Nadine, you’re not a celebrity

Why do we want to put stars in our children’s eyes?

Nadine Dorries (MP, Mid-Bedfordshire), asked that very question in a blog, in which she defended her parental duties to protect her daughter against the explicit nature of the celebrity culture world on TV screens and (somewhat bizarrely) the Reading Festival stage. Indeed, Nadine, the celebrity culture world IS setting up our children for a fall, isn’t it?

Many moons ago, Channel 4 launched the British version of ‘Big Brother’. In its earliest years, ‘Big Brother’ did very little to accelerate the celebrity of those people who took part. Some made low-level impact in television presenting jobs and music careers. Suddenly, and without much warning, related reality television programmes appeared on all national channels which thrust unknowns into the spotlight – this wasn’t just a big cheque to a quiz show winner, this was a recording contract, this was glossy magazine photo opps, this was Hollywood treatment to a British postcode and the bright lights of fame and fortune shone directly into the hearts of people who wanted instant success for little work. And who wouldn’t want to have a celebrity career at a fingerclick?

On the flipside of all this, celebrities whose careers had faded through the years found themselves using the same processes to win back a little of the bright lights they thought were lost. Celebrity versions of Big Brother, Fame Academy and others made it acceptable to strip celebrities of most of their charm as a ‘payback’ for their desperation to return into the centre of people’s attention. They danced, sang and wandered around naked for the benefit of nobody but their own attempts to make it again in the changed celebrity world. This new reality, fed by and made for reality television, made celebrities as hungry for fame as the ordinary people who wanted more than a quiz show first prize.

The extreme conclusion of this is ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, the natural consequence for the urgency with which faded celebrities wanted coverage in the tabloids. ITV couldn’t have known  just how far they could push famous people to do whatever they asked. Insects were eaten, dung was swam through, flesh was revealed and dignities were prostituted. As long as office workers could guffaw on Monday morning about a has-been crunching on spiders, then the production team had done their job.

Viewing figures for “I’m a Celebrity…” topped 16 million people. That’s one of the highest viewing figures on British television, far over-shadowing the viewing numbers for most soaps. Up with other ITV stables such as “The X-Factor” and its predecessor “Pop Idol”, it’s a huge success story for advertisers, producers and celebrities alike.

Nadine Dorries is not a celebrity by many definitions of the term. She’s a member of parliament, representing the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. At the 2010 election, just shy of 29,000 people voted for her to represent them, over 50% of those who voted. Those 29,000 people probably knew before hand that Nadine was a controversial and divisive figure. Her provocative views on abortion law reform has set her apart from many Conservative MPs. Perhaps most infamously, she attempted to take through the Commons an “abstinence Bill”, an old-fashioned, out-dated “won’t somebody think of the children” legislation.

She justifies taking a televised holiday in Australia to eat  kangeroo anus because politicians are considered out of touch, and that a potential audience of 16 million people want to be taught by her. She believes ITV would allow her to talk about abortion reform law. She could not be more wrong, and goodness knows she has been wrong plenty of times in her career. She’s misunderstood the point of a prime-time reality show if she thinks long speeches about abortion law would be shown amongst shots of models and pop stars camped around a bonfire. She’s misunderstood the point of prime-time reality programmes entirely if she thinks politicians can appear without production choices making them look embarrassing.

This isn’t to say that we should keep MPs on BBC Parliament and pop stars on ITV1. There is a need to make politics and politicians relevant to people today, especially young people. Nadine Dorries can speak about getting her fingernails dirty all she likes; the role of an MP is not to appear on a phone-in reality show where producers have all the power. With Parliament currently sitting, laws are being debated and voted on, and alongside those MPs from Sinn Féin who refuse to take their seats, Nadine Dorries is deliberately absent. That’s not a responsible act from an MP however you measure it.

I’m not against MPs getting out into the real world, but “I’m a Celebrity…” is not reality. Getting an MP to be a bin man for a week or sit in A&E is just as ‘finger nail dirtying’ as anything Nadine pretends will happen whilst being filmed eating a cockroach with a Page 3 model, and it’s more likely to produce something approaching respect with voters.

I doubt watching Nadine eating an arse rather than talking out of one will bring her into a new light. It won’t win her respect as an MP who is taking a holiday on full pay because she feels that nobody is listening to her on Question Time. Already semi-detached amongst her colleagues, the natural conclusion from her jaunt is a permanent exclusion from the Conservative Party. If she wanted to do the decent thing, her next job will be in the Chiltern Hundreds.

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Fame Academy

Auntie Beeb has an awkward relationship with ‘event television’, the kind of big ticket items commercial broadcasters know massive outlay splooge can be spent because advertising revenue will recoup part of the costs. For the Beeb, chasing the ratings and yet being innotive with programming is the eternal struggle for its own existence; it’s why latest Saturday ratings hopeful “101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow” will be wrapped around the Licence Fee discussions like a tightly knotted neon turd.

Ahead of the game with “Strictly Come Dancing”, the Beeb was caught napping around the time of the “Pop Idol”/”Pop Star” frenzy, to such a degree it cobbled together buttoned-up talent show “Fame Academy”. Rather than replicate the ITV pace-setters entirely, the Beeb went for “education” and “learning”, with the positive elements of training the starlets to write their own material and only sing where they felt comfortable. Unlike “The X-Factor”, which looks beamed from another universe in compairson, the students of ‘the Academy’ were not made to sing from outside their comfort zone or be made to feel awkward about thier differences. While this should be applauded – it made for refreshing change to the sausage-factory approach to talent television – “Fame Academy” utilmately suffered by producing only one commercially viable contestent in two series…and he soon faded from sight.

