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”.

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Rage against the X-Factor

Iron Maiden did it. But then again, so did Bob The Builder. And moreover as much as it can be accepted that some damn good pop songs have come from the race to get to Christmas Number One – that oh so British tradition – how many times can a person actually listen to “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” before blood begins to seep through the ears?

Invariably associated with novelty songs and faded celebrity, the nature of Christmas Number One has changed over recent years. Yes, it is still more to do with different PR companies attempting to race each others fax machines, although in more cases than not, the same companies can often be involved in the race even if the media-led rivalry appears a genuine battle between different groups.

It’s always been about the chart place rather than the music, of course. Well, unless you actually really like “Merry Xmas Everybody”. Try hearing it in the middle of June. Go on, put it on Spotify in August, then see how good it is to sing “Here’s to the future now…..” in the middle of Aldi. At least the reality TV explosion has, in a strange round-a-bout fashion, attempted to make the focus of the chart battle actual songs…

This year’s battle is between yet another winner of the X-Factor, and Rage Against The Machine. Older readers may recall the battle in 2000, when Bob The Builder outsold Eminem to take the “top spot” of Number One at Christmas way back then. It was a similar media-led event; both records were hyped to the hills one everything from BBC Breakfast News to questions in the House of Commons. In the end, Bob beat Eminem and the world didn’t end.

Cliff Richard is the man whose rule over the Christmas charts was once without question, although this has all come to end once he played his best (and most cynical) card to date; putting the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” reeks of Cowell-level commercial interests. Barmy and brilliant, the evangelical community bought it up by the Ark-load.

This year, the X-Factor winner has one of the weakest ever “winner’s songs”, in “The Climb”. It sounds like a parody record. Indeed I have known worse Eurovision records than “The Climb”, and that includes the Swiss entry from 1994. And the Luxembourg entry from 1989. And for that matter, the Hungarian entry from 1995. While hundreds of thousands of “The Climb” have been bought and downloaded, many hundreds of thousands more of “Killing in the Name Of…” have been purchased in retaliation. This could be the most “credible” song to hit number 1 at Christmas since the 2003 surprise winner “Mad World” from Donnie Darko. Before that, we’re looking at the absolute classic “Saviour’s Day” from 1990. No, I mean it. One of the best songs ever written, and I’m not a Christian. Come on – the melody, the lyrical flow, the lyrics….No? Just me…?

Maybe, just maybe, the race for Christmas Number One really has been a joke on the entire British nation. No other country does it. Not even the Americans, and by-and-large, Americans are mental. Whatever makes Britain turn into month-long chart speculators I do not know; it really cannot be just about the songs that make it. It must be about the spirit of the underdog, wanting the one-hit-wonders and no-hit-makers to have their little place in music history. There’s always be a little place in my heart for the commercial radio weather girls who find themselves as a new entry at number 124, or the one-time big star reduced to hoiking her Christmas single around every daytime sofa-show for the one big chance of a top-30 “comeback”.

I fully support the “Rage Against The X-Factor”. If Lordi can win Eurovision, and if Iron Maiden can themselves get “Bring Your Daughter…” to Christmas Number One, then the time has come for another national two-fingered salute to the expected and the assumed. Let us remember that Joe from the X-Factor has an entire life-time to churn out (or have churned out on his behalf) endless Westlife covers. This is the one chance for the sidelined, the leftfield, the alternative, the angry, the sagging-jeans-while-holding-a-skateboard, all of them, to unite against the manufactured schlop of reality TV.

And if anyone else points out that both Rage… and Joe are on the same record label, I may go cuckoo-bananas…It’s Christmas. Live a little…

In no particular order…

As expected, Tony Blair has scribbled all over the newsgrids in place for January and his questioning at the Iraq War Inquiry. The former prime minister told renowned investigative journalist Fern Britton that had he known about the lack of WMDs in Iraq at the time of the Parliamentary vote on any proposed Iraq invasion, “other justifications” would have been sourced and used. This is the infamously grey area barely above the level of lying so favoured by the political class: the world of “known unknowns” and suppressed legal advice and other such curtains drawn to hide the facts.

The media have not done themselves any favours against claims of “dumbing down” in recent months, not least in their coverage of the Iraq Inquiry. With barely any headline news, it has become pretty much established fact that the war had its genesis years prior to the World Trade Centre attacks, that “regime change” was far above any other justification for invasion, and George W. Bush did not necessarily require the firm handshakes or solemn prayers of Tony Blair before sending American troops into battle. How the media will cover Blair’s actual questioning in front of Chilcott will be interesting now the “big admission” has been so subtly placed into the public arena “a month early”.

The bigger story for both BBC News and Sky News this past week has been Tiger Woods’ “moment of madness”. Interestingly, BBC News placed Blair above Woods in the running order only after placing them the other way around for most of the day. Sky News was still preferring Woods to Blair at first thing this morning. It is quite the unfathomable thing that the pulling out of British troops from Iraq and subsequent uncovered allegations surrounding the war have had barely anything like the media coverage at the time of the invasion. Is it boredom on the part of the news teams? Focus Group feedback?

