Oh, the irony. In 2010, producers selected the ingredients of One Direction with the discerning care of a Michelin-starred restauranteur, and pushed them with the relentless unsubtlety of an award-winning timeshare salesman. Still they finished only third, prompting us to ask: Can a group ever win it?
In 2011, we got our answer. The constituents of Little Mix were apparently lobbed together because they were the same height, they were originally given a name nobody had bothered to Google, and producers didn’t appear to take a serious interest in them as potential winners until nearly halfway through the lives.
And they won. (Much to our surprise, having dismissed their chances in an article which we feature at the top of a list of our ten favourite posts of the 2011 series.)
How did that happen?
In the next article, we’ll justify our belief that the finger of fortune alighted upon Little Mix only in midseries, rather than them having been a masterplan from the getgo. Today we want to focus on a major part of the explanation for their success: The remarkable nobbling of every single one of their opponents.
Of course, the X Factor has never been a level playing field. That’s one of the things that makes it so much fun to punt on. Every series has featured acts who are blatantly favoured, and acts who are amusingly hung out to dry.
But 2011 saw the latter taken to a whole new level. Having previously seemed like gamekeepers who accepted the need to cull the weaker members of the herd, producers suddenly started behaving like a drunk with a machine gun.
The comparison with 2010 is instructive. In our review of the 2010 series, we explained why we thought producers would have preferred Matt Cardle not to win it; but equally, no serious attempt was made to nobble him – certainly not on the scale experienced by, say, Janet Devlin. (Interestingly, both Matt and Janet had been early leaders whose week 7 vote total was their weakest of the series. But whereas the kill on Janet was completed in her week 8, Matt was allowed to pull away again in his week 8 with a helpful running order slot and the much-praised ‘Nights In White Satin’.)
2010’s second-placed Rebecca Ferguson received nothing but helpful treatment throughout. The same, obviously, goes for One Direction. Producers couldn’t have done much more to help fourth-placed Cher, either – or, for that matter, seventh-placed Katie Waissel.
In other words, that’s five of the top seven in 2010 who were conspicuously not nobbled. It was only fifth-placed Mary Byrne and sixth-placed Wagner who experienced the kind of kneecapping which befell every single one of this year’s eliminees.
As we have documented elsewhere, Nu Vibe were strangled at birth. Sami Cruiseship walked the plank. Sophie Habibis was shot down. Week 5‘s double eliminees – The Risk and Johnny Robinson – had been strong seconds in weeks 2 and 3 respectively. Week 6 saw Kitty thrown under the chariot, and week 7 saw the dunking of Craig Biscuit. Janet Devlin’s death of a thousand cuts was completed in week 8.
The semi-final witnessed the eventual unplugging of Misha’s life support, which she had needed since being mortally wounded by the bullying accusations in week 3. The first leg of the final saw the de-ramping of Amelia which we had been awaiting every week since her comeback, with Louis and Tulisa pointedly reminding viewers that she’d taken a shortcut to Wembley.
That left just one act left to nobble – Marcus Collins. We documented on the Saturday of finals weekend how the running order and positioning of ad breaks had done him no favours. But it was nothing compared to what happened on the Sunday night. Producers showed they were willing to go further than seen before in previous finals to get the result they wanted.
Before you accuse us of favouritism towards Collins – our pre-lives selection – do read this wonderful dissection by Richard at Betsfactor, who was willing a Little Mix victory.
Going into the final Sunday, Marcus was not so far behind. With about two-thirds of the vote still to be cast after the Saturday freeze which saw Amelia’s elimination, Marcus would have needed just over 51% of them to overhaul Little Mix’s lead. This was far from an unclimbable mountain. At the same stage last year, Rebecca pulled back a 42/58 Saturday deficit with Matt to 49/51 on Sunday; a lesser turnaround would have done it for Marcus.
But producers had one last trick up their sleeve. They got Marcus to reprise ‘Higher and Higher’ as his performance of the series, while Little Mix reprised ‘Don’t Let Go’. It seemed like the obvious choice for the girlband, and a curious choice for Marcus: Why not ‘Reet Petite’, widely regarded as his standout performance?
When the voting statistics were revealed, we got our answer. Significantly, both of these choices came from week 7, when Marcus enjoyed the pimp slot with ‘Higher and Higher’ – a performance which led to him being lampooned for the closing crucifixion pose, and memorably described by Sofabet’s Dug as looking like “the Reverend Marcus Sunshine, inspirational leader of an inflatable pink church in America’s Deep South”.
Dug was absolutely spot on to have perceived that this staging was alienating to the voting public – as the graph shows, Marcus clocked his weakest relative vote of the entire series, with the exception of week 2’s dreadful ‘Russian Roulette’. From the pimp slot, that is quite some going. Meanwhile, it was Little Mix’s best vote of the series by some distance.
Not only that, because these performances took place in the same week, producers will have been able to make a direct comparison between the two. They will have known that Marcus got barely half the vote of Little Mix that week. So when they sent him out again with his pink suit and gospel choir and got the choreographers to tell him to do that Jesus thing at the end again, they will have known exactly what the effect on the vote was likely to be.
Would the cheerful Liverpudlian have won if he’d been allowed to reprise ‘Reet Petite’, which the graph shows – that’s his week 5 spike – was indeed his best vote-getter? We’ll never know. What we do know is that producers weren’t willing to take that chance.
And to make sure the Scouse lad was dead and buried, they had him sing ‘Last Christmas’ on stage alone with little production, effectively scalping him in front of the huge Wembley Arena audience. This kill is detailed fully in the Betsfactor article we referred you to earlier.
So now we have the answer to the question we asked this time last year, after One Direction’s failure – what would it have taken to get them over the line? As it happens, all the questions we asked were irrelevant. Regional base? Not really. Whip out a guitar? Nope. Find some way for the public to identify with all the individuals? Again, it proved not necessary – by the final, most viewers probably knew Little Mix’s members as the one who sings, the one who cries and the other two.
By focusing on what might be done differently with a group, we completely missed the key lesson: Nobble the group’s opponents! Six weeks worth of telling us how boring Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson were might just have done the trick.