In last week’s show, the contestants seemed to take part in an episode of The Apprentice, as they were woken up early and shipped out in a procession of blacked out people movers. Onto tonight, and the judges are obviously excited about the festivities. Louis claims “I know a winner when I see it. And I’ve got two.” Can someone please explain how a competition works? Gary’s also feeling confident: “It’s the tenth birthday of X-Factor and I’ve got one of the best acts there’s ever been on here.” I think he means the one where he pretends to be an affable everyman, to disguise the fact that he’s halfway up David Cameron’s guts. And finally, here’s Sharon to point out “No-one gets a party started like Mrs O.” So watch for a premature dusting of snow on the judges’ table.
Here to get the show up and running is Dermot, wearing a heavy frown that makes his brow look like an overdressed pelmet. Speaking of overdressed, here’s Sharon disguised as a Costco wedding cake, and Nicole looking like she narrowly escaped from a battle with the shredder that Lewis used on his tax returns. As for the other two; Gary seems bored to be here, and Louis is grinning because someone in the audience is holding a lovely balloon.
There’s another ninety minutes to fill, and only six acts competing, so let’s remind ourselves that Olly Murs is still a thing. Nothing says ‘celebrating ten years of X-Factor success’ like giving the special guest slot to a runner-up. Despite my sniping, the numbers are impressive: Seven worldwide number ones, 10 million records sold, and a painful appearance on 90210. Since he was first discovered four years ago, there’ve been frequent comparisons to Robbie Williams’ smug onstage persona; which is a shame because, when his voice is good (admittedly, something of a rarity) it’s more reminiscent of Will Young. This is what the original Pop Idol might sound like if he didn’t insist that all his records be about as much fun as an Open University lecture on methane barriers. Olly is clearly taking a leaf out of Will’s book and treating his song with all the seriousness that someone who once said ‘yes’ to a guest rap from Flo Rida could muster. There’s no denying he’s a nice-looking lad, although in certain shots it’s almost like looking at Gary Barlow, if he’d still discovered tweed and stubble, but never lost the Do What You Like puppy fat.
Let’s turn our attentions now to the most meagre line-up of talent since Joanie Loves Chachi was on the air. Kicking things off tonight, is ‘Scotland’s Finest’. I thought that was the deep-fried contents of a festive selection box, but apparently, Louis means young Nicholas. The wee lad is talking to the camera about performing the Scottish anthem at a football match, and it genuinely sounds like he’s speaking English for the first time. He’s particularly excited that 10,000 people in the crowd joined in with him, but there’s only one way to drown out an overbearing PA system. He’s picked The Climb by Joe McElderry (actually, Miley Cyrus but we won’t quibble). He’s concerned that he’s got big boots to fill – to be specific; Chelsea with a bit of a heel. To get him motivated, Louis has arranged a surprise visit from Joe himself, who pops in to ask “Do you mind singing it for me?” “Yes,” Nicholas replies, unaware of how the concept of minding something works.
Standing on a glowing drum in the centre of the stage, I can’t help but think of how weird it always seemed, whenever you saw a full body shot of one of the Muppets. The backing vocals are louder than he is, and he’s doing that boyband thing where he pats his heart every time he sings “I”. He could also give Clare Danes a run for her money in the ‘perpetual cry face’ stakes. Sharon wishes him a Happy Birthday, since he and the show are both ten years old today. Gary tries to make it about the performance, but he delivers his critique like he’s reading out the weekend’s no-score draws. Meanwhile, Scherzinger yelps “Focus Nicole,” effectively speaking for the entire country. Of course, Louis is entirely positive, gushing “You’re one of the best vocal contestants I’ve ever worked with.” After the heady heights of 2 To Go, that’s quite the compliment. As Dermot gives Nicholas a birthday cake that’s all fondant icing and no cake, the studio mics suddenly drop out, so Cowell doesn’t have to licence the rights to Happy Birthday.
Hannah ‘Banana’ is up next, and grinning through the indignities of that meaningless nickname. She’s too busy struggling to pronounce ‘adrenaline’ and meeting Alexandra Burke in what’s either a swanky hotel suite, or the QVC set where Alexandra flogs her watches. As Hannah gives a growly rendition of Hallelujah, Alexandra squeezes out a tear because OK Dot Com or something. She advises Hannah to remember that the song “means something different to everyone who sings it.” I can’t disagree with that, since I doubt she’s ever been inside Leonard Cohen’s head. In the end, Hannah’s version is pleasant enough but it’s all just a bit lifeless and focused on her lower register. Even the key change can’t save things; it’s like someone just turned up the volume on the karaoke machine. Sharon says she’s really going places after this show, which I’m taking to mean that Greggs offer a relocation package. Nicole is visibly moved, commenting “You just set me free and let me go.” I guess the Syco team write a watertight contract.
Helping fill out tonight’s ninety minutes, we get a brisk recap of the judges’ best moments, redeemed only by Lenny Henrygate and Sharon walking into a door. But that’s enough of that, what about the contestants? Here’s Pigpen off Peanuts, in a cloud of patchouli oil and second-hand paisley. I know the judges keep commending Luke for his originality and edge, but when I look at him, all I see is the aroma of Beef Monster Munch in human form.
This week, Luke met Shayne Ward which involved a painfully awkward chat as everyone avoided mentioning his acrimonious split with the label. Luke tells Shayne he’s singing What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction. “Wow, I was not expecting that,” burbles Shayne with visible disappointment. Did he think No U Hang Up was in with a shot? Luke’s performance is all growling and acoustic guitar, showing that even the best pop songs can be ruined with a misplaced sense of ‘authenticity’. Gary says that he wants to hear album tracks, because nothing turns the audience on like pretentious self-indulgence; Nicole barely recognised the song, which I suppose she meant as a compliment, and Louis thinks Luke stands out from the crowd. I think that’s entirely the crowd’s choice.
