Earlier in the week we learned the show had ditched the Hallowe’en theme in favour of a “This Is Me” theme. It turned out to be more a case of producers saying “This Is You”, as the VTs showed us the acts turning up to be informed by their vocal coach of what their song choice was going to be.
First up was Lauren Murray, in the Hannah Barrett Beta Girl First Show Memorial Slot. There were a couple of mentions of “pop star” in her VT, which meant that the slightly low-rent staging with colour vomit backdrop was a bit of a disappointment. Still, judges’ comments praised her “amazing vocal”, she came across as likeable as ever, and Ben Haenow namechecked her as his favourite at the end of the show. As with Hannah, putting her in the Strictly crossover slot felt like more of a test of her popularity than an immediate assassination attempt.
Simon’s first words on introducing Max Stone were an eye-rolling “now I’ve got to follow that”, which was the first indication that producers seem keen on Stone sinking without trace in this competition.
In his VT, we saw a producer being comically frustrated with Max looking down so much while performing that they couldn’t film his face, and when he earnestly mused to his choreographer about whether to show the crowd he’s enjoying it, she witheringly replied “I don’t think you need to overthink…smiling.” Simon said, “You should be a bit weird, Max.”
Max then performed a reggae version of ‘Someone Like You’ with a sunset backdrop featuring waves washing up against the shore. It all felt very Steph Nala. Lukewarm judges comments followed, with a distracting argument about doing reggae Adele. Caroline proved herself the new Dermot by saying, “It’s usually a song that makes us cry, but you had us dancing in the wings.” His own mentor Simon said, “I can’t escape you.” It was a textbook hatchet job.
That said, Cowell’s “can’t escape” comment was in the context of claiming to have been persuaded by public support to bring him back from the brink in both six-chair and judges’ houses; there was praise for his vocals; and it’s not impossible that Max’s performance ineptitude may have won him some degree of sympathy. He’ll need it.
Alien Uncovered were the first act to object to the song they had been given and give the ‘This Is Me’ theme some credence by being shown as making their own decision. They were also shown getting involved in a creative meeting, where they addressed concerns they would be seen as “hard-faced”. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is a “don’t think of an elephant” moment – as soon as the word “hard-faced” is used, that’s immediately how you see them.
Their staging reminded us of Tamera Foster’s week 1 effort ‘Ain’t Nobody’ with the safety fences placing them firmly in the urban niche and their name spelled out on punchbags. It was a big production, the spotlights wandered around a little too much, but most importantly there was plenty of vocal help in the backing track. Simon said, “that was so good” and reminded us they are British, which Cheryl reinforced by saying “British, which we’re very proud of”. Way to go Cheryl, your other two acts aren’t.
Kiera’s VT was a little bland, her staging even moreso, with its colour vomit rain backdrop amid a general sense of darkness. The arrangement started off in a funereal manner, before a distracting beat kicked in, and the laser lights started up. Her signature hair had been pulled back, not only taking away part of her visual identity but also making her look like that previous gamma girl, Jade Ellis.
Simon said: “I’m going to need you to do something better than that. You can’t compete with some of the bigger vocalists in the competition”. There was a possible get out with talk of a Fleur East-style performance breakout and a “you have to completely rethink who you are”, but you can’t have your vocals damned so comprehensively and expect to go far in this competition. The extent to which the Merseyside vote turns out for Kiera may make the difference for her tonight.
Anton’s VT carried on the theme of his career in the shadows as a backing singer, so it was appropriate that he was nicely in the spotlight for his simple staging. There was clearly an attempt to make a moment out of his performance. The judges suggested he’d be a hit in the phone vote with words like Rita’s “you’ve created this bond with the public”. The word “deserving” was used twice.
Che had a good VT focusing on his gratitude and strong vocals – there were parallels with Max’s VT in the worries about his performance ability, but we saw Che cheerfully saying he wanted to make sure people knew how much he was enjoying being on stage rather than overthinking it as Max did. Staging was also helpful, with his name in gold letters.
The judges were highly enthusiastic about his performance, with his mentor Nick amusingly getting props from Rita for the mashup idea which had actually been used for Jahmene Douglas in 2012. Cheryl called his vocals the best, and Simon also praised them before making a strange reference to his two dogs, Squiddly and Diddly, that reminded us of his similarly puzzling “Donuts” speech to Andrea Faustini last year.
