What makes the X Factor such fun to analyse is that it is cast as carefully as any soap opera, but the script has to be adapted on the hoof to both shape and respond to how the characters are playing with the voting public.
Well, normally it is cast carefully. In 2011, there were at least three humungous cock-ups at this pivotal stage of proceedings.
Firstly, and most obviously, Janet Devlin was cast as a shy young girl but proved to have an inconvenient mind of her own. The extent of the other two errors in casting became clear only during the final Xtra Factor after Sunday’s show.
There is an X Factor tradition on this edition of Xtra Factor to open sealed envelopes containing judges’ predictions for who will win. Supposedly, these predictions are made and the envelopes sealed at the bootcamp stage.
Of course, one can debate how much the judges are in the loop about producers’ thinking, but we suspect the answer must be “at least somewhat”. After all, it’s in nobody’s interests to let the judges make these predictions completely in the dark and have them all look ridiculous on Xtra Factor after the final if they choose acts whose journeys end at judges’ houses.
Kelly’s envelope said Janet, confirming that she was seen as the alpha girl at this point. Gary’s envelope said Frankie. Frankie? Yes, Frankie. Apparently, they actually thought Frankie Cocozza could win the X Factor. Lest we think this was a brainfart from Gary, the opening of Louis’s envelope backed up the interpretation that producers were seriously expecting Frankie to be Gary’s best hope. Louis’s prediction? A Frankie-Janet final.
Just how thoroughly did the producers vet their acts this year? We have already asked this question about Janet, with Sofabet readers speculating that perhaps her introverted personality could have been mistaken for shyness and malleability, or perhaps she sussed what they were looking for and was deliberately playing the game.
But how did they get Frankie so wrong? Did they not listen to him singing? It was abundantly clear to pretty much every viewer after the screening of his audition, bootcamp and judges’ houses that he was painfully short in the vocals department. He had also already generated a great deal of dislike. In our pre-lives prediction, we imagined he might just about be shoved to fourth with a series of Waisselesque singoff saves.
But they apparently thought he could actually win. No matter how many times we say it, we still can’t quite believe it.
Tulisa’s envelope was also revealing – it said Nu Vibe. This makes us feel a bit better about having predicted Nu Vibe to be the top manufactured group pre-lives. It does seem that we were correct in interpreting that this was the thinking at the time, even though the mantle of favoured group had passed to The Risk 2.0 by the time of the first live show, and then on to Little Mix when The Risk’s revolving door started to look silly.
Can you imagine the panic that must have gripped Producer Central once they realised their alpha male couldn’t sing, their alpha female was too bolshy for their tastes and their alpha group had the personal chemistry of ferrets in a sack? If this had been a soap, they could have written their characters out and brought in some new ones – and indeed, in the shape of Ashford and Amelia, they were somewhat ludicruously reduced to doing just this.
They were also forced to assassinate their principal pantomime act much earlier than they must have planned. After all, one logical consequence of cocking up the alpha male, alpha female and alpha group is that the alpha over is suddenly a lot more viable. And after week 3, no question who the alpha over was: Step forward likeable Pinner drag queen Johnny Robinson.
We would bet that in the original script, Johnny was supposed to follow a Wagneresque trajectory, providing some light relief before being cut loose around week seven or eight. But with the weakness of the rest of the field and Johnny’s storming second public vote, producers must have started to panic that he might actually win it. As a result, and as we have documented elsewhere (see numbers 7 and 6 of our top ten manipulative moments article), they wheeled out the big guns, blasting Johnny out of the water as early as week 5.
Could Johnny really have won? Sofabet commenter SIX reckons so. Our suspicion is that Johnny’s schtick may have started to wear thin before the final, but we can understand why producers might not have felt confident that would be the case. Take a look at this graph, which shows how Johnny’s week 3 spike (for ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’) vastly outperformed anything other recent joke acts have been capable of.
Johnny’s week 3 performance is all the more commendable when you consider that the only three times another joke act has scored more than the mean were off the backs of sympathy bounces following a bottom two appearance (one each for Katie, Kitty and Jedward). Johnny is the only joke act to have outscored the mean without a sympathy bounce – and he almost scored double.
To put it into further context, Johnny’s 188% of the mean in week 3 was better than anything Little Mix managed, or Marcus, or indeed anyone apart from Janet Devlin in the first two votes and Amelia on her comeback week.
The more puzzling question, to us, is why producers didn’t decide to embrace Johnny. Bringing forward his assassination may have been the only alternative to risking his building up a head of steam, but it also meant getting rid of their most entertaining character at the relatively early stage of halfway. In contrast, in 2010 the highly entertaining Wagner and Katie Waissel were kept around till week 8.
Given that Marcus Collins’s vote was never especially strong, and the tricks for which they have become renowned here on Sofabet, producers may have been able to engineer a final of Little Mix versus Johnny and Janet rather than versus Marcus and Amelia, had they been so inclined.
Sure, the reason why producers might not have wanted to see Johnny in the final is obvious. It’s the reason why they assassinated Wagner in 2010: Joke acts aren’t supposed to become potential winners, to avoid compromising the, ahem, musical credibility of the show.
On the other hand, Johnny was hardly in the Wagner league of laughably inconceivable finalists. He had a serviceable falsetto and could perform. And any musical credibility deficit could surely have been remedied by giving Janet her guitar and letting her do an original number, as they did for Chris Rene on the US version this year.
If tabloid rumours are to be believed, had Janet reached the final she could have duetted with Coldplay and sung a Nirvana song by special dispensation of Courtney Love. This, surely, would have been more than enough to balance out fears that Johnny’s presence might make the final seem less musically credible.
Of course, in one way the cocked up casting of the alpha male, female and group rebounded to the show’s advantage. That’s how come they ended up being able to accomplish the unlikely feat of manouevring a girlband into a winning position.
But we can’t help thinking that, ultimately, they could have adapted the script more wisely. Would a final also featuring Johnny and Janet instead of Amelia and Marcus have clocked the lowest ratings since 2006? We suspect not.