It might still be August, but my mind’s already on Christmas. Not that I’m in any rush to wish my life away, but the moment those unmistakable opening titles begin, I’m reminded of the fact that this show is going to dominate the TV schedule until it’s thrown up the next Xmas Number One. Depressing stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.
In its 11th year, the writing is clearly on the wall, and I don’t mean that derogatory graffiti about Louis in the gents’ cubicles. With three failed attempts at selling the format to an indifferent American audience under his belt (or chinstrap; whichever’s closer), Simon’s returned with his tail between his legs. In typically disingenuous style, Cowell announces that this is “A job so important that I simply had to come back.” He could equally be referring to the less than stellar line up of winners we’ve had since he went stateside. James Arthur’s career had the same shelf-life as an undercooked soufflé, and Sam Bailey is surely just months away from her first big Butlins booking.
Hoping to relive the glory years of the show’s popularity, Simon’s brought back Cheryl (Don’t say Cole, don’t say Cole) Fernandez-Versini, who poses seductively on a motorbike outside Somerset House. In addition, Mrs O has been replaced by Mel B, whose speaking voice still sounds like the klaxon from Hans Zimmer’s Inception score, but with a Leeds accent that could pickle an egg. She’s been asked to pose with a glass of champagne on a private jet, despite having all the sophistication of an Artex ceiling. “I was in the biggest girl group of all time,” she barks, every time a camera is on her.
And then there’s Louis, speeding through London’s streets like he’s in an outtake from Fast & Furious 6, and boasting about twenty years in the business. Surely there’s a footnote in the Highway Code about filming VTs whilst in control of a moving vehicle. Louis casually threatens that he’ll never leave the show; effectively invoking squatter’s rights on the judges’ table.
As is customary at this time of year, the publicity machine has been ramping up, filling the tabloids with pointless non-stories about fall-outs, rumoured resackings and staged auditions. And a complicit press has covered it all so thoroughly, that we’re even afforded a montage of the coverage – serving no other purpose than to give the PR agency a handy show-reel they can run at their Christmas party.
The only real change to the format is a large LED screen in the holding area, so the nervous auditionees can see a live feed of how their competition is faring in front of the judges. So now, there’s kind of a live audience feel to the performances, but on a camera relay – kind of like an abuse victim testifying without having to appear in court.
It’s almost time for the first commercial break and we haven’t seen a single audition yet, so here’s Debbie Gibson circa 1987, and Audrey off Little Shop of Horrors. They call themselves Blonde Electric, and they’re the most irritating twosome since an Irish obstetrician said “Congratulations Mrs Grimes, it’s a pair of cunts.” As they babble and giggle in their American accent, Mel B rolls her eyes at the annoying personae they seem to have adopted, and my irony meter goes off the scale. Simon compares their version of Do It Like A Dude to people dragging their nails down a blackboard, and Louis declares “I think people are going to like you.” Because seriously, when has he ever been wrong before? Cheryl, on the other hand, simply can’t find the words. Which is odd, since she’s usually quite the articulate raconteur. In the end, it’s left to Simon, who laments that this could be the worst mistake he’s ever made. But in a career that includes Pudsey the Movie, I Can’t Sing and Robson & Jerome, I’m amazed he’s even able to draw up a shortlist.
Outside in the holding area, the nervous hopefuls are commenting that there are lots of guitars because, well, there’s a lot of guitars. Simon’s already sick of it, moaning “I could merge fifty of these people and they’d all sound the same.” Of course they would – that’s what merging is.
Our next young hopeful is a scrawny proto-Bieber called Reece Bibby. He strums away on his guitar and offers a tedious acoustic presentation, prompting Louis to salivate: “The word for you is potential.” I’m legally prevented from suggesting a word for Louis, but I’m sure you can imagine.
Chloe O’Gorman is a pair of sentient eyebrows that sings 24 hours a day. She’s only about 30% as good as she thinks she is, but Louis is more impressed by the fact that “She made eye contact with all of us.” Lauren Platt tackles a big song from the end of Hairspray – presumably as practice for the second rate theatre gigs she’ll be taking when this all falls apart, and we’re treated to a visualisation of some of the uninspired tweets sent out by the hopefuls while they were waiting. Most of them are variations on "I don't even wanna win it. I just wanna meet Cheryl," suggesting that the next generation is suffering from a shortage of worthwhile life goals. One weird little Irish lad tells us that he loves life, animals and Cheryl Cole, presumably not in that order. He’s picked That’s My Goal which Simon reacts to as if he’s never heard it before. Poor Shayne Ward. One girl stumbles slightly as she enters the room. Despite the best efforts of our judges to laugh in surprise, it’s no Sharon Osbourne walking into a door. Still, I’m sure we’ll be seeing it replayed twice a week until December.
