Monday, 27 January 2014

The Jump - Only The Ratings Will Plummet Faster

This time last year, I was sitting on a couch watching a parade of barely recognisable celebrities leap into the deep end of a swimming pool. Twitter descended into a cacophony of comments about how the show would be improved if it was recorded in a multi-storey car park, rather than the Luton leisure lagoon.

Well, someone at Channel 4 was obviously paying attention, because they’ve found a way of upping the stakes. In the process, they’ve even managed to trump Tom Daley’s show in terms of turgid pointlessness. Which is why we now find ourselves watching a live link from Innsbruck, as Davina McCall attempts to make small talk around the public screening of some pre-recorded slalom footage. Gripping stuff.

Sorry, I must be all caught up in the excitement, and I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how it’s going to work. Twelve celebrities have spent several weeks training in a variety of winter sports. They’ll compete in a different sport each day, without knowing how they’ve done, and on the daily live show, they’ll see their results. The two with the lowest scores will have to tackle one of three ski jumps, to see who stays and who crashes out of the competition.

The appeal of the show seems to be predicated on the public’s desire to see celebrities placed in mortal jeopardy. Presumably, there a whiteboard somewhere in Endemol’s offices that still bears the marker pen legends ‘Bobbing for Scythes’ and ‘Corn Thresher Trampolining’. With Sochi 2014 tobogganing over the horizon, winter sports are enjoying an uncharacteristically high profile, which is how viewers like me have found themselves switching over from Dancing On Ice to this. But as much as The Jump might be trying to get its celebrities trembling like a shitting dog, a one kilometer downhill slalom is nowhere near as much fun as watching Bonnie Langford in a headbanger.

Aside from the triumphant return of Davina McCall, who makes this presenting lark look as easy as tumbling down a ravine, the rest of the show is decidedly low rent. Co-presenter Alex Brooker amazes, if only for the fact that his agent’s phone continues to ring, and ‘resident ski-jumping icon Eddie the Eagle Edwards’ is on hand to remind us how it felt to be an international laughing stock. The Jamaican bobsled team has clearly dodged a bullet here.

The celebrities (I refuse to capitalise that word) are assembled in their padded winter finery, which makes them look like a sleeping bag sale in Millets, to watch how the boys performed in today’s Giant Slalom. They’re all complaining about how sick they feel, but at least they’re not sat at home trying to make sense of this shit. There’s a big deal made about the three ski jumps that the two lowest scorers will be expected to master, without ever actually acknowledging that people are only watching in the hope of seeing bits of Amy Childs being power-hosed off the branches of a Douglas fir. With no phone-in vote to worry about; a calamitous accident must be the only reason Channel 4 decided to broadcast this live.

Commentator Graham Bell talks us through the Giant Slalom; apparently the most technical of all the alpine disciplines. “Legs and lungs are screaming,” the guitars on the soundtrack are screaming, and I’m pounding Panadol like it’s a bag of Haribo. “An awful lot can go wrong,” the voiceover warns, as Denis Norden asks his carer to turn up the volume.

The first contestant tonight is Darren Gough; England cricketer, Talk Sport presenter, Strictly winner and the face of Costcutter. The producers are trying to ramp up the excitement on the bits that no-one’s interested in, so every clip of the training has been shot to look as thrilling as possible. Credit to them – they’ve managed to make an EasyJet flight to Innsbruck looks like it was directed by Irwin Allen. Sadly, the skiing comes without any risk to life or limb, and Darren scores an acceptable 47.74 seconds.

Next up is Richie Neville. “You may know me from the band 5ive,” he grins, oblivious to the fact that most people only know him from The Big Reunion. For a non-skier, he’s committed to the training and impressed the experts. “I’m gonna give this everything I’ve got – focus, determination. Let’s see where we end up.” I can’t be the only one hoping for a snow-blower to freewheel into shot. “Richie has thrown himself fully into his training.” Unfortunately, he fails to throw himself into some fencing, and comes in with a time of 54.79 seconds.

Marcus Brigstocke, is struggling. Not so much with the skiing – he’s quite posh so had plenty of experience on the slopes. It’s being funny on the fly that seems to be giving some trouble. There’s lots of talk of tightening up his turns as Marcus scores a respectable 44.75 seconds.

Now we’re talking. If ever there was someone we’d love to see on the business end of a ski pole, it’s fashion writer and smug socialite Henry Conway. Looking like Roy Hattersley’s Spitting Image puppet smeared in lipgloss, Conway growls “Come on my lovelies” all the way down the course. I think that was an attempt to butch up his act, but it sounded more like the Wicked Witch of the West. His score of 47.77 seconds isn’t bad, but he confesses that he had his heart in his mouth all the way down. I imagine that’s an entirely new organ for him.  

