X Factor 2011: The “next generation” of judges arrive

...but can ITV's talent show behemoth really change its spots?

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If there’s one thing the X Factor producers want you to know about series eight of the show, it’s that things are going to change. 

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Last year, the press were invited to see Gamu’s autotune incident in a central London hotel screening room – no talent was in the building, no fans were present, the final edit of the show was prepared… but the X Factor 2011 launch was a far more zeitgeisty affair… 

From the moment the judges began working the red carpet outside the 02 ahead of yesterday’s “event”, it was obvious what they’d been briefed to tell the assembled hacks and superfans – to borrow a phrase from REM; it’s the end of X Factor as you know it (and I feel fine)…

“I’m young and I’m current,” chirped 23-year-old Tulisa Contostavlos, the N-Dubz singer, one of three new judges drafted in after last year’s exodus, which saw Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole and even puppet master Simon Cowell leave the programme.

“I’m pooing my pants,” the hip-hop star added, bringing perhaps a little too much of an urban feel to proceedings.

Kelly Rowland, 30, was similarly keen to highlight her credibility and relevance to a young and sassy audience, and even 59-year-old Louis Walsh (the only judge to survive all eight years of the show) said, “The new panel have given me new energy, it’s like they’ve given me new batteries.”

But, of course, all eyes were on 40-year-old Gary Barlow – the Take That frontman handed the rather daunting task of stepping into Simon Cowell’s high trousers as head judge.

“People’s perception of me is going to change,” Barlow’s voice boomed from the giant screen in the cinema as the action got under way.  “If I don’t see talent in people, I’m going to be brutally honest.”  Yep, the mild-mannered songwriter extraordinaire, a self-confessed “fan of the show”, is to become “Nasty Gary”… or is he?

Despite Dermot O’Leary’s warning that what we were watching was “not the final edit” because “Simon calls in changes up to the last minute, again and again and again” from the hour of X Factor 2011 I saw, if Gary’s the bad guy, this is the series for the tone deaf and time wasters to get an easy ride.   

I like The X Factor, I like Gary – hell, I even like Gary on The X Factor – but nasty he ain’t.  Occasionally he sighs, a few cutaway shots show him despairing at an awful act, and on one occasion he won’t vote through a borderline maniac even though the other judges are willing to humour them – but he always remains calm, considered and – most of the time – compassionate.

The very fact that Gary said, “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t worry about how the show will go down [without Simon Cowell]” means he’s not like Simon Cowell – can you imagine the Syco boss showing that level of humility in public?

But don’t worry, before you trash your telly and run for the hills to live your life as a mountain goat, I’m happy to inform you that The X Factor is still alive and well… it’s just trying (and in my mind failing) to be younger, urbaner and cooler – they’ll get past all that. 

Yes, there’s now an X Factor make-up room where the contestants are filmed grooming and bitching. Yes, Tulisa is happy to get into a street style dissin’ contest with one young (albeit abhorrent) hopeful, and yes, there appeared to be a rapper going “yeah, ah-ha” under the spinning “X” logo before the screening began… but when push comes to shove and things settle down, there’s very little discernible difference in the viewing experience. 

The footage I’ve seen has all the classic ingredients of a Syco talent show at the top of its game.  There’s the nut balls, the “ah, she’s cute” cases and the people who can actually sing.  Throw in a few cocky idiots and a live audience’s reactions to the new Katie Waissel and a potential Wagner 2.0 and you’ve got yourself another three months of primetime viewing pleasure. 

I’m not sure “a new chapter” really does begin on Saturday night as the producers are so keen to have us think, but even if it’s just another paragraph of the same old chapter, I’m sure X Factor addicts will still be happy with their fix.

Once again, it’s time to face the music.

X Factor series eight begins on Saturday 20 August at 8pm on ITV1.

Oh, and here’s a little video of Gary on the red carpet:

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