't No Mountain High Enough, but sadly the set dressers' budget couldn't stretch to icy peaks, so she had to make do with a wallpaper table. Before her follow-up performance, Amelia boasted that she can do anything, telling us "Just throw a song at me". Does it have to be a song? For her second song she chose I'm With You by Avril Lavigne, because it's one that she grew up listening to - a fact that makes me feel about a thousand years old. She also told us that she used to sing into a hairbrush, so the producers roll some footage of Amelia doing just that. This is all so idiotically literal, but the audience seemed happy enough. They like everything to be spelled out, which is probably why Gary pauses between each syllable whenever he speaks. The judges were nice enough to her, and Amelia responded by giving her best "Thanks, but I'm still going to key your car later" face.

Once again Tulisa introduced her "little muffins" - she's determined to make that a thing, even if it doesn't exactly do wonders for poor Jesy's body image. Sadly, the girls had a microphone fuck-up halfway through Keep Me Hanging On, and they struggled to get things back on track. Tulisa attempted to articulate what the girls represent, but someone should point out that they're competing in the X-Factor, not running for local government. Sensing that the girls were struggling, Kelly pointed out that "In a girl group there is always a lead singer" as she silently stabbed a Beyonce doll under the judges' table. It was a big night for the Mixes, as they got to genuflect in the presence of greatness, namely Jessie J who helped Tulisa pick them for the live shows. Jessie told her curiously spelled namesake not to cry: cue epic waterworks. By the end of their second performance, Tulisa had grown belligerent and angry. At one point during her rant, I swear she started yelling “My country ain’t fuck all.” But I could be getting confused.

Marcus' highlight of the week was filming the video for charity single 'Wishing On A Star'. Backstage footage revealed that one person's job was to sit with a bin-bag full of leaves and throw them at Marcus, prompting me to realise that I've wasted my life. Marcus is a good looking kid, but he's been so busy "wehhking" this week, he missed the end of Movember, and is still rocking a weasely top lip. Not to worry, Kelly wished he'd been singing 'My Girl' directly to her, once again missing some fairly obvious clues about a contestant's sexuality. After struggling through Can You Feel It (the second time this week that song almost undid an X-Factor contestant) Dermot sent the young lad off to the wings with a cryptic "For the time being, it's Marcus." Does that mean he’s about to pupate?

With the recaps done, it's time for awkward backstage cam, and a bit of pointless blather about how nervous/excited the contestants are. "Words can't describe...", "I've been on a journey", "It means so much to us...." If only William Hill were offering odds on contestant clichés – I could clean up.

Screeeeeeam - it's Justin Bieber. The world's most famous seventeen year old. He's dressed in a Thriller-era red and black leather jacket that would drown Dolph Lundgren, and singing something from his wretched new Christmas album. It’s about as authentically festive as a pile of soap-chip snowflakes, but he soldiers on, repeatedly referencing “Shorty”. After years in the showbiz wilderness, it's nice that Warwick Davis is getting the recognition he deserves. Justin tries getting a little seductive on the Judges' table, but Kelly looks as though she could use him as a toothpick. The performance ends, and twelve million people wonder how on Earth this uninspiring adolescent managed to become one of the biggest names in pop music.

Kelly's missing from her seat on the judging panel, because she's getting ready to plug a single that no-one's interested in buying. For a moment, this has me contemplating an alternate reality where Louis has to excuse himself to prepare for a live performance of his new single. But that takes me to a very dark place indeed, so let's cheer on Kelly instead. Over the last few months we've taken her to our collective bosom, but it's clear that she'll only ever be a ginger stepchild, rather than a proper member of the family. No doubt, Kelly's an attractive young woman, but in her sparkly hot pants, the word that springs to mind is 'sturdy'.

She’s performing a half-arsed medley of her recent David Guetta-fuelled dance hits, and making a great job of proving the point she made last night about every girl group needing a lead singer. There’s something slightly incongruous about watching a performance like this on a Sunday night. Maybe if I was off my face on GHB it’d be more effective. As it is, it’s a bit like being in a nightclub, just as someone turns on the lights for a fire drill. Kelly wraps up her slot with a major plug for her new album – silly girl, she could have just tattooed its name up her forearm. Meanwhile, the regulators are drawing up the paperwork for another breach of the rules.

