Dec 01

House Of (Credit) Cards

HouseOfCards I’m surely not alone in actually celebrating the news at the end of last week that for the moment, attempts to legally challenge the right of banks to levy charges on unauthorised overdrafts had ended in failure.

Of all the grassroots campaigns aimed at sticking it to the man and fighting for the rights of the poor oppressed masses staged in recent years, this always struck me as one of the more self-serving, badly thought out and potentially disastrous in living memory. I’m not the biggest fan in the world of high street banks and the way they treat their customers, as I have ranted several times in the past – but let us all be honest here, the courts got it absolutely right. There is no reason at all why your bank should not hit you with a penalty for going over your limit. At the end of the day this is a spontaneous gesture, one which can potentially save you the embarrassment of having a transaction declined, but at the same time one which carries with it a huge risk for the bank in question. Without any checks, without any investigation into the circumstances and without any real reason to believe this is money they will ever see again, the bank is willing to lend you a token sum of money on spec and trust to the Gods that there is a good reason for you needing to borrow it.

In short, although it is a service the banks are cheerfully offering, they need to have some way of discouraging excessive use of that service – and what better way than to impose what are at times punitive charges for doing so. Yes, at the end of the day there is an element of profiteering there and I’m sure their balance sheets have benefited enormously from the charges imposed on customers going over their limit, but at the end of the day all they are doing is trying to persuade customers that managing their finances better is a far cheaper way of living and at the same time limiting the risk they expose themselves to by offering an unauthorised overdraft facility in the first place. Funny that – a year ago banks not limiting their risks was being blamed for an economic meltdown.

The best bit was that this campaign against bank charges was spread far and wide like some kind of evangelical crusade. I’ve lost count of how many forums I would read with a sticky thread noting the ways you could try to claim back from your bank along with a link to download the form letters that were supposed to put the fear of God into your bank manager. There was even a record made – ‘I Fought The Lloyds’ by Oystar which was released in January 2008 and was supposed to fly to Number One to demonstrate just how widespread public revulsion at these charges was. It was bloody awful and deservedly limped to Number 25 (during the lowest sales period of the year you will note) before sinking without trace.

The daft thing was this was all so short sighted. People were so wrapped up in the gleeful prospect that they might suddenly get free cheques for hundreds of pounds back from their banks and that all these profiteering fat cats might suddenly be forced to fork out millions of pounds that they failed to consider what the consequences of this huge hole in the balance sheets might be. It wasn’t idle scaremongering that led financial commentators to speculate on the imminent end of free banking – charges for cash withdrawals, commission fees for card payments, and monthly account charges whether you had a “premium” account or not – they were all very real possibilities as the banks attempted to claw back the money they were about to lose.

So it is in fact to be cheered that common sense has prevailed. At the end of the day your bank account and the terms that come attached to it are a commercial arrangement between you and the financial institution in question. In a free market economy there is no earthly reason why a bank should not attach certain penalties to violations of parts of the agreement, particularly when it is out of their own goodwill and at their own risk that they allow you to exceed certain limits or stray outside certain set boundaries. I say this as someone who at the start of the decade frequently found himself bumping against his overdraft limit and whose old bank statements almost certainly contain evidence of several hundreds of pounds of charges which he incurred. I was never once motivated to try to claim this back on spurious grounds. I knew the rules when I signed up. More fool me for breaking them.

Believe it or not there are plenty of battles against banks and other assorted financial services companies that are far more worth fighting and which do have some merit to them. Take the credit card companies for example. At a time when interest rates on savings have plunged to the floor and the Bank Of England base rate remains stubbornly at a record low level, how do credit card issuers continue to justify annual interest rates of close to 17% for their products. OK, it is a premium service and once more represents a carefully calculated risk on the part of the lenders, but for the rates they charge to be the same, or in many cases even higher than they were 10-12 years ago when interest rates were around the 6% mark is as blatant a consumer rip off as you can get. For my own entertainment I regularly use the “contact us” link on my online ISA account to complain about the halving in the space of a year of the rate of interest they pay me on my investments and asking how they sleep at night advertising both a tokenistic rate of interest on savings balances and a punitive extortionate rate of interest on credit card lending on the front page of the same website. Sadly these messages elicit little more in reply than a patronising “you clearly have no understanding of the way financial affairs work, so please go away and be grateful little person” but I carry on sending them anyway. How else are they supposed to know how unhappy their customers are if we don’t tell them after all?

Even when you bite the bullet and have a credit card at an extortionate rate, you still get screwed by every con trick in the book. I know it is my own fault for having an MBNA card, and their widespread reputation for being a bunch of chiselling crooks is well deserved, but I was left speechless last month when my latest statement arrived complete with a penalty for late payment despite my regular standing order having gone out at the usual time of the month. Closer examination of the new statement revealed that my payment date had magically moved from the 6th of the month to the 30th of the previous one, leaving me with a week less to settle any balance I may have and thus resulting in me incurring the charge the previous month. Yes, my fault entirely for not reading the small print on the last bill and noting the change, but heaven forbid they should have found some way of highlighting this arbitrary change in the conditions of my account, one which was likely to impact the way I manage my finances at that.

These are all very real issues faced by thousands of users of financial services nationwide. Where is the grassroots campaign against these kind of sharp practices though? If they exist then for the moment they are extremely well hidden. In the meantime self-styled “money saving experts” continue to bleat about the non-issue of overdraft charges and pledge to continue to look for loopholes to try to screw the banks some other way.

How on earth did these people get their priorities so wrong?

Nov 29

X Factor 2009 – Week 8 (Performances)

It is that time of the week already. Welcome to what the show is studiously avoiding calling “The Quarter Final” instead preferring the much pithier and altogether more marketable branding of “the race for a place in next week’s Semi Final”. This is why the producers work for ITV and I don’t.

Deep into the contest and with only five contestants left, this is naturally the week where the format changes slightly, so everyone gets to sing twice and the judges no longer get a vote at the end. I’m only telling you this to save our host the trouble of spelling this out naturally, a host who incidentally now appears to be called “Dermoto Leery” by the scary voiceover at the start.

Oh yes, and every week I seem to get hits from people searching “dermot’s x factor walk on theme” so if you are wondering it is an orchestral rendition of the riff from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ as used by Puff Daddy on ‘Come With Me’. If you earn 30p for answering that, I’ll take a cut please.

Time then to hear the contestants sing and answer for ourselves the three big unspoken questions.

1) Given that last week in “George Michael” week one person sang a song that Elton John appeared on, will anyone use “Elton John” week to sing a song that George Michael appeared on?

2) How many times will the show big up its massive Number One charity record without reference to the fact that it is not only still the same chart as last Sunday but won’t be Number One by the time the results show rolls around?

3) Will anyone make any reference at all to The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name Lest Simon Sues Us All, or will the internet just have to collectively explode at every unfortunate innuendo that presents itself?

Second away, Round 1. The theme is Take That (not appearing on this show).

Coming first (stop it!) is Arsehyl who if the tales are to be believed is hated by several of the judges over the way he has allegedly been groomed for this for some time. As well as promising that he is going to give us a “different kind of song” we are also told how wonderful it feels for them to have a Number One record and what a good cause it is all in aid of. Desperate to bump its sales up in the few hours remaining much? With the two twats now out of the way, Brian Freidman and his all over Number 1 cut have more time to devote to giving other people dance routines, meaning that Arsehyl gets to bust some moves to ‘Relight My Fire’.

I’ve worked out what I don’t like about his singing. In an attempt to find a style and some voical distinctiveness, he has taken to chewing the words as he sings them, like a bad cabaret star. Churlish nitpicking of the song choices means we are obliged to note that out of the vast body of work that Gary Barlow has written for his group, they have chosen to open the show with a Dan Hartman song that is only associated with Take That thanks to their cover version. Never mind, he gets to sing the words “I Need Your Love” several times, giving everyone else the chance to mentally insert the name of one of his fellow performers after it and snigger like teenagers. Or maybe that is just me.

Dannii uses the magic word “pitchy” to tell him he was off key. Somewhere in America Randy Jackson is consulting lawyers and demanding royalties. Cheryl says she knows how tough it is to sing and dance at the same time. Shame he didn’t have the option of pre-recording the chorus then isn’t it Cheryl?

We move on to NotGazza and yes, the irony of tactfully changing his nickname from the one I used in Week 1 is not lost on me either. He has “the full package” says Cheryl. I wonder who told her.

