Van driver. Authentic. Rock voice. Nice guy. Recording contract. Deserving. Hot. Ben’s treatment and the buzzwords used about him have been relatively consistent since he was introduced to us driving his vehicle to the theme tune of ‘Minder’. With the exception of a mysteriously negative week 3 VT, he’s constantly been portrayed as down-to-earth and likeable, with a strong focus on his close-knit family.
[Illustration courtesy of Sofabet commenter Heisenberg]
But alongside these positives every week, there’s been a sense that the show hasn’t let us get too carried away, usually thanks to mixed critique from Mel B. His week 1 rendition of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ had the former Spice Girl criticising him and his mentor defending him. By week 9, nothing had changed – Mel was still saying he shouldn’t have done certain (iconic) songs, to Simon’s chagrin. The script has stayed the same. What’s the idea behind it?
We theorised a couple of weeks ago that the plentitude of genuine positives, stacked up against some mild negatives, suggested producers saw Ben as a potential compromise winner: preferable to Andrea, but only if they couldn’t get Fleur to the top. We interpreted his treatment last Saturday as being along the same lines. His VTs invited us to invest emotionally in his family, which would not have been allowed to happen if producers had been adamant that Ben could not be allowed to win. But then Mel rained on his parade after the ‘Hallelujah’ pimp slot, which showed producers still wanted to keep a lid on his vote, giving Fleur every chance to outpoll him if the ‘Uptown Funk’ gamble paid off.
Let’s go back to the start of Ben’s X Factor journey. In the rooms, arenas and bootcamp, where he impressed with ‘Hotel California’, we felt Ben was being set up as the beta over, a box-ticking backup option in case the heavily pimped Jay James failed to fly with the voting public. However, judges’ houses made the overs pecking order look far more fluid, as Ben and Fleur both won praise and Jay was dissed as “nasal”.
Each stage of the auditions process saw an improvement in Ben’s styling. He had first appeared in his room audition with a ropey-looking goatee, and lip and tongue piercing. By the arena audition, we had lost the lip ring, and at bootcamp the tongue piercing had also been removed. At judges’ houses, the goatee was looking a little less ropey. And it had gone altogether by week 1 of the live shows, though he was still looking a little scruffy in a plaid shirt.
Ben’s week 1 song choice seemed like a statement of good intent, as did the many gold spotlights focused on him. Comments, however, saw Mel begin her lives-long role as the fly in Ben’s ointment by saying: “I think you’re a great singer…. [but] your tone was very same-y, same-y.” Simon’s response was, “When I came back to the UK, I actually prayed that I would find an artist like you, because this is Britain at its best.”
Week 2 saw Ben styled in a slightly smarter denim shirt, with a gig-like set-up for his take on ‘Jealous Guy’. It received general plaudits, though Mel was again the party pooper, telling him to “be a man” rather than complain about illness.
Ben responding that “Maybe she feels that her category are a bit threatened by me” featured at the start of his curiously damaging week 3 VT. The segment continued with Ben abruptly dismissing the ideas of his vocal coach. It was a rare apparent mis-step by a contestant who has otherwise come across as laid-back and good-humoured, and whose doe-eyed reaction to judges praise has become the “Cardle bow” of the 2014 season. Ben went on to look miffed throughout his rendition of ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’, and unusually went straight up to Simon instead of leaving the stage once Dermot had finished the post-performance interview.
We can indulge in all kinds of (over)speculation about Ben’s week 3. What was behind producers’ thinking in undermining his likability in his VT? A warning shot across the bows for arguing about song choice, perhaps? Or the first move in an intended softening-up? This was at a time, which now feels long forgotten, when Jay had stormed into the iTunes top ten from the previous week’s pimp slot, and producers were still pushing Paul as an alternative to Andrea. Perhaps TPTB briefly flirted with Ben being surplus to requirements, but quickly reprieved him when they decided to turn their guns on Paul instead the following week, and Jay not long after?
Or perhaps, in the rush of putting a live show together, producers simply didn’t notice what a jarring note parts of the VT struck until it was too late to re-edit it? There were also positives in the VT, with Ben being visited by his long-term girlfriend. And it certainly felt that judges comments were an immediate attempt to repair the damage done to Ben’s personal likeability. Louis started off, testifying that Ben was “the nicest guy in the house”. Simon tempered criticism of his “soundalike” vocal by taking the blame for the song choice and saying “I can see you in the final, even winning this show”; week 3 is unusually early to be making such a comment.
Interestingly, Paul Akister has recounted how he first became aware of his own character assassination VT when viewers did, as he waited to go on stage for ‘Bat Out of Hell’. Perhaps the same thing had happened a week earlier to Ben, which would explain his miffed on-stage expression and post-Dermot beeline for Simon.
Since then, Ben’s VTs have painted an unremittingly flattering picture of his character. Week 4 saw him visiting him mum in her council flat; week 5 had him reminiscing with his fellow-musician brother, saying he was “living our dream”; week 6 brought us back to his mum, whom he took to a film premiere; week 7 saw a return to the van, this time for a catch up with workmates; week 8 introduced us to Nonna Rita (and to the sausage); week 9 featured the return of Nonna Rita, Ben’s mum, brother Alex and girlfriend for a family festive meal, and also saw Ben doing his bit for a children’s charity, which had been set up by an earlier character reference from Cheryl.
