Monday, 30 September 2013

Putting the Bootcamp In

Anyone who tries to convince you that X-Factor is anything other than soap opera with musical accompaniment, should be forced to watch the last three hours on repeat until they see the error of their ways. Perhaps acknowledging the feedback that, after a decade of “I want this more than anything…” and “You’re what this competition is all about”, it’s all starting to feel a little stale. So the bootcamp section has been given something of a shake-up – racing from 100 acts to just 24 in less time it would take you to watch Pirates of the Caribbean. As our hundred hopefuls get dropped off to face the judges, Dermot’s waiting for them at the base of the steps: “This is Wembley, and this is bootcamp.” And this is already getting tedious. Over the course of the next 180 minutes, Nicole will threaten to spill out of a silver bustier, Louis will become tired and emotional, and there’ll be enough talk of “nailing it” to qualify for an NVQ in carpentry.

First order of the day is for Richard, the show’s executive producer, to get dolled up in his best impresario outfit (paisley cravat and dalmation-framed glasses, I thank you) and allocate categories to each of the judges. “The boys, oh, good, good. I’m happy with that.” Yeah, I bet you are, Louis. Nicole’s obviously too excited about getting the girls to eat her Eggs Hemingway, and Gary appears to be training at Leiths Cooking School, so receives the news about the groups in his chef whites. In the interest of brevity the categories line up outside Wembley as four limos pull up alongside them to reveal their judges. One of Sharon’s ‘Overs’ burbles excitedly, “I just saw her leg, I thought, it’s not Louis, it’s not Gary.” That’ll be the first of tonight’s slow eye-rolls.

The judges take their seats as Louis comments “We’re looking for a star.” He seems to offer up this insightful nugget every week, like Rain Man talking about plane crashes. This is when the editors really come into their own, as they smash footage of nearly all the contestants into a single montage, giving each one a single shrieked note, like the world’s most terrifying car alarm. In what must be some kind of a record for the X-Factor, 100 acts are whittled down to 50 in a matter of five minutes. In fact, the only person who even qualifies for airtime in all of this is Stephanie, who got rejected at Sharon’s house back in 2006. Sharon begs Nicole to give the girl a chance, but the Pussycat Doll is no Dannii Minogue, and won’t be bullied by the monstrous matriarch. Stephanie leaves the stage dejectedly, as Sharon quietly puts a hit on her new blow-dried nemesis.

The rest of the two shows is given over to the ‘six seat challenge’ which all sounds a bit It’s A Knockout. “It’s well nerve-wracking innit?” observes one of the girls knowledgeably. There are six cheap white chairs to the side of the stage. Each contestant will come out and sing for their place, until all six chairs have been filled. But before any of them get too comfortable, there may still be contestants left to perform, in which case they could lose their place to a better singer.

Nicole’s Girls

Karen starts the segment reasonably well, to which Louis comments, “I like you, you’ve got a good voice. Is Nicole gonna pick you? I don’t know.” Brilliant.
Lydia does an awful version of Michael Jackson and moans that she can’t go home, as if her picture’s up on the Post Office wall. She’s got loads of quirky little vocal tricks up her sleeve, but there’s no melody within a five-mile radius. Gary adds that she has a tendency to oversing, which is like pointing out that Sharon may have had a bit of work done.

Hannah is the pretty girl who discovered that her best friends were a pair of graceless bitches, and is going it alone. She sings well but has a distracting habit of screwing up her nose on the big notes, like someone’s left a smoked haddock to rot in her pelmet. Nicole sends her home, so good for Dermot, being there to ask how she feels before she’s even had a chance to gather her thoughts.
Siana and Crissy get their marching orders for lackluster vocals, and Jade just confuses everyone when Nicole asks her why she should make the top six: “I don’t know why. If it’s a no, it’s a no. If it’s a yes, then fantastic.” It’s a no.
Nicole’s had enough. Like Louis Gossett Jr in a shimmering corset, she struts backstage and tells the girls to get their shit together. Because she cares TOO DAMN MUCH.