A select few “Fame Academy” wannabes, to be fair, did anything after the credits rolled. Did the BBC fail them? Unlike “The X Factor”, or indeed “Pop Idol/Star”, there was a sense of realism about the business called show. The fact that each person was shown struggling to write and sing every week showed far more realism than the polished products which turn up on the “X Factor” stage every week. “We want to make you a star…if we can” probably did for the BBC in the end; nobody on reality television likes reality to be so, well, real.

Limahl, who didn’t win, made the best of his lot with well regarded RNB albums and strings of MOBO nominations and rewards. He is the only person from the show to have anything like that kind of success, such as it was. James Fox, who didn’t win, represented the UK at Eurovision, which at least guaranteed millions of viewers if not exactly sales. It must be particularly good for the spirit of a wannabe singer to know, perhaps halfway through the performance, that absolutely no good would come from singing. There are parallels to be made with my sex-life, but that should be for another blog…

Peter Brame, who had the kind of Doherty/Gallagher hybrid look that commercial broadcasters would avoid touching like the plague for being too difficult to explain to its viewers, went from the show to celebrity bed-hopping and tabloid tales. His attempt at a commercial career failed; I include the only single to get into the public domain here for reference.

David Sneddon had a woeful single release, one of the ear-worm chorus types with faux-humility running through the verses like so much off milk. Ainslie Henderson – kind of “Homebargains Roddy Woomble” – made my trips to the jukebox much easier with a belter of an one hit wonder, to be followed by absolutely nothing. This is one of the shames of the reality TV consequences, that a good singer/songwriter was left washed up before his career got going. Cruel, and not necessairly realistic.

Alex Parks, whose victory was the antidote to fame craze television, made the best of a badly handled career. The shy Cornish lesbian clown (four no-nos in a row for ITV, there) had her first album hastily released by a record company which didn’t really know what to do with her; the follow-up was years later and flopped. The girl who sounded like Tracy Thorn with hiccups (as a mate of mine put it once) could have been another Annie Lennox or Kate Bush….

Lessons learned from “Fame Academy” hang around the BBC “future” argument even today. Chasing ratings, trying to be distinctive, supporting new music….the elements of contemporary issues with the Beeb have some threads running back as far to the “Academy”, when the Beeb thought it could compete with the phone-in stardom craze so succesfully monopolised by commercial rivals. Today the Beeb can hear the clock ticking on its future; how it reacts to its place in multi-channel broadcasting now seems just as important as it did years ago.

Below, Peter Brame’s only attempt at the singles charts, and the Alex Parks single which blows out of the water most of the vocal gymnastics to come out of “X-Factor”.

Why I support John and Edward

X-Factor viewers are not exactly in for a treat this year. Acts already out of the contest include a group who turned the self-referential nature of reality television on its head by being manufactured live on air; and a bite-sized Lee Evans with the inability to talk without breaking into tears accompanied by a soft-piano backing track, as though he pressed play on a tape-recording of sorrowful music whenever the moment suited it.

Remaining wannabes do not exactly justify the idea that the United Kingdom is the hotbed of musical talent. One contestant, Stacey, is something of a shapeshifter, talking like the a hairdresser from Hell one minute before channeling the spirit of a cruise ship warbler when she sings. A bloke called Daryl, whose attitude appears to be younger than the children he teaches, proves he can sing by unnecessarily holding onto notes at the end of each verse for the sake of a whooping applause.

Above all of the hopefuls sits the one last hope in reality television, however. I like to call it the “Michelle McManus Phenomenon”, relating to the woman whose success in Pop Idol some years ago was almost certainly down to the concerted nationwide effort to give victory to the antidote to variety shows. Larger than most pop stars, and without anything like a distinctive voice, McManus was the victor the producers, presenters, and music company did not want to touch with a bargepole. Her victory was probably best characterised by the mysterious disappearance of her second single days after appearing on television promoting its release.

“Michelle McManus Phenomenon” is about to happen again with the X-Factor secret weapon; two Irish lads called John and Edward. If enough Facebook petitions, bored tabloid journalists, and Twitter users can keep pressing Redial on their phones, these two lads may well be the death of X-Factors from this year hence. Imagine the power. “Jedward” have almost no actual talent; their singing is breathless and often out of tune, their dancing uncertain and without much choreography. Like John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing last year, their continued appearances are thanks to a population who want to stick two fingers up at the perceived wisdom that producers knows better than consumers. Nobody actually wants tone-deaf Irish kids on their radio every day, but imagine trying to give X-Factor and other such shows credibility ever again were they to win.

This is why I fully support the two frankly terrible young lads to win. Not because I am a fan of the show, or of them, or their “mentor” Louis Walsh. Because I remember the amount of laughing around the country when Pop Idol judges were forced to grin and applaud as Michelle McManus blandly warbled her way through a two-bit pop song. Because I remember Alex Parks on BBC One’s Fame Academy, the spiky-haired Cornish lesbian who sounded like Tracy Thorn with hiccups, but who nevertheless was an actual talented singer held back by the prejudices connected to winning a phone-in reality show.

Putting an end to such shows in the future is a bold aim. It could just work. To ensure X-Factor has to suffer a serious pride-fall from which it may never recover, all support must now turn to the two people who can bring down its empire. It’s time to vote like you’ve never done before. It’s time to celebrate the Britney Spears cover-versions and uncertain high-kicks and garbled half-forgotten lyrics. It’s time to hand victory to John and Edward.

It’s the least we can do for the good of our country.