His first song tonight is ‘A Million Love Songs’ which isn’t the hardest song in the world to sing, not that you would know from this travesty. I’m starting to wonder what the point of all the backroom staff on this show is. They all have singing lessons throughout and are prepared with vocal coaches, so why on earth are they not being told that singing isn’t just about bleating the words. You have to sell a song with soul and feeling and I regret to say that the blonde Welshman does this without a hint of either. Or even a tune for that matter. No, this was utterly, utterly painful. We are a fortnight from the final and he is down to the final 5. By this stage he should be a thousand times better than this. Bin him now, seriously.

“People seem to like you much more than I do.” moan Louis grumpily “but the singing was pretty good”. No it wasn’t.

Dannii suggests that there are a million girls all wanting the love songs to be for them. A bolder man than I am writes:

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We should move on to NiceBloke who appears to be refreshingly scandal free. In his video Simon announces he will be singing one of his favourite songs but not one of the Take That’s most popular songs. I scare myself by wondering out loud if it will be ‘Love Ain’t Here Anymore’ roughly ten seconds before that turns out to be the case. Simon is actually quite correct here, for despite being one of the few Take That singles of the 90s that didn’t shoot straight to Number One, it is easily one of the least dated of their songs from that era. NiceBloke goes for the juglar, crooning it straight from the catwalk to some planted ladies in the audience. Now that is called truly playing to the gallery as several million females get over the heartbreak of earlier and imagine truly that he is singing it to them, prior of course to noting his number for the voting. This really was a great choice and a great performance. I’m still a little unsure about his singing but the problems he has aren’t anything that can’t be corrected in the studio and with a few months of practice. He hits the big note at the end to perfection and for my money has taken this round so far.

Ken is up next, and we should take time out to note how ‘Fight For This Love’ is the backing music for his video package thus meaning that Cheryl gets a few more royalties out of this show. Who said they don’t look after their own. He is doing ‘Could It Be Magic’ so we are obliged to note that out of four “Take That” songs done so far, two of them have been covers of songs made famous by other people. Also, who thinks that one week the theme should indeed be Barry Manilow? Back to reality, and the big camp disco arrangement of the song suits him well, allowing him to put on the sort of big performance you can see him repeating in the final should be make it through the next two weeks.

Finally we come to token female Dagenham Doris. In her video she worries about taking something like this on. “It is a song written for four men.. and then there’s me” she babbles in a manner which suggests the exciting nature of that thought has just occurred to her. Bless.  She sings ‘Rule The World’ and it may be significant that she is the only contestant to take on a contemporary Take That song and thus one that will be recognised by the younger element of the audience. This may turn out to be a masterstroke. Sadly the performance is only OK and nothing more. This is the eternal frustration with her, as the promise of her early audition has never really developed into anything more. She’s a nice person and fun to have around but the sad truth is she just doesn’t feel or sound like a winner.

Danni applauds her anyway and notes the “incredible support out there for Dagenham Stace”. I knew one of my names would catch on eventually. I’ve decided that for Christmas I want a video compilation of all her post-song interviews with Dermoto. Every week she makes less sense than ever before, I could swear tonight that not one word that came out of her mouth resembled English.

With that we push the reset button and go back to the start as it is time for the second theme of the night. Step forward Sir Elton John (also not appearing on this show).

You have to love the way the little video packages put together to introduce the acts who are being paid tribute to somehow manage to suck all the life and joy out of the back catalogue of the acts in question. Elton’s 40 year career is summed up in 25 seconds of wooshing noises. Buy his Greatest Hits now everyone.

Oddly we mix the order up slightly and kick off here with NotGazza. He performs ‘I’m Still Standing’ which I have to confess is one of my favourite Elton songs so I immediately hate him for ruining it. Once more he hoofs and shouts his way through it all but displays no passion or understanding of what the song is about. Look, I’m no singer and have only had the briefest of technical training in the art, but even I know the first rule of performing music is to make sure you actually care about the material. Sell the emotion, convince me that you are feeling what the words mean. He does none of this here.

Intriguingly during the post-song debrief Cheryl does something that appears to have been downplayed this year and leans on the regional angle. “I hope Wales gets behind you” she says in all innocence. My Twitter feed immediately explodes with far too much innuendo to reproduce here.

Entering from the rear now is Arsehyl. He does ‘Your Song’ in a manner which is clearly intended to ape the Moulin Rouge arrangement but which comes across like a shockingly bad Vegas act. One of the world’s most famous piano ballads ends up lost in bombast, campness and yes – even a choir of children to accompany him at the end. I really can’t decide if this was amazing or terrible, but if this does turn out to be his last performance on the show (as everyone seems to be hoping) then it is one hell of a way to go out. Simon claims it was sensational. I can’t find anyone who agreed.

Rattling through, here comes NiceBloke. Who gets to show off his post-watershed raunchy side with ‘Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting’. Of particular note here are the dancing girls in their bras and hot pants which gives this performance a sexual frisson we haven’t seen all series. Hell, I even find myself applauding.

Cheryl asks how he concentrated with all those sexy girls around him. Ask your husband dear.

Ken gets to tug on the heartstrings with ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ and I can’t really offer too much in the way of comment here other than to note that the magic which worked for Blue is intact here as well. He is far and away the favourite of the night, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Simon says here “my day job is I run a record label”. How on earth does he fit that in with his other role of being ruler of the universe? Anyone know?

This marathon show finishes with Dagenham Doris and my, what a weird choice. The song she is performing is the biggest selling single of all time, yet the truth of the matter is nobody will recognise it. Yes calm down, she’s not doing the Diana song but instead the record’s notional a-side ‘Something In The Way You Look Tonight’. In a lovely touch the theme for the staging is Fabulous Baker Boys, and she does indeed sprawl all over a grand piano in a red velvet dress. She has a cleavage. Who knew?

You know what, this was utterly incredible. It may well be the least played Track 1 of any CD single ever released but it does mean that her rendition is pretty much untainted by comparison with the original. Guess what though – Simon doesn’t like it much.  I like that I live in a world where Simon is wrong sometimes.

Her post song chat once again reminds me that there are now three people on the list of individuals who when I win the lottery will be hired to do nothing but talk to me in the evening. 1) and 2) are two of my colleagues who shall remain nameless. 3) is Dagenham Doris. Although I may have to wait, as I think she’s going to be back singing next week.

By the time the results show airs, their charity record won’t be Number One any more. How on earth will they cope?

Nov 26

The Holy Grail – Republished!

Well, I never thought we’d see the day.

I’ve written many times in the past about the fabled “Guinness Book of Top 40 Charts”, last published in 1996 and how the out of print book has been a source of frustration to many a hardcore fan of the music charts. You’d be hard pressed to explain to a neutral observer just why a tome which lists week by week the Top 40 singles chart with the odd footnote to provide background is so useful, so interesting and such a source of constant surprises – but it is.

It is therefore with fear that I open my own copy of the 1996 version every time I need to refer to something, simply because the ageing volume will inevitably fall apart from age and overuse. For a long time the chances of a replacement looked slim. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a book which theoretically can never be profitable, targeted at a niche hardcore market with limited potential sales, yet at the same time costing a great deal of money due to produce due to the need to licence the data it contains.

Yet the closing months of 2009 have seen something of a miracle occur – because the book is back on the shelves. Having seized the mantle of chart books publishers after an unseemly interregnum when none were available by publishing the welcomed yet rather badly designed and at times misfiring British Hit Singles volume, Virgin Books have now grasped the nettle with both hands and responded to what appears to have been enthusiastic public demand. Available now at a bookshop near you is the chartwatchers holy grail – “The Virgin Book Of Top 40 Charts”.

Reviewing such a work is a near impossibility, for this is truly the most Ronseal of publications. Inside its 1000 plus pages, you will find nothing less than a complete account of every Top 40 (or nearest equivalent) singles chart dating from the first weeks of the Record Retailer chart in March 1960 right up to the present day, the book climaxing with the very first chart of 2009 featuring Alexandra Burke nestling at the top. All present and correct are the markers from previous versions, allowing easy noting of the chart debuts of particular acts as well as the moment a disc reached its own particular chart peak.

If you are reading this wondering why on earth anyone would want to own such a thing, then chances are you won’t ever need to. If, like me, you’ve somehow found reason in your life to want to refer back to just what song entered at Number 22 on the day you met your significant other and have tired of filling in the decade and a half gap since the last such document with various Excel spreadsheets and carefully filed away emails of old rankings, then chances are you’ve already located a copy and bought it for yourself enthusiastically.