Backstage, and we’re told that “No party is complete without Caroline Flack.” Maybe she’s Sharon’s dealer. Anyway, she’s stuck in the holding area with a bunch of former contestants. Shayne Ward starts explaining “Louis always told me to make love to…” but the microphone is whipped away just in time.
Back onstage, and it’s “Time to make some noise for Rough Copy.” They head off to plug Winter Wonderland for a couple of minutes, then it’s back to the production offices for some intensive coaching from Little Mix. “The advice we got was just amazing,” lies one of the lads, as Jesy offers: “Obviously you’re a boy group doing a girl group song. So put your spin on it.” They’re singing Don’t Let Go, and it’s unbelievably bad, but the judges are happily dancing in their seats as if they’re enjoying it. I think someone needs to check they’re not just listening to their iPods when the acts are on. The boys have finally done away with the skirts, and are stomping around in overalls in an attempt to butch up their image. Nicole channels Sister Oda Mae Brown in her feedback, and Louis says “Potentially there’s a huge gap in the market for you boys” but I don’t think he understands what potentially means.
Tamera’s still moping about last week, and has decided to perform James Arthur’s winner’s song Impossible (actually by Shontelle). Unfortunately, she has to settle for a coaching session from Olly Murs since James has been signed off with ‘extreme exhaustion.’ It’s a shame nobody appreciates what hard work it is being an insufferable skunt 24/7. When she’s not creeping comedically down the stairs, Tamera’s performance is notable only for the fact that she keeps forgetting her lyrics. Again. She looks like she’s shitting a cactus, and the audience isn’t faring much better. Nicole does her best to look like she’s enjoying it, but it’s about as convincing as that sassy girl talk she does when she’s trying to camouflage bad news. Louis flips out about the lyrics and Gary calls it an excruciating car crash. Dermot asks if maybe she was just trying too hard, but I think we all know that wasn’t the problem.
Sharon misses her cue to introduce Sam Bailey – she was too busy doing something on the table top. Everyone’s concerned about how old Sam is, but not Sharon – she distrusts “all these little girls running around with the big lips and the all the hair.” Not a lot of mirrors Chez Osbourne then. Tonight, Sam gets the Leona slot, as well as a coaching session from Hackney’s finest. Sam’s performance is predictably strong, but without the little licks and flourishes of Leona’s extraordinary voice, it all seems a bit Strictly house band. And given the concerns about karaoke cover versions, they might have at least selected a different arrangement. The wind machine also has the entirely wrong effect, making it look as if she’d just stuck her head out of a sunroof. When Louis makes a snide remark about Tamera, Sam gives it some ‘Den Mother’ and shoots him down. Sharon implores us to ignore the stories that Sam’s already won, and keep voting.
On to the results show now, and we’re promised two huge X Factor success stories, as well as one giant The Voice failure. That’s right, tonight we’ll be seeing one of the world’s most respected and successful R&B stars, singing live with Mary J Blige.
Gary’s been raiding Sid James’ wardrobe, and Sharon looks like something Tim Burton would animate. But there’s no time for fashion critiques – look, it’s tired old JLS performing the one song that anyone can remember with the final six. It’s an upsetting sea of pleather, which seems like a strangely appropriate textile for this synthetic facsimile of R&B. This is also a chance to remind ourselves of the piss-poor vocals that can catapult runners-up to mid-ranking celebrity riches. Oritsé deserves a special mention for squeezing himself into a pair of jeans that Harry Houdini would struggle to get back out of. The JLS boys are backing their old mentor, and marvelling that he’s still here after all these years. It’s going to take more than a squirt of Febreze to get him out of that chair.
And now, the collaboration that precisely no-one wanted, as Mary J Blige and Jessie J team up for one of those sing-offs that The Voice did so badly. There’s a palpable “Ugggghhhh” from the audience as they realise that she’s doing one off her new festive album; they wanted epic urban grit, not a Johnny Mathis Christmas carol. As the two singers clamber into Cinderella’s Coach (which appears to have been stripped for parts) they look about to touch hands then think better of it. There’s a moment where the beat kicks in, but it’s too little, far too late. Mary admits that Jessie was only picked to appear on the UK version of the album, like when the producers of Shrek redubbed characters with Jonathan Ross and Kate Thornton. I’m glad she didn’t push the boat out too much – we don’t spunk nearly as much money on Christmas albums as our American counterparts.
Another guest slot now, so let’s welcome back a genuine phenomenon. I’m not ashamed to use that word, since the success of One Direction is kind of inexplicable. After 35 million sales, and number ones in 64 countries, the boys are onto their third album. That means songwriter credits, and an attempt to stretch their creative wings, as the tunes disappear round the U-bend. They take it in turns to walk to the front and do a couple of lines. No, not like that. As part of their new mature look, they’re all sporting various amounts of bumfluff. Less Movember, more an attempt to get served in The Slug and Lettuce.
The results are in, and it’s a sing-off between Hannah and Rough Copy. She does a storming version of I’d Rather Go Blind, then Rough Copy make me think I’d rather go deaf. The only highpoint of their mangled rendition of Stop Crying Your Heart Out, comes when the camera cuts away to Hannah’s perpetually tear-stained face. She’s cried so much on this show that she now has a couple of oxbow lakes where her cheekbones should be. Louis is waving along, with a grin on his face, like he’s attending a Whist Drive at the old folks home. In the end, the judges all vote to send Hannah home (apart from Nicole, understandably), with Louis getting one final dig in at Tamera’s expense. Nice touch.