After weeks of rather dull audition footage, it’s time to inject a little glamour into the proceedings. Let's usher in some A-list guest stars, visit some exotic locations and roll out the teary confessional interviews as we head off to the Judges’ Houses. Over two nights we’re going to whittle down our hopefuls from 25 to the final twelve. That’s right – 25. Because of some ridiculous visa issue, Louis had to drop one of his groups, and replace them with two others. It’s inordinately complicated, so let’s concentrate instead on the preposterous nature of this round of the competition. When the show first started, it seemed as though we were genuinely getting an insight into the judges’ private worlds, right down to Louis’ bedsit overlooking the Liffey. It was a joke that never got old; seeing everyone else jetting off to exotic locations, as Louis’ group queued up at the Ryanair check-in desk.
But as the show got bigger, so too did its penchant for exaggeration. So now we’re expected to believe that Gary owns a country pile that would make Downtown Abbey look like the Dingle’s lean-to. As we zoom in on Boughton House in Northamptonshire, we hear the familiar theme tune to All Creatures Great And Small. Hopefully this means that instead of singing for their place in the live finals, the ‘Overs’ will be asked to deliver a foal with their bare hands.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, here’s Tulisa in her cliff-top mansion in St Lucia. If they wanted us to swallow this unfeasible plot twist, they could have shown her running round the house and whipping her tights off the radiator before the guests arrive. Instead, she races towards the beach on a speedboat to welcome the girls to the Caribbean island.
Sharon Osbourne has just rolled out of a limo wearing her latest face
Meanwhile, Louis is living it up in Las Vegas – otherwise known as Sin City – despite the fact that the closest he’s ever come to bacchanalian excess is making his Ovaltine with full-fat milk. Louis welcomes them, saying “You can feel the energy of this city,” but only if you stick a twenty down its bra. The lads are particularly happy, reminding us: “Louis is great, he’s done boybands before.” Sorry, there’s no time for innuendo, as Sharon Osbourne has just rolled out of a limo wearing her latest face, and looking as though she could have been carved on the front of a tea clipper.
Last, and quite possibly least, is Nicole, who’s shipping the boys out to Dubai. Rylan laments that he hasn’t got a clue where he’s going, and I suspect that the producers are asking themselves a similar question. Of course, we all know that he’s off to the Emirates, so I just hope he’s remembered to pack a burqa. As for Nicole, she’s happy sailing into the harbour on a yacht, waving her legs in the air like Ariel trying out her new pins for the first time.
With introductions out of the way, the rest of the show will be divided into four parts, as each judge takes it in turns to review their category and then pretend they’re using a Samsung tablet to make their decisions. There’s a lot of product placement in this episode, so I should probably point out that I’m writing this on an Apple MacBook Pro and enjoying a refreshing Smirnoff vodka and Pepsi as I write this.
First up is Louis, who’s sitting on a rooftop in his pajamas being served mojitos by a shirtless Chippendale. As he and Sharon giggle conspiratorially about how they’re “Off to a good start,” it’s clear that Louis has decided to stop pretending. About his heterosexuality anyway, he’s still faking a full head of hair.
Union J have a new member, and so “It’s all been a bit of a rollercoaster”. That’s talent-show speak for “we hate each other’s guts.”
As we whip through the seven groups, their ridiculous names all seem to merge into a stream of disconnected letters and numbers, until they sound more like a wireless password than a pop group. Without wanting to get too negative at this early stage, there’s a depressing lack of ‘wow’ in the performances. Times Red look pretty, but they’re not as good as they think they are. Mitsotu have spent their lives dancing for other artists, and are excited about the fact that they’re here “…to experience it from the front.” With Louis, anything’s possible. MK1 are here without Will the accountant, who’s given them his blessing (and a contract demanding a 33% share of profits). They complement each other pretty well, but I can’t look at them without picturing the spunky blonde tying bed sheets together in a lost episode of Bad Girls.
Union J have a new member, and so “It’s all been a bit of a rollercoaster”. That’s talent-show speak for “we hate each other’s guts.” After a disjointed start, they manage to mesh pretty well, so they’re a dead cert for the live finals. Poisonous Twin bounce onto the balcony, as Sharon greets them with “Hello, Double Mint.” Even over the sound of Las Vegas nightlife, you can hear the crashing silence that meets that remark. As for the girls; they’re so dull that I’ve forgotten what they’re singing even as they’re performing it. Duke are the man-band who always look naked without a hod of bricks resting on their necks, and they do some beat-boxing which freaks out Sharon and Louis. The Osbourne matriarch explains “He threw a didgeridoo into Michael Jackson.” Now that’s something I’d pay to watch. With one act to go, Louis is trying out a new catchphrase, pointing his finger at GMD3 and saying “OK guys – sing!” Might need a bit of work, that one. The boys are doing Broken Road by Rascal Flatts, which is as dull as anything, but will no doubt appeal to Louis’ penchant for soft country rock. In the end, it’s clear that he’s got a struggle on his hands, with three boybands to choose from. Forgive my cynicism, but I won’t be entirely surprised if he mashes them into one giant supergroup of cheekbones and hair mousse.
