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Monthly Archives: January 2013

I used to love The X Factor. I’d watch it religiously, every week (in a really ironic way, obviously…). I openly acknowledged that it was trashy television, but that didn’t matter because it was entertaining. I’d start out ‘just watching the auditions’ but by the end of them I was hooked and would end up watching a whole series, right up to the final. It was weirdly compulsive (which I guess it needed to be, given the frequency and length of the ad breaks). Not any more. I haven’t watched a full episode for a while now, let alone a series. It’s not just me either. The ratings for the last series were the worst since 2006. Is anyone surprised? No, not really. Here’s why.

1) It has become too much about the music. I don’t know anyone anywhere who has ever sat down in front of The X Factor so that they can have an evening filled with quality tunes. Let’s face it, when has it EVER been about music? It’s only recently that winners have released fully-fledged original albums. Previously, a hastily-put-together cover album released as soon after the final as possible would suffice. No, The X Factor is primarily about good TV. That’s why I watched it. Not because I enjoy under-par Whitney Houston covers, but because I enjoy watching Barbara from Manchester belt out You Raise Me Up whilst Simon Cowell glowers in the corner and Louis Walsh fails to contain his mirth. So why the sudden change of tune (literally)? Why, X Factor, do you suddenly think you’re the  go-to guy for nurturing new ‘home-grown’ singer songwriters? There’s a reason why singer-songwriters don’t play arenas. The X Factor format sucks all the rawness out of acoustic performances, and replaces it with confetti and pyrotechnics.  I can just hear the producers now: ‘Cor, that Laura Marling’s alright isn’t she? But y’know how this performance could really be enhanced? If she chucked in a gospel choir and a key change… and Brian Friedman could definitely do some edgy interpretive dance thing with that chorus…’

2) The auditions are no longer funny. I miss the slightly makeshift nature of the small audition room with the cardboard background and the X taped onto the floor. Often, the most entertaining part of the audition process was watching the judges snort into their teacups when a self-confessed ‘next Justin Timberlake’ slaughtered Cry Me A River. The minute the live auditions were introduced, gone was the hilarity of the bad audition. You don’t get gems like this any more, mainly because the audience will have ruined any opportunity for awkward stifled laughing by yelling ‘OFF’ repeatedly from the get-go.

3) The show is now bigger than the talent it nurtures. This is (indirectly) the fault of Leona Lewis. After the previous winners (Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward) no one ever expected to hear a voice like Leona’s on The X Factor. She took everyone by surprise. I think that’s when The X Factor started thinking it could ‘do music’. Cue the whole show taking itself far too seriously. Wind forward six years and the final is now held in an arena, as if the contestants are already platinum selling artists. The problem with this is that it just makes most of the finalists look mediocre and a bit lost before they’ve even begun.

4) It’s running out of twists. ‘OMG guys lets put four or five good-looking-but-mediocre soloists together to form a band that fourteen year olds will worship and idolise! No. Wait. Lets get these judges to have a petty feud about nothing in particular! And then lets get one of them to take a decision over an amazing contestant versus an untalented novelty one to deadlock! Wait, what’s that? A contestant has a chest infection? Let’s act like we don’t have a standard procedure for when that happens, just so we can CREATE EXTRA DRAMA. Ok, now run the VT of the favourite-to-win in their previous job at Asda.’ Yawn.

5) The X Factor now actively courts the press, which is not enjoyable for anyone, especially not the contestants themselves. This weird, cultish fascination with their every move is a depressing reflection on our society’s obsession with celebrity culture. And they’re barely celebrities. The thing is, most people like to watch TV shows to escape for an hour or two and forget about that deadline they’ve got tomorrow, what to cook for tea that night, that bill they have to pay, or what on earth to do for their dissertation (sob). Just because we watch for an hour every week, it doesn’t mean we want to know about it every. day. for. the. rest. of. that. week. I don’t want any TV show in my face 24/7 (ok, apart from maybe Sherlock. I literally cannot get enough of Sherlock. Hurry up and stop prancing around pretending to be fantasy creatures so you can FILM THE NEXT SERIES). When you walk into WH Smith in X Factor season you are confronted by a magazine section filled with contestants badmouthing each other and stumbling out of clubs at 5.30am (then we watch them on Saturday in their VT claiming that their week has been ‘non-stop’ and ‘such hard work’). The thing is, this kind of press attention now seems to be actively sought after by the programme-makers. The contestants are herded from party to premiere to photoshoot, being ‘papped’ all the way. That’s not entertaining. It’s just invasive. For them and for us.