Five-time gold medal winner Steve Redgrave really should be above all this, but like any retiree; there’s only so much Sudoku a man can stand. He’s wowing the trainers by not falling over, then takes off to his room to practice moving his hips. His slalom is very impressive, and he’s tighter on the poles than UKIP, but I’m distracted by the deafening clang of cowbells on his descent – like someone’s jammed a goat in a tumble dryer. Steve ends on 39.30 seconds, which puts him in the lead.

Tonight’s final contestant is Nicky Clarke – a genetic fusion of Christopher Dean and Lion-O. We’re told his services to hairdressing saw him awarded “an OBE from the Queen” as opposed to the ones they hand out at B&Q. According to the experts, “he’s a classic 1980s skier” which goes perfectly with his stupid fucking hair. As he limbers up at the top of the run, Graham wonders aloud “Which Nicky Clarke will we see today?” Jesus, don’t tell me there’s two of the cunts. Happily, his pitiful time of 53.21 seconds means he’ll be tackling the jump alongside Richie Neville.

After some more excruciating banter-lite with Alex Brooker, we get to see what happened when Darren attempted the jump in rehearsal. And let me tell you – if you think this show is unwatchable, try sitting through it with someone who once suffered a knee injury. We also get a glimpse into tomorrow’s action, as the women tackle The Skeleton. It’s a one-person toboggan thing that looks like a tea-tray – so Monday’s show is going to be Last of the Summer Wine with collagen implants. After the quick VT recap, Davina says “Sinitta, that was you, wasn’t it?” I don’t wish to appear indelicate or insensitive, but when surrounded by a bunch of blonde women, the So Macho singer isn’t exactly hard to spot.

After 55 minutes of build up, the finale is a massive anti-climax. It’s less a ski jump; more like watching a sulky child hop down off the naughty step. Richie scores 11 metres, which barely seems longer than the length of his skis, and Nicky manages even less. Maybe some of the other sports will prove a little more captivating, but for now, The Jump is a stone-cold flop.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Si grates, Ricky waits and Tom detonates - The Voice Week 3

The ratings are in, and it seems as though that ill-important reshuffle has had the desired effect. Viewers are flocking back to the BBC, to see Kylie spinning around, and place their bets on when Ricky Wilson started curling his eyelashes. Even Emma and Marvin seem to be getting a little more confident in their presenting, making their way through the studio doing a two part introduction:
“This corridor leads to these stairs.”
“And these stairs lead to this stage.”
And this stage leads to public appearances at the opening of a new Wilko’s. OK, maybe it still needs a little work. The judges seem much happier too, especially Tom who speaks excitedly about Kylie: “She’s a ball of fire, that one.” The word ‘fireball’ never having made it to South Wales, apparently.

Tonight’s first auditionee is Andy Otley from North Wales. He taught himself to play guitar so he could woo women with Enrique Iglesias songs. He works in an estate agent’s office that’s full of garish cartoon women. There are also some painted on the walls. For some reason he’s ditched the guitar and decided to do Dance With Me Tonight. Since it’s making me miss Olly Murs’ rich tone and warmly melodic voice, we can count that as the criticism it so clearly is. “It’s a boy is it?” asks a befuddled Tom, who was obviously still tuning in when the song began with “My name is Andy, nice to meet you…” Ricky gives him some milquetoast feedback about why no-one turned, and Will compares it to hitting an opossum with his car then deciding to put it out of its misery. In the gallery, the producers are poking each other and saying “Is he talking about us?” Once they find out he’s an estate agent, Andy and Will enter into a weird kind of property-selling duel. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call this – a wank-off?

After a bunch of pointless teasers in search of a commercial break to book-end, we’re introduced to Iesher Haughton. She’s from Walthamstow, and works in my local multiplex, so I’m already rooting for her to fail. While her laminate-loving parents get carried away backstage, she comes out and nails Who’s Loving You, like a cross between Alicia Keys and Minnie Ripperton. She might work in the world’s worst cinema, but she’s actually pretty likeable, particularly since she has that Leona Lewis quality of disappearing once she’s finished singing. Tom loved the phrasing, because he’s always happy when he can hear the words. Will turned round on the first note, pretty much securing her fealty. And Kylie? Well, she thinks Iesher can do anything. I’d like to see her painting a bannister-rail.