The Virgin Book Of Top 40 Charts is a co-publication of Virgin Books and the Official Charts Company and is priced at £20. Just mind your copy carefully, who knows when it will ever come out again.

Meanwhile, what to do with my battered copy of the 1996 edition which once upon a time could have fetched huge sums on ebay. It just shows how the value of your book collections can go down as well as up…

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Nov 23

X Factor 2009 – Week 7 (Results)

The British public appear to be getting more cynical in their old age. What else could explain the increasing number of hits this site is recording from people searching the answer to the question “is the X Factor results show recorded?” The truth of the matter is that yes, some of it is, although the actual result itself at the end is most manifestly live – or at least as “live” as television gets these days. Given all the recent scandals it would be foolish in the extreme for ITV to play fast and loose with the moment the voting is closed, however given that even the “live” Big Brother final is on a 15 minute tape delay, who can blame people for being suspicious.

So for this week, let’s pay careful attention to the switch between tape and studio, particularly as the show’s PR and the newspapers have been fairly open about the pre-taped nature of this week’s celebrity guest performances.

First the show intro and the presentation of the judges. Live, or at the very least done live in front of tonight’s studio audience.

Then it is time for the ensemble performance of the week, as the final six gyrate about the stage to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, the song making its first X Factor appearance since Same Difference took their unique brand of suspected incest to the screen and had a messy pillow fight with each other. It has long since been established that this performance is both mimed and taped a little while before the show actually airs. We know this due to the post-song chat where everyone sucks each others rude bits about the fact that the Bloody Charity Record is Number One and the show pats itself on the back about the fact that Leona’s album has also topped the charts, despite the fact that she is still far too big to ever need the rub of this programme again. That doesn’t stop the smugness sadly.

Onto the recap of last night. My only curiosity here is the spliced in backstage shots of the judges (normally Louis and Cheryl) jawing with each other on the way to their dressing rooms. Presumably this is done on the spur of the moment as they all head backstage during the breaks, but does this mean they really march down the corridor, sit down to check their makeup and then get back up again to be back in place by the time the break finishes. What a waste of time.

First guest of the night is SuBo herself – Susan Boyle as she steps back into the limelight to promote her first ever record. This is a curious situation as X Factor gives the rub to a contender from Simon’s other show for what I’m guessing is the first time ever. It is a fairly open secret that this was taped 24 hours ago in front of Saturday’s audience. Careful scrutiny of the audience shots proves that Cheryl is not wearing the salmon “look at my boobs” dress she has on tonight and it is notable that the only clear shot of the judges shown is a reaction shot of Cowell which might as well be stock footage as he always wears the same thing anyway.

As for the song, her rendition of ‘Wild Horses’ is immaculately done and although she is more or less a shoo-in to have the Number One album next week, I’ll be fascinated to see how many singles she shifts. Her only problem is that part of the SuBo mythology stems from the way she looks rather than the fact she can sing. As one Twitter friend puts it:

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She’s not wrong either.

Back we go live for a quick conversation with the judges who we must presume have not sat in their seats for the last 15 minutes of taped singing and dancing but instead were hiding in their dressing rooms. What were the audience doing? Watching the tapes, or being entertained by the warm-up?

We now switch back to tape thanks to a convenient arse-kissing video tape introducing the second star guest of the week – Mariah Carey. Again it is pretty much a matter of public record that her glitzy performance (complete with glitter covered microphone and stand) was taped last weekend at the start of her recent promotional swing through the UK. Writing in this forum I can freely confess that I can’t stand the woman, her records lacking in soul or feeling and serving only as the platform for unnecessary vocal gymnastics designed to go “look how well I can sing”. The whole stuff about her diva demands (white kittens and puppies etc.) puzzles me as well. Either she really is that self absorbed which makes you dislike her even more, or someone near to her dislikes her enough to leak stories about her wanting to fly in on her own personal cloud to further damage her public reputation.

Oh yes and her single is, I am glad to report a bad cover version of ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ which rips every last bit of emotion out of the justly famous Foreigner original. For those still following the whole live/not live debate – note that Dermot’s link promoting that the results are next was recorded a week ago in the same session as the Mariah performance. What would they have done if something had happened midweek such as a contestant pulling out or being disqualified? Would an emergency reshoot have been required?

Anyway, we return from the break to be truly live for the official results. She is one of the first to be rendered safe, but in the moments before the vote is announced, it is fun to note that Dagenham Doris’ unhappy face makes her look like she is wetting herself. I hope for that reason she is in the final so at the grand climax we can see her do both the “poo” and “wee” looks in quick succession. Confounding all predictions Arsehyl survives for another week of diva strops. That’s the last time I believe anything written in the Daily Star.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.

In the latest shock result, the final showdown is between bookies favourite NiceBloke and – at last – the Malfoy Twins. Now surely this week there is no real choice to be made. No fence sitting here, it is a straight decision between the worst performers and one of the most popular. Although so far this series stranger things have happened.

First up are the terrible two who do ‘No Matter What’ Noticeably they start with no backing vocals, dancers or pyrotechnics and so for the first time in a very long time we can hear clearly and without prejudice just how terrible they are. Best of all they are shovelling shit on the memory of the defining performance of a man who was recently murdered in a threesome with a Daily Mail writer (I forget the details). If you so desire, this is another reason to hate them even more.

On to the man who really cannot lose. NiceBloke is doing ‘Wonderful Tonight’ but although he rightly credits the song to Clapton, he performs the Damage arrangement from 1997, complete with incongruous lyric change to reference the subject’s “long brown hair”. This always struck me as stupid, given that the song is about an actual named, living woman whose hair was indeed long and blonde. Some people just don’t get it do they?

Vote time, and given that this is the last week the judges votes count and given that it has not gone unnoticed that thus far they have exercised their right to choose just once, you get the feeling that this is not going to deadlock.

Simon supports Olly as he has to.

Cheryl just for a change doesn’t whine about how tough the decision is and how much she hates this part of her job. Without much hesitation she backs Olly too.

Louis sticks with the twins but in truth he knows what is coming next.

Dannii gets the casting vote. Will she bottle it? Or will she make a proper choice just for once. Before giving her verdict she asks “is this a singing competition” which makes Simon Cowell put on his “gay slur” frown again. Any chances of a row brewing this side of Xtra Factor are quelled by the floor manager’s frantic waving that the show is running long and we have to get on with it.

So it finally happens. The worst fears of a nation are not to be recognised. I’ll say it one word at a time as they get named properly for the first and only time.

John. And. Edward. Are. OUT.

Dogs howl. Lights dim. Corks are popped. The shout you can still hear echoing to this very moment is the one made by bookmakers across the land who stood to lose a huge amount if they had gone all the way. It took seven weeks but the joke is at an end. Finally and at long last, the X Factor is all about the singing. What a shame there are precious few contenders left who are up to the job.

Nov 22

X Factor 2009 – Week 7 (Performances)

Yes, you read that correctly. We are at Week 7 of this epic already, and as Dermot notes in his opening link, how time flies. Naturally this only serves to hammer home some hard truths: the final is just 3 weeks away, it is nearly Christmas, and oh yes, many of the better singers in the competition have already been ditched through a combination of the public vote and judges incompetence.

Welcome then to George Michael week, and I’m sorely tempted to suggest that this theme was actually a mistake. Simon Cowell scribbled on a napkin that this week the final six should sing “songs of yore” and it was misread as “songs of Yog”. I guess you have to be a fan of a certain age to get that joke.

Incidentally does anyone else find that the pre-titles talking heads sequence has now lost whatever drama it may have once had, all thanks to Peter Kay’s skewering of its banality with his own “there’s only one act who’s tough – and that’s the winner” routine. The four Judges are described by Dermot as being the show’s very own George, Andrew, Pepsi and Shirley. I can only wonder which of them is the closeted gay one.

Oh yes, and describing George Michael as a man who has been entertaining us with his music “for almost three decades” is a phrase guaranteed to make him, and the rest of us, feel really old. No wonder he had better things to do than actually turn up – although he is “watching this show at home” we are assured. How is that supposed to make us respect him more?

First out of the hat this week is NotGazza, fresh from his narrow escape last week. The theme for the introductory VTs this week is “the visit home”. You know the ones, where everyone’s family has to do a really bad acting job and pretend to be surprised when their children just happen to knock on the door with a camera crew in tow.

We are told that tonight the canny lad will be “singing one George’s most recognisable songs”. Shame that, my favourite songs are the ones you can’t recognise.. although maybe that will come when the twins perform later on.

