It started with twelve, apparently. A glittering dozen of finalists, most of whom are already so anonymous that even when their names flash on the screen I have trouble placing them. This has not been a banner year for ITV’s former flagship title, which is limping towards next week’s final like a trap-wounded coyote that chose to chew off its own leg. But we’re in it for the long haul, so let’s hunker down and get through it together.
According to the clips, which are desperately trying to convince us that any of this is exciting, Tamera “blossomed before our eyes,” then fucked off home. And Nicole became the first judge to lose all her acts, as well as her entire collection of support garments, on tonight’s evidence. Gary’s still trying to play soothsayer, predicting that, for one of the acts, it could all end tomorrow, but neglects to tell us tonight’s Lotto numbers. Sharon’s also trying to sound insightful, claiming “You’re only as good as your last performance.” Well, apart from the second one.
Don’t worry if you’re confused by the weird mash-up of Beyonce and Elton John playing, as Dermot performs his lackluster twirl – that’s tonight’s theme. “We’re so close to the final, I can almost smell it,” gushes Dermot, but I think that might just be Luke standing too close to the studio lights. Nicole’s come dressed as Maleficent, if the Disney villainess charged by the hour. For all her weepiness over Tamera last Sunday, she looks thrilled that she didn’t have to spend half her week in a draughty studio listening to rehearsals.
Louis kicks proceedings off by reminding the people of Devon to vote for Luke, who’s spent most of the week moping about being in the bottom two. The choreographer is coaching Luke on how to connect with his inner diva, but it’s hard to take advice from someone who thinks nothing of leaving the house with a dog blanket wrapped round his neck. The theme is Beyonce, so Luke’s doing ‘The Best Thing I Never Had,’ and for the first time in the entire series, his bouncy Mumford bullshit actually improves the song. Of course, that doesn’t help with the shouty, tuneless vocals, but miracles are more of an Easter thing so let’s just move on. Gary says Luke has outgrown the studio (well, the hair certainly has) and Nicole is bang on the money when she describes it as “a bit One Direction and Mumford and Sons.” Louis tells the people of Devon to lift their phones, but doesn’t follow through with instructions on what to do next.
Luke’s second performance gets the exact same introduction from Auntie LouLou as the first one, but he’s been doing this shit for a decade – why change it now? Luke sounds a little drowsy in his VT, but that’s probably because Louis is making him watch back all his previous performances. All the judges seem to agree that Luke has “come a long way” but he’s from Teignmouth, not Yemen. He’s been rifling through Louis’ wardrobe, and has settled on a velvet jacket for his pitchy, oversung version of Something About The Way You Look Tonight; everyone’s favourite funereal b-side. The background graphics are doing weird things, making it look as if the two cellists on stage are in danger of being sucked into a giant meat grinder. Sharon wins this year’s ‘passive aggressive compliment award’ for telling Luke “that was totally outside of your comfort zone.” Gary’s not so great at thinking on his feet, so reverts to the notes he’d written during the song. Thankfully, he stops short before he gets to “two pints of semi skimmed and a 40 watt bayonet.” Luke reckons this performance was a great way to show his versatility, even though that amounts to little more than being able to walk around without a guitar. Move over Madonna, we have a new master of reinvention.
Nicholas is “learning new things every day” – next week, Louis is going to teach him how to shave along the grain. He’s picked Halo, which is apparently “a big challenge for a little guy from Glasgow,” especially since he’s never experienced lost love. Surely, he must have at least flushed a goldfish. Weirdly, he leaves his jacket on throughout his performance, as if he’s not planning on staying for the evening. The softer parts show up the weakness in his voice, but the louder bits are better. For a song that’s supposed to celebrate the qualities of a lover, it’s all a bit downbeat; singing “I can see your halo,” like what he means to say is “I can see your pile of CCJs.” The high notes are really stretching him – not that the judges are paying much attention either way. He looks utterly defeated by the end of it, and squeezes out a tear as Sharon continues to mangle the concept of Pig Latin. Gary says it was a little pitchy, and that he can’t wait for the next performance, which is a little foolhardy, under the circumstances. Louis has nothing of value to add, simply burbling on about the ‘little guy from Glasgow’ as if he’s repping Jimmy Krankie.