Paul Black is a Welsh tattooist who thinks that rock music and body art go hand-in-hand. His interview is a depressing array of tedious clichés, name-checking Ozzy and Iron Maiden, but it’s all part of an elaborate double bluff. After an opening burst of guitar, he launches into a swing re-do of Van Halen’s Jump. It’s better than it sounds, but this is the kind of novelty trick that only works once, like pulling a dove out of a dinner jacket. Will tells Paul that he’d like to come and see him gigging, but I doubt the R&B polymath is ready for the delights of Merthyr Tydfil.

This week’s contrived double audition is all about relatives of famous singers, and stars Adele’s cousin Georgia, and Danny-from-McFly’s sister Vicky. The latter, in particular, seems to have some serious psychological issues about growing up in the shadow of a famous sibling. Looking like a cross between Elvira Mistress of the Dark and Strawberry Shortcake, she hollers Bed of Roses, as a coven of orange women cheer along backstage. It was a pretty good vocal, securing Kylie and Tom’s vote. She picks the Welsh wonder as her mentor, but as she strides victoriously out of the studio, her exit is accompanied by McFly’s Five Colours In Her Hair. That’ll fuck her right off when she watches this back.

Georgia is also keen to be noticed for her own talent, rather than her famous relative, so maybe she should avoid starting every other sentence with “My cousin, Adele…” Just a thought. She’s doing a bouncy but soulless version of ‘Hallelujah, I Love Him So’ – her voice is pitchy and thin, and almost loses the melody completely on the high runs. The judges all complement her on looking younger than her 27 years: “I know, that’ll come in handy when I’m forty, won’t it?” she asks. “Yes it will,” concurs Kylie’s waxy countenance.

The producers have obviously realised that there are only three blind audition shows left, and none of the teams are even close to being half-assembled. So we start to see snippets of auditions, rather than the whole thing. The first contestant to lose out on valuable screen-time, is Celestine, who has a bit of a Grace Jones vibe, but doesn’t stand much of a chance of progressing beyond the duels round.

Si Genaro is an infuriating 42 year-old who seems to be channeling Billy Mack, and has confused talking incessantly with actual entertainment. He wants to bring an end to war and conflict through his folk, breakbeat, reggae music, and takes an overelaborate bow as soon as he gets on stage. Dressed in trousers too big, and a T-shirt that’s too small, he runs around the stage like an over-stimulated toddler, giving a rendition of Down Under that’s tuneless, breathless and endless. No-one turns, which means that the pressure’s still on the UN to solve the whole ‘world peace’ thing. He’s not very good at listening to feedback, and the judges spend far too long humouring someone for whom none of them actually turned. By the time he launches into a self-composition called Chicken Train, all we can see is a wall of pained smiles, like a Victorian photo shoot.

If last week’s show was all about Will’s unwillingness to turn, tonight’s is focusing on the acts who think they’re on Ricky’s wavelength. That means lots of acoustic guitars, strained vocals and ‘serious’ face. Nathan Kobierowski would be nice looking if he didn’t look like he just fellated a nailgun, and John Rush does Bad Romance in a Chris Isaak style, but it sounds more like a novelty record than a clever reinterpretation. Jeff Anderson does a decent Axl Rose screech, but it’s incongruous with his image – which is more mild-mannered marketing executive. Aside from shared delusions of affinity with Ricky, they have all been busy stretching the neck of their t-shirts (collarbones are the new black) but none of it impresses any of the judges.

Finally, someone manages to connect with the Kaiser frontman. Myles Evans is a trainee lawyer who was entered by his sister. Oh stop it, don’t be disgusting. Anyway, his sister had cancer last year and is emotionally blackmailing him into taking part. She seems far more feisty and interesting, so I’m a little disappointed that she’s not the one performing tonight. As the studio lights hit him, Emma does an audible ‘phwoar’ backstage – he’s got cheekbones you could surrender in a knife amnesty. Ricky hears something he likes and hits his button, giving Myles the kind of feeble wave you might offer a previous one-night-stand if you saw them in ASDA.

