Sunday, 30 October 2011

Welcome to the horror show


True to its intentions, Saturday’s Halloween-themed edition of the X-Factor showed us unimaginable horrors, like someone had opened The Lament Configuration backstage at Fountain Studios. In just over a week the show has gone from slightly troubled to properly cursed. The judges can’t stand each other, one band member has flown the coop, another group had to find a new name and Kelly’s developed a conveniently-timed mystery illness. More on these fascinating developments later.

Here’s what went down on Saturday Night…

With Kelly stuck in LA, vacillating between being “unable to speak” and “talking to her girls on Skype everyday”, Dermot attempts to paper over the cracks, inviting Tulisa to send her warmest ‘get well soon’ to her fellow judge. Based on the insincerity of her performance, I can’t see too many people rushing out to see her new movie Demons Never Die.

But it’s not about the judges, we’re here for the talent, such as it is. Starting tonight’s show is The Risk, who’ve had a tougher week than Jimmy Savile. Just as they were starting to gel as a group, Ashley decided that the Halloween theme went against his Christian beliefs, and announced he was leaving the group. You’ll have to Google him, because I didn’t have a clue either. Not that it matters; he’s one of those boyband staples – the bookend who’s there to stop the proper singers from falling over.

After lots of crying and hugging, the boys shake it off and call one of the guys from Nu Vibe. Based on their phone technique, I’m a little worried that they think they’re on The Apprentice. Haven’t these people ever held a mobile before? Ashford is happy to accept the group’s kind offer, and they’re delighted that they don’t really have to learn any new names. Shorten it to ‘Ash’ and job’s a good ‘un.

Not that any of this matters, since Ashford’s arrival hasn’t made The Risk any better. This version of Thriller is the worst they’ve ever sounded, suggesting that the dearly departed Ashley was the boyband equivalent of Dumbo’s magic feather. Louis helpfully points out that “it’s a tough song to sing”. And so is any song if you’re not very good at singing. Alexandra Burke (actually Ronni Ancona doing a piss-poor impression of Kelly Rowland) shows off her extensive knowledge of boybands, but only manages to cite X-Factor endorsed groups. I smell a conspiracy.

Meanwhile, Tulisa is distracting me with her ill-advised costume. She was the only one who got the fancy dress memo, and turned up as Julie Newmar. The leather catsuit isn’t so bad, it’s the stick on ears that aren’t working. At times, it looks as if two members of the audience have brought their irons along to the studio and are offering to put a crease in Gary’s three-piece.

And now, “Here’s Johnny”, which he helpfully reminds us came from The Shining. Mark Kermode had better watch his back. Johnny’s keen to show a different side of himself this week, but since he’s so thin that he only exists in two dimensions, I’m concerned that the ‘other side’ will be the back of his head.

He’s doing a jazzy torch-song rendition of That Ole Devil Called Love, and it’s pretty good. Except for the fact that his entire performance is already in falsetto, so the key change is only discernible to dogs. Gary and Johnny’s flirting takes another step towards the kind of slash-fiction that nightmares are made of, and Louis burbles excitedly that Johnny’s a classic jazz singer who should be performing at Ronnie Scott’s. In other news, London’s most famous jazz club takes the phone off the hook and offers the remainder of its lease to a Subway franchisee.

Someone hit the snooze alarm, it’s time for Sophie to remind us all that she exists. As usual, the VT is full of “I really want people to remember me” guff, followed by a trip to the pub where she used to work. She meets a friend and they sit down for a quick catch-up: Sophie “What’s it been like down here? Everyone missing me?” Friend “And you are…?” She sang something, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Funny that. Alexandra proved that it’s not just the contestants who can irritate the fizzy piss out of me, by saying “There was some slight tuning issues babe”. And it didn’t take too long for that perceptive nugget to start trending on Twitter.

Thankfully, Marcus was on hand to give the show a much-needed shot of adrenaline. We know how the X-Factor loves a good mash up, and so Marcus gives us Superstition, with INXS’ Need You Tonight running through it. After the uninspiring performances so far, it’s nice to see someone in command of the stage, even if he has overdone the guyliner. The judges point out that Marcus “is doing something right”. It’s called ‘singing’. Just FYI.

Rather scarily, we’re in danger of being entertained for ten straight minutes, as Marcus is followed by Misha, who’s sculpted her hair into a threatening rhino horn and tears up Tainted Love like a pro. Tulisa attempts to backtrack on last week’s bullying accusations, and explains that she just wants Misha to be her best. Strangely, she neglects to mention that she’d been getting well jelz about Misha calling her boyfriend Fazer. So it’s not just tuning that’s taken a holiday from this series, professionalism and maturity are also on extended leave. Louis offers us an unfortunate impression of Kelly, saying “You put it down babygirl.” The nation issues a collective shudder strong enough to trigger a seismic event.

What started out as quirky and interesting has now become tiresome and predictable, as Janet gulps and yodels her way through a flat rendition of Every Breath You Take. It seems as though her once distinctive technique has jumped the shark, before doubling back to bore it to death. She’s singing about the fact that wherever her lover goes, she’ll be watching them. But she might have trouble making out any of the detail with those clumpy eyelashes.

Continuing our descent into the gaping maws of hell, here’s Frankie with an irritatingly self-referential song choice. ‘Should I stay or should I go’ he yells, and ten million people bite their lip so hard they’ll be tasting blood until Tuesday. In his VT, Frankie admits “I done a few things I weren’t so proud of”. Like mangling grammar, for instance. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that minutes after this show finishes, Frankie appears on the Xtra-Factor to announce proudly that this week he “banged” Holly Hagan, a random piece of detritus that washed up on Geordie Shore. Not that I can blame her, I’d like to bang Frankie. In a car door, until he loses consciousness.

Kitty’s up next, with two-toned hair, a horned corset and that curious Christian Slater brow of hers. She tells us that she doesn’t want to be someone else, which makes me question the wisdom of pursuing a career as a Britney Spears/Lady Gaga impersonator. She starts the show spinning on a knife-throwers wheel, as countless viewers at home subconsciously make a grab for the silver-wear. The judges don’t want to praise her too much, but Louis gets defensive when Alexandra accuses it of being “a little cabaret.” Burke shuts him down with the inane retort: “You gotta get the words right OK dot com.” And then Twitter explodes. Dot com.

Tulisa’s other group have also had a tricky week. Rhythmix, a music charity that works with disadvantaged kids, went public about their legal wrangles with Syco over the fact that they had the name first. Sensing that one too many scandals could kill the show, the girls are instructed to come up with a new name. And since Weetabix, Tixylix, Getafix, Magimix and Pick n Mix are all taken, they settle on Little Mix. Which sounds like a character from She-Ra.

The haterz have also made the last few days difficult for the girls, with Twitter bullies calling them fat and ugly. They’re clearly quite upset about it, so it’s good that the camera crew happened to be around to catch it all. Hopefully, the nastiness will stop as soon as they take away Misha’s internet access.

On with the show, and tonight they’re performing Katy Perry’s ET on swings. They’re wearing creepy make-up that’s been designed to look as if their faces have been stretched to fit their heads. I think it’s a tribute to Kitty.

Last, and not quite least, is Craig. He’s left his duffel coat on – but they do say that rapid weight loss can leave you feeling the cold. He’s doing an interesting version of Adele’s ‘Set Fire To The Rain’ that involves no consonants whatsoever. It’s a bold experiment, but not entirely intelligible.

Now we’re onto the results show, so consider that first part an extended recap, like the one that ITV uses to fill the first fifteen minutes of Sunday’s show.

