“It’s like the past four years never happened. It’s back to square one,” said Cheryl Fernandez-Versini after a West End screening of the launch episode for the new series of The X Factor, which aims to restore the talent show’s lustre by hitting the “reset” button.
It is the former Cheryl Cole’s return to share the judging panel, alongside “frenemy” Simon Cowell, who hired and fired her from the axed US version of the series, which dominates this weekend’s opening instalments.
The pressure is on the ITV cash-cow, now in its 11th year, after BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing overtook The X Factor in the Saturday night ratings battle during the grisly Gary Barlow years.
Enter Cheryl. Treated with awestuck reverence by contestants and panellists alike, she bathes in a fountain of worship.
Amy Connolly, a retread from the 2008 series, bursts into tears, because she is singing in front of Cheryl once again. Cheryl is in floods too.
Clean-cut boy singers serenade her with flowers. “You’re beautiful,” one tells her.
“What am I then….f***ing chopped liver?,” snaps Mel B, the caustic new addition to the judging panel, expressing momentary frustration at the sea of Cheryl supplicants.
Thoroughly overshadowed, “Scary Spice” is certainly spread very thinly over the opening episodes, along with Louis Walsh, who laughs on cue but admitted afterwards that ITV preferred to replace him with a younger model before Cowell intervened.
As for the supposedly feisty relationship between Cowell and Cheryl, she regally wafts a fan to her face to express mild irritation at her colleague.
But there are no visible signs to tension and the predictable parade of exhibitionists, reality show rejects and sob-stories performing for their approval offers little potential for disagreement.
Cowell, who indulges the cheesy acts, has polished his acid put-downs: “It was like you’ve swallowed a load of people and they’re all screaming,” he tells one caterwauler.
The panel take great delight in separating 52 year-old Ashley Slater, a former collaborator with Fatboy Slim in the band Freak Power, from his 28 year-old wife and musical partner, Kitten, because the May-to-December pairing “looks odd”.
Asked if she is willing to split from the father of her child to advance her chance of fame, Kitten waits a nanosecond before answering “Yes, I’d do anything to make this work.” No-one mentions that Cowell is Slater’s senior by two years.
There are anodyne boy/girl groups already styled to within an inch of their lives, tremulous male vocalists in emotive Ed Sheeran mode and people who look highly unlikely before they open their mouths – and, lo and behold, they can sing in tune. Cue frozen-faced amazement.
But in a week when Kate Bush reminded audiences that artists with a singular vision can construct a unique musical world, Cowell’s claim that this series will uncover a new type of global superstar appears fanciful.
The X Factor only exists on the judging panel.