Tamera is looking more and more like Whitney Houston, but cleverly avoids repeating her earlier audition and goes for Rihanna instead. It’s a wise choice, since anyone with a half-decent voice can blow the Barbadian bombshell out of the water. More interestingly, Tamera is the only contestant so far to appear as if she’s thought about the lyrics and what they mean. Meanwhile, Hannah is backstage cheering her on, and doing that double fist-bump that Ross and Monica used to do when TV regulations meant they weren’t allowed to flip the bird. “Finally, another seat” moans Dermot, as if he had to lug them onstage himself.

Relley screams her way through Respect, and gets a seat despite looking like she spends her weekend fending off amorous advances from Pepe Le Pew. Jade also gets a place, having been through all this before – she’s the one that people will make lazy Adele comparisons about, just because she’s got a gravelly voice and probably doesn’t ask for her dressing on the side.

Sheena is a barmaid with an acoustic guitar, and has a lovely tone to her voice. But she’s one of those singers who believes that every pop song should be slowed down to an acoustic ballad, irrespective of what the song is about. Gary thinks she’s a real artist, which is the kiss of death for anyone. Nicole squeezes a tear and tells her that she’s not right for the show. Then changes her mind.
Dermot leans into the camera and whispers “All six seats are taken. Now it gets interesting.” Bastard could have told us that at the beginning.

Hannah Barrett gave this series its first sob story of the series, but is redeemed by the fact that she’s a bloody great vocalist. She makes a great job of ‘I’d rather go blind,’ and by the end of it, she’s just crouched on the stage growling at the audience. The judges take turns passing a microphone down the line to give their feedback – I guess all this year’s budget went on Nicole’s enormous weave. She does some unpretty crying, that make her look as if she’s been drinking from a firehose, and ends up taking Sheena’s recently occupied seat.

Abby announces that she’s “absolutely bricking it” which kind of kills the floaty flower-girl vibe she usually gives off. Overcome with emotion, she goes outside to have a cry about taking someone else’s place, which is a little like complaining about the tax you’d have to pay if you ever won the lottery. She’s another one who choses to make an upbeat song a weepy ballad, without changing any of the words. The audience gives her a standing ovation, and she looks as if she got off the bus at the wrong stop. This time, it’s Lydia who loses her spot, which suits me fine.

Melanie is the last of the girls, and she’s auditioned three times before. She’s singing Katy Perry and actually looks like her. She has a very pop voice – nothing too special but extremely commercial. Louis is getting a bit emotional, and Nicole’s already training her rifle sight on the chairs as she says “Melanie, I’d like you to be in my top six.” Jade gives a massive side-eye, but in the end it’s Karen who gets her bus fare home.

Sharon’s Overs

After all the tears and traumas of Nicole’s slot, it looks like Sharon’s section could be relatively drama free. There are so few Overs left, that if they all budged up they could probably fit on the six seats.

Prison Sam sings Clown and does a great job, but it doesn’t sound much different from the original. When Sharon starts encouraging the audience to go mad, it’s pretty clear she’ll soon be taking the weight off. Souli Roots is a crazy woman in a tiny hat who does the splits in black and white striped leggings. She’s the sort of woman who Louis would put through, but thankfully Sharon’s been taking her meds and makes the right choice.

Jason is the call centre boy with the McAlmont vibe – he sings Higher Love by Steve Winwood; one of my favourite songs. There’s a little too much falsetto, but he’s different enough to make the contest interesting. Nicole calls him simple and beautiful, (*pot, kettle klaxon*), but for no particular reason Sharon sends him home. Hearing the boos that accompany her decision, she erroneously reveals “I didn’t think the audience liked him that much.”

Sabrina gives a big but tuneless performance, followed by Joseph Whelan and his lovely big arms. He does lots of ‘sad thinking’ poses backstage, before screaming his way through Iris and bursting into tears when Sharon mentions his son. After telling him to grow a pair, Sharon then tells him to take his seat.

The warning on my DVR ahead of the second installment cautions: “The following programme contains acts of violence and scenes of a sexual nature.” They weren’t kidding when they said this would be the toughest bootcamp ever.   

Van driver Shelley appears to be modeling herself on a middle-aged Carol Ann from Poltergeist; a thought that I find sufficiently distracting to drown out all the self-indulgent and tuneless bellowing she’s doing.