Dermot starts the show by introducing the judges and special guest ‘Alexander Burke’. He’s ditched the shiny suits in favour of one that they could have buried Bill Owen in. Tulisa’s still trying to make that arm thing happen. I’d assumed it had something to do with the tattoo, but maybe she’s trying to point out a medical alert bracelet. Let’s hope someone’s on stand-by with an epinephrine pen in case she swallows a peanut.

Hurrah, the group song is back. If you needed any more proof that Marcus is really the best singer in this, consider the fact that he opens the song singing live, whereas the rest come on to mime their bits. But a special shout-out has to go to Johnny, who mimes ‘making love’ in a way that makes me want to mutilate my own genitals so that I might never know such horrors. The song finishes, and Little Mix shoot each other a look that says “Is that it?” This just reeks of professionalism.

Our first guest of the night is Cher Lloyd, and it doesn’t take long to run through her accomplishments in the introductory VT. She looks pretty and she’s singing reasonably well. But the best thing to be said about the song is the fact that it’s not Swagger Jagger. I know this show has a reputation for odd staging, but dressing the backing dancers like Grayson Perry must be the weirdest decision yet.

But that’s not all – we’ve also got Nicole Scherzinger in the house tonight. She’s writing around on the floor like she’s got a g-string full of fivers, on a set that could have been modelled on Peter Stringfellow’s en-suite. It’s a timely reminder of the fact that she’s glad to be out of the Pussycat Dolls, and doesn’t have to dress sluttily anymore. It’s the kind of vocal performance designed to say “Look, I can really sing”, but the song itself is lost in all the hair flipping, smoke, wind machine, glitter canons and disco lasers. All that’s missing is the stench of amyl nitrate.

Time to kick someone off, so “Here’s Alexandra Burke with Kelly’s girls”. That’s what they used to call office temps isn’t it? Might be worth keeping in mind if this singing lark doesn’t work out for them. And it’s all eyes on Kelly’s girls tonight, as act after act is saved, but none of them coming from Alexandra’s cluster. Finally, Janet breaks the curse, which leaves just Frankie, Misha and Sophie. And Frankie’s safe, because we’re a nation of twats. Kelly’s going to go fucking mental.

No need to wait for her shocked reaction next week. They’ve got her on the blower, croaking her best ‘phoning in sick voice’. Let’s just be grateful that she didn’t feel the need to tell us how many times she’s been to the toilet, or that it’s coming out of both ends.

The girls have done their ‘save me’ song, and I’ve already forgotten Sophie’s, whereas Misha sang ‘Use Somebody’ and broke down on the last note. I’d like to say that it could go either way, but the judges are having to look at Dermot’s autocue to remind themselves of Sophie’s name. Tulisa launches into a rambling monologue that would have Ronnie Corbett yelling “For fuck’s sake get on with it”.

With three votes already cast, sealing Sophie’s fate, Dermot says “Gary, it’s an impossible question, but how would you have voted?” Gary answers straight away, proving that anything is possible, and Dermot’s an idiot. Looking back at Sophie’s best bits (it was a short reel), we’re reminded that under that brutal fringe is a pretty girl. Sadly, it’s too late to sack the hairdresser. Dot com.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Blockbusters face extinction


Admitting that you enjoy blockbusters is a little bit like telling people you watch X-Factor for the music. It's the kind of declaration that tends to be met with dramatic eye-rolls. Usually from people who'd have you believe that they enjoy nothing more than a wet Sunday afternoon curled up in front of Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy. Even though it's usually bullshit - they might tell you that they queued up for tickets to a Truffaut retrospective on the South Bank, but in reality they were probably watching Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

It doesn't help matters that Hollywood has gone out of its way to dumb down its tentpole summer pictures to the point that they're so shoddily written and directed, they take on an impenetrable surrealism of their own. I'm willing to hold the likes of Michael Bay, Stephen Sommers and Brett Ratner personally responsible, for unleashing wave after wave of stultifying, wasteful bullshit, and making a trip to the pictures about as appealing as cleaning Gillian McKeith's toilet with a KFC wet-wipe. But there's no need to give up hope just yet - the Blu-Ray release of the Jurassic Park trilogy this week serves as a timely reminder of what can be accomplished when Hollywood's stars are correctly aligned.

When Spielberg's first (and best) installment originally opened, expectations were mixed. Although the film had a killer concept and promised some innovative GCI work from ILM, it was decidedly lacking in A-list acting talent. No-one's ever camped out overnight for a Laura Dern movie. Adding to Jurassic Park's troubles, was the fact that it was opening within a couple of weeks of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, which was expected to leave the rest of the summer's offerings in its bombastic wake. However, the reality was somewhat different. Whereas Arnie's opus was a misguided, erratic and tonally inconsistent shambles, Spielberg proved that he'd lost none of his mastery in the 18 years since Jaws first transformed the concept of the big summer movie.

Lean, logical and meticulously paced, Jurassic Park worked like a greatest hits compilation of the bearded genius' best bits. Appealing kids, ordinary-Joe heroes, stunning effects work, John William's Oscar-robbed score and enough tension to turn a prosthetic knuckle white, all combined to make Isla Nublar the number one summer destination for 1993.

I can count on one hand the films I've seen more than once during their cinema run. That summer, I saw Jurassic Park five times, eventually running out of friends to coerce into a daytime trip to my local multiplex. Because, although the dinosaurs were undoubtedly the stars of the show, they were never treated as a crowd-pleasing gimmick. Unlike the old Ray Harryhausen monsters of yesteryear, which tended to pop up every twenty minutes to keep the kids engaged, Spielberg's film kept the beasts off-screen for the best part of the first hour. Aside from two short cameos by a tree-munching brachiosaurus and a sickly triceratops, the first half of the movie is almost entirely dinosaur free.

Call it a fortuitous accident, but Spielberg had learned early on that nothing could beat the power of suggestion, when it came to depicting a monstrous threat. Plagued with technical issues on the set of Jaws, he'd been forced to use music and whip-smart editing to hint at the terrors beneath the surface of the water. This time around he had no such issues with the creatures, but applied the same techniques to heighten suspense and make his audience hungry for the big reveal.

The T-rex attack, when it finally comes, is a masterpiece in sustained tension, beginning with a fantastic 'Where's the goat?' gag, and culminating in a pissed-off carnivore tipping an SUV off a cliff. When the kids scream for their lives, you're in no doubt that they're in mortal peril, and the T-rex's deafening roar still has the power to chill the blood. Especially in 7.1 DTS stereo.

But it's not just the epic moments that continue to impress, almost twenty years later. Tiny, almost inconsequential details add to the verisimilitude of the film. The torch light that dilates the T-rex's pupils; the snort of steam on the porthole window; or the velociraptor's impatiently tapping toenail. Now compare these sublime touches with Transformers, which gave us a giant pair of clanging robot bollocks.

The film's human cast also manage to appear three-dimensional, thanks to Spielberg's subtle handling of the dialogue scenes. With most of the expositional heavy-lifting handled by an animated DNA strand, the main characters are free to converse like real people, often mumbling or talking over one another. Watching the film now, this seems almost Altman-esque, devoid of glib one-liners and trailer-friendly quotes. There's even a fairly weighty ethical debate at the half-hour mark, as our main cast discuss the implications of cloning technology. Try finding that in The Mummy Returns.

As much as I might love this film, I'm not blind to its flaws. For instance, there's some appalling stunt double work, which at one point makes it look like Ellie Sattler is being played by Danny DeVito in a cheap wig. Dickie Attenborough's accent is patchier than a tramp's jeans, and there's a textbook example of deus ex machina as 12 year-old Lexi announces "It's a Unix system, I know this" and promptly reinstalls the park's security systems. Perhaps most glaringly of all, no-one ever asks whose clever idea it was to clone a fucking velociraptor. Why not just create a baker's dozen of Jeffrey Dahmers while they're at it? Since they're kept in a frond-filled subterranean cage, it's not like any of the tourists were ever going to see them anyway.