The last act on tonight’s show is Leverne Scott Roberts, who was in a girlband at 18, but got pregnant and moved to Cheshire to have babies. She’s clearly here to confuse the Daily Mail – a single mother with four kids, but lives in a £500k house. She seems to have wrapped herself in a hot pink beach towel, and she’s clearly nervous since her voice strains on the high notes. But she has a clean tone and nice musicality. The band obviously love her, because they seem happier than she is when all four judges turn. Tom commends her on not doing anything clever, which probably would have been a complement back in the 1920s.  Ricky steals Kylie’s babysitter angle, whereas Will goes straight for the  ‘You’re an angel who fell from heaven.’ As yet another female singer chooses the Welsh lothario, Ricky expresses concern that we need to diffuse Tom’s powerful sexbomb. I’d just throw a wet tea towel over it and whack it with a temperance spoon.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Unveiling Kylie's secret weapon - The Voice Week Two

Something weird happened last week. I ended up writing a largely positive recap of The Voice; an eventuality I had never considered, having previously suffered through two intolerable seasons. Of course, it still feels a little stiff, a little worthy, and a bit too hung up on its own misplaced sense of artistic integrity. Nonetheless, the departure of Jessie J and Danny Something-or-other, combined with the arrival of Ricky Wilson and Kylie, has given the show a much-needed shot of adrenalin, right in the ribcage. Let’s see if they can keep our interest for another 80 minutes, shall we?

The annoyingly stunning Emma Willis is here to explain the concept of the show to all the people who tuned out the moment Jessie J first appeared, and are making their first tentative steps back into the fold. “It’s all about the sound of the voice,” she advises, “if our judges like what they hear, they’ll spin into action.” You know, like Wonder Woman. There’s not much time allocated for judging clichés tonight, apart from Ricky telling us that he’s so competitive, he won’t even play charades. One word, two syllables, *shakes closed fist.*

Today’s first contestant is the pleasingly alliterative Jamie Johnson from Gillingham – the kind of name that would give Stan Lee a semi. He’s a massive mummy’s boy, and a lot like Olly Murs, without being quite so drownable. He seems to find everything hilarious, so I don’t feel too bad laughing at his sister’s pride in his limited achievements: “It’s amazing, now he’s made it onto The Voice.” He’s singing So Sick, and the R&B flecks really suit the performance. He’s all smiles once Kylie and Ricky turn around, and shows off some impressive gnashers. They’re almost like Rylan’s, except that they’re the size of actual teeth. Tom admits that he couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl, “But that’s no bad thing,” he admits, growing misty at the recollections of a long weekend in Vegas.

Backstage, Emma asks Jamie’s hyperventilating next-of-kin whether he’s a Kylie fan. “No, but he thinks she’s fit,” answers his charmingly honest sister, deftly explaining why so many serious musos want the pint-sized pop tart as their mentor. All the other judges keep telling us that Tom is a legend, but since I’ve just seen Paul Young and Tom Daley respectively described as pop and diving legends, the word is beginning to lose all meaning. With another signing under her belt, the other judges are complaining that she’s “getting an army together,” as if she’s the Mouth of Sauron but with poutier lips. 

Maireid Conlon has three dogs that she tortures by dressing them in ridiculous hats and throwing them into canals. Apparently, her mum and dad wanted her to go to college but, in her own words, she’s not very academic. I don’t know how else to say this, but she doesn’t look academic either. Her choice of Purple Rain is an easy win for Kylie, since she’s always been a massive fan of the Minneapolis maestro. She does an impressive job, even rivaling Ruth Lorenzo’s epic version from the X Factor, and secures three judges in the process. Will seems a little disengaged tonight, and is in no rush to hit the button. Or maybe his has been disconnected by the producers as a punishment for all that tweeting last series. Then again, I’ve seen enough of these shows to know that he’ll probably hold out until the end of the programme and score a great signing for his team. Anyway, back to Mairead. “I didn’t expect to see you when I came round” says Ricky, like she just fished him out of the deep end of the pool. Tom heard her hit some powerful notes “and I just had to push my button,” he teases, veering dangerously close to some post-watershed language. As Maireid deliberates, Ricky gives it some subtle lip-licking, but since Tom smiles like her Dad, she goes with the Welsh wonder. Like I said, not exactly academic. Will expresses surprise that Tom and Prince share the same birthday. “Not the same year though,” Tom jokes. Please, I doubt they’re even the same fucking century.

The next slot is one of those double auditions The Voice is so fond of, if only to temporarily break away from the tediously rigid format. We’re briefly introduced to Lewis Clay, who’s moved back into his parents’ front room so his mum can make his tea, and Jimmy Weston; a 39 year-old painter/decorator. They’re like two halves of the same Matt Cardle. Jimmy likes to come home from a hard day’s decorating and ‘get in the zone’, but that could just mean huffing the paint fumes.

Lewis is up first, having already penned a ridiculous ode to Emma Willis. His voice is a little breathy and has too much fake grit, which affects his tuning. Not what you want on a full-scale screamer like Aerosmith’s Cryin’. When no judges turn for him, there’s a painful bit of “How’s it going mate?” “Yeah, alright mate” between him and Ricky. Will rambles about riding a horse, and in the end it seems they just can’t get rid of him quick enough.