By the time Nicholas is ready for his next song, he’s apparently “lost the little shy Scottish thing.” That’s a risky strategy, given Louis’ propensity for encouraging regional voting. He’s singing Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, but the joke potential of that one was used up years ago. Why don’t you take a moment to think of your favourite, and I’ll wait here. All done? Great, let’s continue. Nicholas is wobbling around on some illuminated steps like he’s dangling on the branch of a Christmas tree. At least this song is in the right key for his voice, so the performance is warm and tuneful, particularly on the unexpectedly nuanced chorus. Sharon complains about the “people throwing themselves all over the floor” which is a surefire way to guarantee a gift-wrapped turd from the choreographers. Gary’s far more interested in Nicholas’ legato and vibrato, but the poor lad looks like someone’s telling him about the specials in Carluccio’s. Final word goes to Louis, who disingenuously speaks for us all when he says, “We forget you’re only 17.” Not strictly true, since it comes up even more than the fact that he’s Scottish.
After another quick plug for the X-Factor app, which seems about as popular as tickets for The Voice live tour, it’s time for Sam, Queen of the Humblebrags. Apparently she was extra nervous last week, so Sharon decides to help out by inviting her protégé out to the Osbourne country pile. Maybe her regular cleaner’s off with a bad back. The two of them play awkwardly on a swing as if they’re posing for a Hello photoshoot, and the whole thing feels like something that was thrown together while Keith Lemon’s Keyhole crew were having a mooch around. If I Was A Boy is Sam’s pick for Beyonce night, and since Sam has a far warmer voice that the pop polymath, the song loses much of its painful shrillness. The arrangement sounds rockier than the original and it all works rather well; even the utterly over-the-top key change. Gary heaps praise on Beyonce, and focuses on the fact that “as a writer, she showcases her range.” Let’s not tell him that she didn’t write that song; he seems to be on a bit of a roll. Louis thinks Sam ticks all the boxes, but it’s not clear what checklist he’s working on - she could just be highly contagious.
On into the second performance of the night, and Sam’s emboldened by the fact that she’s “had Gary Lineker and all the Leicester players right behind me.” Sounds like Syco might have another ‘AnalBumParty’ on its hands. Regrettably, Sam has picked the most cripplingly obvious Elton John song. Heaven forbid someone actually sing a bona fide classic, like Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, instead let’s have Candle In The Fucking Wind. She’s singing in too high a key, which makes the whole song sound a little off. Vocally, she sounds like Grace Slick - it’s good but sharp enough to score a baked potato. With no acts left to mentor, Nicole is trying to give the producers a heart attack, so keeps mentioning “shit-ake mushrooms,” placing all the emphasis on the first syllable. Louis, on the other hand, decides to curse Sam with “you’re the people’s choice”. Cheers Louis, that’s how we ended up with Christopher Maloney last year.
As the only group left standing, Rough Copy can’t believe their luck. “Who would have thought Rough Copy would make the semi final.” To be honest, I was ready to stage a protest when they made it to bootcamp. They think their harmonies have improved tenfold, but I’m not great with maths. What is ten times zero? They’ve picked Survivor from the Destiny’s Child back catalogue; a song that’s notable for only having five notes. Even so, that still leaves two or three beyond their grasp. The stylists have thrown everything at the lads in the hope of stumbling on a look, but it’s all plastic vests, camouflage and backpacks. It’s hard to tell whether they want to make it to the final or the Helmand Province. Nicole congratulates the boys and says “the semi-finals have begun,” so I’m not entirely sure what I’ve been watching for the last 45 minutes. Louis and Sharon found the performance a little much and would have liked it a little more toned down. “Sharon and I are on the same page, guys” bleats Louis. And he has a point - that’s not a performance that’d see them invited back to the Shady Pines retirement village.