Taking up the last two available chairs are Katie, who does an angry version of Clown, and Andrea, who offers up a weird River Deep Mountain High on a bodhrán drum. Everyone looks happy and contented on their seats, so here’s Lorna to shake things up, in a pleather skirt that does her no favours. Her vocal is so good that Sharon’s six give her a standing O, perhaps not realising that one of them won’t sitting back down. There’s also a little flurry of drama as Joseph throws a diva strop, when Gary suggests that Sharon send him home to make room for Zoe. In the end, one of the girls loses her spot, so Zoe makes it through and Joseph lives to sulk another day.

Gary’s Groups

Gary must have done something to annoy Simon Cowell, based on the woeful showing in the groups category. Lots of vertiginous baseball caps and JLS wannabes, and barely enough star wattage to power a clockwork radio. Brick City seem to have chosen their outfits as a dare, and sing a community choir rendition of Like A Prayer, that’s only missing Whoopi Goldberg in a wimple. Rough Copy have gone from a three-piece to a two piece, due to a visa issue that’s even more complicated than all this chairs business. The two guys that are left give a rousing, emotive version of Stop Crying Your Heart Out, as their fallen comrade does precisely that. NVS are some kind of am-dram improvisation exercise, and Kingsland seem to think that key changes can be applied to every line of a song. Xyra can’t get to the stylists fast enough, and The Tenors of Rock are making me thankful that John Waters’ Odorama never took off. Attempting to spice things up a little, Nicole offers one boyband a seat, only for one of the lads to respond by grabbing his cock, as if he was willing to reciprocate the offer.

The big surprise in Gary’s category is a new three-piece girlband, comprising
various offcuts and leftovers from other acts that didn’t make the grade. They don’t appear to have a name yet, or any sense of harmony, but they’re better than any of the other groups and far more commercial than anything else we’ve seen. Gary clearly wants them, so even though we’ve already sat through nearly three hours of this, up pops Dermot to explain what happens next. In the end, the Tenors of Rock have to give up their seats to the girls – hopefully there’s a stagehand nearby with a can of Febreze. The less said about the final group, Next of Kin, the better. They describe themselves as the UK’s answer to Hanson; in essence, a question no-one was asking.

Louis’ Boys

Sam kicks off the boys’ segment, with a tuneless version of Iris. He’s neither as musical or as good looking as he thinks he is, but Louis is swaying along like a Fanilow during an encore of I Write The Songs. He pretends for a moment that he might not put same through, but it’s the laziest fake-out since the moon landing. Big Paul is tired of singing to empty pubs, so maybe he should start doing it when they’re open. Gary gives it some ‘Oh, wow, great song choice’ when he says he’s doing I’d Rather Go Blind, as if it was an original selection and not one of the preselected production shortlist. Louis is concerned that Paul might not sell any records, carefully overlooking the fact that even the winners have struggled in that regard.

Barclay is a yodeler, which makes about as much sense as anything else on this ridiculous show. He thinks that to earn a place at Louis’ house he has to take some risks, but something tells me they won’t stop there. He does the annoying 90s boyband gesturing, before slipping awkwardly into a yodel halfway through Respect. Alejandro is feeling confident, and he wants to “win over the ladies” but the way Dermot fawns over his broad shoulders suggests that some of the boys might be equally engaged. He sings One Direction, which suggests he’s at least smart enough to understand his target audience. Ryan is trying to do Avicii’s Wake Me Up, but it sounds like he’s got a mouthful of midget gems. He should probably clean his fingernails too – that bin juice gets everywhere.  

Luke sounds almost as terrible as he looks, but gets through anyways because, well, this is Louis that we’re talking about. Giles has tried to up his game after screwing up his arena audition – he’s combed his hair and had a go at learning the words. Weirdly, he’s wearing a pinafore dress and some ill-fitting purple leggings, but manages to get through a passable version of I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz. Tom is the nice-looking young football coach with choppy hair and funny little boots. He does an annoying breath after every syllable; making Girls Just Wanna Have Fun sound like some he’s having some kind of seizure. Thankfully, Louis sees sense and sends him home – 11 years on and he finally gets how this is supposed to work.