Jimmy fares a little better, even though he’s similarly breathy and flat. However, the Bryan Adams tone of his voice seems to work for the judges, and his choice of Desperado is definitely more listenable. After Tom, Kylie and Ricky all turn, Jimmy gets a big whoop for being from Coventry. Strangely, that’s the most excited the audience have sounded all night. Kylie starts talking about when she was just beginning in the industry, but she loses her own thread and it all gets a bit awkward. No-one knows where she’s going, least of all her, so thank God Tom’s on hand to interject with the observation that Jimmy sounds like a human. Will asks what an alien sounds like, implying he’s never listened to his own back catalogue. Ricky offers to “hold it steady at the bottom,” inadvertently setting #gaycode trending on Twitter. Despite all logic and reason, Jimmy picks Kylie as his mentor. “We’re gonna do some beautiful stuff together,” she teases, offering an instant insight into why he picked her. “What does Kylie have that the other judges don’t?” asks a bemused Marvin backstage, as the producers belatedly give him ‘the talk’.

Kelsey-Beth is a former Emmerdale star, who’s now looking to break into the music industry. I know, she should be so lucky, right? In honour of her idol, she’s come along in some preposterously short shorts, although she’s pulled them up so high that the waistband could double as the underwire in her bra. Ricky and Kylie agree to both turn, which kind of undermines the point of battling it out for a contestant’s endorsement. She seems genuinely moved by their belief in her, which instantly distinguishes her from all the entitled ‘second-chancers’ who’ve in previous series. Despite her clear affinity with Kylie, Kelsey-Beth falls for Ricky’s impassioned pitch.

Bob Blakeley is a bald granddad who works in a chilled warehouse. Strangely, he tells us that he loves his job, so he probably forgot to read the briefing notes before filming his VT. He looks like the sort of heavy you’d usually find menacing Danny Dyer in an East End shooters & looters epic, but he’s actually super polite to everyone, calling them all ‘sir.’ Even Kylie. He does an impressive version of Bublé’s Cry Me A River, but his vocal probably sounds a little too much like Tom Jones for comfort. The other judges are all imploring Tom to turn, as if he’s only allowed to mentor singers who keep their teeth in a glass of water. Ricky seems embarrassed that none of them pushed their button: “We four didn’t turn round, but I think you got the whole country out of their seat.” I went to the bathroom, if that counts?

Miles Anthony is from East London and gives us tonight’s tragic family back-story. His niece has severe health issues, and this prevented him from appearing on the show last year. He’s so earnest and sincere, it’s clear that everyone is clearly rooting for him. In the end, he does a nice update of I (Who Have Nothing) which works really well, but it doesn’t win over any of the judges. Will’s critique is right on the money, as he explains that Miles was stuck between performing and producing. Kylie is genuinely moved, and attempts to comfort him, but after 25 years in the business she should probably know that whispering doesn’t really work when you’re mic’d up. A tear-stained Emma tells him he’s a wonderful man, only for him to say “Can I meet Marvin before I go?”

Sophie May Williams is another teenage singer with a ridiculous vintage clothes fetish. There’s at least one every year; turning up at the studio with a polka-dotted scarf wrapped round their head, looking like a back-up Puppini. Her granddad loves his time on camera, talking to the film crew like they’re a scout troop interviewing him about the war. Sophie’s got a Rosie Webster vibe about her when she talks, so let’s be glad that she’s hear to sing, rather than join a debate team. Her song is a curiously tempo-ed version of Time After Time that, whilst not quite the vintage I was expecting, certainly makes her sound old beyond her years. Will pushes his button at the very last minute and it’s a smart choice, because she’s precisely the kind of singer he enjoys working with. She and Will bond over classic jazz, and dressing like old people, while he goes off on one about his early life. He’s been so inert this evening that he could have nodded off and dreamed he was on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. Heading backstage, Sophie looks terrified to see her family. I know how she feels; I’ve been to Wakefield.

Jermaine Jackman is from Hackney, so initially we get lots of footage of him in a hoodie, leaning against fences. Aha, but it’s all a clever bluff, because he’s actually active in youth parliament and is keen to address preconceptions about London’s black youth. And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going) is a bold choice for a male vocalist, and I’d probably have advised him to avoid singing it like a demonstration of multiple personality disorder. Even so, he does a great job with it, and secures Will’s second vote of the night.  There’s much excitement about Jermaine’s potential, especially once Will talks about the “crazy, fresh, dope philanthropic stuff” they could be doing together. Unfortunately, my eyes just rolled so hard I’m going to have to wear a patch until they realign. They’ve got seven days to straighten out.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Sweet niblets - the Voice finally finds a star.

