Thursday, 16 October 2014

Lessons to be learned - The Apprentice Week 1

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

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

Volume and repetition trumps comprehension

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to get ahead, stand out

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

Always pass the buck

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

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

Not unless you want to create the next Feathers McGraw.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Checking for signs of live - X-Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Gogglebox Effect - X-Factor Week 4

Last week, we spent over two hours watching a handful of acts valiantly repeating their introductions to camera, hugging their overly encouraging families, and attempting to win over 5,000 people crammed into uncomfortable plastic seats. That’s right, we’re right in the middle of the arena round; the most pointless addition to the X-Factor since Louis Walsh had his veneers done.

Aside from the rather obvious bias of these shows towards the acts likely to make it to the judges’ houses, the most notable feature of these filler episodes is the addition of a weird Gogglebox element. Now we get to hear the opinions of random audience members as they pass comment on the acts, like Waldorf and Statler, but less life-like.

Adding an extra layer of Goggleboxiness to this weekend’s action is Chloe Jasmine. Despite the fact that this footage was filmed well before any of the episodes actually aired, we get to see her parents pretending to watch her audition on a flat screen TV that seems as out of place in their home as a library in Cheryl’s. “Mummy, this is the television show I’m on,” Chloe announces. “Oh Chloe, you’re so clever,” her mother replies; clearly one of those parents that gives a round of applause whenever their toddler has a shit. The ‘getting to know you’ chat consists of Chloe telling is that her hobbies include “going to the ballet, the opera and experimenting with gluten free cooking,” but it seems that her real talent is pouting in slow motion. Her song is appropriately bluesy, but her performance is more two-dimensional than Jessica Rabbitt’s. Nonetheless, Louis loves her vibe, Cheryl’s mesmerised by her “old school Hollywood glamma…” and Simon lies that “we’ve never had anyone on the show like you before.”

Fleur East has great hair and a massive smile, and previously made it through to the live shows nine years ago as part of an underwhelming group. She didn’t get a glowing response in her first audition, and when she starts performing it’s clear that she’s spent more time on her abs than her vocals. There’s zero melody to her voice, and to be honest, she’d probably go further as a backing dancer. Simon says she’s like a different artist, and I’m silently wishing that someone had switched her microphone for a paintbrush. As the judges all weigh in with their comments, it suddenly becomes apparent that no-one’s paying any attention, since Simon’s moobs have fallen out of his shirt onto the table, making him look like a furry Judy Finnigan.

After a fairly soft opening, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Back by unpopular demand, here’s Raign, everyone’s favourite self-absorbed whippet. The producers clearly hate her, but know that she’s PR gold, so we get loads of contradictory statements as she tells us that there’s no room for egos, then barks orders at her friends as if they’re iPhone factory workers. As soon as she comes out of stage, she launches into another aggravating monologue that even has her friends backstage wishing she’d shut the fuck up. Ever the rampant egotist, she chooses to sing one of her own songs, and sounds like the Sia wannabe that she so clearly is. Still, the audience leap to their feet on the big note, despite all the other ones being way off. Weirdly, Louis critiques her for being “a real diva,” which must be the first time he’s ever used that as the pejorative it’s supposed to be.

Emily Middlemass is 15 years old, and has the kind of good natured grace that Raign couldn’t learn with electroshock therapy. She’s a perky blend of Cher Lloyd and Kelly Clarkson, who manages to make everything sound like a folksy ditty. Although there’s not a lot of weight to her, she’d easily sail to midway in the contest. Since the producers have selected Yes from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack to accompany her verdict, I guess they’ve given up on trying to surprise us.

Stephanie Nala is a bubbly girl with a pleasant voice, who lives in Cheshunt. “It’s quiet, not much goes on there,” she admits. Well, not unless there’s a fire drill at the Tesco offices. I wouldn’t have put her through, but since Yes is still playing, I expect that she’s going home happy.