The final contestant to make it through is Nicholas, who looks more like an extra from This Is England than a neophyte popstar. He’s got some grit and power in his voice, and Louis knows that someone’s about to lose their seat. In the end, it’s Alejandro who loses out – another shock given Louis’ track record.

Next week, it’s off to whatever vacant properties the producers can source at short notice. There will be tears.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Pensioners, pairs and pitiful performances. X-Factor Week 4

My TV life seems to be divided between two very different kinds of show. Generally, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of variety; but sometimes abruptly switching from high-end American drama to trashy British reality can be jarring. Tonight, I finally caught up with the superlative Breaking Bad, ahead of its penultimate episode, only to switch straight over to a double-bill of X-Factor. All the screaming, recriminations and betrayal – let me tell you, these audition rounds have been no picnic.

There’s a lot to get through, so fire up some crystal meth, and let’s get cracking. As if Walt White’s suburban brand of villainy isn’t chilling enough, here’s Louis Walsh calmly warning us “There’s nowhere to hide.” Some people manage to chill the blood without even trying. Meanwhile, Nicole finds herself accosted by a Pearly King and Queen outside the ExCel – they bark something about Rosy Lee and apples and pears at her, then try to dislocate her shoulder.

This weekend’s first hopefuls are Cathy and Catrina. Together they are Duplex  - something of a misnomer, since ‘duplex’ usually indicates more than one level. Instead, they’re two babbling idiots in heavy eyeliner; the worst person you’ve ever been stuck on the top deck of a bus with. Twice. Showing a lack of empathy for conjoined twins, as well as a healthy disregard for the meaning of ‘literally’ they ramble “We’re literally one person cut in half.” Pass me a machete and I’ll do it myself. Unsurprisingly, their audition fails to impress. Adding insult to injury, the producers play Trouble by Shampoo, as Gary tells the girls they can’t sing – as if that was any barrier to chart success. The girls choose to take the feedback as a compliment, which is a little worrying, but when Sharon adds “You’re like two Vicky Pollards,” they realise “Oh, that’s an insult.” OK, so they do get it.

Since this is the final weekend of auditions, the producers decide to roll out a compilation of their favourite terrible auditions. Shozod has a cute face, but sings like an asthmatic guinea pig enrolling in a school for the deaf. Krystof attempts to hypnotize the judges into four yeses with a spinning belt-buckle, and Peter seems to be auditioning despite suffering some kind of emergency tracheotomy. “It only takes one person…” comments Louis helpfully, just as Justin Peng enters the room and confuses them all with his nervous rambling. In a clever piece of misdirection, Justin has been set up as another William Hung (Google is your friend), but having given Nicole a flower, he surprises everyone by not being a comedy buffoon. His voice is powerful and he stays in tune – which is about as enthusiastic as I can get. Of course, the judges rave about it, because they’d assumed he’d be terrible, with Nicole even throwing in a “Jamazing” for good measure. Bless her, that was last year.

The next segment focuses on the boys. First up is Sam Callahan, one of those nice looking but unbearably cocky types that you see hanging around in Gants Hill waiting for Faces to open. Paul is a pub singer and performs like he means it, but since he looks like a hangover in human form, he’s going to struggle to make much of an impression.

Time for a familiar face now, as Joseph Whelan hauls his giant tattooed arms back into the audition room. Just in case we didn’t remember his ‘Diet Coke break’ good looks, he’s also brought his young son again as an aide memoir. Everyone seems very pleased to see him, and congratulates him on coming back, being very careful not to mention that they picked Rylan over him. He’s still doing the light rock thing, and his singing face still looks like Colin Farrell finding blood in his stool. Louis tells him “You’re what this show is all about.” I presume he means “people who perform auditions to reach the next round of the contest.”