Like many of the VTs trying to help an act this week, Mason was shown having input into the creative process. He was also working hard and being constructive to show us just what a nice guy he is despite his previous outburst, a fact hilariously reiterated by song title “Sorry” flashing up in various languages on the backdrop. We found the staging a bit alienating, with Mason looking isolated at times, but judges continued the theme of all is forgiven and Simon revelled in his display of magnanimity.
Reggie n Bollie’s VT focused on the transformation created by getting through to the lives, and their fun approach. The production was decent enough, with Chris Maloney’s giant technicolour hifi getting another outing, though the boys sounded a little out of their depth. But Simon made clear he wanted them around a bit longer: “Now I get it. I think you’re fun, you’re relevant. You’re really nice people. I think this competition needs you. I think the public are going to take you to their hearts.”
This was followed by Olly saying: “Is the best yet to come?” Caroline answered: “Find out when Louisa Johnson steps up on the stage.” Her VT suggested all her confidence issues had melted away, but didn’t showcase a great deal more personality than we’d seen so far – or, indeed, depth of musical knowledge.
Predictably enough, Louisa got the Ella Henderson week 1 Plan A staging, four-judge standing ovation and numerous star references among the judges. Will the pimping have the desired effect, or will some voters be turned off by both Nick and Simon making a point of referencing her desire to win the competition?
Bupsi’s VT suggested she wasn’t working hard enough, and the camerawork often failed to feature her at all. Reaction in the studio felt flat and the judges were pretty damning, repeatedly saying she hadn’t been “nasteh” enough – implicitly raising the question of what purpose she is serving in the competition. Her mentor Simon said: “You were nervous, slightly intimidated.”
There was precious little encouragement here that producers have any interest in keeping Bupsi around for long, so it was surprising that Bupsi’s elimination odds drifted. Admittedly she performed later in the show than her main apparent rivals for elimination, but this needs to be seen in the context of her being in a big-name sandwich between the pre-show first and second favourites.
Bupsi can feel a little aggrieved with her negative comments in that her vocals were impressive at times, far more so than Fourth Impact’s, who were up next – despite the panel trying to convince us that they sounded “fantastic”. Their drift in the outright market suggested otherwise, and in terms of the longer-term prospects in the show arguably the most significant moment of the evening for the Filipino quartet had already come with the bigging up of Alien’s Britishness.
Monica got the standard wildcard VT, saying she never expected to get a phone call from Rita – not even when an X Factor cameraman turned up to film you waiting for your phone to ring? Once we’d got this guff out of the way, Monica put up one of the best performances of the night, aided by a fantastic golden sun backdrop.
She got a four-judge standing ovation, then Cheryl and Nick both called her “a competitor” to shrug off that wildcard tag. It will be interesting to see if producers continue to help her, or if this proves to have been her moment in the sun.
Seann was given the pimp slot, and also seen making his own decisions about some aspects of his performance in his VT. However, he was warned not to go down the theatrical showtunes route for his rendition of ‘Life On Mars’, and – despite fantastic stairway staging – it felt like that’s exactly what he did. Indeed, immediately after the vocal coach asking Seann to be “soulful” rather than “theatrical”, we were shown Seann saying he was being taken out of his “comfort zone”.
Judges were enthusiastic, although only mentor Nick stood at the end – and Simon wheeled out that word “cabaret” again, which had been muttered by Nick to Mark Ronson after his judges’ houses performance. This was not the most promising of pimp slots for Seann’s chances of winning the competition, as reflected in his drift in the outright market on Betfair.
It hasn’t been confirmed yet whether we’ll have a single or a double elimination tomorrow – a single therefore needs to be assumed, though the 2010 singoff between Mary Byrne and Cher reminds us never to assume we know how results shows will unfold, and perhaps producers will see how the vote is looking before Sunday’s show.
Based on their treatment tonight, producers seem to be hoping to get at least one of Bupsi or Max into the bottom two. If they’re in there together, it would be hard to call with confidence – although Bupsi may be saved on the basis of being the least likely to bounce. Kiera looks also to be on the disposable list but the regional vote may keep her safe, while producers seemed keener to keep Reggie N Bollie around. It would be difficult to discount Mason or Alien Uncovered from singoff consideration, but hard to imagine either going unless they face each other.
How did you see tonight? Do let us know below.