“I’m gonna sing ‘Harder Than I Ever Have Before’” he enthuses, and you are right, I don’t recognise that song. Actually joking aside it turns out to be ‘Faith’ which means that yes, a wide-eyed 17 year old boy singing about how it would be nice to touch your body is now prime time family entertainment.

Oh god, now I’ve written that – what if the twins are down to do ‘I Want Your Sex’? In fact sod it, they should just to guarantee headlines.

Back to NotGazza for a moment though and in case you are wondering, yes he is singing sharp as usual. The performance gets better as it goes on, although maybe I was just singing along to demonstrate to the other half that this was indeed the first song I ever performed on karaoke. Lonsdale JCR, Lancaster University, March 1993 in case you are wondering. Yes am making this review all about me. Is that a problem?

Next tonight is Dagenham Doris. She is the one contestant for whom the visit home is pointless for (as she readily admits) she goes home once a week to see her son anyway. She is called “The Voice” so many times during this buildup I am starting to wonder if this is her new internal nickname. Call me an old cynic but I don’t think this will sell as the title of her album. Her assessment of her chances tonight: “I’ve got to get better or there is a chance I will be in the bottom 2”. Profound.

Her chosen song is, confusingly, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’, or as it is better known to the public “the b-side of ‘Older’ that everyone ignored back in 1997 and was a cover version anyway”. Let’s take a moment to recap. George Michael by my reckoning has had something of the order of 34 solo hit singles, with a further 10 more as part of Wham. Out of all of those, Doris, the producers and the judges picked a really boring one that no casual listener will recognise off hand. Isn’t that incredibly stupid? OK then positives.. once she gets to belt the chorus (such as it is in this dirge) she comes into her own. But, and it is a big but, I’m not blown away by her in the way that her first audition suggested everyone would be by this stage. This is the girl people were branding as a winner from the word go, and here she is three weeks before the end putting on performances that are average at best.

At least the panel says nice things, so she gets to pull the poo face a lot. Oh, and gabble to Dermot excitedly afterwards, which is always entertaining. I’d buy a recording of her reciting War and Peace without hesitation. The whole thing could fit on a double CD.

Now for the moment we have all been waiting for – it’s the Malfoy Twins. Who return to Ireland. And then come home again, to everyone’s regret.

Sadly they aren’t doing anything that would get them banned by Radio One but instead ‘I’m Your Man’ and in the cutest tribute of the night do indeed perform the song dressed in the same iconic “choose life” T-shirts that Wham! wore in the video. Naturally the rules of the contest have now been bent to the extent that they cannot just do one song but have to mash it up, and in this case the segue into ‘Wham! Rap’ midway through. I have to confess that I prefer them as rap stars to singers as this is the one thing they cannot do out of tune. Notably following press criticism this week, their sung vocals are brought higher up in the mix than usual which means we get to hear just how tuneless they really are.

This is now quite tricky, for after weeks of tweaking the producers have found a way to make the pair entertaining which is the key to the whole thing. The one advantage to the surprise ditchings of the last few weeks is that should the ultimate nightmare happen and the skippy pair actually win, it is unlikely to be at the expense of a really talented singer. X Factor is due an off-year for discovering proper talent and so if we have to fill the void with a couple of talentless clowns, then so be it.

Simon’s Cowell’s pre-rehearsed line of the night is to say their performance was more like Andrew and Andrew rather than George and Andrew. An obvious line, but he is clearly so pleased with it I guess preserving it here for posterity is the least we can do.

Now to the man who appears to have taken over from the terrible two in terms of negative press – Arsehyl. In his homecoming video he eschews family in favour of meeting up with his mates and going down the pub. See public? He is A NORMAL BLOKE JUST LIKE YOU. Message duly hammered home. The unseemly row (again) over what song he should sing is glossed over here for now.

After all the tantrums it turns out he is doing ‘Careless Whisper’. Is now a good time to break out a 1984 vintage joke? OK then – why does George Michael have chocolate all over his face? Because he’s been careless with his Wispa.

This paragraph intentionally left blank as nothing can sensibly follow that without a pause.

Can I also note that once whilst drunk I too attempted this song on karaoke. The great thing is I was as bad at it as Arsehyl is. He’s going for a different interpretation of the song but instead of being unique and distinctive he sings it rather like you’d imagine Liam Gallagher would at a soundcheck. To widespread shock Cheryl Cole(!) becomes first person this series ever to critique the singing and tell him he was flat. Simon to her left meanwhile falls back on his favourite platitude and congratulates him on being “original” which is apparently what he is always looking for. I always find this train of thought fascinating, as this is after all a man who made his original millions out of two actors singing twee cover versions.

Brace yourself ladies, for it is NiceBloke time. He goes home and brings her lots of washing to do. I’m sorry but this isn’t like him, or maybe it is his way of being nice to his mum. Admittedly when I first left home my mum used to beg me to bring washing back from university for her to do. It is a mum think I guess. He’s on the case of ‘Fastlove’ tonight, known to millions as George Michael’s “hey baby, let’s shag” song. Oh boy he is FLAT. Ouch. The number of supposedly talented acts that continue to warble off-key makes me wonder if they actually have proper monitors onstage with them and can hear themselves at all. We keep being told this isn’t a karaoke contest, so why are the singers sent out on stage with no more awareness of their tone than your average Sharon down the Dog and Bollock. Singing aside, there are plenty of voters who will have been moistened as he purrs the “make a little room in my BWM” line in the song so his continuing presence is more or less assured. Simon post-song pretty much assures him he will get laid after the contest. I bet he’s so glad it wasn’t Louis telling him that.

Finally tonight we get to Ken. Apparently there is a big note in the song which rehearsal footage shows him struggling to hit. Bizarrely he is doing ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ and from the moment he opens his mouth roughly half the watching public are shouting the same thing at their televisions.

Hello! This is not a George Michael song.

It is with almost unseemly joy that Louis squabbles with Cheryl over this point afterwards, although such smugness is undermined slightly by the fact that ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ wasn’t a George Michael song either and nobody saw fit to moan. This aside, he does at least hit the note that everyone was worried about and pleasingly hits all the rest as well. Far and away the best performance of the evening is not a bad way to end things really.

We end with shout outs to George Michael himself who we are once again assured is watching us at home. Unless of course he has spontaneously fallen asleep through “exhaustion”. See you tomorrow for a show where apparently all but the last ten minutes is on tape. Wish I had audience tickets for that one…

Nov 15

X Factor 2009 – Week 6 (Results)

Answer there came – one. Am pleased to confirm the technical term for the “emergency wide shot of extreme panic” used by TV directors when something unexpected happens:

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This man used to direct live Saturday morning television, so he should know.

Tonight: Queen! Shakira! The thing that henceforth will be known as The Bloody Charity Record! I’m all agog aren’t you?

First of all the group performance, which as widely reported is indeed Bohemian Rhapsody with OneHalfOfQueen magically appearing halfway through to accompany the remaining seven. Amazing how they manage the harmonies so perfectly isn’t it? Anyone would think this is pre-recorded.Sorry to be so grumpy, but there is very little entertaining about these pose-fests, it tells us nothing new about the talent of the contestants and just because something is done on American Idol does not automatically make it a good idea.

Dermot brands it the “best X Factor moment ever!” which would make me lose all respect for him, but for… oh you can guess the rest.

ShakiraShakira (so good they named her twice) is the sole star plugging her single tonight. Call me an old cynic but I think her drummers were miming. Sadly the track is symptomatic of much of her current album in that the producers forgot to make it any good. Mind you, if the Black Eyed Peas can get to Number One with the dirge they sang last week, anything is possible.

Now for the grotty bit, as the grand premiere of The Bloody Charity Record is upon us, and you just know that there will be nothing as fun as last year’s cockup with the unopened doors to raise the entertainment level. As worthy a cause as it may be, the record (a cover of ‘You Are Not Alone’) is still little more than another part of Simon Cowell’s plan to drown the world in a tide of MOR mush and so should be resisted at all costs. Plus it will be another step towards confirming Steve Mac as one of the most successful producers of the decade which itself will paint a wholly false picture of the state of pop music.

I’m taking care to note how many times the song’s author (R Kelly) is mentioned in comparison with the number of times reference is made to the person who just happened to sing it originally. The irony of bandwaggoning with yet another Michael Jackson song that he had not part in creating isn’t lost on me. Anyway, the single is as slick and bland as you might expect with the most autotune you will hear this side of a Kanye West single. It may well wind up as the second biggest seller of the year sadly. The spontaneity of the audience waving glowsticks at the climax is spoiled slightly by an accidental shot of them being handed out earlier in the song. Oddly enough not one single reference is made to the origin of the song and who sang it originally. How curious.

