Weaver's Week 2005-12-04

Weaver's Week Index

'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'


Factor X - 4 December 2005

"The makers of Pop Idol and The X-Factor have come to an out-of-court settlement over claims that one programme copied its format from the other. Could it be that Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell both realised that if the case continued, the foreman of the jury was at some point going to stand up and pass judgment on them both?" - Armando Iannucci, in Thursday's Daily Telegraph.

The X Factor

(Syco / Fremantle (Thames) for ITV, Saturday evenings; review based on the 19 November episode)

Seven contestants appear on this week's show. We begin with a portentous Patrick Allen voice-over - these are the reasons why he was the Voice Of Doom in the 1980s "Protect and Survive" films.

As Mr Cowell confirmed last week, the format itself is almost a copy of Simon Fuller's Pop Idle, but with perhaps just enough twists to argue that it's a mostly novel format. Giving 20% credit to Pop Idle is broadly right. The show is notionally open to all, and is split into three categories - solo performers under 24, who would be able to go on Pop Idle; solo performers over 24; and groups, who have never really had a chance. After a month or so of audition programmes, each of the three categories was assigned a "mentor" from the programme's retained commentators. It's the commentator, not the performer, whose picture appears on the voting caption, almost as if we're being asked to pick a side based on mentor. Compare this system to the elimination on Popstars The Rivals, where male and female singers held separate competitions, never to be judged against each other on the show. In each week's elimination show, the performers do a song, there's some phone voting, and one of the lowest polling acts leaves the contest.

The centrepiece of the set is a massive rectangular stage, very angular, with a video wall in the floor, and another behind the middle of the stage. It's been many years since such a stark stage appeared on the television - one can compare it to the converted stairwell of Star Academy II, the projected arches of SA1 and Pop Idle, and the gentle curves of every Eurovision stage in recent memory. The set features a lot of crosses, and comes across as being terribly derivative, and somewhat old fashioned - there's almost a late-40s-early-50s feel to the design, with all the corners of Modern styling. The set is so angular that gives off a thoroughly aggressive vibe to the viewer.

The aggression continues in the main body of the show. While this column was watching the other side last week, there was some sort of argy-bargy here. The net result is that the first performance is completely overshadowed by some bickering between two of the retained commentators. Louis Walsh is a Chris Tarrant look-a-like, and is the man with the largest collection of Boyzone and Westlife records in existence. He's arguing the toss with Sharon Osbourne, a Geri Halliwell look-a-like, and a woman whose current fame owes much to her marriage, but who has shrewdly managed a fair few rock bands in her time. Simon Cowell, the man who devised 80% of this format, allows himself to be overshadowed by the other judges. The result is a sit-down row that makes us wonder what Richard "Dogsby" Park is doing these days, and if Celebrity Torture And Bickering hasn't started a night too soon. Or at least the bickering part.

Somewhere buried amongst these spats, there's a talent competition going on. There's an OK version of an old Whitney Houston number, people trying to be the new Lemar (one of them will be the new Paris Campbell-Edwards, surely), a workmanlike disco diva, someone who is completely forgettable even while he's performing, and the show's resident loon, who brought on some of his young chums to prance behind him. Highlight of the show comes early, where Andy (one of the Lemar-wannabes) delivers a soulful rendition of Me and Mrs Jones.

As country singers will tell anyone, part of the art of performance is being able to add something to someone else's song. This aspect is suspiciously absent throughout tonight's proceedings. Perhaps the nadir of the show came when Two Blokes With Guitars do a straightforward karaoke of that wretchedly over-exposed Angels track, the one that has us shouting "Where's the remote?" before the first phrase had finished. And then had us pining for Peter Brame to bring us something interesting, a novel interpretation of a hackneyed cliche.

We couldn't get Mr Brame; instead, a continuation of the feud between Mr Walsh and Mrs Osbourne led to the latter throwing all the glasses of water in Commentator's Corner over Mr Walsh for no adequately explained reason. Ooh, that's so novel. In the entire history of television, no-one has ever manufactured a row that culminated in someone getting so het up that they threw a glass of water. Does it make television that people will talk about and include in those clip shows from here until television collapses under the accumulated weight of all the pontificating heads? Very probably.