Sincerity is not this show’s strong point, so let’s go and mock some loved-up nerds instead. They call themselves Green Boots, and they spend half the time kissing in slow motion, as an uncomfortably close Dermot looks on. There’s no attempt to even pretend that they might be any good, as Tricia tells us “We don’t sing love songs, we sing songs in love.” “What’s your name?” Sharon enquires as the pair trip into the room, hand-in-hand. “We’re a couple,” Trisha answers unhelpfully. Mrs O makes an “awwwwwwww” noise that could either be empathy, or her breakfast panini about to make a reappearance. Trisha still cooing over her first love, comparing him to microwaved chocolate. The couple’s best friend is outside, laughing his arse off with Dermot and ensuring that he won’t be asked to make a speech at their wedding. Ever the diplomat, Nicole offers “I don’t know if this show is right for you.” Haven’t they heard of Channel 4’s The Undateables?

None of the other groups fare much better. There’s Joanna and Alexandra, two piles of shrieking vibrato in hot pink t-shirts, followed by pastel twins The Rives Brothers, who sing like a snide cartoon fox whispering insults into a phone. Exaggerate are a mother and daughter duo, prompting Louis to ask Sharon, “Do you and your family sing together?” “Shut the fuck up Louis,” she retorts, effectively speaking for the entire country.

Tonight’s big drama comes courtesy of The Daisy Chain, a reasonably pretty trio of girls in a cacophony of clashing floral prints. It’s like Cath Kidston threw up all over them. They’re not family, they tell us, but they might as well be. We can already see where this is going, because we’re wise to the editors’ tricks. Build them up as a tight group of friends so we can revel in the fallout when only one of them gets through. Individually they’re OK, but their attempts to harmonise are about as organic as Voltron assembling. Gary has his eye on Hannah, but can do without the other two. “This is your career, this could last the rest of your life.” Try telling Leon Jackson that. Hannah’s mates give her the most passive aggressive “Fine, whatever, you should go for it!” and pretty much guarantee that they’ll never speak to her again. 

Back to the ‘Overs’ category now, as we meet Jayson Newland. He uses the word ‘literally’ too much, and talks about his destiny. Call me judgmental, but I’m picturing it involving a pair of size 11 heels and a shitload of glitter. He can hold notes long enough to time a hard-boiled egg, which leaves Louis looking stupefied. Then again, he’d be transfixed at the sight of a mixer tap. Jayson’s version of Never Too Much takes about 11 minutes, because this is a show that confuses long notes with musical ability. Louis says “You’ve got soul” because it’s safer than mentioning Lenny Henry. Singer songwriter Andrea has a shock of white hair and a passable voice, but is about as memorable as an amnesiac’s PIN number, and Lorna Simpson offers a version of I Have Nothing that’s louder than it is listenable.

Closing the first half of this weekend’s action, in shuffle The Nostalgics to be patted on the head by our judges. It’s hard to tell whether they’re supposed to be a musical group, or just a bus outing to Dignitas that broke down on the Beckton roundabout. As they launch into a horrendous rendition of Bring Me Sunshine, it’s clear that Louis is on the wrong side of the table. Then Gary steals my joke, the big-jawed fuck. There’s a flurry of condescending yesses all round to get their hopes up, so they can be crushed later once they start to believe they might actually be in with a shot.

Sunday night’s arena show opens with more hyperbole, as Gary announces “We’re looking for a star.” You know, someone like James Arthur, who’ll gripe through the entire series and then slate other successful acts who graduated from the format. “It’s the last day of auditions” exclaims Nicole excitedly, to the utter apathy of the other three judges.

Ryan Mathie from Hull is the first of tonight’s performers. He cleans rubbish trucks for a living and is doing an annoying acoustic version of Get Lucky. Happily ignoring all the elements that made it a great song in the first place, he’s flat and breathless, but the audience’s idiotic whooping drown out most of it. This means that the judges can complain “I don’t know what happened to you, when your auditions were so great” at bootcamp. “No more bin juice for you” declares Nicole, like a Fairy Godmother in a strapless pleather cocktail dress.

Tenors of Rock are a six-piece of burly shouters who probably met at the A1 services in Peterborough over a full English. One of them is wearing a black kilt which, I’m sorry to say, is just a big skirt. They’re really awful, but once again the audience are loving it, disguising the fact that they keep changing the key down in order to try and hit the notes. Louis says they look like rock stars, but I have a feeling it’s a while since he last flicked through a Kerrang.   