OK then, result time which should hopefully be controversy free. The last minute safety of the two twats means we are left with…

Disco Stu who is fresh off being branded “ordinary” by Louis last night. How appropriate would it be if the rocker was binned in a week where a rock band was the theme. For his desperation song he eschews creativity and trots out another Queen song in the shape of ‘The Show Must Go On’. Is it worth pointing out that this was the song Freddie released right before he died? That has to be an omen surely.

NotGazza goes next and is sharp again. So much so, that for a moment I’ve no idea what he is singing. It turns out to be ‘Last Request’ in case you were wondering. I think my ears bled a little during this.

The casting vote goes down to Dannii and the audience by this time are so jacked that they drown out her words. What wouldn’t you give for Cat Deeley to tell them to “fucking shut up” at this point. Yet again(!) the vote is deadlocked and the Magic Envelope Of Doom is handed to Dermot, its contents serving only to bin…

Jamie. Feel the cold hand of irony around your barnet son and go home knowing that you at least propelled Kings Of Leon back into the Top 10 the moment you opened your mouth to sing on television. Not everyone has that kind of effect on people.

Dermot asks him “what’s next?”. He reels off a long list of plans, none of which involve a haircut. That’s why he went.

Nov 15

X Factor 2009 – Week 6 (Performances)

I told you we hadn’t heard the last of it.

The bizarre end to last week’s result show inevitably prompted a flurry of column inches and wild conspiracy theories as to Simon Cowell’s motives in not binning the twins at the first opportunity he was given and as a result sending home someone who appears to be universally regarded as one of the more talented contenders in the competition.

I should point out from the outset that much of this is patent nonsense. Any argument that somehow the fix is on and that a scheme is afoot to make sure that the terrible two make it to the end so they can either win outright or, as some would have you believe, so that they will present an easy black and white choice between themselves and the true winner. Such speculation inevitably ignores the fact that the one variable the producers cannot control is the public vote. However much we might complain about the machinations of the judges or the producers behind the scenes, we still get to choose who the 2 acts are who are in line for the chop.

The one unanswered question really is just how much did the judges know about which way the vote had gone last week, and so was Simon making his final choice with the full knowledge about what the consequences would be? Even if he did know, the actions of the panel before him in voting 2-1 for the twins to go home meant he had little room for manoeuvre in his choice, as whichever act he chose would have gone. Suggestions that it was all a grand conspiracy simply don’t hold up. For all the talk of how Lucie was clearly one of the most talented and a “threat” somehow to the other acts, the fact remains that she didn’t actually have anyone voting for her last week. Just like when Laura White got an early bullet last year, it may well have been a shock to see someone who could sing better than many of the rest eliminated, but the numbers did not lie. She wasn’t popular, few people voted for her, so it stands to reason that she has to go.

Simon Cowell’s one problem now is that his ability to wear two different hats is badly compromised. During the week the newspapers are full of backstage reports of Simon changing something that he doesn’t like, Simon insisting that something else should happen or Simon changing the theme on a whim. The fact is that X Factor is his show, he calls the shots throughout and everyone else dances to his tune yet when it comes to judging the acts we are expected to believe he suddenly becomes the impartial evaluator of talent, assessing each performance on its musical merits with little regard to any plans he might have had about the direction the competition could take. His ability to keep up this pretence was surely hit last week when despite many public pronouncements about what a disaster the twins were for the show and how he could emigrate if they won, he still did not remove them from the show the first time an opportunity to do so presented itself. On balance, you can understand why so many people are asking questions and coming up with strange conspiracy theories.

So sit down to watch the show this week suspecting that we will see a new, contrite and analytical Simon Cowell. He has to upsell himself as a judge and downplay his role as producer. Or maybe something unexpected will happen to create a brand new set of headlines…

The first thing we learn this week: there is no part of “It’s the X Factor Queen night – with Dermot O’Leary” that doesn’t sound funny. On any level. The show begins by offering Simon a few minutes of airtime to explain himself and his actions six days ago, although he spends most of it throwing down the gauntlet to Sting and suggesting he should help the contestants out rather than condemning them. I’m happy with this, just as long as it doesn’t mean “lute week” for the semi final or something.

Disco Stu gets to worship at the font of Messrs May and Taylor first, the game of “who’s got the silliest haircut” he played with Brian May presumably taking place before the cameras are switched on. His song of choice is ‘Radio Gaga’ and we are told time and time again that he wants to avoid coming across as some kind of bad Freddie tribute act. Or “Queen with Paul Rodgers” as I believe they are commonly known. Refreshingly this wasn’t a tribute act, nor was it particularly terrible. He took his time warming up to it but by the end the crowd were on their feet. A good start.

“Pyro excites me” says Dannii during the judging. Odd, I thought it used to be Canadian racing drivers. Tastes change I guess.

NotGazza steps up to the plate next. Cheryl promises us a “cheeky” performance, as the crushing weight of dramatic irony threatens to swamp the universe. All will become clear. The man with the white hair trots out ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’. Cheeky? Yes. Tuneful? No. Notice that you struggled to sing along with this whilst watching at home? This is because he was a semitone sharp almost the whole way through in a manner which was at times quite excruciating. Whilst waiting for someone other than me to point this out I finally spotted that the X Factor format almost requires the judges to critique the performance as a whole rather than the actual singing. You will notice that there is no equivalent of say a Randy Jackson who will pull a face and so “I dunno dawg, for me that was a bit pitchy for me that was”. Hence the poor singers are never really pulled up on their technical inadequacies. Yes it is nicer, but it does mean that people who can’t really hold a tune ride through sometimes at the expense of people who can sing. Fine in theory, except on those occasions (hello Leon Jackson) when a non-singer wins and this bites them on the bottom.

I mentioned arses again. Almost as if it is foreshadowing something. Also, have you noticed how Cheryl constantly glances down at her notes when delivering her reviews? Even when she is saying nice things about her own acts.

Moving on, and to sing next is new competition favourite NiceBloke. His big news of the week is the hand injury he has suffered whilst in the X Factor gym. It means he spends every rehearsal wearing a sling, making slick choreography rather tricky this week. If you don’t mind, I’m going to pretend he has actually suffered some kind of bizarre wanking injury as it makes the whole thing even funnier.

Tonight he is singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ but this ends up being just a little bit of a letdown. It is a huge song to sing and he is by no means the first person ever to be totally swamped by the song and almost lost on the stage. Pleasingly Dannii makes the same point mere moments after I’ve written the above in my notes which does at least mean that one of us knows what we are talking about. Meanwhile the wanking knuckle injury is elevated to “nearly broke your arm” by the time we get round to Simon’s comments and he is required to make excuses for the poor performance of one of his acts.

The regrettable but sadly inevitable parade of boys continues with Ken who has chosen ‘Somebody To Love’. In the deserted theatre of celebrity worship, May and Taylor purse their lips and tell him what a hard song it is which sets this up to be a car crash. Except it isn’t. His rendition is everything the last chap wasn’t. Showing a side of him he never has before he delivers this in a powerful, confident manner and even hits the long sustain into the bridge without so much as a wobble. If it does fall to me to start critiquing the singing then I’m pleased to report this was almost inch perfect. Best of the night honours are surely going to go his way.

Louis grumpily complains about the choir that joined him onstage, for reasons that are not quite clear. Simon says he was better last week. I shout at the TV that last week is irrelevant before realising they are in Zone 4 on the tube map and can’t hear me.

So it comes to this. Fresh from Stacey-gate are the Malfoy Twins. I’m going to skip over the “we met Queen. The Band not The Queen” gap in their intro VT as this was clearly scripted as part of a new campaign to endear them to the public. Some of us aren’t so easily fooled you know.

Their carefully chosen (to mask their inadequacies) song is ‘Ice Ice Baby’, er.. I mean ‘Under Pressure’, although the joke is spoiled when they wind up doing a cute hybrid of both songs. As seen on the last Westlife tour I’m told. Wonder who came up with that idea. First of all we should note that as a performance, this was knockout wonderful. I’m not sure what it was. Whether it was the revelation that they make better rappers than dancers or whether it was the fact that the staging meant they toned down that annoying little jig dance that they always wind up doing, I’m not sure. All I do know is that for a brief four minutes it was worth forgetting everything that had gone before and appreciating the pair in a whole new light. Now that took some doing.

