Last weekend’s X Factor return featured a new old panel, and the usual mixture of grief porn, funny foreigners and novelties-that-annoy-Simon.
Remarkably, three of the top four in the betting after the opening weekend are Scottish. That’s remarkable because Syco seem to have been running scared of the Scottish regional vote in recent years. Scotland’s population is about one-in-12 of the UK’s, so you’d expect an average of one Scot in each year’s live shows. But in the last six series, Scots have had only had one act to cheer – 2013’s runner-up, Nick McDonald.
Based on the evidence of previous years, the likelihood is that we watched at least a few finalists last weekend; we’ve actually seen 4 or 5 in the first audition show alone in the last three years. However, we didn’t learn The Chosen One based on the first-show pimp slot this year. Not unless Honey G is reinstated by the wildcard at judges’ houses, and the voting public goes on to lose its collective mind.
We were intrigued by the opening sequence on Saturday, which associated five of this year’s auditionees with previous contestants: Leona Lewis, One Direction, Little Mix, James Arthur and Alexandra Burke. Only one of that cast appeared in the first weekend shows – nervous Northerner James Wilson, whom we saw apparently (and it does seem slightly implausible) being entranced by watching James Arthur’s audition in 2012 in a pub in Skipton.
The others in that opening sequence appeared to be girlband Skarl3t, who were associated with Little Mix; boyband The Brooks, who were associated with One Direction; and two female soloists, whose identities we couldn’t immediately place. But only James was depicted watching the iconic moment on screen – younger versions of the others were portrayed by child actors. And only James went on to appear in that day’s show. Due to the fortuitous sharing of names, we heard Louis’s voiceover from 2012 James’s audition saying “James, you’re a real original, from now on your life is totally going to change”. Those all seem promising portents for 2016 James.
Spoilers on the Digital Spy forum indicate that he indeed goes to judges’ houses. But the SHOCK TWIST of a wildcard being added to each category means we don’t have the full list.
Saturday’s opening act – Yes Lad, a chirpy quintet from Salford – are not among the qualifiers from the six-chair challenge, but on this evidence can’t be discounted as the groups wildcard (a rumour shared below the line by commenter Gage Loverne). Vocally they were a little raw in places for ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’, as was pointed out by Simon, but they were likeable, and already using Spice Girls-style nicknames for themselves, an admirable early exercise in branding. We’ve seen boybands with far less potential reach judges’ houses.
Samantha Lavery also fails to feature among the judges’ houses spoilers, but is a strong contender for wildcard in her category based on her treatment in the opening episode. The 16-year-old from the North East brought along an inspirational grandad called Ernie, whose singing ambitions had been thwarted by having to go down the pit, and producers had gone to the trouble of filming her performing at her local pub.
After she showcased a powerful voice in her rendition of ‘Explosions’, Nicole had no problem remembering X Factor cliches such as: “16, and you know who you are. You’re an artist.” Samantha was called “ambitious”, which was also an adjective also given to Louisa Johnson last year. Simon rounded off the wholly positive comments by saying, “I think she’s got massive potential.”
Oh, and a tip for parents called Lavery: call your child something that doesn’t begin with “S”.
Christian Burrows is apparently among the boys who made it to judges’ houses. He’s a Northern White Guy With Guitar and his vocals didn’t impress us any more than 2014 NWGWG Jack Walton, but it was eye-opening just how much they filled in his back story. We know that the 19-year-old lives in a cramped house with a large family he’d like to provide for, works as a nightclub manager with reality TV guests (the panel had fun gently ribbing the idea that a nightclub in Bolton needed a VIP manager), is inspired by Ed Sheeran, likes to change up old classics, and writes his own songs, one of which is about his dead brother.
An emotional performance of said song had the judges wheeling out some Abi Alton-esque buzzwords: “honest” and “bared yourself” from Louis; “pure” from Sharon; and “brave”, and “artist”, from Simon. “Really good with lyrics,” was mentioned twice, though that wouldn’t do him much good in the live shows. After the performance, his family mobbed him, and for the second time, Simon invited him to approach for some personal interaction. Overall, this ranked as significant emotional investment.
The same could be said for James Wilson. With the room auditions being shown to fellow auditionees on the big screen, producers can helpfully edit in reaction shots to guide viewers at home on how they should be reacting. This technique was used to immediately inform us that James is a “dead nice guy”, before we learnt that the nervous joiner lives in a caravan in the middle of nowhere in the Yorkshire Dales, which is one step up the impoverishment scale from James Arthur’s backstory on the other side of Yorkshire. (“A bedsit in Saltburn? Luxury!”)
Wilson has suffered all his life from severe dyslexia, and learns lyrics by listening to songs over and over again. That didn’t stop him flubbing some of ‘Jolene’, as he feared he would. His genuine lack of confidence was evident in a failure to engage the judges with his eyes during his performance. The nerves were the focus of judges’ comments. Nicole said, “Make me care, make we wanna buy your album.” Simon explained: ” I’m frustrated, it’s a job interview.”
But they might as well have been waving a big signpost indicating “Journey Ahead”. The opening bars of ‘7 Years’, lyrically a classic journey song, played in the background. As a reminder of how much we were to root for him, the waiting auditionees gave him an ovation as he returned.