Here’s Hannah, who last night ditched her friends to go through. Gary’s unmoved, because he knows the pain of being in a band with people you don’t really like. The first half of Skyscraper suggests she’ll be back in New Look with her mates before too long, but she pulls it together in time to get the audience on side.

The groups are particularly awful this year. Code 4 might be able to dance like Diversity, but unfortunately they also sing like them. Xyra are part Little Mix, part All Saints, and all shit. And Brick City are like a chunky Emeli Sande combined with a Wayans Brothers tribute act. Dynamix aren’t entirely without merit, but as CeCe gives it her all, the audience are distracted by the big pair of tits she’s showing off. And we’re not talking about her full-to-bursting studded bra. The boys in the band make it through with CeCe, but their cards are clearly marked.

There’s a brief moment of confusion as Chad Nelson, a sixty year old Derek Griffiths (ask your dad) lookalike, takes to the stage dressed as Woody from Toy Story. No-one’s sure why he’s there, so we quickly move onto cocky Sam from Saturday’s show. He’s predictably ropey, but the girls love his swagger. Zoe Devlin is another easy win, with her try-hard forties styling and affected jazz vocals. The audience lap it up because it sounds like the stuff they’re supposed to listen to. Handsome Joseph does another dull rock song; this time it’s Guns N Roses, with a guitar hung pointlessly over his shoulder.

After two hours of pitiful performances, we finally see someone who can sing and has genuine stage presence. Crissie Wedding-Singer (that’s not her actual name, but it’s late and I’m getting sloppy) points out that “When I’m singing at a wedding the focus is on the bride and groom.” If she’s tired of being in someone else’s shadow, just wait until she’s assigned to one of the judges. I don’t care for
what she’s done with Young Hearts Run Free, but it’s still a great showcase for a lovely voice.

Sixteen year-old Giles from Worcester has turned up in a purple tie-dye t-shirt, that looks like one of Grimace’s soiled bedsheets. He makes a complete hash of Reet Petite, forgetting both the tune and the lyrics, but makes it through anyway. It’s almost as if the producers have already decided who they want to make it through to the live shows.

The final performance of the night goes to Big Paul. Remember him? The one who struggles with his confidence. “I’ve always been the guy in the background.” Or, in some instances, he was the background. He says he’s been working on his stage presence in preparation for today, but I don’t think Liberace’s ghost will be taking any notes. He does, however, walk up and down some steps, and gets a standing ovation for his effort. Tonight’s final comment comes from Louis: “Paul, you’ve got so much old school soul inside you.” I think he means suet.  

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

First Crush, set to music

Carlo Imperato. A strapping young specimen; with the hair of a lion, the jawline of Michelangelo's David, and a name off the specials board at Pizza Express. 

When Alan Parker's surprisingly dark Fame ("Now, take off the top...") transmogrified from ...The Motion Picture into ...The TV Show, out went any pretence at reality, and in its place came dancing snowmen and crises of the "How will we stage a talent show during a power-cut?" variety. Still, I didn't mind the transition. 

At the time, I'd found my early VHS copy of Fame to be almost unwatchably dour, whereas its TV incarnation was tuneful, upbeat and featured almost no scenes of molestation or suicidal coming outs. And then there was Danny Amatullo. The resident 'comedian' who managed to make Fozzie Bear seem like George Carlin. I guess being a 'struggling comedian' meant that none of the writing team ever had to worry about originating any funny material - they'd just get Danny to waggle a cigar and tell people that he was impersonating Groucho Marx or George Burns. 

When Fame The TV Show began, it was easy to miss Danny's perpetually bulging jeans. As a completely new addition to the cast, he was neither a carry-over from the film, nor a recast character from the big screen version. Danny was all new, and had to compete with the likes of Bruno (keyboard and bubble perm) and Leroy (leg-warmers). He made precious little impression during the show's first season, but he hit his stride during the second, as he serenaded a visiting Betty White with his song Friday Night, latterly reprised during the Kids From Fame's sell-out tour of the UK. 