So there you go X Factor. Bring back the cardboard audition room. Bring back Ant and Seb. Get rid of the singer-songwriters, they’re better off on their own. And please don’t keep making the mistake of thinking that you’re anything other than just good old-fashioned Saturday night entertainment.

(You can keep the key changes, though. Everybody secretly loves a good key change.)

Splash!, ITV1

The Olympics were all about Legacy. How many times did we hear that word leading up to, and indeed during, the Games in the summer? It was all about the Legacy. Legacy was every Olympic organiser’s favourite word. London 2012 could create a ‘long and lasting Legacy’ said Sebastian Coe, emphasising the Long-Lastingness of Legacy with a spot of alliteration. But the Legacy of what? What is Legacy? We all just assumed it was another political buzzword, and we were dubious about how much of a Legacy the Olympics would actually have after all the hysteria died down.

UNTIL NOW. For here it is, folks. Here is the Legacy we’ve all been waiting for.  ITV has cracked the Legacy conundrum. Forget funding for sport. Who needs it? What we all really need is 15 celebrities throwing themselves off diving boards of varying heights on a Saturday night. I get it now, Seb. Thanks.

Yep, this was Splash!, the latest entertainment offering from ITV, in which 15 celebrities-in-the-loosest-sense-of-the-word were coached by Olympian Tom Daley, before being required to perform one dive on live television, in front of a panel of judges. These judges were obviously chosen according to the usual Saturday Night Entertainment Show Judge Formula.

Former diver Leon Taylor – who apparently won some medals in some Olympics once, but is more likely to be recognised as that diving commentator at London 2012 who got a bit too excited every time a participant looked as if they were going to crack their head open on the 10m platform/be severely winded by bellyflopping on a failed springboard dive – assumed the role of Serious and Critical Judge. He put on his best Simon Cowell impression for the role, picking the celebrities up on their dodgy techniques and doling out low scores. Whilst not technically a judge, Daley was there to fill the Young, Tanned and Easy On The Eye position, previously inhabited by the likes of Cheryl Cole and Nicole Scherzinger. And the Team GB diving coach, Andy Banks, was Older Judge Who Is Unlikely To Offend (see: Len Goodman).

So far, so predictable. At least they all knew a lot about diving. But of course, there was also the obligatory Sorry, Why Are You Here? position, previously inhabited by such experts-in-not-really-any-field as Sharon Osborne and Piers Morgan. ‘Hmmm,’ mused ITV. ‘Who can we get who probably doesn’t know much about diving but will provide some light relief from all this serious technique talk, and who is also a woman because the panel at the moment is looking fairly male?’ Well, Jo Brand, naturally. (Oh but actually she’s totally qualified to be here because apparently she did some diving once, when she was younger. Ah, great! This means I can judge Strictly because I did ballet when I was three!) ‘I’m so pleased I’m on the panel and not in my cossie,’ said Jo. ‘So are we,’ said my dad.

Splash! began with a professional diving routine in which people did a bit of a dance on the 10m platform, then threw themselves off, one after the other. If I thought this was a bit cringey, then I was wholly unprepared for the James Bond-themed routine during the voting, which ended with Daley in black tie, sipping a martini and flanked by girls in slinky dresses. But Daley’s first appearance was, naturally, on the edge of the 10m board, poised to dive. It was like the Olympics all over again: a big audience yelling his name, cameras filming his every move, his coach down on the ground, tens of millions of people watching him on televis… oh. Yeah. Maybe not that much like the Olympics.

One by one the celebrities took to various platforms, but not before they’d done a weird strip-tease and a slow-mo strut up to their board of choice. Their decision depended on a) how scared of heights/water they were and b) what injury they had sustained during training. Most of them had suffered one of the aforementioned predicaments. Poor Jake Canuso (from Benidorm, apparently – no, me neither) had experienced both. He told us of how he almost drowned in the ‘Tunami in Thailand’. Tunami? What’s a Tunami? (Is that the same Tunami that features in that new film The Impoible, about the Tunami in Indoneia, starring Naomi Watt?) Then he scraped his nose on the bottom of the pool, and needed a plaster. According to the doctor, the plaster could come off AT ANY TIME, making his live dive EXTRA perilous. And he could only dive ONCE with said plaster. Would it survive his second dive in the Splash-Off? This was edge-of-your-seat stuff.