In fairness, these are minor quibbles. This is still a film which shows a true master at the top of his game. You only need to compare it with Spielberg's latest offering, the sorry Avatar/Jurassic Park mash-up Terra Nova. Eighteen years later and the original's menagerie is still the one to beat, making Terra Nova's pixelated beasties about as convincing as the pimped-up iguana in One Million Years BC.

Unfortunately, there are currently no plans to release the films individually, so if you want to revisit the park in all its high-def glory, you'll have to spring for the whole box set. But it's worth it, if only to remind yourself of the days when great movies ruled the Earth.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Don't Mess With The Lohan


It’s hard to remember now, but there was once a time when Lindsay Lohan was primarily known as an actress. And, by all accounts, a pretty good one. For a moment she was even mentioned in the same breath as Jodie Foster, who successfully negotiated the pressures of child stardom and managed to build a double Oscar-winning career on the back of her precocious performances. It didn’t hurt that Lohan even took on one of Foster’s early breakthrough roles, when she starred in the remake of Disney’s Freaky Friday.

Perky and fresh-faced, rather than classically beautiful, the pretty redhead notched up a series of admittedly undemanding hit movies, culminating in the fantastic Mean Girls. And then it all unrivalled quicker than a River Island cardigan. It was as if she was taking all those cautionary tales about child actors and using them as a ‘Fame For Dummies’ manual.

When she wasn’t falling out of limos with her skirt hitched so high we could see her smiling at both ends, she was turning up at parties looking as though her eyes weren’t just dilated, but seceding from her face altogether.

Dogged by accusations of unprofessional conduct, and a sense of entitlement seldom seen outside of Kensington Palace, she found herself unable to secure a viable acting gig. Despite only being in her early twenties, she’d earned herself a reputation for being as unemployable as Jim Royle. For a while there was talk of Lindsay taking on the role of Linda Lovelace, in a biopic of the tragic performer with a capacious larynx. Sadly, the project went down quicker than its subject ever did, and once again Lindsay was left scrabbling round for something that would pay her mounting legal bills.

Lindsay just isn’t able to keep her nose clean, literally or figuratively, meaning that for the last few years, the only thing anyone’s seen her in is court.  It’s a shame really – if she was based in Vegas rather than LA, she’d have clocked up enough repeat performances to classify it as a residency. Celine Dion got a specially built colosseum for hers. 

Custodial sentences and a spell under house arrest also failed in encouraging her to clean up her act, and last week she was hauled into court again for failing to show up for community service. Tough talking judge, Stephanie Sautner, dissed her errant charge, commenting “She is supposed to be an actress from what I hear”. Hasn’t she seen Herbie: Fully Loaded?

So where are her parents in all this? After all, she’s only 25 – even if she does look as though she’s got a couple of decades on that. Sadly, Michael and Dina Lohan, who make Josef Fritzl look like the model of effective parenting, have figured that they can make more money from selling their “My agony over Lindsay’s health” stories, than they can by actually getting their daughter clean and sober. Now that she’s an adult, they’re not eligible for a cut of her earnings.

Not to worry though. She might have left her bail hearing another $100,000 lighter, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it’s a just another flashbulb. According to reports, Lindsay’s agreed to do a nude photoshoot for the legendary soft porn title for a cool million dollars.

There was a time when Playboy demonstrated its dominance of the pictorial self-help marketplace, by securing exclusive shoots with some of the world’s most famous and desirable women. Posing for provocative yet artistic photoshoots, the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch and Cindy Crawford undressed to impress, helping to make Playboy the undisputed top shelf champ.

But something’s changed. In the same way that fame has become a measure of notoriety, rather than actual celebrity, Playboy’s quest for cover stars is now plumbing the depths. Instead of immortalising the world’s most beautiful women, they’re settling for tabloid fodder and stunt casting. In recent years, Heidi Montag, Tara Reid and Paris Hilton have all made the front cover.

With teeth that look like a desecrated graveyard, and the pallid skin of an anaemic elephant, Lindsay is anything but pin-up material. Which makes this whole venture feel like a cynical and entirely unerotic exercise in ambulance chasing. In the 1940s, photojournalist Arthur Fellig became the progenitor of the modern paparazzi, by tagging along with New York’s emergency services and documenting crime scenes through the lens of his camera. As Lindsay’s life continues to fall apart in the glare of the spotlight, it’s not too hard to see the parallels.

Monday, 24 October 2011

You can call him Al


Thirty years is a long time in the music business. With tastes constantly evolving, and audiences proving notoriously fickle, any artist pursuing a long-term career needs to be willing to adapt to changing styles. Which is perhaps the best explanation for why ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Sunday, continues to be the world’s biggest name in the somewhat niche field of pop parodies.

To the uninitiated, Alfred Yankovic is the guy who made ‘Eat It’ twenty seven years ago, rendering himself a curious footnote in the MTV archives as the first artist to hit the charts with a spoof video. That’s the one anyone mentions, if his name happens to pop up in conversation, usually followed by an expression of surprise – “Is he still a thing?”

With thirteen albums, 12 million record sales and a Grammy award to his somewhat disingenuous nickname, Al’s most definitely a thing. And he deserves far more credit than the occasional dimly remembered recollection of a song about eating pie.

This time last year, London got its first taste of the comic legend, as he brought his labour-intensive stage show to Kentish Town for his first ever show in the capital. Admittedly, there was a whiff of the IT helpdesk in the assembled throng, but on the whole the crowd was as diverse as Al’s back catalogue. Because, whereas some artists find a style and stick to it for as long as they can, Al is something of an aural magpie - gradually working his way through music history and attempting to create authentic pastiches of pretty much every genre ever recorded.

It helps that he’s backed by one of the most talented bands working today, capable of recreating every style of music with unnerving accuracy. From the Beach Boys to Talking Heads, REM to Phil Spector, there’s nothing that they can’t replicate. So accurate are these pastiches, that in many cases, the original artists are keen to lend their support to Al’s efforts. Michael Jackson was a big fan, not only approving the use of two of his biggest hits, but even giving Al the run of the subway set from his pre-teen recreation of Bad, in the otherwise ill-advised Moonwalker. 

Mark Knopfler, who is to fun what TOWIE is to Shakespeare, only agreed to licence ‘Money For Nothing’ if he was allowed to do the guitar solo himself. Even Kurt Cobain, not known for flights of lighthearted fancy, regarded Al’s ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ as representing the most sincere form of flattery, telling MTV “Oh, I laughed my butt off. I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. He has some good people working for him. Those people really know how to... I mean, I'm sure he has a lot to do with it, but they really know how to reproduce things to the T. He had the exact same setup. It's the same video with him in it. It's great.”

But Al doesn’t just do reworded spoofs of popular songs, he’s also created an impressive back catalogue of original compositions, each based on a particular style of music. Again, Al’s ear for accuracy has ensured that the artists being honoured want to get involved. Ben Folds played piano on ‘Why Does This Always Happen To Me’ which was a parody of his alternative rock trio, and Ray Manzarek turned up on keyboards and bass, helping to recreate The Doors’ distinctive sound.

Legally, Al’s entitled to satirise any song he chooses, but as a matter of courtesy he always seeks approval from the artists in question. The vast majority say yes immediately, feeling (like Cobain did) that a Weird Al spoof is a sure sign that they’ve entered the zeitgeist. Occasionally, the record labels get involved and make trouble, with recent examples being James Blunt and Lady Gaga. In the latter case, Gaga was shocked to learn that her manager had said ‘no’ without speaking to her first. In the end, Al offered to donate the proceeding from ‘Perform This Way’ to the Human Rights Campaign, in honour of the original song’s humanitarian intentions, and he scored his biggest hit in half a decade. Incidentally, the only flat-out ‘no’ he’s ever received came from Paisley Park. Sadly, if you want to laugh at Prince, you’ll just have to watch Purple Rain again.

