On Sunday night, almost 20 million of us sat on the sofa and saw Matt the Cardigan beat Shy Rebecca in the final sing-off of Simon Cowell's talent show. More than a few hundred thousand, I'd guess, didn't really want to be watching at all, but found themselves drawn into The X Factor's gravitational pull. Lord knows what devilish deal he made, but this year Cowell managed to transform a mildly diverting singing competition into a national event – and I watched, resignedly, in the same way that I've watched Royal Weddings and World Cup football games and the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
What these straight-faced, mass-appeal live broadcasts lack, I feel, is the Terry Wogan treatment. I mean not a mild-mannered Irishman cuddling up to the contestants (Dermot O'Leary contributed that, if little else, to The X Factor). I refer to the enjoyably rude, yet genial, blow-by-blow commentary that for decades Wogan provided on The Eurovision Song Contest. His narration wasn't only entertaining but made a key point of difference between us and the other nations. We didn't take the contest seriously; they did. We didn't need to – unlike France and Germany, we already had a world-class music industry (this being before Simon Cowell's star-making machine chugged into action).
The X Factor was in danger of being Eurovision, divested even of the Wogan commentary.
Fortunately, we now have Twitter. When it's on form, Twitter is a cynical, irreverent, snarky Greek chorus for our times, a collective smartass who undercuts the bland sentiments beaming out from the television with bone-dry observational comedy. Of course, you have to sign up to the right Twitter feeds for the best effect. Professional TV critics and comedians are a safe bet; Shane Warne, to go by his recent seductive banter with Liz Hurley, less so.
I won't try and repeat the jokes – as with any form of comedy, you had to be there – but suffice it to say that our own @JohannHari101 opened the proceedings with "I love watching #xfactor with m'parents. Mum cries at each song & says 'Beautiful.' Dad mutters: 'Ach. They should be gassed. Gas zem all.'"
Two hours later, just as viewing numbers peaked to see the instantly forgettable Matt Cardle sing the winner's song, the comic writer Graham Linehan provided the final gag: "Look forward to saying 'Who's that?' when he guests on a future episode."
The truly cynical might suggest that television-plus-Twitter just tells us what to think before we have a chance to compose our own reactions. Even if that's sometimes true, it's worth it, just to enjoy a collective lip curl at bombastic occasions of which we Britons are naturally mistrustful.
As the credits rolled and I closed my laptop, I found myself actually looking forward to the Royal Wedding next summer. Huw Edwards is providing official commentary for the BBC, but for the best republicanism, style criticism and sardonic badinage, you know where to go.
There's a time and a place for befriending strangers
The kindness of strangers is a little like unicorns and Father Christmas: a lovely idea, but not one any sensible person should waste much thought on. If it's downright dangerous to depend on their kindness, as Tennessee Williams had Blanche Dubois announce in A Streetcar Named Desire, it's merely foolish to believe that two people who stop you randomly in a London street could genuinely want to help one out of an awkward, but not life-threatening, situation.
So it was with Alan Bennett, who was stealthily robbed of £1,500 in cash this summer in a con known as the Mustard Squirter. Informed by a couple that the back of his coat is smeared with ice-cream, Bennett happily accepts their help cleaning off the mess; in the resultant confusion of tissues and wiping and removed garments, the pair also clear off with his cash.
I can only conclude that Bennett must be used to pocketing large amounts of cash and wandering around Camden Town with said money. On the few occasions that I've carried such a sum around, the bulging envelope has felt like a hot, glowing, radioactive invitation to be robbed, and no friendly word could divert me from the quickest path home. The answer isn't to disbelieve in the kindness of strangers, just be a little doubtful of it if you have a back pocket of cashpoint-fresh fifties.
Is there anything Putin can't do? Yes, actually
Take That were the unsurprising surprise guests on The X Factor ("Easier to book than a London cab" as one Twitter wit put it). Next time, Cowell should book up-and-coming crooner Vladimir Putin.
The man also known as Alpha Dog has revealed himself to be far, far worse at singing and playing the piano than we ever could have imagined. At a charity event in St Petersburg this weekend, the curdled cream of 1980s Hollywood (Kevin Costner, Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone etc) swayed and clapped wildly as the waxen megalomaniac PM sat at a grand piano and plonked out the intro to Blueberry Hill with a single finger.
Putin then strode out mid-stage to beat to a pulp, and finally murder, the rock'n'roll standard. It's hard to know how to decode Putin's increasingly odd party turns. Was he, on this occasion, trying to out-sax Bill Clinton, out-strum Tony Blair? Or is his unique style of singing just one of the terrifying ways he has of making people talk?Reuse content