The BBC’s had a tough year; forced to sell off its most iconic property; the fallout from whole Jimmy Savile whitewash, and The Voice. Once trumpeted as a ‘credible’ rival to Cowell’s all-conquering X-Factor, the reality proved somewhat less compelling. And yet, despite all the bad press, here we are again, as the BBC offers us a new series, the way a cat might present an eviscerated pigeon carcass – it seemed like an endearing gesture at first, but now we’re just freaking out about the blood on the carpet.
Even the continuity announcer is struggling to get her excitement on, sounding more like Susie Blake being forced to deliver the Wallaby hops for a pair of 13 year-old twins. “Time to spin those chairs,” she gravely intones, as I consider doing just that and staring at the corner for the next ninety minutes. And then there they are - Danny, Tom, Will and Jessie held in place by spinning lasers, like Zod, Ursa and Non awaiting sentencing from the jury of Kryptonian elders.
In a curious cost-saving measure, they seem to be rerunning last year’s footage of the judges being complementary to each other. Danny’s bigging up Jessie J’s vocal prowess, and we’re told that Will.i.am is a legend because “There’s nothing he can’t do.” Except maybe sit still. Reflecting back on the show’s debut, the other judges refer to Tom as the champion, since none of them could be arsed to Google Leanne’s full name. Still, they’ve got 100 years of experience between them. Admittedly, eighty percent of that belongs to Tom. But they’re channeling it all in a pitiful rock ‘n’ roll medley. The audience gamely clap along and attempt to dance on the spot, all doing their best to look like they’re not just waiting out the wet weather in the Hi-De-Hi ballroom. By the time Will.i.am comes in with Lulu’s Shout we’re reminded ironically of that earlier comment about his multi-hyphenate skillset. As the quintessential jack-of-all-trades, his voice has all the power and presence of an asthmatic wasp after a half-marathon. Meanwhile, Jessie commandeers the mic to shout “Are we gonna have some fun tonight?” On the strength of this opening number, it’s by no means a certainty.
Even less visible than they were last year, Reggie and Holly pop up to explain how it all works. With all the various rounds and gimmicks, it’s all starting to sound a little complicated. Don’t be too surprised if they introduce a new round this year where the vocalists have to take it in turns to perform the Randy Newman songbook while gargling with egg whites. Time to check in with the judges one last time, mostly so that we can ensure that Will.i.am still has that ridiculous side parting. You know, the one that resembles a bypass carved into a hillside. Only now it’s been paired with a giant kirby grip that seems to be oxidizing the hair around it. And let’s not forget lovely old twinkly-eyed Tom, who’s patiently sitting there - a fresh dusting of snow on a fruit bowl full of tangerines. We’ve got ten contestants to get through tonight, and the clocks go forward at 1am, so we’d best crack on.
First up is Ash Morgan, who does art sessions for kids with special needs. He makes a big deal about being from The Valleys, but I guess everywhere looks like a valley when you’re built like a hillock. He’s clearly struggling with his nerves, so Holly helps out by reminding him that he’s going to be singing in front of the world’s biggest superstars. And Danny from The Script. Despite the fact that he speaks with a wheezy shortness of breath, he’s fine when he’s singing. Less than a minute into his impressive performance and already Jessie J is making it about her, leaping out of her chair and spreading herself all over the stage. Will tells him his heart is as big as his voice, but it’s probably best to steer clear of too many size references. Jessie wants to work with him because she’s real, and as she rushes up to hug the first of her 12 acts, we get a close up on her awful green fingernails. My best guess is that she’s been fiddling with the rotating mechanism in her chair and needed to wash her hands with Swarfega.
Danny County is new to music, and only did his first open mic night last year. This is only the third time he’s ever sung in public, and he’s chosen to do his acoustic version of The Sugababes’ About You Now. At first, this is about as incongruous as Damien Rice having a go at B*Witched, but it works because he’s got a nice tone to his voice. It’s all going great until we hear his speaking voice, which is just as slurred and lackadaisical as when he performs. Danny thinks they’d get on like a house on fire. Backdraft with the guy out of The Script? Keep talking Danny. The Irish frontman’s pitch involves “sitting around in the studio, few beers, with the lads…” which now has me actively planning the arson attack myself. In the end, the hopeful warbler picks Jessie as his mentor, which makes some of the other judges jealous. In the discussion after the fact, Jessie gets defensive and complains “I’m not JUST a great singer…” True, she’s also a gratingly immodest shrew.
