Can Robbie Williams save The X Factor? Can his wife help him? And can Louis Tomlinson replace Louis Walsh?
The answer to that last question, at least, appears to be yes because half an hour into the 2018 launch show, Louis Jr has already used Louis Sr’s catchphrase, describing one contestant as “a little” someone else (in this case, Christina Aguilera).
Before the series began, a colleague of mine suggested that Louis was likely to be an insipid personality vacuum (she used harsher words). But after watching this first episode, even she has to admit that he seems to have some genuine charisma and warmth. “Must be the editing,” she says.
He has confidence too (why wouldn’t he, he’s a former member of the X Factor-spawned One Direction, arguably the biggest boy band since the Beatles) and grabs the opportunity to go first in giving his verdict on the opening act.
Of course, Robbie Williams doesn’t need to go first – he’s Robbie Williams and is not going to shrink into the background even if he says nothing for the entire show. Which, of course, he doesn’t.
But he doesn’t come across as an attention hungry egotist either – he’s pretty chilled; his comments are thoughtful and measured and his reactions to performances he likes feel genuine.
When Janice Brown – formerly of 90s house outfit Livin’ Joy – appears on stage to perform their club classic Dreamer, the tears in Robbie’s eyes are real as he wistfully recalls a well-spent misspent youth: “I was transported to a time there, to a person that I used to be, and they were incredible times for me – but messy times.” I bet they were.
And then there’s the showpiece of this first episode – an initial set-up as contrived as anything we’ve ever seen on X Factor but which turns into something so genuinely feel-good that even an old cynic like me has to admit it.
Customer service advisor Andy Hofton arrives on stage. He’s a massive and effusive Take That and Robbie fan – “I cannot tell you what an inspiration you’ve been” – who initially comes across as a little odd. And his first performance does little to change that.
Singing his own composition Castle of Love – “20 years in the making, I did send this song to Gary Barlow” – Andy quickly gets the hand across the throat signal from Simon Cowell. But instead of being dragged outside and summarily dispatched by Cowell’s henchmen he is given another chance. “I wanna hear your second song,” says Cowell, and as the opening chords play, realisation spreads across the faces of the audience and the judges. It’s Angels. It’s only bloody Angels by Robbie bloody Williams.
Robbie leans into his mic. “I think you need a bit of help,” he says and strides up on stage.
Robbie conducts the audience in a sing-along for a few moments before taking the microphone.
Andy and Robbie duet, arms draped around one another’s shoulders. The audience are on their feet, and so are the judges. “Madness,” whispers an awestruck Louis Tomlinson.
As the music swells, a beaming Simon Cowell lays a fatherly hand on Louis’ shoulder. Cute woodland creatures appear and gambol about the stage. Twittering birds flutter from the rafters. Possibly one lands on Robbie’s arm. Green shoots sprout from barren ground, babies are born and wars end as former enemies cross borders to clasp hands and embrace.
I still can’t work out for sure where the set-up ended and the genuine moment began. Maybe that’s the genius of it. But it does beg the question, where do we go from here? One episode in and we’ve already hit peak Robbie: Angels is his best-loved hit and the ‘unexpected’ duet has now happened. There will be other Robbie Williams tracks this series, and quite possibly other duets, but the main event is over.
Then again, given the X Factor’s failing fortunes (it suffered its lowest ratings ever last year), it was important to grab viewers from the beginning and now maybe they’ll come back in the afterglow of that moment and because they’ve decided they like Robbie as a judge as well as a performer.
But what will they think of his other half? For most of this spectacle, and for a lot of the show, Robbie’s wife and fellow panelist Ayda Field has been looking dreamy-eyed at her husband, which is rather sweet but doesn’t mark her out from most of the other women in the room.
Nor does her music experience – she doesn’t really have any. An actress and presenter, Field (referred to as Ayda Williams during this first show) has done most of her TV work in the US (although in recent years she’s become a semi-familiar face on ITV daytime phenomenon Loose Women). But she has been with Robbie Williams for 12 years, which must give her more of an insight into the British music industry than the average viewer.
Ayda is… well, there’s no polite way of putting this: she’s American. Things are “off the chain, amazing, epic, sick, cool”. Her shtick is to prep her lines, to add a bit of dubious wordplay. So we get “you might have sung It’s a Man’s World but it’s officially a woman’s world!” and “you are not just The X Factor, you’re Every Single Letter in the Alphabet Factor!”.
Come to think of it, maybe she’s the replacement for Louis Walsh.
It’s very early days but as a panel, I think they may have something. Robbie is the judge The X Factor has been waiting for for years (quite literally, according to him) and while I’d rather watch Nicole Scherzinger than Ayda Field any day (except in a Müller ad), she does bring that intriguing husband-and-wife dynamic – and she brings Robbie, who wouldn’t agree to do the show without her.
Louis brings more northern charm and a following of teenage girls and Simon Cowell – now that he has a mellow, paternal side to balance the Mr Nasty (perhaps because he is actually a dad) – seems to become a richer and more intriguing character every year.
Perhaps the question isn’t about the panel, perhaps the 14-year-old format itself is getting stale and simply has a certain shelf-life. But I have a feeling that, for a few weeks at least, ITV viewers will decide they’re happy to let Robbie Williams and co entertain them.
The X Factor is on ITV at 8pm on Saturdays and Sundays