Another familiar face is KerriAnne, who’s come out in her best denim dungaree shorts to tell us that her first audition was “absolutely mint.” Sigh. She’s going to sing a Carrie Underwood song, and seems a little surprised when Simon adds “You know I discovered her?” The song is as dull as a bus replacement service, but it comes to life on the big notes. She’s quite adorable when the audience leap to their feet, and she seems so lacking in confidence that she’s genuinely in danger of collapsing in on herself. “You should be selling music not shoes,” advises Cheryl, but I think HMV’s had a recruitment freeze since the restructure.

Major are a noisy twosome, who are barely onstage long enough to register. Simon dislikes their performance, for which Louis takes him to task; accusing him of being harsh. And yet no-one seems to pick up the fact that Louis’ opening line to them was “You are two girls?” With Simon’s critiquing style now firmly established, we race through a tedious montage of his most witless similes. The other judges replay them with a baffled expression, and the audience laugh like there’s a mild electric current coursing through the arena.

Michelle Lawson is one of those late thirties ‘last chance’ singers. Despite being warned by Cheryl to steer clear of “all those rifts…” she knows this is the moment she’s been waiting for her whole life and nothing will get her down, not even a problematic T-zone. Given her tendency to oversing, And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going probably isn’t the best choice. There’s no enjoyment in her performance, it’s more like enduring a French listening exam. Mel advises her that less is more, and let’s face it, if anyone knows about making do with less, it’s Mel B. A dejected Michelle strops off the stage for a big sulk, and possibly even calls Dermot a “bag of crap.”

Back for more, this time without her aged husband, is Scarlett Quinn. She’s already ditched the stage name ‘Kitten,’ and her unfortunate habit of speaking about her husband in the past tense, suggests that he won’t be far behind it. As she growls through Ain’t No Other Man, her voice is passable and she’s has a sultry Pussycat Doll presence. The problem is, she’s only about 30% of the singer Christina Aguilera is, so the performance can only suffer from the comparison.

Closing Saturday’s show is Ben Haenow (Haenow). “Oy, oy,” he shouts as he runs out on stage, like the warm up act for the Family Fortunes studio audience. He likes music he can bellow out of his van window at people. I wonder how often his transit gets keyed. Ben tells us how gorgeous Cheryl is, while his girlfriend in tastefully blurred in the background. He’s doing a gravelly, funereal Wild Horses that makes me want to repeatedly clear my throat, and it’s almost as exhausting as Michelle’s vocal runs. “Well that was intense, I don’t think I need to say any more,” says Mel B, and I’m hoping she’ll stick to her word. No-one’s surprised when Ben gets four yeses, since he’s the last act of the night, and it’s an unwritten rule that we have to end on a positive.

Sunday’s show kicks off with Charlie Martinez, the handsome young American who got Mel B wetter than a Glastonbury groundsheet. There’s no doubting his twinkly smile and impressive arms, but he’s incredibly bland; like Taylor Lautner in a pair of chinos. He belongs in a Gap shop window, not on the stage at Wembley. He only sings a couple of lines, before we get to hear the judges gush about how the girls are going to love him. Thankfully, Mel B’s seen sense (or at least a restraining order) and tell him she was bored to tears.

Ten Senah was drunk for her last audition, and on reflection, she probably should have necked a bottle of MadDog while she was waiting in the wings. Michael Marouli doesn’t fare much better, coming onto the stage looking like a chandelier dipped in gravy browning.

Janet Grogan is from Dublin and she’s 26. And just in case you missed that the first time, let me recap: Janet Grogan is from Dublin and she’s 26. If that seemed entirely unnecessary, remember that next time the producers do the exact same thing. So much of this weekend’s coverage is taking us back to the original auditions, it’s like watching the show in reverse. Any minute now, Guy Pearce is going to show up and start taking Polaroids. Anyway, back to Janet. She’s singing I Still haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, oblivious to the fact that the whole world is now in a ‘post U2 kind of mood,’ having woken up to find an album sitting in their iTunes, like a drunken tattoo. The song’s fine, but it’s not a star-making performance, more a spirited karaoke. Still, at least Mel B’s finally happy.