Given Al’s propensity for poking fun at pop music, it’s easy to dismiss him as a purveyor of unimaginative juvenilia. Admittedly, not all of his back catalogue works – apparently, even the makers of novelty songs get notes from the record label about the sort of material they ought to be recording. Then again, if I came up with a song called 'Girls Just Wanna Have Lunch' I'd be looking to shift the blame too. But when Al’s left to his own devices, he can deliver a level of wordplay and linguistic dexterity that would have given the great Ronnie Barker a run for his money. 

Whether he’s composing a song entirely from palindromes (‘Bob’) or compiling every conceivable dismemberment pun for ‘Party in a Leper Colony’ (“There's a guy in the hot tub, I don't know who, Wait a minute, it looks like Stu.”), his way with words can be a wonder to behold. And he’s no slouch on the delivery either. Just check out the bridge on Hardware Store, where he spits out over 120 words in 30 seconds, even providing his own back-up harmonies.

Like most music artists, Al’s an acquired taste. Some people find his material puerile, anodyne and unimaginative – an out-dated relic from the early days of music videos. Others, like me, see him as a musical librarian, meticulously cataloguing every major genre trend, and finding a way to puncture the pomposity with a surreal perspective all-too-rare in American popular culture. 

If you can get past the shameless mugging and occasionally dated references, here are five of Al's finest moments:





Saturday, 22 October 2011

Hexed factor


Oh dear, the X-Factor's in crisis. According to the tabloids, at least, it's all kicking off on our favourite talent show. It seems that audiences would rather watch Brucey fumble his way through a collection of jokes older than Arlene Phillips, and Simon's not happy about it. The contestants have been chastised for their laziness, Louis thinks the new judges are boring, and the prize fund has been dramatically lowered, thanks to Matt Cardle's unremarkable sales. It hasn't helped matters that the reigning X-Factor champ has been telling anyone who'll listen that he lost his credibility by appearing on the show. Not to worry Matt - I'm sure you'll be embracing that unsigned, low-key, indie-vibe in about eight weeks' time.

In a lackluster attempt to stir things up, there was a dramatic change of theme mid-week, switching from 'personal heroes' to 'rock week'. So brace yourself for enough Bon Jovi, Coldplay and Snow Patrol covers to breach the Geneva Conventions.

"Tonight, is rock" announces Dermot, accompanied by a random burst of guitar. Which tells you everything you need to know about how much this show understands the genre. As usual, we're introduced to the judges twice, only instead of Carmina Burana, they're playing Jump by Van Halen. It makes a nice change, but it's hardly appropriate given the two girls' outfits. If Kelly tried jumping in her leather mini-dress, she'd show the whole world her Destiny's Child. And Tulisa can barely walk in hers, never mind partake in a burst of energetic calisthenics.

On with the show - here's Marcus who's been prompted to turn on the waterworks in his VT, and he duly obliges. He's having a crack at Are You Gonna Go My Way. It's not bad, and he's a confident showman, but at times it's less Lenny Kravitz and more Time Warp. Kelly's playing around with our favourite X-Factor cliches, telling Marcus that he made the stage his own. Gary doesn't understand the concept of a standing ovation, waiting until it's his turn to speak before standing up and pointing like a car park attendant. Marcus gives it some 'phone vote finger'. Suddenly, it feels like we're back in familiar territory.

Kelly tells us that Janet is continuing to come out of her shell, making her sound like a little ginger hermit crab. We get to see Janet enduring a grilling from a bunch of tabloid hacks, and she's surprisingly confident, stopping just short of telling them to 'fuck off' if they don't like her squeaky Cranberries schtick. Tonight it's Guns 'n' Roses, but performed with a harp, drums, and an enormous mass of ginger curls. Florence Welch is looking up 'copyright infringement' on Wikipedia. Louis loved it, Tulisa didn't, and Gary and Kelly thought she was amazing. Unfortunately, I missed most of their comments because I was distracted by Tulisa's uneven colouring - her face is a completely different shade to her shoulders. Remember how Worzel Gummidge used to switch heads when he wanted to impress someone? It's a bit like that, but with less straw.

Louis and Gary are bickering over Sami, with the little Irish pixie suggesting that they "agree to disagree", and Gary slaps him down with "I'm the chief judge, beyotch." Note to the stylists - don't ever dress a plus-size woman in a skin-tight pleather dress. She looks like one of the binbags outside my local on a Sunday morning. Then again, we should be thankful for small mercies, since she's tackling Turn Back Time. At least no-one suggested recreating Cher's iconic look from the late eighties - no-one wants to see Sami straddling a cannon in a see-through catsuit and g-string. The vocal was weird, like she was delivering the backing harmonies for a main act who was performing offstage. Gary got booed for telling her it was shit. He may be as dull as Holby City, but at least he's taking the show seriously. Louis, on the other hand, just sits there clapping like a wind-up monkey missing its cymbals.

Rhymix are mashing up Ke$ha's Tik Tok with Push It, and it's as shambolic as you'd expect. But it goes perfectly with their styling, which is half Victoria's Secret, half Toys R Us. Once again, the judges are bickering - this time it's Gary Barlow from Take That and Tulisa from N Dubz attempting to define 'rock'. These are end times, people.

Sophie is worried that she's boring, not helped by the four tabloid journos confirming her fears and asking why she dressed as Carol Vorderman. She's singing a pared down version of Living On A Prayer and, based on her patchy vocals, its an apt description of her tenuous footing in the contest. Louis worries that Kelly is spending more time on Misha and Janet, but that's because Kelly understands how a competition works. Kelly's predictably furious, making a 'durhhhh' noise/face that could take the heat off Ricky Gervais.

Craig is talking about how much he misses Nu Vibe, even though they told the papers this week that he's a "bum boy". Nice one lads, keep it classy. Craig's a pretty good singer, but he's singing Stop Crying Your Heart Out. Say what you like about Leona Lewis, but she sang the arse off that song, and any other X-Factor contestant is only ever going to suffer from the comparison. Louis is doing his double pointy fingers and poking fun at Noel Gallagher. I don't see that ending well for him.

Kitty appears to be confusing phone votes with "vindication that I'm not a crazy person". Sorry love, not the same thing. Oh great, Kitty in a bra - pass the Optrex. It's all going mental on the stage, with pianos, fire-eaters, hair-whipping and pyrotechnics. She's belting out Live and Let Die, and to be honest, that wouldn't be a tough choice for me.

Oh shit. Now it's time for Frankie, the boy who puts the 'cock' in Cocozza. I'm sure he's been primped and styled within an inch of his life, but to coin a phrase my Mum used to use, he dries a mucky colour.  Gary's not happy with Frankie's debauched antics, and it's clear that his patience is growing as thin as his top lip. For all the behind the scenes black-and-white footage of Frankie making his way to the stage, it's about as authentic as a three year-old girl tottering around in her mum's high heels. And the hair, sweet Jesus, the hair. It's not really based on a style, more one of those doodles you make when you're testing a biro. Get Your Rocks Off - and that's all he's good for, chucking his mess up a parade of bar skanks. Oooh, sound the controversy klaxon. Gary's just admitted that he lied last week when he said Frankie performed well. I don't tune in for honesty or integrity, keep that shit to yourself Barlow.