Mel’s starting to get a bit upset about all the attention that Cheryl’s receiving: “What am I, chopped liver?” To be honest, chopped liver was five years ago; now she’s had so much filler she’s more of a liver parfait. So far, Cheryl’s had nothing to do, other than smile ingratiatingly at people fawning over how beautiful she is. Here to shake things up is Amy Connelly, who last auditioned six years ago, and made it all the way to the random beach house that Cheryl rented for the week. “Ooh, wow. Hello…” she says tentatively, as she looks down at her production notes. The caption tells us that Amy’s now working as a Betting Shop Assistant. As job titles go, it’s good, but it’s no Amusement Park Squirrel. The song’s a tuneless dirge, but it’s enough to reduce Cheryl to Demi Moore-style tears.
As Simon declares that he’s feeling optimistic about the auditions, it’s the perfect time for Shayden to squeakily wheel in his Yamaha keyboard and run through a range of terrible own-compositions. He introduces his performance with a sob story about his ex. Simon empathises: “You’ve taken that pain and you’ve now put it into songwriting?” Clearly, where pain is concerned, Shayden believes in a problem shared. Although Simon sticks around long enough to take in a double album of material, Cheryl decides she needs a piss and heads off to the bathroom, striking fear into the hearts of toilet attendants everywhere. Of course, Simon had to say “at least it can’t get any worse,” prompting the editors to cue a selection of the worst auditions from this year’s bunch. There’s a toothless old woman in a cheap wig, who strips down to a leotard, and Angelina Robinson, whose song verges on performance art, as her mother cuts huge slices of cake and brings in a Chinese takeaway for the judges.
Chloe Jasmine is from Sussex, and seems to be playing the kind of posh English girl you might find pouring Diana Rigg’s tea in the Great Muppet Caper. She fills her spare time with everyday things, like polo, croquet and swan-grooming, and it all feels like it’s been created to fuel a class war in the waiting room. Before she’s even sung a note, Twitter is awash with comments that she’d already starred on Sky’s modelling show The Face. To be honest, I’m more distracted by her red teeth – this is either her first time applying lipstick, or she was feeding on a production assistant just before her audition. Asked how long she’s been singing, she makes a surreal comment about “dignifying a baby’s cry as an aria.” I’ve no idea what she’s talking about, but I know that the only natural thing about her are the fibres in her tweedy outfit. The judges love her ‘authentic bluesy voice’ – because no-one understands the true struggle of a blues singer like some plummy tart who went to boarding school. Outside, the tension is brewing, as onlookers theorise about a life of privilege: “Champagne, caviar…asparagus.”
And finally, there’s Jay James. Thanks to the investigative journalists at Sunday People, we know that he’s already supported Rebecca Ferguson, and slated the X-Factor as the wrong way to make it in the music industry. To be honest, none of this matters, since I’m more concerned by his tendency to claw his face while he sings. It doesn’t help that he’s had some alarming dentistry, giving him the appearance of Daffy Duck whenever he showed his teeth. As the judges fawn over him, they ask why he’s so emotional. Unfortunately, we cut away before he answers "Because I sold out my principles and agreed to come on a show I've already slagged off in the press."
As the judges say goodbye, Mel B is off to pin her earrings back on Orville’s nappy. Meanwhile, Cowell and Cheryl embrace, with her shirt riding up to reveal that epic tattoo. It looks like she’s got a John Lewis scatter cushion stuck down her blouse.
If Saturday’s show didn’t make you question your life choices, tonight is bound to have you Googling DIY wills before the hour is up. The editors are clearly in a more playful mood tonight, juxtaposing Dermot’s announcement “We’re looking for the next big thing” with a crash cut to a plus-size version of Little Mix. Let’s call them Maxi Mix. We also see Cheryl wandering forlornly down a corridor, moaning “That was one of the worst auditions I’ve ever been in.” Surely it would be churlish of me to type ‘Cheryl Tweedy Popstars The Rivals’ into YouTube? Tonight, Louis has been stealing some styling tips from Simon, unbuttoning his shirt so low that we can practically see his frenulum. And Mel, well, she’s still here.