It’s make-or-break time for The Voice. Despite the format’s unrivalled popularity in other markets, there’s something about the BBC’s Voice that always sounded a little flat. The first two series squandered its enormous potential, by casting insufferably smug judges, and forgetting that Saturday night TV audiences couldn’t give the first shit about musical authenticity. Now, with two new presenters, and a pair of new mentors in the spinning hot seats, we get to see whether this Voice is about to breathe its last. It probably helps that its main TV competition tonight sees Tom Daley teaching reality stars how to fall into water.

Of course, with two new high-profile signings, there’s a bit of business with new line-up. All the old clichés are present and correct – bland statements like “He is the performer” (That’s Tom on Kaiser Chiefs front man Ricky Wilson) and “Season three is the bees’ knees,” (as if you needed to guess). There’s also a quick rundown of Kylie’s accomplishments, ending with an OBE, that makes her sound like Dame Vera Lynn in a pair of sparkly micro-shorts. With the introductions over with, there’s just time for a quick live performance with all four mentors doing their thing. It’s a mashup of Can’t Get You Out Of My Riot, with lots of close ups on an ecstatic audience, who were probably tricked into the studio, with the promise of a Dale Winton game show.

There’s barely a mention made of the fact that Reggie and Holly have also been unceremoniously dumped from the line-up. In their place, we have the ubiquitous Emma Willis, and Marvin Humes, 25% of JLS. He may have all the interpersonal dynamism of a claims adjuster with a spastic colon, but he still makes presenting look effortless in comparison with his predecessor. There’s just time for a close-up on Kylie’s handbag, which has been carelessly jammed underneath her rotating seat. Let’s hope that wasn’t one of those establishing shots they use in disaster movies to foreshadow a calamity. This show has already endured enough misfortune, without the nation’s adopted sweetheart being dragged into the whirring cogs of a mechanical armchair.

31 year old sales manager Lee Glasson eats paninis on park benches, and suffers from an unfortunate case of Gove-mouth. He’s taking a gamble of one of the judges’ songs, and his sleeveless denim shirt and tattoos are supposed to make us think we’ll be hearing some Kaiser Chiefs. In fact, he’s doing a mournful version of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, that sounds like what might have happened if Nick Cave and Kylie had swapped personalities, Freaky Friday-style, on Where The Wild Roses Grow. Kylie waits until the last note to turn, as does Will, who looks like he’s never heard the song before. Tom didn’t recognise the song until halfway through, despite the first line of the lyrics being a pretty major spoiler. Lee takes far too long to decide, reminding us that, without the pointless deliberation footage, this show would only be about 20 minutes long.

Christina Marie makes a big deal about being the child of a single mother, so much so that I worry I’ve Sky-Plussed Benefits Street by mistake. The poor thing grew up singing into a hairbrush – I guess they had to sell their microphone for food. As the piano notes of I Have Nothing begin, there’s a big intake of breath as the studio prepares itself for someone having a pop at Whitney. Kylie leads the lip-syncing, and soon Will and Ricky have joined, the latter reluctantly. Kylie says “I don’t wanna sit down, I am not sitting down,” because she knows that her best angle is bent over that chair. Ricky makes a bold pitch for Christina, which comes across like a slightly desperate pick-up; think ‘Take Me Out’ with key changes.

Danielle has a precocious six year-old, who grills Marvin on whether he’s met Peter Andre. This is all fascinating stuff, but it’s hardly filling in the blanks on the woman who’s come here to sing. Apparently, she’s feeling a thousand and one emotions, but can only reel off anxious and nervous as she takes to the stage. Eight notes in and Kylie already looks disinterested. Ultimately, no-one turns because, whilst the vocal was solid, it lacked colour and lost the melody a few too many times. Danielle’s adorable little girl sums up her disappointment with an exclamation of “Sweet niblets.” Well, quite. The judges are desperately trying to change the subject, rather than pick apart why none of them turned, so thankfully the whole segment becomes all about Anaya coming to meet them. Everyone gets to carry her around, as if they’re entering a Guess the Weight competition, until it all starts to feel like the drawn-out farewells at the end of a wedding reception. 

Anna McLuckie is a quirky Scottish pixie in denim dungaree dress, who’s wandering around backstage, lugging her own harp, like a Pickfords work experience girl. She must have had to scour every music shop in Britain bookshops to find Daft Punk arranged for the harp, but her effort seems to have paid off. Next week, we’ll be seeing Megadeath rearranged for the kazoo. In the meantime, Will talks about pushing her out of her comfort zone, which seems to be exactly what she was looking for, so she picks the Big I.Am.