Whilst viewers in the US seemed largely indifferent to the Kids' irrepressible spunk, we lapped it up over here (I apologise for my language) and their concert tour was a genuine smash. 

But this is about first crushes, not the history of the Kids From Fame. And here's where the two topics intersect. As an eight year old, I had no perception of gay or straight. I just knew that when Carlo Imperato started to dance in his well-worn Nikes, and sang about "Picking up speed as I'm turning the key" I wished that it was me he was planning to visit at the weekend. I'd got a bucket of Sticklebricks he could help me with. 

It didn't matter to me that the 7" single in my local youth club show showed up the many flaws in his live vocal, when Carlo shouted out "Everybody here loves Fame, right?" I was right there with him. And who cares if his declaration that "Fame is gonna live forever..." was a little off. Turns out, that longevity only lasted another couple of years. But as far as my pre-teen heart was concerned, Carlo's immortality was already assured.  

Sunday, 1 September 2013


I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the X-Factor’s back, and it’s bigger than ever. Turns out, it never really went away. These last eight months, it was just in remission. It’s pretty much the same as last time, only it seems to be exhibiting some worrying redness and aggression  – we’re calling that ‘The Mrs O Effect’.

That’s right folks, La Osbourne is back on the judges’ table – still showcasing the least convincing maternal act since Faye Dunaway went mental with the wire coat-hangers. She must have finally convinced Simon to give her the money she was asking for, because there have been a few noticeable cutbacks elsewhere on the show. Poor old Dermot’s bearing the brunt of it; not only having to play continuity announcer on ITV before the Talk Talk ident, but also filling in for voice-over man on the opening titles. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll be forced to play the part of Brian Friedman when we get to the live shows.

Unsurprisingly, the show proper opens with a nice long plug for the new One Direction movie (In Cinema’s Now!) before launching into a load of pointless crowd chatter about how excited everyone is by Mrs Osbourne’s return: “When Sharon’s on, you never know what she’s going to say.” Well, apart from “Missus” and “Fah-abulous.”

The producers have arranged four military-grade helicopters to fly our judges up the Thames and hone in on the ExCel, where hordes of excited auditionees have been corralled into some make-shift fencing. It’s probably supposed to demonstrate the enduring popularity of the show, but it’s more like an outtake from World War Z. Suddenly, ten thousand wannabe pop-stars are going to start piling on top of each other and bring down Louis’ chopper. He’d love that.

One other change we should probably mention, is the fact that the auditionees will have to perform twice to make it through to the next round. First, they’ll try out in the audition room, before taking to the O2 stage in the hope of impressing 4,000 jeering idiots. If you though this show was manipulative and stage-managed before, you’re in for a world of pain.

The first contestant of 2013 is Luke – an affable young man with the hair of a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Cute face, affable demeanour and a smile like he’s imagining your naked corpse stuffed into his wardrobe. As for the performance itself, his voice has a pleasant tone, when it’s not wobbling off the key like a drunken pensioner. Sharon’s doing her best to react, but she’s having trouble indicating her emotions, since her face is more frozen than a Calippo. In fact, this whole first segment turns into an extended pretty boy sequence, as Luke is followed by a parade of nice looking young men. Alejandro Fernandez bounces into the audition room, and all that’s missing is the sound of a swannee whistle as we zoom in on Louis’ delighted face. Tom Mann is a football coach, and wants to be a role model for kids, but sings Let Her Go as if he’s auditioning for voice-over work on the next Chipmunks movie. Finally, we meet J-Star (*sigh*) who’s a part-time model and has confidence to spare. Unfortunately, he seems to think Hallelujah is an Alexandra Burke original, and his vocal performance is quite ridiculous. In particular, the Hallelooo-hooo-hooo-hooo-yah bits sound like he’s singing through a snorkel. Sharon says he sang it like a ghost, and Gary thinks it was “Cra-haaa-haaa-haaa-aaap.”

