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The price of fame

The X Factor is back on ITV, and it’s fascinating, being a paradigm of British life.

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

The X Factor is back on ITV, and it’s fascinating, being a paradigm of British life.

The X Factor is back on ITV, and it’s fascinating, being a paradigm of British life. Persons of little or no talent are assembled to be jeered. Those who have a modicum of ability are praised as if they had just sung Wagner’s Liebestod faultlessly at Covent Garden. This audience would applaud Beachcomber’s Directory of Huntingdonshire Cabmen if whoever was reading it remembered to tear up around the letter B.

Rather like in Nineteen Eighty-Four we have the two minutes of hate followed by a great wave of sentimentality, as if a knickerbocker glory packed with cream and raspberry sauce had been laced with castor oil. ‘The X Factor gives everyone a chance to be a star,’ says the voice-over. No, it doesn’t. It gives anyone the chance to be humiliated. Or adored, as if 100 Labradors were licking their face.

‘Tina Turner is a huge inspiration to me,’ said the first contestant. But Tina Turner is a slim, black American woman with a superlative voice. He was a fat, bearded Glaswegian who couldn’t sing and who danced like a beached whale that thinks it might just have a chance to get back to sea. He sang ‘Disco Inferno’, badly. Perhaps because he reminded them of themselves, the audience leapt to their feet applauding — what?

Next we had some people who had been picked merely so that we could mock them. Simon Cowell told one group that they sounded as if they had just met at a bus stop somewhere. He was wrong. Almost any random group of bus passengers could have done better.

They don’t just barrack the performers. One judge, Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls, was torn apart for talking too much. The producers played ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ over shots of her speaking. At the end, they tastefully showed Cheryl Cole, another judge, Britain’s best-loved wronged woman, collapsing with malaria.

Another group appeared. Cowell said they were the worst group ever to appear on the programme. They smiled. Smiled! Because they might be learning that a badger with pneumonia could have done better, but at least they were on television!

Like so many people in our country today they combine a lack of self-awareness, a yearning to be famous and an unlimited sense of entitlement. Wanting celebrity is enough. The desire equals the deserving. They are owed it because they need it. ‘I want the whole world to know who I am. It would be priceless, like Mastercard,’ said one young woman, her life’s ambition defined by a TV commercial.

‘I want to be somebody, I want to be someone people talk about,’ said another. Even the worst beg, pluck and plead to be kept on the show. They don’t want money — they only want fame or, failing that, notoriety. For some, having their flabby thighs circled in Heat magazine would be the epitome of achievement.

Simon Cowell, who wants to sound hard-nosed and hard-bitten, is in fact a creature of the audience, and will wave through to the next round someone whose singing is worse than my sumo wrestling, if the audience will it.

A teenage girl, who lives in Scotland but who had fled from Zimbabwe, sang almost well, certainly well enough to have an X Factor audience raving and shouting with joy. ‘I want to give something back to my Mum,’ she said. She was in tears, Mum was in tears. The audience was in tears. Mum appeared onscreen, crying, in soft focus. Cameraman, more Vaseline! It would take a heart of pumice not to feel for her, but at the same time I felt something close to rage at the way we were being manipulated.

And now it turns out that they’ve been using computer technology to improve the voices of the contestants they want to do well. The viewers aren’t just being controlled; we are like puppets with strings inserted into our brains so they can create any emotion they want. Viewing figures suggest there are nearly 12 million zombies out there.

Following the success of Masterchef the BBC is desperately finding knock-offs. The Great British Bake Off is devoted only to people who bake cakes, biscuit and bread. The Great British Waste Menu is about chefs who go round the country finding food that farmers would throw away because it doesn’t meet the supermarket standards. It was horrifying. Millions of perfectly edible lettuces are grubbed up and turned to compost. Tens of millions of tomatoes fed to pigs. Delicious liver, kidney, tongue — all destined for dog food instead of humans. As Dick Emery nearly said, ‘Ooh, you are offal, but I like you!’

As the cookery programmes become more specialised we’ll have The Great British Egg-Boiling and The Great British Cuppa. ‘Now the contestants have to make tea for two dozen thirsty cabbies…next they’ll be making Earl Grey for celebrities at the Ritz, one of London’s most prestigious hotels.’ No, thanks.

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