Charlie Jones is 14, and has the kind of mum who thinks nothing of making him go to the toilet and checking him for clean pants on national TV. He sounds dull when he speaks, but manages to raise a few eyebrows with a weird acoustic version of Wannabe, complete with an inane rap that’s been updated to name check the judges. “You made yourself different from everybody else,” says Cowell, but that’s only because he didn’t really sing.

Helen Fulthorpe is a timid mum from Cardiff, who looks like the OCD teacher on Glee. There’s an interesting gravelly howl to her voice, but the “Try a little te-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-henderness,” soon grows wearying. Simon commends her, saying “You put your family in front of your career…” Of course, the inference here is that all that’s about to change. They can make their own fucking teas from now on. As she runs in slow motion to embrace her kids, there’s a spectacular amount of jiggle, despite the fact that she’s dressed like a particularly dowdy pilgrim.

Tom Mann is a cute 20 year old from Southampton, who announces “You broke my heart Louis Walsh.” As the lawyers scrabble into action, he tells us he’ll be singing a song he wrote the day after Louis sent him home last year. I think it’s called “Fuck off, you pointless grinning cockpipe.” It’s pretty terrible, but since he looks the part, they give him a second chance and let him Chipmunk his way through the Backstreet Boys.

Jake Sims serves no purpose, other than to remind me of the enduring and inexplicable popularity of the Arctic Monkeys. As the wind whistles through the many holes in his face, Simon tells him “You’ve got lead guy charisma,” which I’d interpret as “Bugger off and join a band.” Jordan Morris is equally ineffectual, in a pair of bewildering pedal pushers. He’s another blandly attractive face, like one of those sentient mannequins on Doctor Who.

Another familiar face is Jake Quickenden, who reminds us that he’s from Scunthorpe and he “just sings.” So no mention of the modeling or TV presenting work then. “I don’t like people knowing that I’m vulnerable,” he sobs photogenically. He’s emoting his way through a Jessie J dirge, but I’m more interested in why he thought it was a good idea to have a moustache tattooed on his finger. Simon lies about not liking it when rejected contestants return, despite this contradicting everything he’s ever said to anyone, ever.

Leah Kennedy is like a Happy Shopper Jessie J, but her song is awful and there’s about as much energy in the room as if Ed Miliband had just popped in. Louis and Cheryl offer her a half-hearted yes, and Simon tells her he’ll have forgotten her before she’s even exited stage right.

Our final contestant is Lola Saunders, the fishmonger. “I don’t want it to be a full time job,” she moans. Surely, if it’s a big supermarket, they can offer her flexi-time? Her granddad keeps bursting into tears with pride whenever he talks about her. They could make a whole show about him, trying to get a sentence out without dissolving into sobs. As the music starts, she has a bit of a panic attack, so Mel B lunges at her to offer an encouraging hug. She fudges the lyrics to You Make Me Feel (Natural Woman) but the clueless crowds are loving the loud noises, so cheer along obliviously. As her granddad resorts to communicating entirely in wolf-whistles, Lola leaves the stage with four yeses. Let’s hope the stylists are standing by – she may have a great voice, but the next X-Factor winner shouldn’t be dressing like a Victorian tennis player.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The pain in Raign falls mainly on everyone - X-Factor Week 2

Just seven days in, and it already feels as though the X-Factor never went away. Once again, we’re plunged into a world of cacophonous voice-overs, giant CGI Xs crashing onto London like something out of Man of Steel, and so many queues of eager young hopefuls. One thing that does seem to be changing, is the confidence of the contestants, who’ve finally begun to come out of their shells. They used to rock on their heels in hoodies, eyes turned to the ground, almost apologetic about taking part in a competition. Now they’re up on strategically placed platforms, dancing to the music that exists only in their heads as camera cranes swoop dramatically overhead.

It must be a slow day in Manchester, as the local news appears to be covering the arrival of Cowell and company. And despite the best efforts of the excitable ushers who are welcoming hopefuls by turning themselves into directional signage, Manchester still seems as rough as Mel B in asbestos dungarees. Cheryl’s not intimidated by the grimy vibe – compared with her Newcastle upbringing, this must be like mooring a yacht in St Kitts – she knows that “Manchester always delivers a golden nugget.” She’s probably thinking of McDonalds.  