It was emotional too. Comic actress Helen Lederer overcame her fear of heights to dive from the 3m board. ‘I’m in tears,’ said a dry-eyed Leon, thinking he was on The X Factor again. Tom was at the poolside ready to greet each relieved contestant, all teeth and tan, and dressed as though he’d just walked off the set of One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ video. To be fair to him,  he did a good job throughout, although I think the less said about James Bond the better…

In the end Omid Djalili’s 10m swan dive saw him soar like a ‘majestic turkey’ into the semi-final. Which, let’s be honest, I probably won’t be watching. Splash! was entertaining for one night (not, I suspect, for the reasons ITV had hoped), but on the whole it could have done with a lot less cringing and a lot more diving. And besides, if episode two has more plaster-related sagas in store, I don’t think I can take the tension…

Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) and Eva Delectorskaya (Hayley Atwell)

Restless, BBC1

I found out about this dramatisation of William Boyd’s eponymous novel a while ago, because it was being filmed in my home-from-home, St John’s College in Cambridge. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t around at the time of filming, and I’m now disappointed to have missed Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) cruising around college in her ’70s get-up.) Anyway, knowing it was to be televised at Christmas, I decided I’d read Boyd’s novel beforehand. This sort of half went to plan. In fact, when part one went out last Thursday, I’d managed to read, without realising, up to almost the exact point that the episode ended. ‘Yep,’ I thought, feeling smug as the credits rolled, and nothing critical had been revealed that I hadn’t already read in the book, ‘I’m clearly psychic.’ Then I remembered that part two was to be aired the next day, meaning I’d have to read the other half of the book in one day, at the same time as socialising with relatives at a post-Christmas family gathering. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I eventually finished it a couple of days later, and watched it a few days after that, which is why this review comes a little late. I contemplated not writing it at all, but it was drama of a very high quality so I changed my mind – better late than never, eh? (It’ll still be on iPlayer for a couple of days. Unless you’re reading this way later, in which case it won’t. Soz.)

So, anyway. Restless begins with Ruth Gilmartin (Michelle Dockery), discovering that her ageing mother Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) is not in fact Sally Gilmartin, but Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigrant turned wartime spy, who now, for various complicated reasons, fears for her life . As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good spy drama, and this one didn’t disappoint. Throughout the two parts (each an hour and a half) the action hops from country to country and switches between the 1940s and 1970s, as Ruth begins to discover more and more about her mother’s past.

Ruth is enlisted by her mother to track down Lucas Romer ( Rufus Sewell and later Michael Gambon) Eva’s former boss and former lover . Dockery was believable in the role, but Ruth’s stubborn and haughty nature was not unlike that of Dockery’s best-known character, Downton Abbey‘s Lady Mary. It would be nice to see Dockery play a more mellow character in the future.

Hayley Atwell as the young Eva was delightful  She mapped the transition from an ordinary woman grieving a beloved brother, to a fully-trained spy convincingly, displaying a headstrong but sophisticated and cool-headed exterior, whilst also revealing an endearing fragility at certain moments. In particular, her panic on realising Romer has left her in Prenslo, and later her delayed response to her demeaning experience with Mason Harding spring to mind.

The screenplay for Restless was written by Boyd himself. There were parts of the original novel that weren’t dramatised; for example lot of Ruth’s background with her son Jochen’s father, Karl Heinz, and her daily life as an English tutor to foreign students, were not translated to the screen, which is a shame because it would’ve allowed Dockery more opportunity for character development. It would also have made Ruth’s confrontation with Karl Heinz a little less incongruous. But in terms of time constraints, the right bits were cut. Interestingly, Boyd chose to alter certain aspects leading up to the climax. Without giving too much away, Eva’s altercation with Romer during the air raid does not occur in the novel. However, Boyd’s decision to include this encounter allowed us to better understand Eva’s feelings of betrayal, something that I felt was lacking in the novel. After all, Eva had earlier declared her love for Romer, and Atwell conveys her heartbreak beautifully in this scene.

Sewell is also excellent in the part of Romer. He has a certain magnetism that makes his hold over Eva seem completely conceivable, but there’s also something untrustworthy about his eyes (kind of similar to Damian Lewis in Homeland). I did find it hard to connect this Romer with the later incarnation, though. Gambon seemed not to have the same sense of quiet danger as Sewell, instead seeming merely unpleasant rather than threatening. Rampling on the other hand was very convincing as an older Eva, displaying similar alertness and elegance to Atwell, but with undertones of weariness brought about by a life spent always looking over her shoulder.

This is most poignant in the final scene, as Ruth watches her mother surveying the woods behind her house through a pair of binoculars, even after she is seemingly no longer in danger. The not-completely-satisfying ending perfectly captures the sense of paranoia and restlessness that Eva has lived with for most of her life, and will presumably continue to live with for the rest of it.