Gary’s waxing lyrical about “My hero, Elton John” but the boys are more interested in laughing at his “big glasses and shiny suits.” Hopefully, the irony won’t be entirely lost on them. For Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, they’re going old-school boyband- we’re talking full barstool. The vocals are mediocre at best. Put it this way, when the audience is longing for the subtle delivery of Lee Ryan, you know you’re in trouble. The high notes, in particular, are doing no-one any favours, and things only get back on track for the very last line. Louis is still obsessing about his “gap in the market” and Sharon seems to have spent the entire performance picturing them naked. Dermot tries to get some banter going with the lads, but it turns out it’s not ‘sorry’, but all of the words that are hardest.
Onto the results show, where Nicole has come straight from an Ann Summers closing down sale, and Louis has cleverly knocked up a suit from Peter Stringfellow’s bed linen. The show opens with another risible group performance – this time it’s Stevie Wonder’s back catalogue that gets violated. It’s less Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and more ‘We Tried To Deliver It, But No-One Was Home So We Stuck It Behind The Wheelie Bin’. Luke’s wearing the same scrappy pair of ripped jeans as last night, and when he spreads his legs in front of Nicole, I’m just glad the only slashes are across his knees. Nicholas schools Rough Copy on singing with a little soul, and everyone retreats backstage to question what they’re doing with their lives.
Tonight’s first big special guest is, in many ways, the reason this show is so terrible. Leona Lewis was such a remarkable contestant that every year has suffered by comparison. It barely matters that Cowell’s crew have mismanaged her so terribly, she still casts a long shadow (stop it) over the entire format. Her new single One More Sleep can realistically lay claim to being the best new Christmas song since Mariah Carey strapped herself into that crimson playsuit, but you’d be hard pressed to notice it, given the monstrous choreography on offer. Dancers dressed as Christmas trees, with mirrorball helmets, bend over to show us their undergrowth, latex-clad strippers burst out of gift boxes, and a mad old woman gurns becomingly at Louis. I feel like I just watched a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang marathon, then tried to sleep on a stomach full of cheese. Of course, the vocal was flawless, but it all got a bit lost in the mix. “Merry Sha-Christmas” shouts Nicole, making it clear that she’s lost all interest.
The other guest star is Michael Buble, with his lumpily handsome face and cold, dead eyes. It’s hard to describe the sensation of watching him do his thing – except to say that he looks like he’s made of pate, rather than flesh and blood. The song is You Make Me Feel So Young, but it’s having the opposite effect on me. Louis is eyeing up Buble’s jacket, when he’s not imagining taking Mrs O for a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park. Finally, Dermot asks Buble when he’s coming back on tour, but the singer is way too baked to give a coherent answer. Thankfully, the producers spring into action and pipe the information into Dermot’s ear. That went well.
Don’t worry folks, we’re on the home stretch. But before we find out who’s in the final, we’ve got to sit through a vaguely distasteful video about a little girl with a whole host of medical issues. Great Ormond Street does amazing work, but this whole segment feels curiously inappropriate in show that features people constantly talking about ‘life or death’ referring to Coldplay cover versions. Curiously, Sam has to wear gloves and a bib to go near one of the kids, but Luke doesn’t even have to wear a hairnet. Great news everyone - the Chancellor has decided to waive the VAT on the winner’s single. He’s in a good mood, you see, because he’s getting that 11% pay rise.
Results time, and Sam and Nicholas are straight through to the final. Luke does his ‘save me’ song first, and it’s a shriekingly oversung version of Keane’s Something Only Dogs Hear – think the Wilhelm Scream set to an acoustic guitar. Rough Copy are doing Boys II Men, because that’s the only act anyone’s bothered comparing them to for the entire series. Without the choreography and backpacks to distract, the weakness of the vocals is thrown into sharp relief. Maybe The End of the Road was an appropriate choice, all things considered.
Gary says he’s heard both acts sing better, when mating foxes would be an improvement. Louis and Gary vote to save their own acts, whereas Nicole picks Rough Copy and Sharon takes it to Deadlock. The audience have voted, and Luke makes it through to the final. As Rough Copy take their final bow, one of them shouts “If you believe in God, make some noise.” They may believe, but I’m not sure the big guy is feeling overly reciprocal.
There’s four hours of this next week. Bring drinks.
Follow Gareth on Twitter @gdimelow