We knew there were smiles in BBC boardrooms when The Voice was a ratings hit from the get-go. But they must have been laughing themselves into a spasm knowing that actually, they’d saved all the best contestants for the last auditions. You’ve got to admire their nerve. This week there were at least four singers who would easily have been the strongest in any other episode.
For Voice-haters, though, the first 20 minutes were reassuringly bad. Emmy J Mac did Put Your Records On in a contrived nasal “soul” voice that veered between Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Macy Gray, Vic Reeves and a quiz-show buzzer (“Go ahead let your hair donnnnnnnnng”).
Emmy got three yeses, giving Jessie J the chance to improvise a Blind Date spoof that proved The Voice doesn’t do comedy. “The decision is over to you!” was the punchline. Come on, everyone knows it was: “The decision i-hi-is yours!” Stop getting Blind Date wrong!
Jenny Jones had kicked off the week’s sob stories by telling us about her bout of meningitis. We also saw that she works in a pub called The Struggling Man, which was a nice touch. The landlord should look into employing more talent show contestants. It could be the theme. Once a week there could be a special night where the staff don’t get up and sing.
Ben Lake sang I Who Have Nothing opera-style and, while Tom Jones’ criticism that it was too “operatic” was strange, Ben did sound like Harry Secombe doing a comedy voice. Not Harry Secombe testifying at the end of Highway; Harry Secombe in The Goon Show.
The act that told us we’d finally escaped from middling triers straining to sound authentic was Lindsey Butler. Her singing was straightforward and uncluttered: a bit soul, a bit country, but not pretending to be anyone else. Usually when the Voice judges say “great tone” it’s about someone who sounds like Mariah Carey choking on a whistle. Lindsey really did have a great tone.
She was the best of the series so far, by far. But there was more. Ruth Brown, 19, was a raw talent – usually that’s a euphemism for “unlistenably off-key”, but not here. Becky Hill, a Worcestershire 17-year-old with a lovely mix of cockiness and nerves, blasted out John Legend’s Ordinary People like a pro.
By now, though, we know The Voice’s odd format will always interfere. As the judges began to reach their maximum of ten acts, the auditions became more exciting, but also demonstrably unfair. Harriett Whitehead’s version of What’s Up? by 4 Non Blondes – mannered, but with an effortless grasp of the big notes – would easily have got through in week one. It didn’t here.
“This show kinda sucks that you can only pick 10,” said Jessie J. Well, no. It kinda sucks that once you’ve picked them you are, like the tat-floggers on Four Rooms, unable to go back and change your mind – and that the end of the process had been loaded with good candidates to increase the drama. Not that I’m complaining: it was much better telly than the past three weeks.
It got worse/better. When only one place was left, we met two men backstage, both trying to become stars just as their partners were expecting a first child. Daniel Walker was on first, which told us he was doomed, because otherwise the other guy wouldn’t have sung at all. Somehow, fortunately, the unbriefed will.i.am decided not to pick him. “You’re an amazing talent,” Daniel was told, which he wasn’t – although again, he’d have sailed through earlier on. You wonder how people like him feel now they realise everyone who didn’t make it was told the same thing.
Anyway, the other guy was Jaz Ellington and he was superb – so good that, once will.i.am had selected him and ended the auditions, Jessie J insisted he do another song. Jaz’s back-up number was… Ordinary People! A stripped-down take on this rather beautiful song about relationships gone wrong left will.i.am, who co-wrote the song with John Legend, quietly in bits. His unostentatious, believable tears – he really did look like his mind was miles or years away – made for a classy and unusually affecting emotional climax.
It had been achieved through just the sort of Cowellesque manipulation, complete with cruelty to those who missed out, that The Voice’s fans say they disapprove of. How they’ll react next week to BATTLE WEEKEND, when the singers are paired up and have to trill into each other’s faces in a boxing ring before their own mentor fires one of them on the spot, I don’t know. But it sounds like what this week’s Voice was: terrific talent-show TV.