As I potted down to Tesco this morning for a croissant and the NonLeague Paper, I noticed each and every tabloid front page was covered self-generated X-Factor press releases and speculation. The stars may not be the best or most talented – and anyway, why do I care now Stacy has gone – but the genius of Simon Cowell to ensure his empire strikes at the top of every office coffee break, breakfast table banter and indeed chart rundown shows no sign of being reduced. That he is considering taking the X-Factor model into some kind of international Eurovision-style festival of amateur talent should come as no surprise and as a warning to anyone who would prefer a return to the days when the ability to sing came above the ability to manipulate an audience to telephone vote for you.

It’s Christmas early-pay-day-week. And I’ve yet to start any Christmas shopping. I’m playing “Christmas chicken”, it’s a bloke thing. In any case, there’s every chance that financial pressures will tighten so why not wait until every scarf, chocolate box and voucher is available at cheapness for the right to say the purchasing was genuinely all in the spirit of Goodwill?

Yep, I’m convinced. More convinced than by Blair, I’ll say that….

Vote for Songs, Vote for Change

Someone have a word with Simon Cowell. If he of the high-trousers wants an international X-Factor, he’s better off saving his money. There already exists a multi-national amateur singing contest, it’s called Eurovision and at almost 60 it’s had ten-times the life span of most talent show careers.

But…all the same, Cowell knows when he’s onto a winner. Not that the “final 4” in the current run of the X-Factor is exactly over running with talent. The main prize has rarely been given to someone who deserves it (see, for that matter, most talent shows, namely Eurovision and the fancy dress contest at a hotel in Split back in 1991. I’m not bitter but damn it, all the winners did was wrap themselves in out-of-date Beano comics……)

Sorry, back to the X-Factor. The apparent favourite is Daryl, who has the satisfied arrogance of a libel lawyer with an ability to add extra long notes to the end of everything he sings like some form of computer character “special move”. He’s up against a one-time contestant on Deal Or No Deal, called Olly Murs, who has been forced to warble the same old selections from The Greatest Copyright Free Swing and Blues Album…Ever! while being talked about as “one of the lads”. When he was made to perform (and/or murder) George Michael’s “Fastlove” in a tight shirt and AIDS awareness ribbon I wonder exactly what had happened to the “one of the lads” demographic. Maybe Simon had been off that week. He often is.

A squat gnome-faced 12 year old called Joe, who should have never been allowed near a microphone on pain of death, has been consistently voted through despite the (very) annoying habit of turning every song into a theatrical pastiche. You know Mitch Benn? You know how everything Mitch Benn does is a) unfunny, and b) forced, and c) unfunny and forced and annoying and unfunny? Joe is RIGHT up there with the forced, annoying, unfunny Mitch Benn. He’s likely to win. It’s just not right. If Simon Callow wants a winner – and it’s likely he doesn’t really give two-hoots now there’s the opportunity to reinvent the Eurovision wheel – then Stacy “Essex girl who actually lives in the London Borough of Dagenham but why ruin a USP” Soloman is the one on whom a fiver should be placed at the bookies.

Okay, Stacy does sound like an over polished Hazel Dean, but compared with the other three – Mr Arrogant Warbler, Mr Ambiguous, Mr Mitch Benn – she’s the only one who has a singing voice worth hearing more than once. Just.

Voting for any of these potential one-hit wonders is not something I am likely to do, all that said. My real focus is on actual voting and actual democracy, with long-term consequences and all that stuff. I am annoyed to the highest limits with the news that chicken-scared Labour MPs are attempting to force Gordon Brown into rushing changes to the Westminster voting system through Parliament to trap the Conservatives into looking like “status quo stick-in-the-muds”. In short, Labour MPs who may well lose their seats in 2010 (and so they should) hope that switching to AV will a) keep them in a cushy job for a few more years, and b) stuff the Tories ever ruling with a working majority ever again.

As a liberal, a democrat, and a Liberal Democrat, my life-long dream has been to see the introduction of a fairer voting system for Westminster. AV is not my first choice by any stretch. I would much prefer STV. But of course, STV means Labour are not likely to keep the big bad Tories out of office. And for some robotic ultra-loyal Labour MPs, they would rather keep their careers nice and feather lined (so hence this cynical attempt to force through a Tory blocking measure before March 28th), than actually deal with the inadequacies of the FPTP system.

Using “politics as usual” techniques to suggest “politics is really changing” is the lowest form of Westminster game playing. It’s little wonder Yes, Minister and Thick Of It make me cringe so much; they are so much like the real goings on inside the corridors of power they may as well be broadcast as news.

It’s enough to make me give up on politics all together and become a talent show judge.

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.