Once again Tulisa has shown that she doesn't really understand what rock week is all about, by getting The Risk to sing a dance cover of Crazy. No doubt she'll justify her selection by pointing out the guitar riffs in the background, bless her. One of them's got laryngitis, and based on their weak vocal performance, I'd worry that it's gone airborne. Gary applauds their work ethic, making a pointed reference to 'other acts in the competition'. Frankie, he's talking about you.

Johnny's worried about being a pantomime circus act. Bit late for that, like closing the stable door after the horse has pressed on its false eyelashes. He's dressed as a man this week, but unfortunately he still looks like the Phones4U zombie off the TV Burp idents. He's having a go at the Darkness, and bizarrely, it might just be weird enough to see him through to next week.

And finally, it's time for Misha B, Louis' idea of an 'Urban Queen'. The short version is that she nailed Purple Rain, despite backcombed hair like Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. The long version is that Tulisa decided to school Misha for her diva antics backstage, with Louis piling in to complain that she's bullied one of his acts too. Having sat through two hours of this, there's a few contestants I'd like to take behind the bike-sheds for a good kicking. I want to be in Misha's gang.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Price of fame


Welcome to Katie Price's search for a supermodel, perhaps the lowest conceivable rung on the TV talent show ladder. It's also slightly ironic, given that our illustrious host now resembles one of the leatherette flip-flops I bought in Abercrombie & Fitch last summer. How that qualifies her as an arbiter of aesthetics, I'm not entirely sure. But, vive la difference. 

After last week's adventures, which saw Katie and her co-judges sit stony faced in a bunch of post-apocalyptic shopping centres as a bunch of hopefuls wandered past in their underwear, it's now time for boot camp. Katie promises "with my expertise, I'll take them to the top", but I think she missed out the word "shelf", based on some of the woeful contestants. 

The narrator tells us that "from small beginnings, Katie Price has made it big," thanks largely to a parade of surgeons who knew where to hide the air valves. She's now one of the UK's most talked about women, mostly amongst people who say "What the fuck does she look like?" But don't worry, she's got 17 years' experience in the industry. "Been there, done that, worn the t-shirt" she says. Except the t-shirt never stayed on for that long.

On her journey, Katie's joined by "top TV exec" Glen Middleham (think Moby, but even more punchable) and "renowned casting director" Bayo Furlong. As the would-be models rock up at a country mansion that must rent by the hour, Katie and her new Gay Best Friends are hanging out of a window, slating their outfits. Welcome one and all. They don't know what to expect, with one exclaiming "Oh my God, is Katie gonna be here, is she gonna be looking at us?" Admittedly, it's a complicated format, but hopefully one of the show runners is on hand to talk them through how this works. 

The panel are already doubting some of their earlier decisions, and are standing over a giant light-box to review their selection. Someone should have warned Katie that, as a modelling expert, she should know never to hover over harsh lighting. Unless she plans on hanging around in someone's living room window on Hallowe'en. 

Time for the first cull of the show, as the shortlisted contestants are called into the house one-by-one. Among the lucky few are a pair of twins who look more like the mutant babies from 'It's Alive', rather than would-be models. But Katie tells us she knows what she's talking about, even if the rest of us haven't a clue. 

"For the rest of you, your dream is now over!" announces Katie, with all the emotion of someone browsing for bath-taps in B&Q. As the rejects sob their way onto the bus to take their shattered dreams home, Katie decides that she wants to see the remaining girls looking natural. Presumably, there was a brief break as one of the producers popped in to explain the concept to her. Meanwhile, everyone's assembled in a giant wood-paneled ballroom, where there's so much orange on display, all that's missing is the man from Del Monte. 

Whereas the girls need to show off their natural beauty, the boys have to strip down and squeeze themselves into some tiny hot pink swimming trunks. The girls are peeling off their nails, hair extensions and eyelashes. In fact, I swear one of them actually unscrewed half her head, like Robocop when he went rogue and started eating baby food. Katie is particularly impressed with Sylvia, who has an impressive figure and was smart enough to rock up in a pair of Katie's own-brand knickers. Maybe it's the unfortunate lighting, but to this uninitiated viewer, Katie's pants aren't recommended if you're trying to conceal a cock. 

In contrast, Katie's disappointed by a girl called Laura, who has ridiculous boobs and a face that would make Pete Burns wince. Apparently, she misunderstood the brief about what kind of underwear they were supposed to wear. In her defense, she "didn't think". Don't worry love, that certainly hasn't held Katie back. And now here come the boys, looking like they'd rather be anywhere but here. Then again, so does Katie. She's trying to appear interested in what's going on, but other than a cursory package check, she could be listening to the shipping forecast. 

Time for some high powered business now, as we flash back to a meeting of the Black Sheep Management Company, three weeks before the auditions began. We're told that it's a business meeting, when in actuality it's a couple of people sitting on some rattan garden furniture, listening to Katie talking about hard graft. Somewhere, there's a bunch of factory workers, wiping their empathetic tears away with what's left of their bloodied finger stumps. 

It's been at least five minutes since Katie made someone cry, so here comes another cut. The first six hopefuls get a bit of the old "this has been a tough decision" schtick, only to be told they're through. One girl is so excited that she can't even walk out of the room without falling over. As she drops out of view, the other contestants step over her. Welcome to the harsh world of modeling. Katie's busy running through her favourite reality show cliches, from the fake-out evictions to Alan Sugar's old "with regret" firings. Don't be surprised if she knocks together a mille-feuille to soak up some of the Great British Bake-Off audience.

Speaking of The Apprentice, we're now onto the business challenge segment of the show, where out contestants are divided into teams and tasked with designing a range of t-shirts. They've been told that they have to come up with a concept, but since no-one seems to know what the word means, they're settling for a bunch of woeful slogans that no-one's dared utter since the pilot episode of Absolutely Fabulous twenty years ago. 

A landscape gardener called Jamie Roche is particularly excited about being team leader for his group, taking several minutes to enthuse about what he thinks a team leader might do. The rest of the team are distracted by stick-on bobbles and glitter, so no-one seems too bothered either way. 

Over in another team, Tayla seems to be mutating into Grotbags, if the TV witch ever tried to sneak into the Pink Windmill disguised as an Amy Winehouse tribute act. She complains to the camera about their team leader Amy, who's annoying everyone by being naturally pretty and able to enunciate. As Tayla grumbles away, I'm distracted by an odd shadow on her face, which is either cast by some seriously fake eyelashes, or someone off-screen holding a pitchfork over her head. 

The teams are bickering over the challenge, despite the fact that a kindergarten class would have finished and been halfway through their milk cartons by now. Sensing drama, the camera crew whip Amy outside to bitch about her team.  She might speak well, but a posh accent can't disguise the fact that she talks absolute bollocks, kicking off her t-shirt pitch with the opening statement "Obviously, obesity kills nearly more people than cancer." I'd like to go into detail about the other business pitches, but really, it's like watching a bunch of idiots trying to figure their way out of a phone box. 

The judges are trying to cut down twenty to the final twelve - Katie doesn't like one woman because all she ever talks about her kids. And let's face it, Katie understands that the only time to talk about your kids is when someone from OK! is waving a checkbook. She also complains about her co-judge's poor taste in women, which is a bit like complaining that a diabetic knows fuck all about chocolate. 

As Katie names her final short list, we get all the predictable shock and awe reactions. One successful bloke tells the camera "things like this don't happen to people like me". Actually, things like this happen to people like you several times a night. Especially on this channel. Interestingly, the second name in the end credits after the narrator, is for show psychologist Jo Hemmings. After spending an hour in Katie's world, I'm wondering if she does out calls. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Another one bites the dust

October’s a brutal month for the TV industry. With new shows debuting on every major US channel in September, all industry eyes are glued to the ratings, in the hope that audiences are adopting a similar position. Sadly, despite the months (often years) spent developing a show, the axe falls on underperforming programmes with ruthless efficiency. There’s no time for a slow start – a bad premiere is forgiven, a poor follow-up tolerated. But if the audience is still unconvinced by episode three, you’re as good as dead.