Performances and comments have also followed a theme, of qualified positivity. In a mirror image of getting his worst treatment from the pimp slot in week 3, week 4 saw Ben get his highest praise from the coffin slot.
By now his styling had settled into a groove – the sharper haircut, stubble, and black leather jacket that represented his journey from white van man to rock star had been achieved. ‘Highway To Hell’ received an early-in-the-series four-judge standing ovation and a full house in the bingo of Ben buzzwords. “Authentic rock voice,” and “recording contract” from Louis, “hot” from Mel (who also used a line she repeated last week for Fleur’s ‘Uptown Funk’, “What just happened?”). Cheryl put things in a wider context, about Ben deserving a chance, just as she did again last week.
Ben was allowed to sing the first half of ‘Man In the Mirror’ a cappella in week 5. Louis and Simon both used the “star” word, while Mel put paid to the positivity by saying “your vocals were exposed” and once again criticising song choice. If, as seems likely, Ben had been polling consistently well, it was as if the show didn’t want him building up too much of a head of steam.
Week 6 seemed a particular case in point. Giving one of his most assured performances of the demo-delighting Michael Buble version of ‘Cry Me A River’, with winner’s staging to match, it would’ve been no surprise to see a four-judge standing ovation. Instead, comments were at their most lukewarm. Even Louis said, “you went a bit off at the end” whilst Cheryl commented it was, “not your best week”. Mel didn’t like the fact he had been “Buble’d” with Ben styled accordingly in three-piece suit and tie.
It was back to the black leather jacket and denim for ‘I Will Always Love You’, which Mel and Cheryl felt was a terrible song choice, whilst Louis played character witness. The leather jacket was here to stay for both week 8 performances. Once again, Ben got his best comments in the coffin slot, for his rendition of ‘Come Together’ with slightly dodgy fire staging. Production for second song ‘Thinking Out Loud’ was far more flattering, yet this was the one Mel chose to pour cold water on.
It was a similar story in week 9: more praise for the first performance of ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, followed by a sense of anticlimax in Mel’s comments for Ben’s pimp slot rendition of ‘Hallelujah’, arguably the most iconic winner’s single of them all. Still, the “rock star” references continued, alongside the character-witness statements, from Cheryl and then Simon, the latter comparing him to Olly Murs as someone who hasn’t let the contest change them.
Olly Murs was, of course, runner-up in 2009. And the “rock star” moniker is one that Simon will more often associate with the silver medal. In the US equivalent, where rock artists have traditionally performed better than their UK counterparts, they have tended to find that second place is their ceiling – examples being Josh Kracjik in 2011 (who performed a similar playlist to Ben in the latter stages of the competition) and Jeff Gutt in 2013.
Ultimately, “rock star” isn’t a mantle that has traditionally been bestowed on an X Factor winner. It’s not a damaging description, of course, and our reading of Ben’s overall treatment is that producers wouldn’t see it as a problem for the franchise if Ben’s popularity among a broad female demographic was enough to get him over the line. But Mel’s and Cheryl’s pigeonholing of him as a performer who should only stick to a certain type of song has felt like an attempt to limit his appeal and open up the opportunity for Fleur to beat him.
Ben has a few weapons left in his armoury. Primarily, he gives good tears. The aftermath to the ‘Hallelujah’ performance was the best example, which Dermot described as uncharacteristic.
In fact, he’d also teared up in the accompanying family and charity VT, as he had done in previous family VTs and even at judges’ houses. He also does humility well, and quick wit – as evidenced by a moment in his VT at the greasy spoon with workmates, when one mentioned he’d had a bet and Ben immediately replied “on Andrea?”
A possible ace up Ben’s sleeve is that it’s been reported he might want to propose to his long-term girlfriend in the final. Producers would surely not rebuff this televisual moment if offered, but could minimise its impact with forewarning by scripting ways to plant the thought that Ben will now be happy win or lose, so no need to vote. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Ben instead were to grab the mic from Dermot after his first performance, say “I haven’t told anyone I’m going to do this” and get down on one knee. We suspect there would be a camera on his girlfriend in the audience soon enough.
Ben is surely canny enough to know how much Fleur is being favoured. There was a story in the Star last weekend about all of her rivals being conscious of it, and there was his hilarious reaction of surprise on Sunday’s show on learning that producers had laid on battle buses also for him and Andrea rather than just for Fleur. We may be in for a fascinating battle of wills and wiles this coming weekend.
In both VTs last Saturday, Ben made clear to his family that he was looking to change their lives by doing well in the competition, picking up on something Simon had said the week before: “I want this to change your life. I think you really deserve it.” It suggested to us that, as they edited the VTs ahead of week 9’s show, producers felt happy enough to set up a feelgood narrative around a possible Ben victory. The question is, of course, whether the scale of the reaction to Fleur’s ‘Uptown Funk’ has now put a stop to that.
How have you read Ben’s journey? As ever, do let us know below.