We’re just moments away from revealing the results, so let’s watch some filler footage of why the contestants want to make it to the Wembley final next week. Amelia’s still stroppy about being dropped back in week one, and Marcus has grown as a person as well as a performer. It’s inspiring stuff, for sure. There’s a point where Marcus looks like he’s about to cry, but his Botox-frozen forehead makes it hard to tell. He could just be squeezing out a fart. Kelly talks about how Misha is something special and really deserves to be in the final – blink twice if she’s threatening you Kelly. And finally, there’s Little Mix, who’ve worked so hard that Tulisa can’t even find the words. Could she ever?

Dermot’s got the results in his hot little hands – first through is Little Mix, who put more effort into their screams than they did in either performance last night. Next, it’s Marcus. Of course he’s smiling, he always does, but let’s imagine that he’s happy about going through anyway.

Two acts, and just one place left. One of Kelly’s girls will go through to the final, and the other one will get a Christmas card from Kelly’s PA in a week’s time, signed “Kind regards…” It looks as though Gary’s in tune with the British public, as Amelia goes through and Misha bows out. Looks like Auntie won’t be getting that grain of salt Misha promised to repay her with. There’s lots of footage pointing out just how well Louis and Tulisa sabotaged her chances with the whole Bullygate fiasco. Hell, they even got me doing it.

Misha ends her time on the X-Factor with a performance of that Jessie J dirge 'Who You Are' as her final song. She’s written a new rap for it, which references Dermot's words of wisdom. I guess there's a first time for everything. The camera focuses on Tulisa to see if the guilt has helped her squeeze out a tear, but if she strains any harder she’ll burst a blood vessel.

One final word from our contestants - Amelia's chuffed to be through to the final, even if she feels like she should have been there in the first place. Yeah, we get it. Little Mix want to thank everyone, but neglect to mention all the god-awful girl bands who came before, and made them look amazing by comparison. Finally, Marcus promises to work hard over the next week. Louis, don’t get your hopes up – he means in rehearsals.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Making Michael proud

First things first, let's get a caveat out of the way. Michael Jackson was a superstar, legend and pop culture icon. He left behind an incredible legacy of songs, dance moves and music videos, as well as a walk-in wardrobe full of gaudy, ill-fitting casual-wear. Just wanted to put that out there, in case I involuntarily criticise the self-crowned King of Pop in the next few paragraphs.

In case you didn't know, this week saw the world's second worst doctor (after the one who filled that woman's arse with concrete and super-glue) sentenced to four years' imprisonment for Michael's "involuntary manslaughter". In attempting to downgrade his sentence, Conrad Murray's lawyers argued that it's punishment enough that their client would be forever known as "the man who killed Michael Jackson". And yet, I have a funny feeling that, by the time tonight's X-Factor USA is over, there may well be a few other suspects in the frame. So sit back, get Jessica Fletcher on speed dial, and let's marvel at the rest of the Jacksons' ability to put their legal nightmares aside long enough to turn out and promote their dearly departed brother's back-catalogue.

The show opens with the contestants praising Michael's phenomenal talent, with Marcus commenting "no-one know how to do the moonwalk like him", except maybe for the guy he stole the moves from. We also get lots of footage of screaming, crying fans, packing out stadium after stadium. Just think, one of these lucky contestants might one day get to watch those scenes on a DVD. 

The world's most unironic voiceover introduces Steve Jones, who walks out onto the stage accompanied by 'Bad'. Commentary from beyond the grave, you've got to love that. Unlike Dermot, Steve isn't comfortable moving with the "sexy dancing people", so he walks awkwardly, like a toddler carrying a full load. Despite wearing the facial expression of someone entering a car wash and realising he's left the aerial up, he's trying to convince us he's excited about tonight's show. Apparently, tonight features some of the greatest music ever created. And P.Y.T. 

Great news everybody, the three members of the Jackson 5 that aren't Michael or Jermaine are here to lend their support to the cash-raking tribute. In more "incredible news", Michael's kids are also in the audience. Say 'hello' to Prince, Paris and Blanket, who really ought to be pushing for a proper name by now. Mustering about as much sincerity as Jeremy Clarkson at a Unison fund-raiser, Steve tells them "We're honoured to have you here. Your presence is going to make an amazing evening even more incredible." After a build up like that, there's absolutely no chance that we're going to be disappointed, is there? 