This week’s first wannabe is Ten Senah. When pushed for a job description, she responds “I party.” I can’t tell if this means she just celebrates all the time, or if her social engagements are of the transactional variety. Having stayed out all night before her audition, she swaggers into the room and announces “I’m gonna do an original, it’s called 15 minutes,” as if she’s already cottoned onto the likely extent of her fame. She sings like Beverly Knight, if she’d just eaten a pack of Marlboro Reds, but the whole performance is a bit of a mess. Cheryl blinks some kind of Morse Code warning to Ten, then adds that she’s not taking it seriously. “You wanna be a backing vocalist – carry on, party forever.” I’m sure the stars of ‘Fifty Feet From Stardom’ might disagree. Simon sums things up, saying “You got four yesses, why don’t you go an celebrate with a hot, black..” I don’t like where this is going. It’s OK, he went with ‘coffee.’

Less than ten minutes into the show, and we’re already prizing open the cage door marked ‘crazy.’ Here’s ‘Queen Christina,’ Britain’s answer to Lady Gaga. But only if the question was, “What would happen if Gaga replaced Barbara Windsor on those Bingo ads?” Looking like a decorative toilet-roll cover, she runs through a surreal opera performance that sounds like a mouse tuning his viola. She tells us “A few years ago my voice went into the stratosphere.” And that’s probably where it should stay; like the posters say, ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream.’ Mel decides that it was all a bit nuts, which is pretty harsh coming from someone with Geri Halliwell on speed-dial.

Maria Ellinas is a receptionist who looks to have had some cosmetic dentistry done, courtesy of Groupon. Her veneers make it impossible for her to sing Street Life, without making every ‘s’ into a ‘sh.’ As the judges dissolve into giggles, I’m distinctly unimpressed. Speech impediment or no, that was a load of sit.

Hot Charlie Martinez is with the US airforce, and needed White House clearance in order to appear on the X-Factor. He performs an anodyne bilingual rendition of Enrique Iglesias that has Mel B out of her seat like there was an electric current running through it. Equally popular with our judges is Charlie Brown, who croaks his way through Trouble and is complimented for having a great throwback sound. You know, just like Ray Lamontagne, whose song he was performing. Good grief. 

Ben Haenow refuses to dream it’s over. He’s a twenty nine year-old van driver who’s seventy percent stubble. His Ain’t No Sunshine is fair enough, but I’m kind of wishing they’d fade him out and just play the rest of the Minder theme instead. “What’s the most unusual thing you’ve had in the back of your van?” the judges ask him, and I’m concerned it’s a little too early for #gaycode. The judges are happy to put him through, but there’s an awkward moment as he goes in for a congratulatory cuddle and Mel B warns him off with “I don’t kiss.” To be honest, I doubt she sits down to pee either.

Jake Sims has to look after his sister and mum, and is hoping to provide for them by appearing on X-Factor. I guess the odds of finding gainful employment in Bristol are just too slim. Kyle and Josh are identical twins, and they’re wearing matching bandanas that make them look like they take their fashion tips from the ninja turtles.
Finally, after an interminable parade of tedium, we meet Monica Michael. She might be wearing earrings large enough for Beth Ditto to hula-hoop in, but she seems grounded and genuine. She’s written a song for her sister, about the dangers of falling in with the wrong crowd, and it’s surprisingly good. She’s less polished than Adele, largely because she hasn’t had the benefits of a Brits School education, but the sincerity and talent are inarguable. Cheryl weeps one of her photogenic mono-tears, and Mel complements her “torn and versatality.”

Jack Walton is from Castleford, which Mel B knows all about, since she too is from Leeds. I hope you’re paying attention, since Mel’s Leeds roots hardly ever get mentioned. Unless she happens to open her mouth. Jack might be the dullest 17 year old ever to violate a sports sock, but the grit in his voice has Cheryl wanting to rub herself on a gravel driveway.

