The X Factor ITV 1<br/> Hop, Skip and Jump: The Story of Children's Play BBC 4

This year's 'Battle of the Blands' is still the stuff of dreams, but it's the judges who'll steal the show
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The Independent Culture

Never mind about Olly (poor man's Robbie) Murs, Stacey (the second-rate Streisand) Solomon or Joe (see you next year in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) McElderry, this year's X Factor has been all about the judges.

And with one of the contestants now gone in last night's "shock" exit, tonight's final final will be all about the show's Fab Four, the real reason that anyone over the age of 12 is still tuning in to this fading format that, this year in particular, has been little more than a Battle of the Blands.

There's been Louis "Jobsworth" Walsh and his rule book and Simon "Cowardly" Cowell and his ducking of the decision that would have spared the nation Jedward's execrable Wham! medley. Better still, who with the Grazia gene can have failed to find riveting the fabulous parade that is Cheryl Cole versus Dannii Minogue, as the pair vie for our attention in a range of outfits that only they, drag acts, or Lady Gaga would be seen dead in. OK, perhaps it wasn't Dannii's finest moment when she decided to "out" Danyl on live TV, but we'll forgive her because clothes and TV have always made uneasy bedfellows (The Fashion Show, anyone? Exactly), and The X Factor must be applauded for finally giving fashionistas their water-cooler moment.

This isn't quite how things were supposed to turn out. Just as previous generations were dished up Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz to distract them from the small matter of the Second World War, Pop Idol, the precursor to the global X Factor brand, first aired in the weeks following 9/11. Then, we needed something to hold on to, something to reassure us that television could still be the stuff of dreams as well as nightmares. And Pop Idol and The X Factor gave us that in spades.

Less than a decade later, tonight's winner (dare I say Joe, this side of deadline?) will, of course, make all the right noises ("incredible journey", "life-changing experience", "all I've wanted since I was a kid", etc), but they'll know, and we'll know, and they'll know that we know that the X Factor frisson died the moment they unearthed Leona Lewis. If the series' ambition was to find an ordinary Brit who could hold their own against the Whitneys and the Britneys, Lewis was its "mission accomplished" moment.

So we are left watching Simon get smugger with every passing week; Louis desperately trying to keep up with what the kids of today want; Cheryl morphing into a part-mom, part-sister, part-sexual fantasy superwoman; and Dannii gamely attempting to fit in and earn her place at the table. It's still great viewing but there have been, for the first time in the programme's history, wrong turns.

The live Britain's Got Talent-style first round lacked the intensity of the closed auditions; the Jedward circus detracted from the fact that Lucie Jones, a sort of British Miley Cyrus, was misunderstood as an artist and lost far too early; and the splitting of the show from the results delayed gratification but also greatly tempered the Saturday-night excitement.

A more modest triumph, then, but a triumph no less, and still the stuff of dreams for a generation who can't remember how things were before reality TV took over both the airwaves and our collective consciousness.

To remind them, BBC4's Hop, Skip and Jump: The Story of Children's Play attempted to recall the days when playing on bomb sites and stealing eggs from birds' nests provided the sort of thrills kids now have to find in videogames, DVDs, Facebook, Twitter and The X Factor.

I say attempted, because after a promising start, the two-parter strayed from its brief and lingered too long on inner-city kids' memories of evacuation and the Blitz. It was a time as far removed from X Factor glitz as it's possible to imagine, though the playground songs of the day still sound considerably better than Jedward.