And that’s the hand that was dealt to The Playboy Club last week. NBC’s big new drama of the season, The Playboy Club was set in the 1960s, and was clearly hoping to emulate Mad Men’s runaway success. However, unlike Don Draper’s cable show, The Playboy Club was constrained by the fact that it was airing on network TV. That meant no swearing and certainly no nudity. In essence, it was portraying a world where people genuinely buy Playboy for the articles.

As the show’s third episode posted its worst viewing figures yet, NBC pulled the plug quicker than a gold-digger pointing out the ‘do not resuscitate’ sign in her husband’s hospital room. To be honest, no-one seemed particularly upset by the decision, least of all the right wing Parents Television Council, which released a statement celebrating the show’s cancellation, reading: “Bringing The Playboy Club to broadcast television was a poor programming decision from the start. We’re pleased that NBC will no longer be airing a program so inherently linked to a pornographic brand that denigrates and sexualizes women…” Next they’ll be accusing Dora the Explorer of being a climate-change propagandist.

In this instance, NBC may well have made the right decision. However, the networks don’t always get it right. Some shows take a while to cast their spell – needing time for the writers to find their voice and the cast to find their feet. So in honour of The Playboy Club’s swift demise, let’s celebrate a few shows that deserved to be kept on life support a little longer.

Firefly

OK, let’s get this one out of the way first. No ‘gone too soon’ list is complete without a reference to Joss Whedon ‘space and saddles’ saga. It may have only run for thirteen pacey episodes, but that was long enough to establish it as one of the best-loved, short-lived TV shows of all time.

Forget about Cowboys & Aliens – if you want a compelling, funny and genuinely interesting mash-up of sci-fi and western, Firefly is where it’s at. Although, interestingly, Whedon was insistent that there would be no aliens in his interplanetary tale. Instead, it was up to the eclectic mix of mercenaries, rebels, whores and preachers to create the drama.

Fan support was so strong that Universal picked up Fox’s dropped ball and financed a mid-budget big screen adventure for Mal and his crew. If nothing else, this means that Buffy’s creator can claim the dubious honour of having made a hit TV show out of a failed movie, and a hit movie out of a failed TV show.

The Comeback

When the world’s biggest sitcom finally called it a day after ten glorious years, everyone wondered what the cast would do next. And, more importantly, who’d be most successful. Whereas most of the Friends settled for roles and opportunities not a million miles away from their Central Perky personae, Lisa Kudrow went in the opposite direction.

Realising that reinvention after a successful role is nigh-on-impossible, she did precisely that, and even wrote a show about it. If you’ve never seen The Comeback, I recommend you give it a go. As well as giving Kudrow a chance to show her considerable acting skills, it’s a stunningly prescient vision of reality TV from a time when the concept was still relatively new.

Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, the one-time star of a hit sitcom, who’s being filmed by a reality TV crew for a show called The Comeback. They follow her as she auditions for a cheesy new sitcom, the condition being that she’ll only get the reality series if she wins the role in ‘Bed and Bored’. Problem is, Valerie is grasping, shameless and utterly transparent. It’s not a comfortable watch, in fact, you’ll cringe so hard you may need to see a chiropractor. But if you enjoyed The Office, The Comeback is well worth a few hours of your time.

Family Guy

Not all these stories have an unhappy ending, as occasionally a network will bow to fan pressure and resurrect an aborted project. Family Guy is as show that actually got cancelled twice - once after the second season, and again after the third.

Unable to find anyone willing to pay for the rights to air old episodes, Fox practically gave them away to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. At the same time, seasons one and two were released on DVD and became a massive hit. In fact, Family Guy was 2003’s biggest selling TV DVD.

The following year, sniffing out a chance to make money, they welcomed series creator Seth MacFarlane back with open arms, and the show has been running ever since. Looking back at the three-year hiatus, Seth claimed that the show benefited from its cancellation, since it have the team a chance to re-evaluate what did and didn’t work. Many shows aren’t nearly as fortunate.

Tripods

Introduced during the summer of 1984 as a replacement for Doctor Who, The Tripods was a big-budget sci-fi experiment for the BBC. Co-financed with Australia’s Seven Network, it told the tale of three young boys determined to fight back against a race of all-powerful aliens who’d enslaved humanity and dragged society back to the middle ages, like a Republican party wet dream.

To my nine year-old eyes, the Tripods was terrifying, thrilling and breathtakingly tedious, in equal measure. Every Saturday for two consecutive summers, my sister and I would be glued to the screen, biting cheese flavor Hula Hoops off our fingers and cheering our hapless heroes on their epic journey.

As the second series finished, Will escaped the City of Gold and Lead to return to the rebel stronghold in the White Mountains, only to find that it had been destroyed by the Tripods. We didn’t bat an eyelid when JR took that bullet, but this was a cliffhanger that had us desperate to see how the story would be concluded.

Months later, an announcement followed in the Radio Times that there would be no concluding series. Effectively muttering under its breath, the BBC told its viewers that the show’s high budget and comparatively low ratings, meant that a third series would not be commissioned.

Eldorado

It’s not just the big budget serials that get killed off in dramatic fashion, soaps can also fall victim to merciless executives. I’m not going to talk about Albion Market, since there are probably only three people in the UK who miss that show. And that’s because they were in it. However, I’m sure I’m not alone in lamenting the premature demise of Eldorado, the BBC’s sun-dappled alternative to the decidedly downbeat EastEnders.

Clearly originating in a late eighties brainstorm where the words ‘European community’, ‘diversity’ and ‘international sales’ prominently figured, Eldorado took the Albert Square model and plopped it down in mainland Spain. With a cast that represented pretty much every country in Europe, but not a single reputable acting school, the early months were a disaster. Many of the performers spoke so little English they had to learn their lines phonetically. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the same about some of the British performers.

Bizarrely, a couple of major culls and some drastic rewrites actually did the trick and against all the odds, Eldorado became a soap worth watching. Just as Alan Yentob signed the death warrant. Sadly, we never got to see the much talked about bus crash ending, which had promised to send the entire cast on a day trip, only for them to topple over a cliff like some alternative ending from the Italian Job.

Without Prejudice

In a world of reality trash and tacky game-shows, it’s doubtful that anyone would mourn a hybrid of the two formats. But that’s because they probably never tuned into Without Prejudice, which only ran for two short series. On the surface, it didn’t appear to be anything special – a panel-based game show hosted by Lisa Tarbuck. Already Cash in the Attic is starting to look like an appealing prospect. But this feisty little show had a concept that elevated it to instant classic status.

Each episode involved two groups of five people – one group acted as the judging panel, whilst the others were the contestants. In five simple rounds, the panel simply had to decide who deserved a £50,000 cash prize (reduced to £20,000 in series two). The panel had nothing else to go on, other than their own preconceptions and prejudices – hence the bitterly ironic title. And although you often found yourself rooting for a particular contestant, the real joy of the show was watching the panel in action. If ever you wanted an insight into the dark heart of a Daily Mail reader, or the ignorance of a red-top fan, this was the show for you. “I’m sorry, but I’m completely opposed to giving this money to a bloody lesbian” was heard far more often than you might imagine.

It really was extraordinarily revealing, and often ended in particularly vitriolic exchanges. In one memorable episode, a single mother who wanted to go back to university to finish her studies was denied the money by a judging panel dominated by a bingo-winged matriarch with frosted tips. Instead, they gave £50,000 to a man who had already made his fortune, arguing that he was more likely to spend it wisely.