James Graham doesn’t like animals, but “could learn to love them” if it would win him Simon’s favour, and Bre Musiq does a good job with No Diggity, despite having to perform it whilst picturing Louis in a bikini. Returning from last year is a newly slimmed down Paul Akister, who was dropped by Louis at the judges’ houses round. Louis chews on his dentures and avoids eye contact for the duration of his song, then refuses to apologise, bleating “I did the right thing.”

Chloe Hedley tells us that “Music doesn’t just mean a lot, it means (dramatic pause) everything.” It may have prevented her from falling into a bad crowd, but it won’t be helping her get to Wembley any time soon. Mel tries to look encouraging, but her expression quickly devolves into an eye-roll.

Thankfully, Lola Saunders is here to save the day. She’s not very glamorous, and she’s desperate for a job that doesn’t leave her smelling of fish. Insert your own joke here. “I want to sing,” she admits, “I can’t do anything else good.” Well, public speaking is certainly out of the question. She sings To Make You Make You Feel My Love, and manages to make it something more than a karaoke cover of Adele’s version. In fact, the only thing to spoil the whole audition is the judges’ protracted reaction, which drags on like the second act of The Green Mile. At least tomorrow’s show is fifteen minutes shorter.

Sunday Night

Perhaps sensing the audience’s growing weariness with the format, the producers are in a rush to get us to Wembley, where the successful auditionees will be re-evaluated by a bunch of mooing, jeering idiots. And an arena-sized audience. It’s an entirely unnecessary extra wrinkle in the format, but it seemed to work for the ratings last time. So this will be our last hour of closed-room auditions, and it promises to be a triple-paracetemol head-banger, if the teaser is anything to go by. Think Wilhelm Scream in triplicate, and you’d be halfway there. On top of that, there’s a weird new special effect, where our young hopefuls’ texts to family and friends are visualised on screen. Coming so soon after a bunch of hacking scandals, I’m not sure this sends the best message about Syco’s concern for the wellbeing of its talent. We’re also reintroduced to our judges with some weird Terminator-cam – I’m just waiting for it to evaluate Louis Walsh as a waste of ammo (one for the Guns N Roses fans there), but then we’re all distracted by the sight of Simon nuzzling a puppy.

Kerriann Covell works in a shoe shop, and complains that most of her customers’ feet stink. It’s gone eight o’clock; you’ve finished dinner, right? Anyway, she’s playing hooky from work and there’s every chance she could get sacked for her unprofessionalism. Her mum’s on-hand to misrepresent the situation with a double negative; inexplicably telling her “You’ve jeopardised losing your job.” She’s got a touch of the Spraggans about her, but the performance is surprisingly authentic, despite the double thumbs up she gave as the accompaniment started. Sensing that she’s done enough to win over the judges, she smiles to reveal an alarming amount of gum. Cheryl credits her with inventing the goosebump, and complements her ‘gorgeous face,’ just as Kerriann gurns like Muriel Heslop. Simon takes her phone to call her boss (he’s obviously run out of minutes on his own) and leaves a message to say that, although Kerriann’s through to Wembley, she’d like to keep her job in the short term – no sense getting her hopes up.

As the auditionees make bold pronouncements like “Cheryl Cole’s back. We’re in Newcastle. It feels right,” we’re introduced to Lauren Lovejoy, who seems to be dressed for an ITV2 take on Mad Men. Her voice is just as overstyled as her outfit, and she completely oversings Jessica Rabbit’s signature tune. Stevie Tennet is still studying for his GCSEs, so Cheryl voices her opposition to the inclusion of 15 year olds in the content. Based on his performance, so am I. Maybe he’ll be better in a couple of years’ time, but for now he sounds like he’s out of breath from all the wanking. Not to worry, his audition seems to have done the trick. “I have to say, I’ve got to eat a bit of cake right now,” adds Cheryl, cryptically. Either she means humble pie, or she’s hypoglycaemic – someone get that woman a Krispy Kreme.

