We take a keen interest in the staging of each song, and the interest needs to be even keener for Halloween. What might usually stand out as a hatchet job by being scary, funereal or monstrous suddenly becomes justified by the theme. Producers must love it. As occasional Sofabet contributor Dug wrote in 2012: “It’s a great theme because basically everyone dresses in apocalyptic drag and gets red-and-blacked.”
Or do they? We peeked through our fingers at past Halloween productions for staging clues amidst the zombies and ghouls. There have been three Halloween themed shows, in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And in all three, we felt at the time that producers cleanly hit the act they were targeting. Aptly enough for the theme, in all three years the victims have been young women: Belle Amie, Sophie Habibis and Jade Ellis.
Do bear in mind that it’s a small data set, leaving the chance for coincidence, and we obviously can’t guarantee any pointers will be used in the same way on Saturday. But like the Blair Witch Project, we couldn’t resist exploring further. Let’s start with the three sacrificial lambs.
2010 victim Belle Amie’s VT concluded with one of them saying “we just want to show people who we are on stage”. That turned out to be… the undead. They started in coffins, which weren’t opened early enough as the singing started. When they were finally released, it was to red-and-black lighting, messy spotlights and near-naked writhing dancers.
It’s perhaps worth reiterating at this stage why we’re interested in staging. We suspect it can sometimes – intentionally or otherwise – press subliminal buttons in viewers’ minds that make them feel more or less well-disposed to a performance, and therefore more or less likely to vote.
What is there to say about 2011 victim Sophie Habibis’s treatment that hasn’t been said already? It starts with the way her VT builds anticipation by having her talk about the excitement surrounding the show, setting up the payoff of her going into her hometown pub, where she is greeted by… one friend, and everyone else ignores her. It ends with Dermot reminding us of Louis’s “secretary who sings at the weekend” line.
But it’s the staging we’re interested in here, and Sophie appears in an arachnid hellscape with arguably the most comprehensive ever red-and-blacking. Like Belle Amie, she had semi-naked male dancers, but they writhe much more slowly in the darkness, as if caught in the spider’s web backdrop.
A year later and in 2012 Jade Ellis was another comprehensive assassination. It combined two of these earlier themes. Like Belle Amie, she was undead according to her cut-throat make-up. Dressed as a cyborg with one eye obscured by a metallic web, she was brought to life by a charged backdrop. And as with Sophie, there was a spider’s web motif in the background, this time carried through into the dancers.
Now you’re probably thinking: it’s Hallowe’en, most of the staging must have been like that, right? Well, actually, no – we YouTubed our way through the other Hallowe’en numbers as well, and there are plenty of examples of acts who have classy staging: check out Cher Lloyd’s ‘Stay’ in 2010 for example – a bit of mascara and a dead tree, but beautifully-lit, and haunting in a good way.
Or consider Ella Henderson’s ‘Bring Me To Life’ in 2012 – more dead trees, mist and a red cape. Or Jahmene Douglas’s ‘Killing Me Softly’, with a spectral cathedral backdrop. Indeed, quite a few of the stagings and stylings seem to have very little obvious connection with the theme at all, such as Craig Colton’s ‘Set Fire To The Rain’ from the 2011 pimp slot; as EM remarked in the Sofabet comments at the time, “nothing says Hallowe’en quite like a plump bloke in a duffle coat singing an Adele song”.
So did any themes of Hallowe’en staging seem to stand out from this re-viewing? Again, this is a very small data set and this was just a quick glance through YouTube, not a scientific study. But for what it’s worth, here’s what struck us.
Spiders. Apart from the web theme in Sophie’s and Jade’s staging, the only other spider we spotted was on a necklace of a Belle Amie singer, so I guess that’s 3-0 to the arachnids. Coincidence? Quite possibly, though it might be worth pointing out that a non-negligible number of people genuinely fear spiders whilst seeing other Halloween motifs, such as ghouls and carved pumpkins, as harmless fun.
Writhing naked flesh. Apparent in two out of these three kills, and if it featured elsewhere in Hallowe’en staging then we missed it. The most notable other use of this that we can remember was in 2012 for Chris Maloney’s (non-Hallowe’en) rendition of ‘Fernando’.
The undead. As far as we can tell, only Belle Amie and Jade had staging that suggested they were undead.
Death, generally. We spotted only a handful of other explicit connotations of death in Halloween staging. There were RIP tombstones for District 3’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ in 2012, on a week they were due down off their bounce and we assumed producers were after them but overly harsh criticism of their Clockwork Orange-themed routine actually helped their vote.
James Arthur’s ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This’ had grim reapers holding flaming torches, but from the pimp slot – clearly it wasn’t meant to be unhelpful. Wagner’s ‘O Fortuna/Bat Out Of Hell’ mashup (and this was at a stage when producers were still very much trying to help Wagner) featured dancing skeletons. That’s about it, which seems surprisingly few examples in the circumstances.
Obscuring eye make-up. We have occasionally wondered if make-up which distracts attention from the eyes dampens an act’s vote by making it harder for them to establish an emotional connection with viewers. Jade Ellis’s garb is an extreme example, but interestingly Katie Waissel’s ‘Bewitched’ also landed her in one of her many singoffs after featuring some distinctly offputting eye decorations. District 3 were also given make-up that distracted from their eyes.
A couple of counter-examples here. Wagner had a distractingly bloody eye – but then, nobody was voting for Wagner because he was making an emotional connection with them. And One Direction’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ had some bloodshot eyes along with neck scars, but it was rather half-hearted and merely looked like they had been clawed by an over-enthusiastic fan.
Marionettes. Not a theme that featured in any of the kills, but perhaps worth a mention as the masked puppets in Misha B’s ‘Tainted Love’ are arguably the most shiver-inducing sight in any of the Hallowe’en stagings (followed not far behind by her horned hairstyle) – and she landed in the bottom two, despite a commanding performance and a VT which was a masterclass in attempted damage limitation following the Bullygate fiasco of the previous week.
Aiden Grimhaw’s ‘Thriller’ in 2010 also featured marionette dancers. The show wasn’t much invested in Aiden at that point, but producers certainly wanted to help Misha B and also – of course – Little Mix, whose breakout performance of ‘ET’ (following the breakout ‘Insecure Jesy’ VT) featured doll make-up and puppet-on-a-string dance moves. So clearly it’s nowhere near as simple as marionettes = trouble. As, indeed, it never is in interpreting staging: all clues have to be read in context.
What do you think – is there anything worth remembering here or is it all coincidence? And have you spotted anything from previous Hallowe’en weeks that we’ve missed and that you’ll be looking out for this weekend? As ever, do let us know your thoughts below.