Over in Dubai, Nicole is joined by Ne-Yo and boasts that she’s got a strong category, despite all evidence to the contrary. Now, remember I joked earlier about Rylan wearing a burka? Well, turns out I wasn’t far off, since he’s draped in some kind of giant fabric sheath that makes him look like Grace Jones as May Day. Nicole asks him what he’s wearing, and he’s as lost for words as the rest of us. His slowed down version of We Found Love is described by Nicole as the best he’s ever sounded, but we all know what faint praise that is. Ne-Yo seems unconvinced, prompting Nicole to add that Rylan has got a “little sparkle” – something of an understatement for a man who pisses Swarovski crystals.
Lucy is trying to be enthusiastic about Tinie, but I’m willing to bet that the hip-hop folder on her iPod is as empty as Tulisa’s bookshelf
Speaking of understatements, James moans that he worries he’s not the full package, and might not have the look to be a proper pop star. You don’t say. Surprisingly, his unconventional looks disguise an entirely conventional song-choice, as he takes us through yet another turgid rendition of I Can’t Make You Love Me. He shouts most of it, and loses grip of the melody as the emotion takes hold. It’s kind of like listening to someone dry heave their way through a drunken karaoke. Nathan hasn’t had much camera-time, and based on his performance, I don’t expect that to change next week. Adam is similarly inconsequential, sneering his way through a grouch version of ABBA’s SOS. At this rate, Nicole’s going to need a shit load of aspirin.
The final two in Nicole’s group are Jake and Jahmene. The former is upset about his brother, who’s terminally ill. It’s all very upsetting and clearly affects his vocals. Jahmene is typically timid and nervous, but at least he’s ditched the cheap suits for once. He has a decent stab at Titanium, even if his nerves cause him to struggle with some of the high notes. Wobbles aside, he’s Nicole’s only hope for a mouthful of silver tickertape the weekend before Christmas.
Joined by Tinie Tempah, who demonstrates all the personality of a bathing cap, Tulisa is still boasting about what a great year her muffins had. But I’m trying not to mention THAT video again, so we’ll move on. Lucy is trying to be enthusiastic about Tinie, but I’m willing to bet that the hip-hop folder on her iPod is as empty as Tulisa’s bookshelf.
Carolynne is still harping on about what a shit year she’s had – she couldn’t even make it to H&M to buy some new jeans
Jade thinks she lives in a terrifying shithole (I’m paraphrasing here), so she shouldn’t be surprised if her neighbours decide to kick in her front door while she’s living it up in the Caribbean. Her voice is pleasant, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have the strength or the range for the high notes. Amy blunders her way through an “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this” speech, but redeems herself with another blinding vocal. Leanne is another singer with a decent voice, but almost no screen presence at all, and the other Jade does a passable Roxette, but she’ll mostly be remembered for her Scouse brows and blue nail varnish. Lucy does an odd version of I Will Always Love You. It starts out like Dolly Parton’s original – all acoustic and pared down – before her natural glibness kicks in to make it sound more like an ironic kiss-off song. Finally, here’s Ella with her skidmark mascara and ugly poncho ensemble. She’s clearly the best singer in the contest, only let down by the ridiculous faces she pulls when she’s lost in the music.
Back in the UK, the over-28s are wondering who their mentor will be, so it’s clear that none of them read the papers. Poor old goggle-eyed Nicola is gutted that she’ll be singing for the Take That front-man, saying “I felt sick when I saw Gary.” I believe Robbie Williams has the copyright on that reaction. Gary’s joined by Cheryl Cole, who makes her triumphant return to wish the contestants the best of luck “From the bottom of me ‘art.” It’s clear that Gary’s got bigger things going on in his life, so we’ll forgive him if he doesn’t seem fully invested in this. Even so, given the paucity of X-Factor on display in his character, it’s hardly surprising that he looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but here.
Carolynne is still harping on about what a shit year she’s had – she couldn’t even make it to H&M to buy some new jeans. She’s doing When You Say Nothing At All, and it’s an unfortunate choice, since it’s making me wish she’d just stay quiet and look pretty, as she mangles the lyrics and screws up the timing. Nicola gets a pep talk from Gary, and it seems to work because she sings a lot better than she has in previous installments. Brad is another one who seems to have come from nowhere, and sings an appalling version of The Final Countdown, that is only recognisable when he gets to the very last line of the song. Melanie is sweet enough, but without the encouraging audience, we realise that she has an annoying tendency to yell instead of sing, throwing melody and phrasing to the wind. Kye is still being described as a ‘chimney-sweep’ rather than ‘pop singer’, which was his actual job until the end of last year. His version of Payphone instantly flags up all the weaknesses in his falsetto. Closing down the show is Christopher, who constantly looks on the verge of bursting into flames. Gary calms him down by saying “You need to celebrate this being one of the best days in your life.” After all, it’s not everyone who gets to stand on a lawn and look at Cheryl Cole perched on the edge of a rattan sofa. His dated choice of All Out Of Love shows him up as the perfectly competent pub singer that he is.
Tomorrow, the judges decisions are revealed and, based on tonight’s performances, they’ll each struggle to find three they can live with.
Click here to follow Gareth on Twitter @gdimelow
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