Sadly for them, this won’t be the reason the performance was remembered. The headlines will belong to a stage invader (quickly revealed to be planned studio guest Calvin Harris) who makes his bid for Jarvis Cocker-esque infamy by dancing around with a pineapple on his head before pointing his rear end towards the camera and then exiting stage left. Some swift camera work ensures it was a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but the wonder of the internet means that screen captures of the whole thing were being swapped left right and centre within moments of the performance.

If he had tried to disrupt them being awful it might have been funnier. As it was, as a timely intervention this was right up there with the time during my university years when the rag society hijacked a Union meeting, just as they were discussing a recent campus suicide.

We’ll move on to the lady who is quite blatantly the only womb-packing contestant left – Dagenham Doris. She performs ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ which turns out to be an inspired choice. For the first time since, well pretty much the first audition show, she gets to break out the “new Leona” persona that made her an instant favourite after the very first show on the series. Can I change my mind about best of the night? This was rich, classy and actually not a little bit moving. The panel shower her with praise, meaning we get to see her looking really happy over and over again. The downside being that it hits home how much her “I am really pleased” face is exactly the same as everybody else’s “I am doing a large poo” face.

To bring up the rear if you’ll pardon the ever more appropriate pun, here comes Arsehyl who is apparently still on the horns of the “too cocky or not to cocky” dilemma. OneHalfOfQueen reassure him that most people believed that Freddie Mercury was cocky and arrogant and it didn’t let him bother him. Although Freddie also had lost of unprotected promiscuous sex and didn’t let that bother him either, and look where that got him. Not that Arsehyl will fall into that trap, unless he takes Cheryl’s cooing over his close cropped haircut at face value.

What’s that? Oh yes, his song. ‘We Are The Champions’. It was only OK, and Dermot has just reminded me that we have to endure this year’s charity ensemble record tomorrow night and so we’ve finished on a downer.

We’re left at the end of this performance night with three big questions unanswered:

  1. Who is for the bullet? I’d go for NotGazza in all honesty.
  2. What is the “big Queen surprise” that they teased.
  3. What is the technical TV term for the “emergency wide shot of extreme panic” that the director cut to when Calvin Harris started waving pineapples around?

On that last question, I’ll consult a TV director friend and report back tomorrow. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a clip of the Twitscoop cloud from moments after the show ended. The bigger the word, the more popular it is. Can you guess what the real talking point of tonight was?

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Nov 09

X Factor 2009 – Week 5 (Results)

“Well hellllloooo”. *makes set explode*

That’s my Dermot O’Leary impression. Good isn’t it? Results show five is upon us, and if I tell you that this turns out to be the most dramatic one yet, I’m not spoiling too much of the surprise surely.

We start with the obligatory group performance, and seeing the remaining acts all assembled together only serves to hammer home the fact that there are only two girls left in the contest, thanks largely to Simon’s stuffing of his category with boys. Or should that be men? It makes for a rather lop-sided contest and if the ladies continue to fall will only get worse. Katy Perry’s ‘Hot n’ Cold’ is the song of choice this week. Is it churlish to ask which film this was from, or are we not bothering to keep with the theme any more?

Going back to last night for the moment and the near continual arguments between the judges, you do have to wonder just how genuine they are or if some of it is contrived to give the show an extra frisson? Back in the days when Sharon Osbourne was on this show and storming out and throwing glasses of water around, you could kind of believe it as she is genuinely this insane. I’m less convinced over Louis’ grumpiness and complaints of “cheating”. For all the cynicism about him, he is just too nice.

Celebrity superstars of the week are the Black Eyed Peas, so just for a change this part of the show is unremarkable. Still, I’ll be entertained if the pattern of recent weeks is continued and I get lots of hits from people googling “Black Eyed Peas Miming X Factor”. Yes they were, get over it.

Now we move on to the annual worshipping of Leona Lewis, the lady who you will note won the show in 2006 and returned to perform her new single in 2007, 2008 and now 2009. The stupid thing is that she is probably one of the few acts on the planet right now who is bigger than the show. She’s topped the charts all over the world, and every single she releases is a smash hit. The only reason she turns up here time after time is so the X Factor franchise can bask in the glory of the one global superstar it has managed to unearth. Shame that she has to lower herself by contractual obligation, that is all. As ever her performance is refreshingly gimmick free, she just stands on stage and captivates us with her voice. The glitter shower at the end does make me pity the bloke who has to sweep it all up afterwards. Who said TV was glamorous?

Time at last for the results, and has anyone else noticed how contrived it is that the contestants all have to reappear in the same outfits they performed in on Saturday night? Back in the days when the results show was later the same evening it kind of made sense that they didn’t have time to change. I just hope they were all washed after all the dancing around.

The moment the entire nation has been waiting (five) weeks for finally arrives as THE TWINS ARE IN THE BOTTOM 2. This is kind of a double edged sword. On the one hand we are on the verge of being rid of them for the first time, on the other hand we have to listen to them “sing” again. The big question is though, will judges bottle the biggest decision of the series so far? Surely they know deep down which acts have the real talent and which should really be shown the door. This has the potential to be the tensest elimination yet.

Going first is the almost forgotten other person in the bottom 2 – IAmWelsh. She picks ‘One Moment In Time’ which is one of those songs which feels like a challenge but which is so well written it is possible to sing it quite easily. Heck, I once scored 99% on a friends karaoke machine singing it and can even make the final note after a few drinks. Remind me to prove it sometime. Whilst her rendition wasn’t a 99% performance, it does prove she is far, far too good to go. At least so I assumed.

Next we get the Malfoy Twins who despite joshing speculation online that they would live up to their billing as the “new Ant and Dec” do not do ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble’. Instead they break out ‘Rock DJ’. This is an odd choice, repeating a song that they have already done. Anyone would think they can only sing something that has been crafted for them from the ground up – and indeed many people note with some interest that uniquely out of all the bottom 2 contestants so far they get a complete production with backing vocals that cover up their many inadequacies.

Down to the judges and after Louis saves his boys and the two girls side with the fairer sex it once again comes down to Simon’s vote. He acknowledges the flack he got last week for refusing to make a choice but still once again sends the vote to deadlock in a deliberate bid to “let the public decide”. This now has me shouting at the screen. Let’s spell this out. It is his show. He created the format. He runs it. It was his idea to have the judges have the final say on who to eliminate. Quite why two weeks running he wants to sacrifice that choice and not play the game seems more than a little odd.

Regrettably this does mean that we are forced to suffer for another week. Dermot’s magic envelope reveals that the bottom act is Lucie and almost the entire studio stops in disbelief. All I can conclude is that the producers are playing the game well. Having the terrible twosome in the bottom 2 finally proves that the bubble is bursting at long last. Despite putting on what was acknowledged as their best performance so far, nobody bothered to vote for them this time. They won’t win and are vulnerable, but this way we all get to tune in next week to find out if they will finally go. It is like a wrestling promoter holding off having the hero winning the title belt for just one more match – we will all tune in to the next event to watch them do it.

Watch the ratings next week and you will see that I am correct. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a screen grab from my Tweetdeck feed at the exact moment the result was announced. Sometimes you don’t even need 140 characters…

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Nov 08

X Factor 2009 – Week 5 (Performances)

Before we start this week, we interrupt your normal X Factor Blog schedule to bring you a gratuitous moment of reality TV celeb schmoozing on the part of the author.

Me and Rhydian on Twitpic There, that feels better. Sorry for the interruption.

This week the obsession with discovering just who has topped the telephone voting seems to have hit new heights, with huge numbers of people landing on this site all searching for variations on “X Factor Voting figures”. The Sun suggested this week that the source of its bold claims to know who won were based on figures released by the Free2call website which was offering free voting to a limited number of people who listened to an advert. It is an interesting theory, but I would counsel against assuming that it is necessarily a representative sample – especially as there was little to stop the limited number of people being aware of it from voting multiple times. It is all a moot point this week as the site lost their sponsor and so did not run the service.

I should point out that trying to find out who “won” kind of defeats the object of the show. Such figures are kept secret for a good reason, as finding out who is theoretically ahead risks rendering the heats pointless. The only numbers that matter are who came bottom, and in truth they are the only ones that I personally care about.

Preaching over. This week it is “movie songs week”, which as per this show’s usual habit of recycling themes was last seen in week 2 back in 2007, although any fears that this would mean a similar recycling of song choices ultimately proved unfounded.