Twenty minutes in, and no-one's performed yet. Although we did get an ad for Il Divo, which promised to make us "fall in love with music again". No mention of their role in making us fall out of love with it in the first place.  

Josh Krajcik is trying to tell us he wore out Michael Jackson's records as a child, but skeet shooting will do that to vinyl. It's clear he doesn't give a shit about Jackson's music, so he's doing a self-indulgently grungy version of Dirty Diana. He's so out of time with the music, it's like those old satellite interviews that they used to do on The Word. Josh's dad tells us about seeing the joy on Josh's face - cut to scenes of Josh scowling like he was being tested for STDs by an Inland Revenue inspector. The vocal coach tells us it's like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Which is a little unkind - it could just be his glands. 

I love it when Astro's family reminisce about when he was little. They're talking about four years ago, so it's not like it warrants the whole sepia treatment. In theory he's doing 'Black or White', but that means he's just performing his own rap as the backing singers tackle the actual melody. The dancers have got big red hankies over the face, which I assume is a nod to Jacko's germ-phobia and his ever-diminishing septum. Paula thinks Astro's words are important, but she's the sort of person who gets teary-eyed reading the message in a fortune cookie. She adds that she finds him "Influential and inspirational." He's also celebrational and Muppetational, but I could be getting off-track. The only lyric I picked up on, was when he said that "we're all made of earth and water." Poor kid, growing up in the projects, he probably never got to make a mud pie. 

Michael's kids get put on the spot by Steve, who asks them what they think of the show. They have trouble hearing him, but it probably doesn't help that Prince is listening to his iPod. Given the choice, I'd reckon I'd opt for MP3s over the mess on stage too. The kids have always been dogged with speculation about their parentage, given their suspiciously light skin tone. Conspiracy theorists should have just listened to Prince's voice - he makes Brian Blessed sound like Joe Pasquale. 

Drew's up next, doing a "stripped back" version of Billie Jean. The song sounds pretty good, but since every one of her performances is stripped back, it sounds less surprising than it should. LA Reid is gutted to admit that he likes it, and Nicole doesn't realise that it's her turn to speak. Maybe she was listening to Prince's iPod. Paula has taken on Simon's annoying habit of announcing portentously that she's about to say something, before actually saying anything. 

Rachel Crowe is the first contestant to come across like an actual Jackson fan, and she wisely recognises that by the time he was her age, he was already a superstar. Weirdly, Simon has chosen Can You Feel It by the Jacksons, instead of I Want You Back or I'll Be There which might have suited her voice better. There's so much going on, with the choirs, lasers and glittery high-tops, it's easy for her to get lost in the performance. None of the judges liked it apart from Simon, who retaliates by referring to Paula and Nicole as 'Squiddly and Diddly', showcasing his coruscating wit. 

Marcus doesn't want to be in the bottom two this week, so he's mashing up Usher's moves and Chris Brown's style in an attempt to tick all the modern R&B boxes. Unfortunately, P.Y.T. isn't a great vocal showcase, and the RedOne-style production makes it sound like the sort of track that Pitbull would turn up on. Just to be clear, that is not a good thing. Now Paula's talking about "perspiration and exhilaration". Seriously, if the Muppets don't show up by the end of the show, I'm going to be fucked off - anything Olly Murs can do... The judges are very complimentary about Marcus' back-flip, because nothing says 'great vocal' like desperate acrobatics. Just ask Aston from JLS. 

Chris Rene is excited because his Grandad wrote Rockin' Robin, which was most famously recorded by Michael Jackson on his solo debut. Chris is singing I'll Be There, and it's mostly out of his range, so thank goodness for the rap section where he gets to do what he does best. He's wearing a letterman jacket which, like most of tonight's outfits, is slathered in cheap sparkles. I know it's supposed to be a tribute to 'The King', but it just conjures up images of Amy Childs running wild backstage with her vajazzling glue-gun. Paula points out that Chris "manifests in the heart department", as if she's trying to describe a haunted John Lewis.  