Tara Lewis is a sizeable lass – evidenced most clearly in the close-up of her stairs bowing as she walks down them. She’s a professional Nessa impersonator, presumably because there’s a big demand for out-of-date local stereotypes in South Wales. She gives us a nice countrified version of Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams Come True, but no-one turns around, because it wasn’t particularly commercial. “I was almost there,” lies Tom. “He was,” concurs Marvin backstage, “he was almost there,” confirming that the former JLS’er was hired for his psychic link to the mentors.  

Ryan Green is a sixteen year-old who lives at home, with a super-encouraging family who sit at the dining table to eat bagels. He’s been playing football since nine, and the piano since he was ten; so he’s either going to come onstage and sit at a baby grand, or thrill us with some keepy-uppies. His performance is good but not great – there’s no real magic in it, which might just be a consequence of his age. Kylie’s mad at not turning around, “If we could turn back time,” says Ryan, not realising that “step back in time” is Kylie’s preferred term for clock-altering. “You’re sixteen, you’ve got a lot more time ahead of you than any of us,” says Ricky, jabbing his thumb pointedly at Tom.

Beth McCarthy is from York, where she’s been gigging since she was thirteen. Her Mum and Dad are exactly like the ‘dirty evil robbing bastards’ on Catherine Tate. Beth is pretty in a Diana Vickers sort of way, and has a pleasing Dolores O’Riordan warble to her voice, which sounds perfectly suited to her reinterpretation of Sexy And I Know It. She’s even managed to unearth a never-before-heard melody in the irritating novelty record. Ricky turns quickly, followed by Kylie who holds out for the last note again. Beth thinks Tom sounds like God, but I think she’s getting him mixed up with Morgan Freeman, then she and Ricky talk for ages about Yorkshire toilet-flushing techniques, as Will boasts about his sensor-activated space bog. Ricky makes an impassioned pitch for Beth’s vote, which works primarily because they’re both from York. Tom says “You have everything you need to become a star.” Except maybe the right TV platform – the jury’s still out.

Sally Barker is 54, so I reckon that Tom’s complaint that he has no acts yet is about to be put to bed. She’s been in the industry for thirty years and supported Bob Dylan and Robert Plant. Her story is undeniably sad, but this is a talent show, not Surprise Surprise. Her version of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood is pared back and haunting, but there’s a lack of strength in her voice that won’t help when it comes to the duels. However, her diction and phrasing are exceptional. When Tom turns and connects with Sally, it’s like Sleepless In Seattle for the Saga crowd. His eyes are leaking, so he’s either visibly moved or he needs his drops in. Still, I’m not entirely sure he needed to help her off the stage as if she was due for a bed-bath.

Leo Ihenacho was in The Streets, and got tired of being the sidekick in the band. Tonight, he’s performing a Simply Red song, which in my eyes makes him worse than Hitler. The rendition is pleasantly jazzy, if a little lacking in fireworks. “I used to be in a band thing. Yeah, a band,” he says, confusingly. Tom thinks they can smash it, but Kylie’s getting reading to hitch up her dress to win him over. Will points out that he and Leo have to verbalise it when they blush, but no-one seems to mention that Kylie’s the same problem with a variety of facial emotions. Leo’s delighted to have the pint-sized pop princess as his mentor, but doesn’t get off to the best start when he mentions “I’ve fancied Charlene since I was little.”

Ninety minutes into the third series, it might too soon to call this a victory for the BBC. But we can at least applaud the decision to replace Jessie and Danny with two mentors who at least have a passing familiarity with the concept of humility. Splash – the ball’s in your court.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Leaving a bitter taste

In all honesty, The Taste was always going to struggle to make much of an impression in the wake of recent events. Oh, not the whole ‘Higella’ scandal - no-one really cares if she caramelises her crème brûlée with a crack pipe. In fact, Channel 4’s challenge now, is to build any kind of excitement after the spectacular depths plumbed by the previous night’s Secret of the Living Dolls. January’s trump card has already been played, so no amount of close-ups on Nigella’s eyes rolling in ecstasy, or Bourdain’s Adam’s apple bouncing playfully, could match the sight of a man looking for his ‘femskin’ like he’d just misplaced his car keys.

But here we are, in an overdesigned studio kitchen set, as Nigella, Bourdain, and Ludo Lefebvre launch their own culinary competition. They’re keen to stress how different this is from the other cooking show that shall not be named, but it’s only really different in that way that The Voice is different to The X Factor. And we all know how well that worked out.