First out of the hat is Dagenham Doris. In keeping with tonight’s theme, they all got to attend a movie premiere this week, something which actually gets old very quickly as every single damn interview starts with the contestant saying “we went to a movie premiere this week”. We are told that tonight she is concentrating on being “sexy”, an effect ruined by the lady herself as she gives that odd little snort of hers right after she’s told us. Her song is ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ which is apparently so obviously from Pulp Fiction that nobody sees fit to mention it. Once again the stress of walking and talking takes its toll on her voice as she warbles in a way that makes the ghost of Dusty Springfield distinctly uncomfortable. Am I nitpicking about the bum notes? I don’t think I am really. She was the one people were talking of as a winner after very first show of the auditions, so it isn’t too much to expect her to be better.

“Lovely to see you looking so sexy and young” says Cheryl. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention but I missed the week where she was dressed up as a granny. Simon complains it was “a talent show performance” which I’m taking to be the final proof that he is running a completely different show in his head. Call me daft but I was under the impression this was what this is. Never mind, you do have to conclude she did look sexy. I almost want to make a baby with her and then leave her to raise it on her own.

Second to perform tonight is NiceBloke, who now is apparently “The Incredible NiceBloke”. Well he did rip his shirt off last week I guess. Simon says it is a song from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and I can’t have been the only person in the country who entertained the thought just for a moment that he might be doing ‘Oh Yeah’. Instead we learn he Is doing ‘Twist and Shout’ and you will note that Simon’s act is the only one whose introductory video includes the actual footage of the song being used in the film. Sniping aside this is another assured performance which goes a long way to seeing him anointed the winner although the choreography eschews actual twisting as per the lyrics and instead bizarrely at one point turns into the ‘Thriller’ routine. The three judges who don’t “own” him all do their best to pick holes causing Simon to fly into a bit of a rage. This could get ugly.

Now for NotGazza, who has to do the compulsory “phew I escaped the chop last week” moment in his video. It seems at one point he is going to be this year’s sicknote as his voice sounds shot to bits, although we are assured he is OK to perform. He is doing ‘Stand By Me’ and it surely did not take a clairvoyant to predict that it would turn into ‘Beautiful Girls’ halfway through. Sure enough it does, which is an interesting move as technically it means he has performed two songs so they had to pay for two lots of clearance. I only bring this up as the year before last on American Idol David Archuleta famously turned ‘Stand By Me’ into the Sean Kingston song at the behest of his father and completely without permission from the producers. This apparently landed the show a huge bill for the uncleared song and a backstage ban for the meddling father. This aside, the performance was good although the lack of contemporary songs is starting to get a little annoying.

Here is hoping for something from DIsco Stu who once again was embroiled in a row over his song choice with Simon making a last minute intervention to change it to something more sensible. His original choice was apparently ‘Unchained Melody’, which as Cheryl sagely notes would have been a little bit rubbish. His eventual song is ‘Crying’ which prompts the first stand up row of the series. The song is credited as being from little known cult film Gummo which prompts Louis to complain of cheating, given that it is from a song that only five people have seen. On closer examination this simply doesn’t hold up. Regardless of what Simon thinks it is from, the song was also in Hiding Out (which prompted the kd lang and Roy Orbison duet) and famously in the nightclub scene in Mulholland Drive. Charge not sustained I’m afraid.

All of this serves as a good distraction from his performance itself which was a little off the money and a poor reflection of his talents. Never mind the songs though, the feistiness of the panel is providing most of the entertainment tonight. Nonetheless you will note it was yet another very elderly song.

Things change as we get to IAmWelsh although this a classic example of being careful what you wish for. Tonight she is singing what I initially have to note as “obscure song from Camp Rock” which eventually turns out to be the Demi Lovato song ‘This Is Me’. The flaw here is the sheer obscurity of it. Let’s face facts, nobody over the age of 14 has ever sat through Camp Rock. Even if you are tangentially aware of Disney Channel movies, it is still no High School Musical. That can’t help but harm her appeal. Incidentally the amount of Disney related product placement tonight is starting to get a little suspicious. Not only to the contestants all make the point of how wonderful their Disney Film Premiere experience was, we now have a song from a film that was made by them. They even get a post-song plug as IAmWelsh takes time to note how wonderful it was to sing a Disney song. Hmmm.

As for the singing this was actually bloody poor again. More than anyone else she seems to be trading on her looks rather than her talent. The best Simon can do is tell her she was “relevant”, which to my mind does not equate to “being able to sing”. Do I really have too elevated a bunch of expectations, or are many of these people this year just painfully average?

Now to the newly shorn and nicely humble Arsehyl. Fascinatingly his song is ‘Purple Rain’ which is inevitably going to provoke comparisons with Los Pechos and her show-stopping performance from this time last year. Meanwhile I’m more interested to learn whether this is the one performance of the week which won’t be up on the official X Factor channel on YouTube given Prince’s idiotic and slightly contemptible insistence that no representation of him or his music appears on internet sites he doesn’t control. Prince, if you or your lawyers are watching, I think you are an utter cock. Dialling down my hatred of Arsehyl himself, this was actually the kind of good performance the show has been lacking this evening. It wasn’t the best performance of ‘Purple Rain’ this show has ever seen (nothing ever could be quite frankly) but it was enough to ensure he won’t be bottom again. Cheryl once again manages to be the most relevant judge of the week by noting that he is no longer the broken man we saw last week. He has his mojo back, but let’s hope the ego doesn’t return as well.

Dermot cues the break by announcing that the twins are next and for a moment you could be forgiven that we are watching a pantomime as the already animated audience almost drown him out with boos and catcalls. This I think illustrates the main problem the show has with this act. It isn’t like John Simpson on SCD last year where the judges were the only ones who hated him and the public kept him in just to annoy them. This time the judges are trying to play fair by the contenders in the face of what is a totally split public view. It is very hard for them to call it one way or the other.

The Malfoy Twins tonight are doing Ghostbusters which you will note yet again is a song that doesn’t have much of a tune that needs carrying. The elaborate staging (far and away above that offered to anyone else) again demonstrates that the two cannot dance in time any more than they can sing in tune and once more this is going to come down more to entertainment value than any talent they may possess. Dannii confesses she has nothing constructive to say. Does that mean she has to give her fee for the night back? Simon ends up echoing my own thoughts and notes that for sheer entertainment value you cannot escape the fact that they were the best of the night so far.

Incidentally I do love the way the Twitter hot topics list is swamped by X Factor related tags any time the show is on. People in the USA and indeed around the world must wonder what the hell is going on.

Ken gets to finish tonight. I note with interest that his rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ last week meant that he has for the first time been responsible for the creation of a spontaneous Top 20 hit. If you take that as any kind of yardstick you can’t escape the fact that he is turning into one of the more popular contenders. More Disney plugs here as he goes for ‘Circle Of Life’ and I do have to point out here that I’ve so far managed to go through my entire adult life without ever watching The Lion King. I did watch The Loin King once but that was a totally different film and probably not compatible with the Disney ethos. The song performance is a bit choirboy (or as Dannii points out, a stage musical rendition rather than that of a potential pop star) but at the very least is in tune. My new philosophy is to ignore whether I hate the people singing or note. Awarding top marks to people who actually sing in tune is the way forward.

So this was a weird one tonight. You’ll note that we’ve hit the half way point of these hearts so theoretically all the real deadwood has now gone. Choosing a loser of the night is going to be tricky.

See you tomorrow night for the results, and I’ll leave you with one thought. Why do the voting recaps make a point of highlighting the pictures of the respective judges? I can’t help but think that the public don’t actually care which act “belongs” to which judge. After six years of this show you would think the producers would have spotted that as well.

Nov 05

Champagne And Roses

My first ever role when I joined talkSPORT in the summer of 2002 was being the Saturday evening guy. On the one hand it was because this was the awkward dead slot which only the most desperate no-life radio loser would want to work, but also because at the time that slot was home to “Talk Wrestling with Alex Shane”. My then boss had noticed with interest that I’d listed grappling as one of my own interests on my CV and realised that I’d be a perfect fit for the show.

I worked on that programme for five months and enjoyed every last moment of it, even the time Jake The Snake Roberts had to be dissuaded from smoking cigars live on air. Towards the end of November however, the presenters of the show were increasingly concerned at bizarre rumours they had heard that the radio station was planning to cancel them and in their place put on a programme of easy listening music. Sean the producer and I scoffed at the idea. This was a sports radio station, a speech station. Only an utter idiot would consider that playing Frank Sinatra records immediately after the football phone-in would be a good idea.

On December 1st 2002 I was enjoying a lie in on a well-earned holiday from my day job. My telephone rang, and it was one of the wrestling show presenters:

“Have you heard the news? They’ve cancelled the show and put lounge music on in its place”.