Buried somewhere beneath the talent show here is the show's host, Kate Thornton. Where Antan Dec stamped their authority over Pop Idle, where Patrick Kielty made an unforgettable contribution to Star Academy, so Ms Thornton is a completely anonymous host. She walks onto the edge of the stage to introduce the retained commentators after each performance, invites the performer to briefly bite back, and tries to keep the show running to some vague approximation of time and order. On tonight's performance, it's not really happening.

Of course, the show wouldn't be complete without telephone and SMS voting - at 35p a pop, it's 10p more than the BBC's rival, and no money goes to charity. There's also a Viewer Contest, with an answer contained somewhere in the programme.

Only one of the contestants - the suspiciously bonkers Chico - has found something outside the standard canon of his genre. Eurovision may beckon, if the UK wants to send a second-hand Stefan Raab. For Andy, there's a decent future, singing other people's songs very well will keep him in employment. For the other contestants, there's nothing much in prospect. It's just another means of promoting the Simon Cowell brand, and giving the oxygen of publicity to the other retained commentators. Mr Walsh has used it to promote his current priority and help Westlife take over the world; Mrs Osbourne uses it to promote her current priority, Mrs Osbourne and her husband Oswald. And everyone gives 20% of everything to Simon Fuller, naturally.

There is, mercifully, a bit of innovation for the results programme: lines close very early on, then the top performers are revealed, leaving the final two to sing again. The retained panel will then decide which of these two has sung their last. The results are handed to presenter Kate Thornton very quickly, within moments of the lines closing. Could she be prompted down her ear-piece? Could the third-from-bottom act be the one announced after the commercial break?

This sing-off format looks good on paper, but is less good in practice. Because the show has very little time on air, we're treated to regular appearances from technicians dressing the stage behind the contestants. There's also a huge amount of movement - people trooping on and off stage within moments - which feels a bit pointless. Furthermore, the performers are singing the same song they did barely two hours ago, and that just feels like a desperate attempt to fill airtime and squeeze an extra commercial break out of the programme.

However, the final say goes to the retained commentators. Mr Cowell has been working with the group at the centre of last week's brew-ha-ha, and votes for the new Paris Campbell-Edwards to go home. Mr Walsh has been working with that gentleman, and votes for the group to leave. Mrs Osbourne stalls for effect, and for no adequately explored reason, decides to remove Mr Walsh's charge.

Judged purely on the quality of the second performances, this was the correct decision. However, it's as clear as day that Mrs Osbourne's vote owed nothing at all to the performance, and everything to her running feud with Mr Walsh. The two of them are playing games with the future of some adequate performers; if previous performance is any guide, at least one of them (and not necessarily the winner) will be able to make a living out of their time on this show.

The spat between Dogsby and Kielty was heartfelt, was irritating, but at the end of the day it was a squabble between two bald men over a toothless comb - the result of SA2 was never in serious doubt; a quality talent would win, the only question was which of the last six. The running row between Osbourne and Walsh is directly affecting the careers of people who have no stake in the feud. It's unprofessional, and does nothing to enhance the reputation of X Factor. The format is unoriginal and hackneyed, the set is garish, the presenter is dismal, and when there isn't an air of nastiness for nastiness' sake about the whole proceedings, it's only replaced by shambling amateurism that a school production would want to iron out. And Simon Fuller has accepted 20% of this rubbish!

One other factor bears mention: where's the public service element? Strictly Come Dancing has been responsible for an upsurge in the popularity of formal dances again. X Factor will be responsible for nothing more than an upsurge of middle-aged women tipping water over gormless Irishmen.

To summarise: this column isn't sure what the X-factor of good television is, but is sure that X Factor does not have it.

University Challenge

First round, match eleven: University of London School of African and Oriental Studies v Christ's College Cambridge.

Christ's Cambridge has been on the revival once, in the 2002 series, when they defeated Edinburgh, Keele, and London before losing a tense semi-final to Somerville Oxford. It's the first time SOAS has been in the revival.