Stevi Ritchie is tonight’s first hopeful, and has a most distracting countenance. Half Star Trek alien, and half Eugene Tooms off X-Files, midway through squeezing himself face-first into a drainpipe. He works in a Call Centre, where his colleagues attempt to ignore him like that half-flushed stool in the staff toilets. There’s no faulting his enthusiasm, as he makes his way down the judging table, dishing out compliments like a paedophile giving away sweets at the school gate. He’s picked an Olly Murs track for his audition, but it has a longer intro than the average Pink Floyd album track, so he dances awkwardly on the spot for about twenty minutes, before eventually launching into a terrible vocal. His self-deprecating approach wins the judges over, despite his performance sounding like the cruelest part of foie gras manufacture. Mel congratulates him on “having a little ‘me’ party,” which is something she often does. I imagine they’re the only ones she gets invited to now.
Time for some contractually obligated ego-pandering now, as we swoop round the holding area, listening to the contestants opining about the influential judges. “Mel and Cheryl know what they’re talking about,” argue two young hopefuls, before we cut to a painfully engineered chat between the two girl band alumni that disproves their theory in under twenty seconds.
The shadow of Glee hangs heavy over our next hopefuls. All in their late teens, Only The Young are a mixed sex four-piece who all live together. But not like that – they’re all as sexless as Barbie and Ken’s underpants area. None of them have particularly good voices, but they blend well enough, with a performance that’s part SClub 7, part Wilson Philips, and part diabetes risk.
This is clearly the ‘groups’ slot of the show, as we’re introduced to a steady stream of eager young hopefuls standing in a row, wearing jeans tight enough to dislocate their kneecaps. Concept are so utterly generic, they’re less a group, more like a selection of fabric swatches from a boyband factory. Overload are no better – their sole distinction being a floppy-haired “studmuffin” who’s caught Cheryl’s recently married eye. Arize are slightly more interesting – an R&B three piece who know all about tight harmonies, but less about lipstick application.
Finally, we’ve got Kitten and The Hip, who I keep wanting to call Pinky and The Brain. A curiously mismatched May-to-December couple, she’s giving off a Jodie Marsh vibe, and he looks like he should be selling groceries by the punnet. The whole audition is awkward, but it scales new heights when Scarlet drops her hubby at the first sign of progressing as a soloist.
The next segment is dedicated to contestants from overseas. We see a pair of over-styled Canadian gays, and someone from Orlando, before we’re introduced to Océane from Paris. Her Mariah Carey impression is bordering on lunacy, but there’s no denying she can hit all the ear-splitting notes. Just not in the right order. Other comedy foreigners include the appalling Jimmy Cheung from Hong Kong, who goes straight to the final show’s gag reel, and Jan Cichorz who performs what can only be the sound of a sinkhole opening.
Of course, just when we’re thinking that Nigel Farage might have a point, and we should be tightening our border controls, here’s Andrea Faustina from Rome. His interview isn’t up to much (although “I like pugs” could well be the new “I am Groot”) but his vocal is pretty impressive. With a voice that’s rich, soulful and strong, I can almost forgive his abominable outfit. Simon tells him “I think you could be really special,” but neglects to add, “now burn that fucking sweater.”
OK, we’ve done the young ones, and the groups, so all that’s left is the ‘overs’ category. Cue a parade of women over thirty, with great voices, but an unmistakable glimmer of desperation, rather than star quality, in their eyes. But when it comes to the Last Chance Saloon, it’s clear that Lindsey from Girl Thing is hoping for a lock-in. We’ve recently seen her fairly tragic story on The Big Reunion, and it’s no less uncomfortable second time around. Having been (mis)managed by Simon once before, and spent most of the last fifteen years living the kind of existence that Ken Loach would consider ‘too depressing,’ it’s odd that she’s willing to put herself through all that again. The vocal is poor and emotions run high on the judging table. As a Greek chorus of onlookers in the waiting room comment on how we’re supposed to be feeling, Mel and Cheryl try to empathise. Thankfully, Simon sees sense and tells Lindsey that it wouldn’t be fair to get her hopes up. His dress sense may not have improved during those three years Stateside, but it could be that our Tinman has finally found his heart.