After the money was awarded, and they were finally allowed to ask how he intended to spend the money, he told them “I plan to buy three bracelets, one for my wife, one for my daughter and a third for my ex-wife.” One of the panelists was inconsolable with grief at the missed opportunity to change a life. Of course, the real tragedy in all of this, is that Channel 4 cancelled the show because no-one was watching it. Audiences would rather their reality TV come partially scripted and entirely staged, rather than holding up a magnifying glass to the ugly side of human nature.

Police Squad!

Hot off the success of Airplane!, Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker pitched a half-hour comedy show to ABC. Carefully constructed to replicate the scattershot format of their big screen disaster spoof, Police Squad took its inspiration from two popular police procedurals – M Squad and Felony Squad.

As we all know, the show continued Leslie Nielsen’s late-in-life shift towards broad comedy, and immortalized him as the hilariously inept Frank Drebin. Only six shows were ever made, but that didn’t stop it inspiring the hugely successful Naked Gun series several years later. For the record, the DVD commentary claims that the President of ABC Entertainment took the decision to cancel the show “because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it." Imagine that.

Despite its frustratingly short run, Police Squad gave us some classic TV comedy moments – my favourite being the scene where an undercover Drebin breaks into the villain’s office and gets caught snooping around: “Who the hell are you and how did you get in here?” He asks. “I’m the Locksmith, and I’m a Locksmith” Drebin replies. Pure genius.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Pass the Nurofen

Sunday's a great night for TV. Once the thrills of the X-Factor eviction are out of the way, you can settle down into a sumptuously mounted, no-expense-spared, BAFTA-winning costume drama about an utterly unfamiliar lifestyle. Or, if you don't fancy The Only Way Is Essex, I guess you could always have a crack at Downton Abbey.

TOWIE is described by its producers as a "semi-reality show", in the same way that Steven Spielberg might describe his forthcoming Tintin adaptation as "semi-live action". Only his characters look a little more realistic. In preparation for tonight's episode, I checked out the official TOWIE Twitter feed, which asked "Who's looking forward to this evening's episode of TOWIE? It's going to be explosive!" Perhaps Nanny Pat's sausage plait needed a bit longer in the oven.

As is the norm for ITV shows, we begin with a recap of what happened on the last episode. Harry discovered a link between the MRI vaccine and paralytic poliomyelitis, Lauren took time out from DJing and running a bakery to stage an oral reading of The Iliad in its original Greek, and the Georgiades twins had a major barney about their wildly varying interpretations of A Brief History of Time. I may have imagined some or all of the above.

In tonight's show, Kirk and Joey are busy beating their meat in the kitchen. Hilariously, they're not wanking, they're tenderising a steak with a rolling pin. Although, the odd bulge in Joey's shorts suggests that the alternative explanation wouldn't be out of the question. Meanwhile, Billie and Sam are planning a girls night in, and Gemma's fringe is driving her mental. Gemma's the first to say "At the end of the day..." and it's only about ten in the morning. She's also "Not being funny..." but she didn't need to tell us that.

Lauren, Maria and a spare Lauren (useful in emergencies) are sitting in a shop full of handbags, talking about Maria's big date. At times, it's hard to tell where the voices are coming from. My tip - if it's got a clasp on the front, it's probably not one of the cast. The fat characters are working out with the twins, who tell a side-splitting tale about a time they tried dating the same girl. But they both look exactly like Louis Spence, so it's about as convincing as the rest of this ridiculous show.

Something's going down between Kirk and Mark, and it's all starting to get a bit confusing. I've got a degree, and I'm able to hold down a regular job, but I seriously don't have a clue what's going on. All they've done is marinade some meat, plan a slumber party and do some sit-ups, but I'm starting to feel like I'm watching Twin Peaks. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if one of them suddenly had a vision of a scruffy killer clambering across the sofa.

Mark's in his walk-in wardrobe and here's his friend David Walliams to explain some kind of complicated arrangement for a drink this evening. Mark pulls a face like a chimp trying to read an Ordnance Survey map in Welsh. I guess this means he's not happy.

The girls night in looks like an amazing time - they can't wait to "get all the gossip on everyone's love life." Don't they have Sky+? They could have just caught up on Wednesday's episode. They're all talking about getting bunches of flowers and Gemma doesn't look too impressed. But that might be because one of the blondes is blocking her access to the cake stand. No, it turns out she's annoyed with Maria for going out with Mick, despite being the one to set them up in the first place. Ever the diplomat, she makes it up with a "Love you babes." Said with feeling. Despite the high drama of that confrontation, I suspect the real reason she's in the kitchen is to stock up on those Haribo false teeth.

Now the girls, and the gay kid who looks like an orange KFC spork, are talking about feeling secure enough to take a shit in front of their boyfriends. "You've got to keep something a secret" cautions one of them. Maybe your original cup-size? Meanwhile, Mario and the gang are lamenting the fact that James has run off to be Mark's bitch. But who can blame him, since the Champagne's flowing and the silver tongue is out in full force: "Yo girls. You wanna come for a drink." For the girls in question, playing hard to get means saying "Cos you're so charming yeah?" then going for a drink anyway. One of them is a page three girl, which comes as a complete surprise to absolutely no-one. Unfortunately, the boys don't get too far with their potential conquests, since Mario, Lydia and Lucy have turned up at the same club. Mark thought it might be helpful to point out that he slept with Lucy three weeks ago. It's all kicking off, and now the unhappy couple are "taking a break." 

And finally, here's Denise Van Outen phoning in a voice-over with a teaser of what to expect from the next episode. Problem is, all the clips are from the show we've just sat through. If the editors aren't paying attention, how the hell are we supposed to follow it. Fuck this, I'm going to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy instead. That's got to be easier to understand.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Here we go again



Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy the X-Factor. But after several weeks of tears, sob stories and laughing at the mentally disadvantaged, I'm already starting to feel a little fatigued. So the prospect of a two-and-a-half hour live show doesn't quite fill me with joy. Professional to the last, I've glugged enough Lucozade to turn my piss orange for a week and have eaten nothing but Kendal's mint cake for the last 48 hours. Here goes nothing, perhaps quite literally.

After a slightly revamped opening title sequence, here's Dermot in another suit from the Mr Byrite end-of-season sale to tell us our Saturday night starts here. Sorry Dermy, but mine started two hours ago when I starting cutting the Lucozade with vodka. The more things change the more things stay the same - hence the double introduction to the judges. Ooh, there's a big twist too. Which will come as a shock to precisely no-one, since it's been in the press for days. There's no public vote this week; instead the judges will need to send home an act each. Louis is notoriously bad at this, which at least explains how they plan to pad out tomorrow's results show to sixty minutes.

Kicking off tonight's show is Amelia Lily, who's died her hair a dirty pink colour, to make sure that no-one compares her to Pixie Lott anymore. She's going to be 'fighting for her life', which has me imagining a far more interesting sing-off than we're likely to see this series. In a pair of cut-off denim shorts and a red leather jacket that could have been fished out of Cher's recycling bin, she's hacking her way through a rocky re-do of Billy Jean. If the current manslaughter trial hasn't got Michael Jackson spinning in his grave, this'll have him rotating like a lazy susan.

Oh shit. This is going to be painful. Here's Johnny, a drag queen without a make-up bag and falsies. He's excited about living in a house with "a few more modern cons" than he has at home. I thought they'd all been dropped last week because of their visa issues. Wrapped in a Bacofoil raincoat, he's squeaking his way through 'Believe' in a voice that makes the Chipmunks sound like Barry White. Bless him, he's clearly having the time of his life, even though it's making me question my own.

