Luke Friend has been a bit of a Sofabet nemesis this series, and not just because we were mildly surprised when he survived week 8’s singoff against Tamera and blindsided when he survived week 9’s against Rough Copy.
It goes back to our pre-lives 1-12 prediction, in compiling which we always try to envisage which fancied act might be a shock early exit and which outsider might do well. Luke, then a 25/1 shot, was the one we seriously considered putting a lot higher than we did, on the basis of one simple fact: he was the first auditionee shown in the first audition show.
Why is that significant? Producers do like to frontload the audition shows with their favoured acts. Two of the three finalists – Sam and Luke – were in the first audition show. So were another two of the last six, Hannah and Tamera.
But, against that, we felt we couldn’t ignore that Luke had been given a gamma boy edit since. He had to wait a week for his arena audition to be screened, and at both bootcamp and judges’ houses he was barely granted any screentime.
Luke’s trajectory in the live shows is best imagined by picturing a pendulum with “dark horse” at one end of the spectrum and “busker from Devon” at the other end. From live show 1 to live show 4, the pendulum swung steadily out to the “dark horse” end. It wasn’t an immediately gamechanging start with ‘Every Breath You Take’ in week 1, and week 2’s boat staging for ‘Let Her Go’ divided opinion in the Sofabet comments, though we thought it had a pleasantly languid vibe.
Week 3’s ‘Kiss From A Rose’ saw the first unequivocal signs of producer favour. That came in the form of a shopping centre VT designed to convey the impression that Luke was popular, and Luke bestowing a name – “Friendies” – upon his fan base, the suggestion being that his fans are both numerous and committed.
In week 4, the pendulum pushed even deeper into positive territory as he had his name in lights and three judges on their feet for a rendition of ‘Play That Funky Music’ that ended with Luke on his back and guitars spraying fireworks.
That was when the “dark horse” tag was bestowed. But what a difference a week makes. In week 5, the pendulum swung sharply all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum as his VT showed him strumming his guitar to a sparse-looking gathering and his own mentor dismissively referred to him as a “busker from Devon”.
His rendition of ‘Moondance’ saw justified criticism from Gary, and – in a week that also saw Abi Alton deprived of her trademark glasses, before being despatched in the singoff – Luke’s hair was pulled back for the first time. There has always been a sense that Luke’s hair is the most interesting thing about him and therefore, as with Samson, somehow the source of all his powers.
We’ve seen it so often on the X Factor – the old one-two punch, the softener and the kill – and when Luke was sent out second in week 6, it seemed plausible that he was in the producers’ crosshairs. His VT featured an amusing moment when Louis took all three boys skating and made a point of remarking “Sam is winning”, and the staging for ‘Your Song’ featured an incredibly distracting and mysteriously older woman on the big screen behind him.
Both Sharon and Nicole used the same word to describe him: “organic”. As we explored in our retrospective on Abi’s journey, our ears always prick up whenever we notice any apparent attempt to associate a word with an act, and this was an intriguing one. What connotations might “organic” have to an ITV audience? We would hazard a guess at something like “a niche product that’s an unnecessary expense, and perhaps has a bit of a farmyard smell”.
Luke looked dispensable, but was saved by hitting the bottom two with Sam Callahan, whose VT suggested he had transitioned during the course of the week from being an act producers wanted to keep around for Gary pantomime purposes to being one they wanted rid of for having the gumption to have ideas of his own.
Cue a swing of the pendulum right the way back to “dark horse” in week 7 for ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, which may well have been Luke’s best week vote-wise (or, perhaps more pertinently, iTunes sales-wise) as that’s the song he’s reprising in the final. Hair down, velvet jacket, guitar – this would appear to be Luke in his comfort zone.
Again in week 8 he got high praise from the judges, although in a series that’s seen plenty of confusing mixed messages we also had a couple of instances of Louis planting unhelpful thoughts in the VT – in the runup to ‘Skinny Love’ saying he hated the song, and worrying that Luke would do a “busker’s version” of ‘I Will Wait’.
Luke hit the singoff again and was saved again, this time against Sam Callahan’s girlfriend. As an aside, given that we now know Sam and Tamera were an item during the show, it’s intriguing to wonder if something happened in the run-up to week 6 which might have caused a tense situation between the the two of them and the production team – not only was Sam nuked in week 6, it was also when Tamera’s lyric-forgetting troubles surfaced.
Back to Luke, and last week’s semi final saw a south-westerly swing of the pendulum. Busking wasn’t mentioned, but Luke was called a “little boy from Devon”, got mixed comments, and his hair was pulled back for his second performance. Whether he survived over Rough Copy by accident or design is a debate that continues to run in the Sofabet comments.
If it was by design, one possible reason – suggested by Santa Giles – is that Luke was clear of Rough Copy in the vote by such a distance that producers started to worry shoehorning Rough Copy into the final would have generated unwelcome publicity when the percentages are released after Sunday’s show. Richard Betsfactor raised the possibility that the singoff might have been instituted only to fill airtime on Sunday’s show because an intended guest failed to confirm, and that honouring the public vote was always going to be considered more important than getting the right act into the final.
But the theory that sprang to many commenters’ minds immediately was: could producers be thinking that Luke is worth keeping as he’s going to split Nick’s vote in the final?
Several commenters have argued that Nick and Luke have separate niches. While there’s a strong case to be made for that idea, producers will have access to the voting figures, and perhaps they may have noticed that when Luke has a good week it impacts on Nick’s figures.
That could explain a lot about Luke’s live show treatment, which is otherwise atypical – we’re struggling to remember other examples from previous series of acts who have been pimped, then attacked for a couple of weeks, then pimped again. (There are examples of acts who were initially considered disposable but producers ended up running with, such as Marcus Collins, but have there been previous examples of acts who they’ve built up, knocked down, and built up again?)
The Daily Star, which has form with accurate leaks, has imparted only two pieces of information this year: that Nick won weeks 2 and 6. Recall that Luke was treated very favourably in weeks 3 and 4. Could it be that, looking at week 4’s vote, producers felt they’d got Nick’s vote under control and therefore Luke was now dispensable?
And could it be that, unpleasantly surprised by week 6’s vote, producers decided they needed to pimp Luke again in weeks 7 and 8 as part of a bid to bring Nick back down again? We’re not sure, but it may be a theory worth considering.
Luke becomes the first act in X Factor history to get to the final after three singoff saves. Cher Lloyd is the only other finalist to have survived more than one, and she was also first out in the only four-act final in the history of the show. That’s not promising for Luke. Nor is the fact that, like a skimming stone, sympathy bounces usually gradually lose their power with each successive save – although Katie Waissel caught a wave and enjoyed a huge spike after her fourth.
History, and logic, suggest Luke will be leaving us first this weekend – but will he have split Nick’s vote sufficiently to leave Sam in an unassailable lead by the time he does so? What have you made of the X Factor journey of the grubby-haired dark horse busker from Devon? Do let us know in the comments below.