Closing the show is Melanie Amaro, who's tackling one of Michael's most divisive tracks - Earth Song. The audience has already been checked for Jarvis Cocker-likes, and Melanie's exuding a new confidence after last week's barnstorming performance, so this could be good. Simon manages to turn "we've saved the best for last" into a non-sequitur, before introducing his newly-accented final act. The vocals are spot on, and the stage manager has given her the 'vertical light beams of victory' which are usually saved for the best performer of the night. Apart from the key change, which is a bit of a mess, this is great for anyone who likes Latino singers. If J-Lo had a proper voice, rather than a cat fart in a wet napkin, this is what she might sound like. LA Reid says "For one second, I felt like we were at a Melanie concert", which would be fine if he wasn't critiquing a two-minute performance. 

Steve takes to the stage for a final summary, once again proving that his contribution to the show could be surpassed by a stage-hand shaking a magic-8 ball and reading out what appears in the little blue window. 

Monday, 28 November 2011

Liver's too short

I must be a sucker for punishment. As much as I might enjoy occasionally dipping my toe into the shallow waters of trash TV, the prospect of sitting through yet another scripted reality show, featuring an all-new cast of vacuous attention-hogs, fills me with dread. It seems as though every few weeks, a new one pops up on the EPG, like malignant melanomas on a sunbather’s neck.

This time around we're visiting Merseyside, to check in with another gaggle of fame-hungry wannabes. Why Liverpool? Well, I guess ‘Scouse’ lends itself more easily to punning titles than Aberystwyth. It also helps that the 'Pool is packed to the rafters with wannabe WAGs, models and stylists, all keen to elevate their 'minor local celebrity' status into something more durable.

With the stars of Made in Chelsea clopping over the horizon in their expensive shoes, and Mark Wright currently checking himself for ticks in the Australian jungle, the coast is clear for these new kids up on blocks (well, it is Liverpool after all) to take their turn in front of the cameras. Coming up in the next hour of ‘Desperate Scousewives’, we'll be meeting a couple of self-important bloggers, a gay 'power couple', the cousin of Abbey Crouch and a glamour model. Exciting times.

The name of the show is the only remotely creative thing about the whole enterprise, but even that falls apart when the opening credits begin. See, none of them are wives, and they’re clearly about as domesticated as a pack of feral dogs roaming a sink-estate. But that title has to be explained, so they’ve been dressed from the seconds bin of Ann Summers, and given a range of domestic cleaning utensils to brandish seductively. It does nothing for me, but I bet Ken Dodd’s got a rager.

Might as well start as we mean to go on, with a grating voiceover that’s like being kicked in the ear by a pantomime horse. This is Jodie, and she’s singing the praises of her home city, calling out all the things it’s renowned for, including “muzackhhhh, geyerrrls and billdins.” Jodie’s been away from the ‘Pool for too long, and now she’s back to stake her claim on the city. Her hair is whiter than Donnie Osmond, and the giant gold CND earrings seem like a last minute choice. But she gamely stands at the top of the steps outside the train station and bellows “Liverpool, I’m back”. It’s met with utter disinterest, except for one off-screen voice that mumbles “Gizzakiss.”

Later, Jodie complains to a loaf of Boswells (I believe that’s the correct collective noun) that in London, people thought she was Lady Gaga. Here in Liverpool, “No-one bats an eyelid”. That’s because they can’t – their lashes are simply too heavy. Undeterred by her hometown’s indifference, Jodie declares that she’s back in the ‘Pool to “smash it”. After one too many close-ups, I’m putting in money on the fact that the only thing likely to be smashed will end in seven years’ bad luck.

With our intermittent narrator now introduced, it’s time to meet the local bad-boy. Joe’s a player (we know this because every time he’s mentioned, someone points that out) and serial heart breaker. He’s currently trying to kick out Layla, having given her “a go” on his bed. Layla struggles gamely with one of the most artificial scenes I’ve ever seen on any of these shows, managing to muster a half-hearted sadface after Joe offers to walk her down to the cab he’d already called.

She’s left to stand on the street corner, all fur coat and no knickers – probably because they’re tucked behind Joe’s headboard. In a rare occurrence for one of these show, Layla finds herself with no-one to talk to, so she breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera crew. She’s actually quite pretty, but her sullen demeanour makes her look like a depressed Thundercat. I shall call her Whine-O.

