It’s the time of year when TV presenters, ex-sportsmen and former politicians try to master the American smooth and the paso doble – yes, Strictly season is upon us again. Once the media has dissected 2011’s line-up, you can be sure as eggs is eggs (sorry, Edwina) that the focus will shift to the scheduling: is the BBC1 show going head to head with The X Factor? Who will emerge victorious in the ratings? It’s always been a rather ridiculous argument. Of course there are viewers who do like to watch both programmes, but surely these two titans of Saturday-night broadcasting appeal to opposing sensibilities?
The X Factor has always been cruel: ostensibly what we’re offered is a celebration of talent, but in reality it’s a theatre of humiliation. The instant judging at the audition stage means that those who aren’t exceptional are consigned to the rubbish heap, an act that disenfranchises the average. And let’s face it, a lot of us in this world are just that – average. There’s nothing wrong with ordinariness, but the scathing criticism heaped on those attempting to impress leads us to believe that it’s somehow shameful.
Those who disagree with this argument will say that The X Factor provides a much-needed reality check for the deluded. But the harsh medicine isn’t working. Thousands pointlessly queue up each year, craving the fame and wealth that the programme promises. Yet it’s no wonder we’re being duped. Materialistic gain is the constant and only value message projected by both The X Factor and now Red or Black?, the latest Simon Cowell venture, which reduces the credo to its basest level: acquiring £1m equals success, not doing so equals failure.
Strictly Come Dancing is a very different, and more civilised, beast. True, it indulges our obsession with celebrity, but the idea behind the show is about learning and mastering a new skill. The judging process remains, of course, but in a very pantomime fashion. And those having their performances picked apart are often people who’ve proved their worth in another field: the gold-medal-winning boxer and the high-profile-Tory-turned-bestselling-author, for example. Their egos may end up bruised by Craig Revel Horwood’s cattiness, but it’s hardly the bear-pit of criticism faced by the wannabes on ITV.
But who am I to take pot shots at The X Factor? Millions watch each week, so it must be of some cultural worth, right? Well, millions eat fast food but not many would admit to doing so for its nutritional value. Like outlets for hamburgers and fries, The X Factor is all around us, readily available and willing to provide an instant hit. The emotional response it wrings from viewers seems real at the time, but it’s one that’s arrived at through manipulative means. Once the feeling wears off, it can often be replaced by a sense of nausea and the sneaking suspicion that the last six months have been spent increasing the profits of a multinational company.
What’s attractive about Strictly is that it taps into traditions of variety with Brucie as host and celebrates a plucky, have-a-go mentality that revels in unconventionality. Glamour may be its watchword but attempts at sexualisation are often made awkward thanks to portly newsmen and big, lumbering athletes attempting to smoulder on the dancefloor. Critics may find an easy target in stars who treat the show as a last-chance saloon but, to the audience at home, training for those routines looks like exhausting labour.
Watching a well-executed quickstep or cha-cha-cha that has come about through sweat and toil can be a joyful experience. Something that’s hard to say about the sight of the latest poor soul on The X Factor, hoodwinked into believing riches could be theirs, only to have such expectations cynically smashed under the guise of it being a hard lesson learnt.