SOAS concentrates on social sciences, which explains the subject bias of the team, but not why they all come from London. Christ's has a much more well-balanced team, in both senses.

This is a good starter:

Q: Graffitti Removal, Health Spas, and Fair Trade Goods were in, and Hairpiece Manufacturers, Potpourri, and Chimney Cleaning Machinery were out, according to the 2005 editions of what directory, known by its colour?

"Your set of bonuses is on four-letter words," says Thumper. "Pass" is not the four-letter word they were looking for. The first set of visual bonuses is on signs from the Highway Code; SOAS suggests one sign is "Danger - Exploding Cars". Exploding scores are more likely, the side is 80-10 ahead already.

It really is as one-sided as this, and Christ's have already lowered their ambitions from winning the game, through getting on the repechage board, through putting up a good fight, and are currently looking at avoiding complete embarrassment and comparisons with the infamous New Hall team. There's another good starter here:

Q: In the periodic classification of the elements, which compound is produced when hydrogen combines with the element in group 6, period 2?

The audio round is on pieces of music played by brass bands, and begins with a rendition of that great Terry Wogan hit, Floral Dance. The phrase "It's not the theme tune to Dad's Army," is offered by SOAS, who are now 135-20 ahead. Their London team don't recognise the description "Great Wen" of their city.

Over on the other side, Christ's have been buzzing in, but they've got their questions wrong, and have now dropped to just 10 points, of which Iain Mansfield has buzzed for (er) 22. Mercifully, they get a few starters correct, and by the second visual round - painters of industrial scenes - they've recovered to a credible 165-60.

In fact, the Cambridge team's ambitions are starting to move up - from registering a positive score, through saving face, and now a repechage place might just be within their grasp. But not if they don't get the bonus questions. Or if SOAS starts getting the starters again. The gong goes before Christ's can quite break three figures, and SOAS wins, 205-95.

The repechage leaders will return in the new year:

1) St Hugh's Oxford 190
2) Durham, St John's Oxford 130
4) Exeter 125

SOAS put up a very good fight in the first half, but let things slip a little once their win was certain. They made a respectable 20/36 starters, but three missignals may hurt against a better side. Christ's made 9/24 with four missignals. Bramen Singanayagam top-scored for Christ's on 30, Graham Ruston's 78 was the leading buzzer performance for SOAS.

This Week And Next

The Brain of Britain final was aired this week. Egghead Chris Hughes went up against against Grand Slammer Mark Labbett, with appearances from William d'Ath and Alan Gibbs. Mr Hughes took the advantage in a scrappy opening round, Mr Labbett took a convincing lead in the second round, but Mr Hughes returned to the lead in the next round, with Mr d'Ath a single point behind. Mr Hughes slowly but surely pressed his advantage home in later rounds, and led by three points with two rounds to play. He pulled further ahead with the easier questions towards the end, and the final score was something of a walkover:

Mr Gibbs, 9; Mr d'Ath, 14; Mr Labbett 14; Mr Hughes, 26.

So Mr Christopher Hughes wins the Brain of Britain silver salver, and becomes only the second person to win both Mastermind and Brain of Britain.

A quick ratings watch: for the week ending 20 November, BARB reports that Come Dancing beat X Factor by 200,000 viewers. 5.2 million saw the cricket Weakest Link, and 7.6 million caught Jet Set. On BBC2, Eggheads beat University Challenge by a whisker, but both finished a long way behind Link. On the commercial channels, the I'm A Celeb season opener pulled 9.6 million, the week's most-viewed game show. Deal Or No Deal continued to grow as the week wore on, peaking at 2.6 million on Friday. All five weekday episodes beat Scrapheap Challenge (2.2m); Countdown also peaked on Friday, with 1.7 million. Finally, BBC4's top programme was QI, over a quarter of a million ahead of all others.

Next week's highlights include Sudo-Q, the third sudoku-themed show of the year (BBC1 12.30), and the return of Radio 4's Masterteam. ITV's Celebrity Torture and Bickering reaches the end of its latest run. Channel 4 launches a brief season of intergalactic fun; coming up at 10, there's song and dance in The Green And White Minstrel Show, and from Wednesday at 9, Space Cadets.

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