To perk things up a bit, we cut away to Debbie and Gill, who are out for a bit of early morning shopping with their hair in giant soup-can rollers. I imagine they’re supposed to be famous, so a couple of bystanders are goaded into approaching them for a photo with the opening line "We've seen all your modelling work and we think you're great." Remember the introductory voiceover that warned some of these scenes have been set up for out entertainment? I think this may be one of them. The two girls are browsing a dress shop, speaking in little four syllable bursts, every one of which? Goes up at the end? Like a question? But not really?

As Layla waits for her cab, another car whizzes past containing Elissa and Jaiden. She’s a ‘respected professional journalist’ and he’s the self-confessed ‘bitchiest blogger in Britain’. During the show, it emerges that Jaiden’s catchphrase is “I’m not being funny”. Having looked at his blog, I’m happy to confirm that fact. Since the two of them spend their days commenting on the other cast members, I suppose they’re our unofficial Greek chorus. Although I don’t recall Sophocles ever writing “Your hair extensions are shit.”

Jodie is now interviewing for a salon job with Mark and Chris. According to the show’s official website, Chris says "I think as a couple we will become a Power Couple. We have a positive image to promote amongst the gay community and hopefully help people who are yet to come out.” Someone should probably tell him that it takes more than a pocket-sized dog and a terraced house to be a ‘power couple’. In the only amusing exchange in the whole hour, Mark tells Jodie “We’re really looking at anal bleaching”, to which she responds with “That's a bit Hollywood isn't it. We're only in Anfield." She’s got a point, I can see plenty of orange twats, but not a single pasty arsehole.

In an effort to demonstrate her styling skills, Jodie gives a model what she calls ‘Scouse Eyebrows’ which end up looking like two strips of B-road running across the poor girl’s face. The boys don’t look too impressed, probably because the whole thing played out like a sketch on Russ Abbot’s Madhouse.

As the episode progresses, we realise that all of these characters are going to be attending the Juice FM Annual Style Awards. Perhaps there’s a new category for services to leopard print, in which case they’re all in with a shot. Even the boys. The editors insist on cutting back and forth between a bunch of people who all look the same, drinking Cava in push-up bras. I was going to laboriously describe each of these scenes, but it’d be even more boring to read than it was to sit through. So instead, let me tell you a story about the glory days of advertising.

Back in the 1960s, advertisers came up with a simple formula for selling products to housewives. The ads usually involved two women – an idiot, and the smarter neighbour who was here to show her the error of her ways, thanks to some miraculous new product. In advertising shorthand, this set-up was known as ‘Two cunts in a kitchen’, often abbreviated to 2Cs-in-a-K. Perhaps taking its cues from this tried and tested concept, Desperate Scousewives shows us 2Cs-in-a-bedroom, 2Cs-in-a-dress-shop, 2Cs-in-a-bar and 2Cs-in-a-hotel. It’s a shame they didn’t team up with QVC – a couple of product demos and they could have cleaned up. The only bright spot in these endless scenes of two women talking about bugger all, is when glamour model Amanda shows Chloe her sexy new calendar: “Ooh, how many pages are there?” asks her clueless protégé.

The less said about the ‘awards show’ the better, since it’s the least convincing event since Dale Winton married Nell McAndrew. The only people who seem to arrive are cast members of the show, and the two ‘paparazzi’ photographers look as though they’re probably on E4’s payroll. Meanwhile, our roving reporters Elissa and Jaiden hang out in the doorway snarking to people’s faces. Elissa says she’s waiting for “real celebrities”, so I hope she’s got thermals on under that green sack of a dress. She could be in for long night.

In a lazy attempt to initiate some fireworks, Elissa confronts Joe about their troubled history and Debbie makes a move on hotel magnate George. He tells her his family owns the Hilton hotel, but his last name is Panayiotou, so something doesn’t add up. Not to worry, I doubt Debbie does either.

The final scenes involve Amanda tackling Jaiden for his bitchy tweets about her. She tells Chloe she’s going to give him a piece of her mind, but I’m not sure she’s got enough to spare. “End of story,” she boldly declares, and I can’t help wishing that someone would. She and Jaiden argue about who ranks lower in the celebrity universe, accusing each other of being Z-list. In all honesty, neither of them even rank on the English alphabet. If there’s a celebrity list where these two belong, I think it starts with a Wingding.