SOMETIMES, I despair at the direction our society is taking.
There seem to be more snobs, begrudgers and haters in the world than ever before, always seeking out the negative and destroying the positive. Not all of them inhabit social media, some even ply their miserable trade in the mainstream media.
Another depressing example of the state of what passes for public discourse in our smartarse new world presented itself recently, when it was announced that TV pop show The X Factor was no more. The plug had been pulled after 15 seasons.
In showbiz, like in most realms of life, it’s always ideal to bow out while you’re at the top of your game, rather than endure a very public slide towards bang average, then, inevitably, mediocrity.
The X Factor failed to achieve this. Sadly, it went on for too long, limping on, a shadow of its former self. I couldn’t even tell you who won its final show, in 2018 — even an online check of his name, Dalton Harris, failed to ring any bells.
The show took a hiatus in 2019, and Covid meant it was destined to go out with a whimper.
There’s no greater ignominy than to cancel a show and be told that the audience thought it had been cancelled years ago!
But none of this is to excuse the undisguised scorn, mockery and — yes — snobbery that greeted the announcement that the most successful UK TV series of the 21st century, which was an equally huge hit in Ireland in its heyday, had reached its final curtain.
At its peak, which lasted a decade — an eternity in the world of TV — The X Factor was a juggernaut of a success story, absolute must-watch weekend TV, and the subject of water-cooler and barstool discussions across the land. I was among the millions of devotees — why should I be ashamed to say that?
But I genuinely didn’t see this success story acknowledged anywhere, as a stampede of self-proclaimed critics danced on the carcass of the show, delighted that this affront to music and television, in their eyes, had finally shuffled off its mortal coil.
Many of these critics have long hated The X Factor. They see themselves as cultured, viewing music as a serious artistic business, dahling, and couldn’t bear the sight of a mere TV series entertaining the masses and creating pop stars before their very eyes — who often went on to sell millions more records than their achingly hip bands and artists.
These carping critics had a field day at the axing of The X Factor and the downfall of their bete noire, Simon Cowell.
As usual, these begrudgers and misery merchants miss the point.
The X Factor was a success from its debut in 2004, racking up more than seven million viewers on average in the UK. Incredibly, it went from strength to strength, reaching its zenith in 2010, when more than 14 million watched each episode, and a remarkable 16.5 million people saw the talented Rebecca Ferguson win the final.
It still commanded vast audiences after that, only dipping below its 2004 rating in the penultimate season, 2017.
By then the gig was up. But for well over a decade, The X Factor was peak Saturday (and often Sunday) night TV. Along with millions of others, I adored it.
It was entertaining, dramatic, and funny. Most of all, you had the sense the whole world was watching. We picked our favourite acts, bitched about the judges, and talked about it endlessly.
Yes, it could be contrived, manipulative, exploitative, crass, mawkish too. That’s TV, folks. But it had a heart, and ultimately, the public had the final say each week — another key aspect of its success, as The X Factor tapped into a 21st century world where people could vote on their phone from their armchair or pub.
If you want to see contrivance, manipulation and exploitation minus a heart, watch Love Island.
Those X Factor peak years gave us so many magical TV moments, from the auditions, to the judges’ houses where they selected their teams, to the live shows and the weekly eliminations. At times it was emotionally over-wrought, but we had the almost ever-present avuncular Irishman Louise Walsh to keep order.
There were so many fine acts — some even won: Leona Lewis, Matt Cardle, Little Mix, James Arthur. Somehow, Ferguson, Fleur East and Rhydian Roberts didn’t (damn it, I had money on him!). Nor did Olly Murs, while the show’s biggest success of all, boyband One Direction, only finished third.
There was often plenty of Irish interest to keep us on the edge of our seats — Mary Byrne, Tabby Callaghan, and, of course, Jedward. The twins could neither sing nor dance, but made a good living out of The X Factor. They repaid that by slagging off the show — there’s gratitude for you.
However, I reached out to Cork singer Morgan Deane to ask what her experience of the show was like — she reached the final 50 acts in 2006 and was complimented by Cowell along the way — and whether she had any regrets.
Morgan, speaking from her home in Cape Town, had fond memories of it. “The X Factor was great, I was happy with the experience,” she said. “At that age (23) it was exciting, finding myself on the set of such an iconic show. I think it did exactly what it said on the tin for the viewer and contestants. At the end of the day, it’s the contestants who initially apply to be on the show, the show doesn’t reach out to the contestants.”
Morgan, who is from Turner’s Cross, added: “It educated me in how reality TV works. It’s a very fast, cut-throat elimination process. I was quite robust in that environment. I loved the risk factor and the possibilities.
“Those auditioning must know everyone is extremely disposable, considering there are a thousand other contestants like them.”
Addressing the criticism that the show developed singers as marketable products rather than creative individuals, Morgan said: “Any artist nowadays needs to market themselves and become a product for someone. If someone is not interested in going the whole commercial route musically and wants a ‘purist’ approach, a show like X Factor should never be a choice to begin with.
“I think the show was great but it had run its course.”.
There is a serious cultural pont to be made about The X Factor. It may well have been the last of a dying breed: A successful, wholesome Saturday night TV show that united whole families. Yes, Strictly Come Dancing is popular, but I don’t think it unites and connects to people quite the same
In a world of Netflix and YouTube, gamers and on-demand TV, viewing figures of 16 million on a Saturday night are now an executive’s dream.
The BBC’s latest Saturday evening entertainment offerings Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel and Take Off With Bradley And Holly can barely scrape six million viewers between them.
One of the few critics who had kind words for The X Factor was Julie Burchill, who wrote in The Spectator: “The X Factor made all the right people cross.”
That gets a Yes from me.