Philip Hensher: What 'The X Factor' really tells us about Britain

Gordon Brown should think again whether it presents such an attractive image of modern life
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The Independent Online

The last time Gordon Brown made a foray into the unfamiliar territory of popular culture, he found himself implausibly extolling the merits of the Arctic Monkeys. After the general expression of disbelief in the idea of the Chancellor ever having given a thought to the question of looking good on the dance floor, a team of apologists was promptly unleashed to explain that it was the journalist's fault. Brown had been asked an absurd question and had done his best to give a rational answer.

There doesn't seem, however, to be such an easy explanation for this latest return to the theme. Brown was talking about the importance of aspiration and endeavour, and very surprisingly made a swerve into popular television. "That is why I like TV programmes like The X Factor, Dragons' Den and The Apprentice. They show the value of aspiration, how anyone can achieve things."

Estimable as it seems to try to connect with ordinary and uneducated people through their favoured means of entertainment, and to draw improving morals in rather a Scottish Calvinist manner from light amusement, I wonder whether Brown's favourite television programmes can really be thought to sustain this analysis. Of course, it is very unlikely that he really does watch these programmes on a regular basis; some bright-eyed adviser has talked him into dropping them in. I recommend that he takes a couple of hours off from number-crunching to watch them, and then think again whether they really present quite such an attractive image of modern British life.

Dragons' Den is probably the nearest to an informative programme among these three. You could learn a fair amount, in general terms, about the way new companies are funded. As a model for business, however, it is completely flawed by the fact of the television cameras. The smart applicants with really good ideas tend to use the programme quite cynically, as a shop window for their idea before turning down the offer of any money from the really quite nasty and vulgar "dragons".

Nastiness and vulgarity is the keynote, too, of The Apprentice, and here without any kind of redeeming educational value. If Brown thinks this shows anything elevating in the way of aspiration, he hasn't grasped the appeal of the programme. Supposedly applying for a job working for Sir Alan Sugar, the vile and grubbing candidates are put through a succession of demeaning and foolish tasks, none of which really reveals anything about business life today.

The sheer bullying rudeness of Sugar is nothing but pantomime; the viewers enjoy, I suspect, seeing hard-faced but slightly thick business hopefuls making fools of themselves. If that demonstrates the value of aspiration, most of us would rather work in shoe shops.

But the choice that really makes one wonder is The X Factor. Unlike the other two, this talent show does, despite itself, reveal something about modern Britain. It can hardly help it, since it involves audience participation in the form of voting. To be honest, one doesn't really care very much about the competitors' vocal performances, which are somewhere between OK and dire, but about the judges' evident agendas and mannerisms, and the bizarre results which come out of the public vote.

The public vote is sometimes a little bit hard to read, and there is general incredulity among us aficionados about a few of the acts thrown aside ruthlessly. What does consistently emerge shows, I think, something rather different about Britain today than the sunny and aspirational version extracted by Gordon Brown. In the first place, the general public doesn't seem to care much for black people; a largely black singing group and quite a talented black woman singer were fairly swiftly evicted this year. Another extremely likeable black performer has been saved more than once by the judges, this week at the expense of another black singer.

The judges overestimated the public sympathy for the disabled in putting quite an ordinary singer in a wheelchair through; she did all right for a couple of weeks, and then the sympathy of the British public came to an abrupt end. More worrying as a thermometer of British life, however, is the extraordinary strength of local and regional feeling. We laugh at Scandinavian countries voting for themselves in the Eurovision Song Contest; that pales to nothing compared with the horrible spectacle of the whole of Scotland, week after week, voting massively for the really quite fabulously untalented MacDonald Brothers from Ayr.

But the real reason we would be wrong to hold any of these programmes up as models of aspiration and enterprise is that, in fact, they are no more than game shows. Brown might as well have added Big Brother to his list. None of them extols "hard work" as anything but an abstract, off- screen undertaking; they don't show people learning to sing, making prototypes, getting things wrong and starting again patiently.

They don't show study or endeavour, and the general impression is of success as a sort of lottery which might bless anyone if they thought up a better mousetrap, or said "Yes, Sir Alan," enough times, or opened their mouth and sang "Summertime". Success, I'm afraid, is not actually achieved like that: and nor is aspiration. But the mind of Britain today is very much as it looks on The X Factor, alas.

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