The running order and sympathy bounce have long been staples of our analysis here on Sofabet. In the last series, we also got more into looking at the staging, though always with a nagging feeling that we might be reading too much into it. So in our customary act-by-act retrospective, let’s look not only at the effect of running order and sympathy bounce, but also see if we can see any patterns in the kinds of staging that seemed to be helpful and not.
We’ll start at the top with Sam. The blue line shows her vote totals as a percentage of the mean vote in each week. The grey bar shows her running order position – no grey bar means she opened the show, a bar running right to the top means she closed the show (in the last three weeks we’ve gone with positions in the second round of songs):
A quick note on the “percentage of the mean” method. We reckon it generally makes for more meaningful comparisons in that you should consider 10% of the vote in a 10-act show the equivalent of 11.1% in a 9-act show, 12.5% in an 8-act show, and so on. But it does mean that anyone who’s way out in front early on will inevitably dip towards the end: it’s a lot easier to poll 25% in a 12-act show than 100% in a 3-act show, so having started by pulling in three times the mean vote, Sam’s line was always going to end up lower.
That said, the story here is Sam taking a dip in week 2 when she opened the show (in the Strictly overlap zone, and when Louis called her “ScrewBo”); she bounced back in week 3, scoring even better than the week 4 pimp slot; and after that, a steady decline punctuated by the peak for her week 7 pimp slot.
Staging watch, then. Here are Sam’s best performances, week 1 and 3:
And here’s the week 2 dip:
Not too many surprises there. The yellow roses look simple and classy, and the ballroom dancers and ancient monument backdrop also look classy, albeit in a cheesy and dated kind of way – but then perhaps that’s just staging that delights the demo. We’d noted at the time that Sam’s red-and-black “time runing out” imagery recalled something they did to Christopher Maloney in 2012, and – whether coincidentally or not – it did correlate with a dip in her support.
As with Sam, he was always going to end lower than he started, but his decline to week 4 is quite precipitous and must have encouraged producers. Then they foolishly let him off the leash with that week 6 pimp slot, which saw his vote spike. Sending him out in a succession of early slots from week 7 onwards dragged his line back down again.
Best performances, for staging study – weeks 1 and 2.
A giant star in week 1, which is one of the staging decisions we believe (per Richard Betsfactor) is intended to have positive subliminal connotations. We had thought that week 2 staging – the procession of zombie women walking past him, and a backdrop of people walking away from him – was planting negative subliminals. If that was the intention then clearly it wasn’t successful, as it was his best relative vote of the series, even better than week 1’s star.
Nick’s worst weeks? It’s arguable how you figure it, but let’s look at both where his trendline takes the most precipitous drop (week 4, despite his first late-ish slot in the running order), and the lowest point of his line (the final).
Clearly, there is some support here for Richard Betsfactor’s “colour vomit” theory (that having a lot of contrasting of colours used in staging is unhelpful). On the other hand, a strike against Richard’s “star crazy” theory (that stars are helpful).
Luke now, and those red bits of the line indicate the week after a singoff, when we would usually expect an act to get a sympathy bounce:
What’s remarkable about Luke’s trajectory is that he didn’t suffer a comedown from the bounce in week 8 – usually, sympathy bounces last only week, but Luke’s line just kept on going upwards. Of course, that was the week he was pimped to high heaven, but still ended up in the singoff, besting Tamera. He got a second bounce which continued his upward trajectory into the semi-final, despite being treated much less favourably then, and no bounce from that semi-final singoff save over Rough Copy. That’s not surprising – like a skimming stone, bounces tend to become progressively less potent.
Luke’s best week? You could argue it’s 9 (his highest point on the line) or 8 (given he performed well despite being on a bounce comedown). Let’s look at all four of the songs from those two weeks:
In all cases, the staging is pretty minimal – for ‘Skinny Love’, just Luke and a guitar with the lights on him and some squiggly abstract shapes on the backdrop in a warm colour palette; for ‘I Will Wait’, the lighting is less focused but colours similarly warm, and he again has his guitar – this time with a band of musicians, again arguably an example of delight-the-demo staging; warm colours and musicians again for ‘Best Thing I Never Had’; and just Luke with a bluey-silver turning-cog backdrop for ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’.
Luke’s worst weeks? 1 and 6.
No surprises that the incredibly distracting woman makes our list of unhelpful staging. Luke’s week 1 staging featured the man himself looking over his shoulder in monochrome and a slightly cold colour palette, although perhaps his lowly score in week 1 is better attributed to the lack of screentime he’d had since his room audition.
A promising enough start from the week 1 pimp slot, but a rapid decline in weeks 2 and then 3 when they opened the show, and their sympathy bounce after week 7 was anaemic considering it came with the help of the pimp slot. That’s a reminder that although the week 7 bounce was powerful for James Arthur, Olly Murs and JLS, there’s nothing necessarily magical about it.
Their best performance is week 1 – yes, they had the pimp slot, but they did a lot better from it than did Hannah or Tamera in the following two weeks.
Their worst vote was when they finished bottom in week 7:
There are superficial similarities in these screengrabs, but week 1’s blue-and-black palette was moody and atmospheric with occasional forked lightning, whereas week 7’s was a hot mess of a distracting laser show.
An underwhelming performance from her week 3 pimp slot, then falling into the bottom two with an early slot in week 4. She gets a sympathy bounce following that week 4 save, and sympathy for her week 6 and 7 flubs slows the comedown.
Her best week – it’s the classy, understated smokey backdrop in week 2:
Her worst weeks, 4 (in a diamond cage) and 8 (scrapyard backdrop with colour-vomit top, followed by the white dress with floaty purple flowers in the backdrop):
Her peaks come with week 2’s pimp slot, and sympathy bounces in weeks 4 and 6 from which she then suffers immediate comedowns – the sympathy bounce, as we keep saying, usually lasts only a week, unless there are special circumstances (such as sympathy for Tamera’s lyrical flubs when she was due her comedown).
It’s hard to say how much we could read into the staging for her best weeks, given that pimp slot and bounce would be more obvious explanations. Her worst perfomances came with week 3’s fire, but also week 5’s golden machinery and week 7’s gold dress with purple cloudy skies:
No surprises that his best week came with this beautiful backdrop:
Her best week, simple staging at a white piano:
Her worse? That’s life.
Their worst week, the psychedelic colour vomit for ‘Marry Me’:
This post hasn’t told us anything we didn’t know about running order or sympathy bounces. What has it told us about staging?
Regular readers will know that we took the decision to go to town on staging this year, and frequently asked ourselves if we were over-analysing. We feel there is certainly a danger of placing far too much weight on subliminals (“is that a sun or a black hole? Is that colour scheme a winning shade of gold, or a warning shade of amber?”). Nick’s week 2 staging, with zombies walking away from him, seemed terrible from a subliminals perspective but did him no harm at all.
Still, these’s enough evidence in the images above for some of the red flag danger signs pioneered by our friend Richard Betsfactor – fire, colour vomit, red and black time imagery – and some new ones from this year, like an older woman on a home video. Perhaps, though, as EM has suggested in the comments, these can simply all be subsumed under an umbrella of “a big distracting mess”.
Certainly the examples of helpful staging seem broadly to share the theme of simplicity. In particular, Tamera and Sam Callahan in week 2 stand out as vote spikes that have no other obvious cause; in both cases, the staging was classy and elegant, as was the case with a number of other acts’ good weeks.
What are your takehome messages on staging in retrospect? Do let us know below.