Speaking of The Voice; they’ve even nabbed that show’s blind audition format, as well as its decision to fast forward through the preliminary trials. That means all 25 contestants cooking for our terrible trio, have already passed a standard of basic competency – there’ll be no embarrassing comedy entrants. Rather than acknowledging the show’s derivative roots, our mouthy mentors claim that this is the “high stakes cooking competition where flavour is the only thing the matters,” as if the BBC was planning to introduce a swimsuit round to Masterchef.

The Taste also comes with a suitably overegged voiceover, torturing metaphors like Jack Bauer with a length of rubber hose. When he’s not offering up gems like “tensions run high in a pressure cooker atmosphere,” he’s announcing tautologously that “Only one can be the ultimate winner.” He might as well have told us that the winner will be the winningest winner. There’s also a big fuss made about the fact that over half the contestants have no professional experience, which will come into play for the final showdown between two hopefuls vying for a place in Nigella’s kitchen.

The set-up is fairly simple: our junta of judges sit with their backs to the kitchen, as the hopefuls prepare three dollops of their signature dish. The judges then indicate their verdict using a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ card slipped inside a leatherette bill wallet. With 25 contestants to get through, many of them get decidedly short shrift – their entire contribution amounting to little more than a close-up on a spoon the size of a Manolo Blahnik.

On top of all that, we’re expected to familiarise ourselves with Nigella and her cooking cohorts. Bourdain is billed as the maverick, which means he does the most swearing, whereas Ludo spends the whole time wondering why no-one’s ever heard of him. And although we can always see our wannabe chefs toiling in the background, it’s clear that the Nigella’s Spanx are the ones working overtime. No wonder she always sounds so out of breath – she’s practically bisected.

As the judges bicker and banter, the contestants become an afterthought, trying desperately to get noticed as the camera zooms in for yet another close-up of Nigella’s quivering décolletage as she purrs “I only want a mouthful from each of them.” And when the dialogue isn’t pure smut, it’s loaded with overblown self-importance: “You lost me at the puree” growls Bourdain disdainfully, like he’s serving divorce papers in a tempura batter.  

Occasionally, one of the contestants is interesting enough to warrant thirty seconds of coverage. Dale from Glasgow, for instance, looks like a wooden spoon and has practiced his “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life” spiel as if he’s appearing on the Xtra Factor. Unfortunately, his dish looks more like a Bushtucker Trial, and he bursts into tears when all three judges pass on his pig’s cheek in chutney. As a consolation, he gets a hug from Nigella, and a “toughen the fuck up” from Bourdain.

Occasionally, one of the hopefuls manages to win over more than one judge. Dixie is a professional chef, and her pan-fried lamb has Ludo oui-ouing all over the place. Anthony is equally impressed, despite its “textural problems.” As Dixie deliberates, she must be wishing that Jessie J was here to showboat and manipulate the decision-making process. Bourdain goes in for the kill, telling her “I’d love to have you in my kitchen and I think I could help you go all the way.” To the fridge? Ludo loses out, and resorts to doodling his name inside his notebook instead.

Elsewhere, we get teasing glimpses of chalky risottos, cumin-heavy scallops and confusing oysters – we just never actually see anybody cooking anything. For all we know, there could be an army of runners peeling the film lids off a pile of M&S meal deals.

James is a children’s nurse who wows all three judges with a chestnut and crab ravioli, despite that fact that it looked as if he’d served up a human eyelid. We’re also told that Nigella has “an iron fist beneath that velvet glove.” *Googles ‘posh wank’*

Ludo seems surprised that Britain has so many good cooks, which infuriates Nigella; prompting her to do an extended impression of him that sounds like she should be chasing Rene Artois around the bar. Ludo also complains about “frou frou” which sounds much less critical when actually said by a Frenchman, and we learn that Anthony is “a big, nasty slut for caviar.”

In the final segment of the show, mackerel gets a standing ovation, Nigella moans that she wanted “something extra in the creamy sauce to add flavour,” and Bourdain boasts that “crushing Ludo’s hopes and dreams gives me a frisson of pleasure.” Bully for him – it’s more than I’ve taken away from the last hour.

Finally, there’s one spot left in Nigella’s kitchen, and two would-be contestants vying for it. In one corner, is a lovely Indian lady who just cooks at home for her family. In the other, an over-confident chef who works at a ‘top London hotel.’ And if you can’t figure out which one of them lands the place in next week’s show, you really haven’t been paying attention.