Doing it for the girls is Rhythmix - they've had an exciting makeover, which at least means they might not look as though they just crawled from the wreckage of a joyriding accident. They're having a crack at Nicky Minaj's Superbass and it's a bit of a mess. More worryingly, it's reminding me of Michael Keaton in Duplicity. He invented a cloning machine, and each copy was a little more fucked up than the last one. So imagine that, but replace Michael Keaton with Cher Lloyd. And shudder. Gary thinks they're the best girlband that's ever been on the X-Factor. Which is a bit like trying to choose your favourite flesh wound.

"Lock up your daughters," warns Gary, "It's Frankie Cocozza." You might want to put any soft fruit on a high shelf too. Frankie's been in the tabloids this week, having shared a hot-tub with Kitty - honestly, where's a carelessly discarded hairdryer when you need one? It's all a bit scruffy and erratic, much like the boy himself. Not that any of it matters, since Gary believes he's a 'real artist'. And that's just what the X-Factor needs, another Matt fucking Cardle.

Kelly's giant earrings are jangling with excitement as she introduces Sophie, the girl that no-one remembers from the earlier parts of the show. In fact, her whole VT is about the fact that she's utterly anonymous. Sorry, what were we talking about? There's a girl on a piano singing a torch-song interpretation of Katy Perry. That must be Sophie. Just when you think the tempo's going to pick up, it doesn't. The pianist helped lift her down, and Kelly gave her a subtle nod to remind her to hitch her skirt back down. It might be the first live show, but that's not the kind of big opening we're looking for.

Fresh from giving Louis a slipped disc by lunging at him on a garden bench, Jonjo is here to remind us that this is even more scary than fighting in Afghanistan. I can assure him that it's just as grueling to watch. The judges aren't impressed, but at least Gary gets to make this week's tired homophobic joke at Louis' expense. LOLZ-a-plenty here on the X-Factor. Jonjo leaves the stage looking like he's expecting a dishonourable discharge. 

Time to turn the volume down and adjust the contrast settings - it's 2 Shoes. Everyfink's amazin'. They love singing, they love nails and they love their mentor, who they describe as a 'third shoe'. Couldn't have put it better myself. Dark Shoe has lipstick smeared all over her face, but they wear so much it's hard to tell whether that's intentional.

Here's James to give us the first sob story of the night. Apparently he and his family keep getting kicked out of rented accommodation. Still, he reckons the whole of Widnes is rooting him on, except maybe the people at the housing association. Weirdly, the set designers have surrounded him with projected images of terraced houses, like a Jim Bowen 'here's what you could have won' reminder of what's at stake. 

Good grief, are we really only half way through? At least it's Misha next, one of the few genuinely interesting contestants and the only one who didn't really need a makeover. In fact, she'd have been better sticking with her own wardrobe, since the costume department have wrapped her in newspaper like a piece of battered cod. Just as 'Rolling In The Deep' gets going, she throws in a rap which has fuck all to do with the rest of the song. Louis is treading on dangerous ground, opening up his creaky box labelled 'You remind me of...' When he wimps out and compares her to Kelly, his fellow judge gives him a legendary side-eye. 

Hoping to recreate the success of JLS and One Direction, it's NuVibe. They're very good at slowly moving from side-to-side and looking at each other like they've just met in the bathroom of the Two Brewers. The vocals are appalling but none of that matters, since the lead singer remembered to lift his shirt up and show his abs at the end. At least someone understands how this show works. 

Marcus is singing this week's number one, 'Moves Like Jagger'. If nothing else, this should remind a large percentage of the audience how long it's been since they actually listened to the charts. He smiles a lot, which is fine when you're singing something upbeat, but can be off-putting when tackling a ballad. 

Unfortunately, the make-overs can only do so much. So although Sami looks a little less like Geraldine McQueen, she still sings like Jane McDonald. And neither of those comparisons are going to do her any favours. If we were a playing a drinking game, we'd all be loading the shot-glasses for Louis' inevitable "Yorradiva". Yep, there it is - everybody drink. 

Next up, it's The Risk - Tulisa's idea of a supergroup. They're no Traveling Wilburys, but the lead singer's vocals are alright and thankfully they don't look as though they only met for the first time backstage on tonight's show. The judges are all working their favourite "this is why you're in this competition..." cliches, and my vodka bottle is starting to look worryingly empty.

Craig is on a diet, eating lettuce whilst the other contestants tuck into burgers. No-one's used the 'f' word but it's on everyone's mind. Maybe he just needs some time away from the biscuit factory. He's singing really well, but someone's fucked up the mixing of the backing vocals so it sounds as though he's performing both sides of a duet.

Little Miss Marmite is on next, telling the world that she wants to be controversial and talked about, then complaining that she gets upset when she sees what's been written about her. She's singing 'Who wants to live forever' and I'm in no rush to talk her down from the ledge. The loud bits are annoyingly competent, but she's as unfamiliar with subtlety as she is to humility.

Looks like they've saved the best for last, as tiny Irish pixie Janet brings the house down with 'Fix You' by Coldplay. Everyone loves her, right down to the company that sold the production team a group discount on teeth whitening. The judges are doing their pained faces at the prospect of having to ditch an act tomorrow, but anyone who was paying attention should know that Kelly's the only one likely to even break a sweat. The rest of the judges have been entirely forgettable this evening, but Ms Rowland  is outsassing Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. "Sami, you in danger girl." 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Dealt a blow by Jobs


It’s a sad day for technophiles, the world over. After months of speculation about his failing health and newly added belt notches, Steve Jobs finally saw the spinning rainbow wheel and went into permanent shutdown. As with every other major Apple announcement, his timing was impeccable, clinging to life long enough for the iPhone 4S announcement to be made before logging off.

Within a couple of hours of his death, the Facebook news feed was a mess of Apple logos and condolences to a man none of my friends had ever met. Several of the messages pointed out how Jobs had transformed their lives in the last 20 years. Others even speculated how different their careers might have been were it not for the various innovations ushered in under Jobs’ benevolent rule.

Countless books have been written, attempting to unwrap the enigmatic appeal of the Apple brand. Not least the forthcoming Jobs biography which, according to reports, will apparently feature the last weeks of his life. In technology circles, that’s called ‘planned obsolescence’. 

No doubt the designs are exceptional, the brand single-minded, and the pricing structure clear (if a little top heavy). But the real reason so many people have bought into the brand, is because Jobs understood the difference between a user and a customer. He made every touchpoint, from the retail environment to the iPhone calendar, a pleasurable experience. Too many brands seem to build a product, then figure out how to sell it. Jobs focused on making the best possible product, then letting it sell itself. And it did.

Most offices have at least one iVangelist. If you work in marketing, as I do, you’re probably surrounded by them. A PC in a creative department is about as welcome as Sarah Palin at a Mensa coffee morning. But it’s not just the software and functionality either – that little apple on the laptop is a badge of honour for any creative. We take our machines into meetings so clients instantly know which end of the table the ideas will be coming from.

Of course, we can all take brand love a step too far. Apple cornered the market in brand addiction, inspiring legions of fans to turn out in the middle of the night ahead of launch day for every new product release, irrespective of how minimal the cosmetic changes may be. People who knew the power of the new.  Of course, they were also the ones who made apologies for a company that released a new phone with an antenna that didn’t work if you held it in your hand: “Yeah, no, it’s fine, I mean I don’t really use it as a phone anyway…”

Critics scoff, and tell us to get a life. But only because they haven’t drunk the Appletini flavoured Kool-Aid. And that’s the thing about Steve Jobs. He doesn’t just leave behind a legacy of intuitive, beautifully designed gadgetry. He leaves behind a movement of loyal followers who will mourn his passing as if he was a member of their extended family. Steve, you made a cult out of all of us. Damn you autocorrect…