First Night: The X Factor, ITV, Saturday, 8pm


Does Barlow have enough X Factor to replace Cowell?

the judges were airlifted in to the auditions by helicopter to the apocalyptic strains of O Fortuna. But despite their grandiose entry, the big question remained: could newcomers Gary Barlow, Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos fill the gaping hole left on The X Factor's judging panel by the absence of Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell?

"Mr Nasty" has defected to the US to launch Fox's version of his globe-straddling format. Ms Cole was left high and dry after being terminated from the American series. The fate of Britain's highest-rated television series, and ITV's most important cash cow, now lies with an untried team of judges whose televisual appeal remains uncertain until the viewing figures are returned for Saturday night's series opener.

The launch episode, screened to an audience of fans and media at the O2 Arena, suggests that the talent show will maintain its mass appeal by dialling down the artificial rows between a new, more humble panel of judges and letting the hopefuls, in all their mad, bad and deluded glory, take centre stage. N-Dubz singer Tulisa is blooded in the most brutal way. Soul-singing aspirant George, an X Factor retread who is rejected once again, informs Tulisa that she is no Cheryl. Tulisa, chosen to give the series an edgier "urban" appeal, hurls insults back as the young man is forcibly ejected from the stage by security.

Rowland, the Destiny's Child singer who isn't Beyoncé, offers all-American homilies to Janet Devlin, a promising 16 year-old singer from Northern Ireland. "Don't ever lose that girl who came on this stage or you'll lose who you are," she tells Janet. Kelly wants to see the good in everyone. And she's perfected the judges' mock open-mouthed look of horror when contestants go off-piste in an entirely predictable way.

Gary Barlow, tipped to replace Cowell as "Mr Angry", more often looks "Mr Pissed-Off". When a middle-aged Hong Kong-born tai chi instructor called Goldie drapes her leg around his shoulder, the thunderous look on his face says: "I'm playing to 70,000 Take That fans tonight, I do not need to be here." When the "brutally honest" singer-songwriter Barlow tells one time-waster that he is actually looking for someone who can sell millions of records internationally, his explanation falls on tone-deaf ears.

But Barlow gives the game away when he's asked if he will be a better judge than Cowell. "Simon is the master," he said. "It's going to be a tough role to fill but we're all listening to what he's telling us."

The X Factor creator might appear distracted in LA but don't be fooled. He's watching all the rushes and whispering into the ears of the judges to whom he has entrusted his baby. And as Cheryl found , whether onscreen or off, Cowell remains the ultimate judge.

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