You watch the Olympics and you think we’re in a whole new world where we all understand the value of hard work, where the cult of celebrity has lost its appeal, where we put people on pedestals, if we do it at all, for the right reasons.
Then The X Factor comes back and you quickly remember what things are actually like. You meet Rick, a fireman, who likes his job, sort of. “Every day you’re doing something to help people,” he says, and then his face goes all earnest, and he adds: “But ultimately I want to be an international star.” Yep, we’re definitely back in business.
Ach, I suppose it’s a bit much to attribute the downfall of Western civilisation to a talent contest. And yet. If The X Factor didn’t create something ugly, it certainly amplified and legitimised it. The fantasy it has nurtured flourishes everywhere now. I’m a little ashamed to report that I have watched nearly every series, bought entirely in to the show’s vibrant, corrosive, repetitive narratives, even as they became more and more blatantly constructed for our satisfaction.
But viewing figures are on the wane, and the first episode comes hot on the heels of that intoxicating Olympic fortnight. Could there be the faintest suggestion of a threat to the supremacy of Cowell? The prospect has plainly spooked ITV’s producers: within the first few minutes, Gary Barlow has co-opted the Games, linking the two as “showcases of amazing British talent”. And, true enough, there is a bit of that on show, enough to have stultifyingly bland new judge Nicole Scherzinger on her feet time and again in berserker celebration. Jahmene is the best; he looks like a dweeb but has a legitimate set of pop-star pipes on him. When he lets rip and suddenly a stellar future seems to open up, my heart does that little jump for joy that keeps us all coming back.
So that’s nice. Less nice is the other bit of the equation, necessary to keep the suspense up when the Jahmenes of this world take their place on the stage: the ruthless exposure of the talentless and strange. This week, it’s Zoe, who does a number from her act as a Pink impersonator and is then outraged to be told that she doesn’t have her own style. She loses her rag spectacularly, knocking over equipment and a cameraman and finally storming off quite humiliated, not so lacking in self-awareness as to have missed that her dream is irretrievably done for. Zoe also suggests that she was told to sing a Pink song, and while the producers have denied it, it would not be out of character if it were true.
On it goes. Nothing much is any different to the previous series, except, it is to be hoped, our growing sense of ennui. Will I keep watching? Probably, yes. Please don’t join me.
Last night’s The Last Weekend was sinister in a different way. It’s adapted from Blake Morrison’s novel that starts with two couples who have a class divide and a dark history between them spending a weekend away together, and it did a fine job of applying that Chekhov maxim about showing us a loaded gun on the kitchen table in the first act if you intend to use it in the third.
A strong cast led by Rupert Penry-Jones (as Ollie, basically reprising his ruthless, posh lawyer from Silk, except a little more mental) scattered the script with tiny, awkward moments, overhearings and mishearings and hugs that last too long. Ollie tells his old friend Ian that he’s dying, and has lost his conscience; his fiancée Daisy doesn’t seem to have a clue; Ian’s wife Em is letting Ollie flirt with her vigorously; and it looks like Ian might have raped Daisy long ago. We finished with the arrival of Milo, who definitely looks like he’s going to mix things up a bit. Ian and Ollie seem certifiable to me, but no one is to be entirely trusted. That gun is definitely going to go off, and I’m looking forward to finding out who fires it.