I shot out of bed and logged on to the station website. There it was in black and white (literally in the case of the presenter photograph), “Every Saturday at 8pm – Champagne And Roses with Gerald Harper”.

Nobody has ever told me the definitive story as to why the show was created. Rumour has it that Kelvin McKenzie who ran talkSPORT at the time played golf with a man who owned a wine bar. He had waxed lyrical about the love people still had for the easy listening and Rat Pack tunes he played to his clientele and assured our boss that people would listen in their thousands if only there was a radio show still playing them. With his mind made up, Kelvin ordered his programmers to make it happen.

Veteran actor of stage and screen Gerald Harper had been associated with this kind of thing before. In the early days of Capital Radio in the 1970s and on Radio 2 in the 1980s he was the host of their weekly “Champagne And Roses” show, its title taken from the gifts he would bestow upon the people to whom he read out romantic dedications in his very precise Rada-trained accent. After checking first of all that he was still alive (a necessary caution perhaps), talkSPORT made arrangements with his agent for the actor to resurrect one of his most famous roles for a Saturday night AM audience.

In a way it was probably fortuitous that I was set to be the man who was required to make it happen on the air. This was after all a sports radio station packed with people who knew everything there was to know about football but very little about music radio. I was literally the only person in the building who had played a record on the radio before and so theoretically knew how these things were supposed to sound. Not for the first time I was just in the right place at the right time.

At first my involvement was limited to playing the pre-recorded show out. Gerald Harper would arrive in the office midweek and be ushered into a production studio where he would sit and wax lyrical about the pre-selected list of songs placed in front of him. I arrived at work at the weekend to find an envelope of CDs stuffed inside my pigeonhole, each containing an hour of the exquisitely crafted broadcast. It was like being transported back eight years to my first ever radio job, as I sat down and worked out the timings for each hour. I would note the length of the news, the commercial breaks, the bands of the show and then come to the horrific realisation that the people upstairs had failed to take into account any of the extra station material and made every hour of the show run ten minutes long. I thus had to spend an hour noting where each block faded and when the host stopped talking, so I knew which bits I could cut short to make the whole thing run to time.

Revelling in the stupidity of the whole event, for the very first broadast I decided to dress up for the occasion. I therefore shocked Adrian Durham and Lawrie McMenemy by slipping into the studio at 7.45pm dressed in my best charity shop tuxedo and brandishing a cheap bottle of champagne from which I ceremonially poured them a large glass on the air. Never mind that I’d be spending the next three hours in a deserted radio station pressing “play” on a CD player, I at least reasoned that dressed up I maybe might pull on the tube journey home at 11pm.

Over the next two months this became part of my weekly routine as I slipped into work on a Saturday afternoon and prepared to inflict the strangest radio show ever on the listening millions. It is not that Champagne and Roses was a bad show, far from it, just that a male-skewed speech radio station was the last place it should have been broadcast. Did I mention we even had to get the licence changed to allow it? To this day the talkSPORT format as available on the Ofcom website contains a note to the effect that a Saturday night music show is a permitted part of the schedules.

Most of these weeks passed fairly smoothly, aside from the evening of February 1st 2003 which was the day of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster which saw the craft disintegrate in the upper atmosphere upon re-entry, killing everyone on board. Having spent the day in the office watching the drama unfold on the news, I commented that it would be hideously inappropriate to play something like ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, only to tear open the evening’s playlist and note that Gerald’s first record of the night was indeed the famous Frank Sinatra song. Cue some creative re-editing and a rather strange introduction to the show as Gerald greeted his rapturous audience and then cued up his first song without every acknowledging what it was or who was singing.

Shortly after that I was informed that Gerald was now confident enough to take the next step and begin doing the shows live. So it was that I got to meet the man himself, star of cult TV classics such as ‘Adam Adamant Lives’ and ‘Hadleigh’. Although 73 years old at the time, he still had a spring in his step and retained the roguish charm that earned him a well deserved reputation as a ladykiller. Over the next few weeks I came to know him very well and we would sit and converse through the glass as the music played. Upon playing the James Bond theme one evening I asked him casually if he had ever been up for the part, and he told me a long tale about how he was one of the names in the frame when Sean Connery first indicated he wanted to step aside. Upon playing a Bing Crosby track I recounted to him the Bob Monkhouse anecdote of how a drunkenly comatose Bing put on a professional, sober performance the moment the curtains opened, only to slump back into a slumber the second the house lights went up. Gerald delightedly recounted the tale on air word for word.

He was also a big fan of the coffees I would make him, apparently believing them to be one of the most wonderfully crafted beverages he had ever consumed as part of his work. In fact they were actually little more sophisticated than instant coffees from the industrial sized vat of Nescafe that lurked in the darkest corners of the radio station kitchen, served to him in one of the few non-chipped mugs in the building. Then again that could have just been part of his blue-eyed charm, one which always came to the fore whenever there were ladies in the building. One evening my colleague Liz, a buxom blonde bombshell in the classic style, popped into the control room to wish me goodnight just before finishing her shift. The moment she left, the talkback from the other room buzzed through. It was Gerald: “Who was that… VISION?” he asked with a trembling voice. I promised to introduce him to her at the next opportunity.

I mentioned all of this to my boss at Unique, Tim Blackmore who eagerly recounted that he was one of the people who would produce him back in the early days of Capital Radio. He explained how he would turn up at the studio with whatever beauty contest contender he had managed to attract that week and would spend the time between songs deep in conversation with his latest paramour. He asked to be remembered to Gerald, who himself was delighted to hear that the “young man” who helped him out so much in his early days as a broadcaster was now the proud owner of his own radio company.

Gerald Harper always had a knack for taking everything at face value. The listener interaction in the early weeks of the show consisted of him throwing out requests for people to write in to the radio station so he could mention them the next week and award them the boxes of roses etc. When we began to do the shows live, he was delighted to discover that technology now meant that an instantaneous response via text and email was possible. One evening I came across a blatantly piss-taking email which read:

“Pls say hello to Mary. She fell down the stairs. I love her so”.

I handed it to Gerald as an example of some of the dafter things that would come through. Next thing I knew he was reading it out verbatim and promising a huge bunch of flowers for poor Mary to help cheer her up from her accident.

In time we probably would have developed the show further. My boss was keen for Gerald to start talking to the audience and take calls during the show, something he was initially reluctant to do as he knew that old ladies would just start asking if he was ever going to be Hadleigh again and that it would just be crap. I persuaded him that by recording them before we went on air, we could cut out any nonsense and get to the good stuff straight away. Sadly before we could put that plan into action, his schedule got in the way as he was booked to star in a play down on the south coast. This meant a temporary end to the live shows and a return to pre-recording, although now with his much reduced schedule he was no longer able to devote an entire afternoon to recording in full. Hence Champagne and Roses became voicetracked, and I would be handed a minidisc with the links for the evening on and the box of CDs from which the music would come.

This did result in one more memorable evening when I discovered that one disc of a “Best Easy Listening Album Ever” compilation was faulty and refused to load in any CD player anywhere in the building. To my horror I further discovered that this particular disc had been used by the Programme Director to construct virtually the whole of the next hour and I was confronted with the prospect of Gerald Harper merrily introducing records that I had no physical means of playing at all. The result was possibly the greatest rescue job of my career, as I painstakingly re-edited just about every single link so that my host introduced acts by their name only or very often not at all, enabling me to substitute other records in their place and leaving the audience (such as it was) unaware of any problem.

Did I mention the audience figures? Negligible as you might reasonably expect, to the extent that sooner or later it was going to become a problem. Just how on earth to persuade Kelvin that his grand idea of a Saturday night music show on his radio station was the utter disaster everyone knew it would be? Fortunately the real world, or rather the Iraq invasion, intervened. With war underway, the evening schedules of the station switched to a rolling news and discussion format. One entire edition of Champagne and Roses was recorded and never aired, much to the chagrin of its host who got wind of the schedule change and faxed through a snippy note advising that any further contact should be via his agent. I gather there subsequently followed a messy exchange of letters, following which the station paid off the remainder of Gerald’s contract and allowed both sides a graceful exit. Gerald Harper was gracious enough to send my boss a bottle of champagne as thanks, along with a note saying he should know better than to try to get the better of an actor!

Thus ended the saga of talkSPORT’s first and last (for now) Saturday night music show and one of the stupidest ideas in radio history. Much of which just happened to be my fault. I was only obeying orders your honour.