Our next featured performer is Fil (“with an ‘F’”) Henley, who appears to be wearing one of the Quo’s old hairpieces. Of course, because he has long hair, he’s been goaded into talking about what a rocker he is, despite the fact that he still lives at home, and his mum made him some cheese sandwiches for the queue. The moment the comedy glockenspiel music kicks in, we realise that we’re supposed to be laughing at, rather than with, Fil-with-an-F. Sharon describes his mullet as “business at the front, party at the back.” She can empathise, because it’s kind of like the skin on her head – tight on the front, and loose enough at the back to carry half a dozen Jaffa oranges. Unsurprisingly, Fil conveys all the rock presence of a leisure centre deputy manager, and the judges tell him to “Phuck off.”

However, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Fil – Nicole thinks he’s got potential, so they relent and invite him to the arena auditions. Gary gives him tips on how to rock convincingly, which is like Jodie Marsh opening a charm school. Call me cynical, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if this whole bad audition was reverse engineered to make his arena performance seem like a spectacular make-over.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter what the auditionees do – tonight’s show is all about putting Sharon front and centre. There are far too many shots of her laughing until she (completely by accident) falls off her chair, coupled with outrageous reaction shots of the rest of the panel. At one point, a young man called Christian comes on in his bulging red pants, purely so that Sharon can complement his package and get the Daily Mail frothing about pre-watershed suitability.

Ten years of the X-Factor and people still think that a good audition is about over-singing in false eyelashes. Siana Schofield has a strong voice but an annoyingly affected vocal style, and Rielle Carrington is Moss Side’s answer to Rihanna. The groups are always the weakest segment, so I’m kind of pleased to hear duo Silver Rock do a half-decent job. Their timings and harmonies are pretty tight, but they’ve got zero chemistry, on account of the fact that they’ve only known each other a week. The judges ask them to perform separately, and put them both through as solo artists. 

Seventeen year-old Hannah is the first to play the dead Dad card, and has an emotional moment as she recounts her troubled home life. She reckons she’s got butterflies in her stomach, but that could just as easily be all the donuts and cakes she eats as a part-timer in Greggs. “Great sausage rolls in there” adds Gary, ensuring he’ll never have to pay for another Steak Bake as long as he lives. Sharon commends her for focusing on her studies and taking her A-levels, because she knows that not everyone gets to marry a rock star. Hannah’s rendition of Read All About It is breathy and sincere, so everyone’s jolly pleased to see here make it through to the arena performances. It also gives them a chance to rattle through all their favourite inspirational clichés: “You are what I’ve been waiting for.” “This is just the beginning.” “Your dad would be proud of you.” And “You’ve got a sad face.” That last one’s Louis – he’s not quite up-to-speed yet.

Euphoria Girls are a five piece girl band, grinning and cheering like a quintet of Bratz dolls on mood elevators. Their performance is so bad that even a Pontins crowd would be throwing bottles of piss to register their disgust. Louis tells them they’ve got great personalities – unaware that the true test of such an observation, is whether or not you could stand to be stuck in a broken lift with them. It’s a no from me.

After another irritating montage of bad opera singers and a man who hits himself in the neck to sound like a bagpipe, we meet Luke from Essex. He currently works as a Bieber tribute, despite looking more like something Justin could build a treehouse in. He’s singing his own composition – which was always a risky proposition until Lucy Spraggan lowered the bar for everybody – and it’s not so much a song, as the jingle for a mobile network. Demonstrating an alarming lack of awareness about how this show works, Gary observes: “It was like a stroke of fate, you coming in here at just the right time.”

Just in time for the final audition of tonight’s show, the producers remember the ‘screality’ segments they introduced last year, where audiences get to listen in on the mundane (and heavily contrived) conversations that take place in the holding area. Here’s prison officer Sam and her husband, eating a big bag of crisps and speculating about Dermot’s workout regimen. I can smell the BAFTA from here. Sam reckons she’s over the hill at 35, but gives a decent rendition of Beyonce’s Listen, in the process triggering countless references to Tesco Mary on Twitter. In fact, this working class hero rubbish has been an X-Factor staple since Andy Binman, but not to worry. Gary’s closing remark to Prison Officer Sam is, “You can cuff me!” but I’d rather she just bang him up in solitary.

Tomorrow night, we get to see how tonight’s auditionees fare in front of a 4,000-strong crowd. I can scarcely contain my excitement.