Leanne has done the holiday clubs circuit, but is now back at home, working in an office and sleeping with her mum. Don’t get any funny ideas, it’s just that they’re sharing a tiny flat. She refers to herself as “little old me” which is a sure sign of a psycho diva in the making, or someone who spent too much time watching Penelope Pitstop as a kid. She gets all four judges to turn around, thanks to a strong voice and that likeable Stacey Solomon vibe, and in the end selects Will.i.am.
Louis Coupe is a sixteen year-old musical prodigy, who can play about eight different instruments in an ugly school blazer. He spends most of his time sitting in his room listening to old records, and tautologically adds that he’s a bit of a nerd. He’s picked Learn To Fly for his big song, and Jessie looks furious. I’m guessing it’s because she doesn’t know the lyrics, so is unable to sing along and draw the camera’s focus onto her. Sadly, no-one turns around, which is a bit of a shame, because the pop world was crying out for its own Gareth Keenan. As a conciliatory gesture, Will advises him to write a musical, to which he replies “I already have done.” Of course he has. He then gives the judges a burst of Jerry Lee Lewis and skips off to hug his family.
Next to perform is Andrea Begley, a Civil Servant from Northern Ireland. She lost her sight to glaucoma, which gives the concept of a blind audition a novel twist. She’s a lovely girl with a great voice and a refreshingly honest sense of humour, it’s just a shame that her family don’t try to keep her away from the perming solution. Performing Sarah McLachlan’s Angel, her nerves have given her an irritating vibrato, but the voice itself is pure and clear. The nicest moment of the show so far is when she admits to the judges that she’s visually impaired, and wasn’t entirely sure whether anyone had turned round. Jessie stirs a little condescension into the mix, by applauding Andrea’s courage, as if she rode a flaming motorcycle onto the stage.
Kirsty Crawford is an attractive girl, like Sarah Harding in a cheap Nikki Minaj wig, but she’s dressed as if Jason Voorhees just chased her through some wet laundry. The vocal is way off and the tune never really kicks in, so it’s no surprise when none of the judges turn around. Jessie offers some feedback “from female to female” as though the ability to menstruate means her advice will be more meaningful. Danny talks about how he bottled it on Ellen, which sounds like post-watershed talk to me, but he’s “still rocking and rolling.” Jesus.
Every show needs a decent twist, and tonight’s comes courtesy of Mike Ward. We see lots of footage of him hanging around in Manchester and practicing some truly awful raps with his be-hatted brother, like a pair of Mancunian Lee Nelsons. The Eminem background music was setting us up for something gritty and urban, but what we’ve actually got is Glen Campbell in an Adidas tracksuit. His pitch is all over the place, but the judges are won over by the incongruity of his performance. Danny tells him that country singers are rare, which may be true in Moss Side, but not where people actually buy country music. In the end, he picks Tom as his mentor. Cut to a quality exchange with Holly in the green room: “Can you actually believe it?” “I can’t believe it.” Brilliant.
Katie Benbow is obsessed with all things vintage, but her ‘at home’ footage looks more like an opium-induced nightmare from The Woman In Black. Her vocal technique is as irritatingly unconvincing as her era-straddling image, as she keeps swapping pitches and keys like a swinger on a campsite. Her seriously ill grandma is waiting in the green room, so she asks Tom to give the old bird a wink. Tom goes one better and sings a few lines to her – a risky move as it happens, since she looks in danger of losing her oxygen cannula. Jessie’s ever so excited, boasting “there’s so many things I can teach you.” Week one, they’ll cover Oxbow lakes and irregular verbs.
Here’s Anthony Kavanagh, who was a teen star called Kavana back when the Spice Girls were still pretending to like each other. He even managed to beat Gary Barlow for the title of Best Male Singer back in the late nineties. At 21 he became an actor, but that never really took off. He tells us that he’s had some massive highs, but that’s backstage at the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party for you. The vocal is terrible, and no-one turns around. To be honest, he should probably be thankful that they didn’t just make a break for the fire exit.
Tonight’s final contestant is Matt Henry. He does something with dogs, but I really can’t tell you anything about it, since my Jack Russell barked through this entire segment. His performance of Ray Lamontagne’s Trouble is great. Jessie tries to create a beguiling pose on her spinning chair, only to almost be flung into the audience when she misjudges the speed of the rotation. The other judges have picked up on his likeness to Will.i.am and force him to wear Will’s ridiculous Timmy Mallett glasses while they pitch their respective mentoring skills. Danny promises a combination of experience and wisdom, because he’s a modern day Aesop. Will says he’s a palm tree and they never fall. This makes almost no sense at all, but it’s now 2am and the delirium is kicking in. Matt says he’s been “dreaming about this moment for… you don’t even know how long.” The show’s only a year old, so we know exactly how long. Next week, more of the same.