Starlite’s star doesn’t shine very bright. It doesn’t help that she’s wearing an unflattering black catsuit and an orange visor, and parades around the audition room being rude to the judges. Her rendition of I Will Survive is just as unintelligible as her own composition, but the audience outside laugh along with their favourite kind of idiot-baiting.

Doctor King, comes from Leeds, lives in Bristol and has decided to audition in Newcastle. He’s got lovely blue eyes, but there’s clearly nothing behind them. He attempts a terrible rap, then cops an attitude when the judges prove resolutely unmoved. Cheryl schools him on the difference between ‘entrance’ and ‘exit,’ by which point it’s quite clear that he needs to rethink his life.

Now it’s time for the star of tonight’s show – the curiously spelled Raign. Looking like a cross between Stacey Solomon and a whippet trapped in a lift door, the 31 year-old launches into an incomprehensible monologue, talking over all the judges and winding up Mel and Cheryl before she’s sung a note: “I am an artist, singer-songwriter, writer, really cool, alternative, gets all chart stuff, I think a big part of what I’ve got to sell to the world is my personality, what I need to say to my fans, it’s not enough for me over twitter, they love it up on twitter, but I’m a personality and I wanna be in the world.”

She boasts that she once took a duvet in a suitcase to L.A., but her story would be a lot more interesting if it went somewhere. Actually, so would she. She drones on and on in her monotonous voice, and it’s like listening to a call centre worker read through the Ts and Cs on a new insurance policy. Raign rejects the suggestion that her career isn’t going to plan, telling us “I’m number 17 in Russia. I have a whole team of people, my friend works at Marc Jacobs.” I know someone who works at Waitrose. What’s her point? Her audition is terrible, and things aren’t made any better when she dismisses the other judges; telling them that Simon’s is the only vote that matters. Eagle-eared viewers should, by now, have noticed that the producers are accompanying this footage with the music from 28 Days Later. Cheryl’s getting more and more wound up, so let’s hope Raign tries to offer her a lollipop and a hand towel. Having been rejected, Raign storms back in and forces Simon to put her through. Cheryl comments on the ugliness of her desperation, thereby sealing her fate as the mentor for the ‘Overs’ this year.

Other contestants in the saggy midsection include Janet Grogan, who tells us “My parents mean the absolute universe to me,” because sometimes, the world is not enough. Emily Middlemas is like a squeaky an inoffensive Cher Lloyd, and Lizzy Pattinson is like Michaela Strachan singing Smelly Cat. “Have we met before,” smarms Simon. “Maybe in your dreams,” she shoots back. She’ll go a long way, this one.

Michael Rise works in a chip shop and bores us with his tale of “washing’t tayties.” “What’s popular?” asks a clearly bored Simon, and Michael disappoints everyone by not replying. “Chips.” They’re all shocked that he’s singing Whitney Houston, whereas I’m more surprised he picked something off her embarrassing final album. His performance is solid, if a little theatrical, but he’s quite endearing as he chews his fist, awaiting the verdict. Simon and Cheryl decide that he’s a “little diva” and Louis looks affronted that he didn’t get to use his favourite word. “If you get a yes from Mel, then you must be alright,” adds Louis. Yeah, that’s what Jimmy Gulzar thought too.

Kayleigh Manners is a gorgeous young girl with an L-Word vibe and too many facial piercings. She complains that “The place where I come from, gets a bit of a bad reputation. But Mel B came from here.” The two facts may be connected.
The final slot in the auditions goes to Jake Quickenden, a pretty boy from two years ago. Since appearing on the show, he’s signed with agents and been working as a model and TV presenter. He even had his airbrushed arse on display in Gay Times. But none of this is mentioned, since there’s TRAGEDY to cover. He starts with a John Legend song that isn’t working, so Mel and Cheryl ask him to sing something else, but resist the urge to tell him to try it without the shirt. His second performance is better, and to no-one’s surprise, the judges all agree to put him through. Mel “I don’t do kisses” B gets up and gropes him. “He didn’t even mention that sob story till I asked him,” she adds, neglecting to mention that they’ve got extensive notes in front of them.

Still, that’s the shortlist sorted – next week, we’re off to Wembley. See you there.