“I told you we had to come to Scotland. I knew we were going to find great talent here.” Simon seems to have made peace with his Auld Enemy, based on a succession of strong Scottish performances over the weekend. First up among them, and currently leading the Betfair market, is Caitlyn Vanbeck. There was no mention of her brief appearances in last year’s show, among them being completely overshadowed by Alien at a group Bootcamp performance, before being rejected at the six-chair challenge.
Instead the focus was on her loving father, and overcoming bullies at school. Caitlyn proceeded to dedicate to him her rendition of Kelly Clarkson’s song about an abusive father, ‘Piece by Piece’. A strong vocal not only sounded Clarkson-esque, but attempted to mine the emotion the American Idol displayed in her live rendition of it for the final season of the US franchise. Nicole was in tears, Caitlyn’s Dad was in tears, Caitlyn was in tears. Louis claimed, very fancifully, “You’re the best we’ve ever had”. Caitlyn got a hug from Nicole and finally, Simon who signed off with, “That’s why we make the show.”
It wasn’t a pimp slot, but it was the final emotional moment of the first episode. Caitlyn was followed up by another Scot, Ryan Lawrie, who sang ‘Cecilia’. The 20-year-old had the looks and slightly limited vocals of someone who’d be ideal for a manufactured boyband. Wildcard status in the boys category can’t be entirely ruled out, but he was treated like an individual audition-stage reject.
Following him was 27-year-old Gateshead primary school teacher Melissa Pedro. Her rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ was serviceable in a gamma-over-at-best way. It got the approval of her cute toddler and school pupils, who are about to learn a lesson in life’s disappointing nature when she doesn’t make it through the 6CC.
Saturday’s show ended with Honey G’s one-trick joke about being urban, which bored us after 6-7 seconds, let alone the 6-7 weeks required from a novelty with longevity. It’s entirely possible that she’s put back into judges’ houses as the wildcard in the overs category to annoy Simon. But we’re hoping for something sweeter from a live show comedy character.
Sunday started with another possible for the Comedy Wildcard Over, 51 year old Eddie Lee, who looked vaguely and dressed exactly like Simon. Cue an extended joke about Simon’s self-love (“you’re very handsome, Edward”, and so on). It seems likely that Eddie has now served his purpose on the show and won’t be sighted again.
Saara Aalto looks a more promising contender for the post-6CC reprieve in Sharon’s category. The 29-year-old from Finland got the full-on WEIRD FOREIGNER treatment, as we saw her saying she wanted to be a Disney princess and she can sing ‘Let It Go’ in 15 languages. (Indeed, though the show didn’t mention this, Google reveals she’s the voice of Elsa in the Finnish-dubbed version of ‘Frozen’). After her audition, she exited to the sound of Christmas jingles, with Simon saying she was “interesting”.
In between, however, Saara had showcased an excellent vocal with ‘Chandelier’. She’s not as immediately relatable as 2014’s Weird Foreigner Who Can Actually Sing, Andrea Faustini, but the fact that she’s a reality show veteran – having finished second on Finland’s The Voice (also not mentioned) – means it would be no surprise if producers decide she’d be a safe piece of casting for the lives.
James Hughes became the second Scot to make a dent in the betting markets. With a cheesy perma-grin, he’s as cute as a button and as camp as Christmas, and has garnered Joe McElderry comparisons in some quarters – although doesn’t have the latter’s vocal prowess, based on limited evidence so far. He ticks plenty of boxes, and is reportedly among the final six in the boys.
Emily Middlemas is the third Scot towards the head of the early betting, and more interesting in many ways than her compatriot Caitlyn Vanbeck. “She’s adorable”, we saw an audience member saying as she picked up her white guitar, reminiscent of Abi Alton’s white piano. Drew from Season 1 of the U.S. show is the other closest comparison.
We liked Emily – she comes across as demure, talented, likeable, and commercial in that John Lewis Xmas ad way. The doubt is that the girls who win these shows tend to be the big voiced ones, but the regional vote might counteract that if Emily can manage to be last Scot standing.
Perhaps Emily’s likeability stemmed in part from her refreshing lack of a sob story – she’d been rejected at judges’ houses a couple of years ago, but cheerfully shrugged it off by acknowledging that she was probably too young at the time. Nicole called her “a little find”, twice, and we saw Simon saying he’d remember her.
Any viewers who were feeling sob story deprived didn’t have to wait long for one of the more uncomfortable examples of the genre. We’d seen Rebekah Ryan with her seven year old son and learned that they live in her parents’ small house, before Louis artlessly dangled the baited question – “and you’ve just the one child?” – which allowed us to hear about the death of her first child, aged three. We learned that she’d had a record deal in her younger days, though not that she’d been on X Factor before in 2007, as Sofabet commenter 360 noted.
Perfectly serviceable though Rebekah’s vocals are, it’s fair to assume that it wasn’t solely on the basis of her talent that she was granted the Sunday show pimp slot. She’s not rumoured to make it through 6CC, and the question now is whether her trajectory is one of emotional reinstatement or tear-jerking rejection. Using the overs wildcard for a comedy act seems to us a more likely route.
As always, do let us know your continued thoughts below.
Photos via ©ITV / @ThePixelFactor