Friday, 22 August 2008

Axe Factor?

Simon adopts the default position after
advisors suggest he lowers mobile phone
voting fees for this year's X Factor

I envy Simon Cowell. The majority of Britain and America realise he is a power-crazed evil genius who truly only gives a shit about himself, and yet he still manages to front TV shows that pull in millions of viewers from both sides of the Atlantic on a regular basis. He is the totalitarian dictator of the phone-vote show format, responsible for millions of eyebrow raising telephone bills and despite his programmes being implicated (and eventually acquitted) in the fiasco that was the ITV phone-in scandal, his reputation has escaped relatively unscathed.

Cue the new series of X Factor then, and strap yourself in for a predictable and totally choreographed few months. We all remember last year’s winner, well, um, we all remember the winner from two years ago, one Leona Lewis. In her, Cowell finally found a contestant worthy of exploiting on the other side of the pond, rather than just dumping in it, and so we will probably not see Ms Lewis again for some time until she returns from America an emotional wreck with a cocaine habit. By which time, there will be a new one.

The first episode was the usual affair; the inevitable sob story of a woman who ‘wants this more than anything’, aiming to overcome the adversity of her terribly unfair upbringing in which she chose to have seventeen children. You could almost see the Pound signs in Simon’s eyes as this, lets face it, crack whore was given the opportunity to show how singing a few lines on TV is seen as an acceptable alternative to education and hard work when aiming to succeed in life in 2008. Then, there was the unbridled hilarity of two Welsh half-wits who stumbled their way through a Peter Andre song in the most excruciating way since Peter Andre. Like I said, the usual drivel.

The lucrative presenting role has been reprised by Dermot O’Leary, who, whilst being immeasurably more bearable and far less irritating than Kate Thornton, has some way to go before he masters the false sympathy for contestants and obsequiousness towards the judges that is required for the role. Annoyingly, he also insists on wobbling his head around like he is being controlled by Jim Henson. The other big change sees Cheryl Cole replacing Sharon Osbourne, to which I have no objection. You will not hear complaint from Ashley Cole either, who must presumably be overjoyed that he will not have to book a hotel room to conduct his affairs now the wife is out filming.

Over on the other side, the BBC’s latest attempt seems to be in full swing. If ‘Last Choir Standing’ were not the fourth of fifth incarnation of the Beeb’s ‘perform-vote-perform-for- survival’ reality format then it would surely be laughed off the airwaves. I was not a regular viewer of any of the other shows, and so I cannot fairly compare or contrast this one, but it works a hell of a lot better than it sounds.

Of the two presenters, Nick Knowles looks he longs to be back on a show about knocking down walls, whilst the ever smiling Myleene Klass has evidently just graduated from presenting school. The slightly odd pairing presides over a show in which a series of amateur choirs from around the country battle it out to become, you guessed it, ‘Last Choir Standing’. The name suggests that the disqualified are put to death in a gladiatorial manner, but my suggestion to the BBC that this may be a worthwhile addition to the post watershed results segment in subsequent reality shows has been sadly ignored.

This week, singing for survival were Bath Male Voice Choir and Revelation, a gospel choir from a paradoxically joyous and soulful part of East London. Their choice for the showdown was the gospel classic, ‘Love The One You’re With’; although I’ve leafed through my Bible and I can’t find the books of Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young anywhere. Despite this, it was enough to see off the boys from Bath in the judges’ opinion, although I do believe Russell Watson and the other two adjudicators were acting under duress following the projected costs of keeping the eventual losers in the competition. Not even the BBC can run to dressing 32 ageing tradesmen in new suits time after time, not to mention footing the hotel bills having ferried them up and down the M4 every week.

The BBC’s entertainment programming ideas may vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, but credit must go to their ability to think even a little bit innovatively. I thought the days of reality phone-in shows must have been nearing an end after last year’s tired X Factor format but, like an untreated genital wart, it has come back bigger and bolder than ever. As much as I hate to admit it, this is testament to Cowell’s canny ability to assess when a duck becomes a dead one. He proved this by axing Pop Idol and replacing it at just the right time with X Factor, and will doubtlessly do the same again once he has squeezed every last penny from the show, and when he judges his reputation to be waning. Channel 4 could use his vision, with Big Brother currently limping pathetically home in the ratings race. In fact, if it were a Greyhound, it would have long since been shot and tossed in the Thames.

There may be many (myself included) who are screaming out for a fresh approach to entertainment television, but for now it seems we must resign ourselves to at least another year’s onslaught from Cowell & Co, happily duping millions of overweight women into pausing from their takeaways long enough to pour their money down the telephone lines in voting for the biggest thing since the last big thing. What was last year’s winner called, anyway?

Friday, 1 August 2008

What's The Story (Olympic Glory)?

The Tibetan Shot Put hopeful
demonstrates his technique ahead
of next week's Olympic event.

And so the Olympics are upon us again. It doesn’t seem like five minutes since the last one, but mankind’s largest cock measuring contest is back. This time, it is the turn of Beijing to spend a fortune for the privilege of housing a million foreigners for a month.

There have been doubts as to this vast industrial city’s suitability to host the games. The kayakers for instance, have been warned not to submerge themselves in the river unless they welcome the idea of glowing radioactive green, and the marathon runners have been preparing for the air quality with a strict regime of 20 Marlboro a day.

Niggles aside, China has really pushed the boat out for this year’s games, spending more than is conceivable on a stadium that is supposed to resemble a bird’s nest, and which unfortunately for them, has turned out to look just like a bird’s nest.

Much has been said in the run up to the games regarding China’s woeful human rights record, at home and abroad, and many politicians spoke hopefully after Beijing was awarded the games that we may see changes in the communist nation, with the softening of some of their policies and ideals now the world was looking on.

This was wishful thinking of the highest order, and as Amnesty international’s 2008 report shows, has done nothing to alter the behaviour from the ultra restrictive communist government towards freedom of speech and forced labour. No doubt on the surface it will be all smiles in Beijing during the course of the games, and it is doubtful whether despite the inevitable protesting, the Chinese silencing committee will be seen or heard with the world’s eyes fixed on the country; it would after all be a PR nightmare. As for the potential for unrest, one needs to look no further than the farcical torch rally to see the weight of opinion against Chinese human rights policy, and not even with their huge resources can the government replace the entire city with secret service men as seen alongside the flame procession.

As for the sports themselves, China will be hoping to do rather well. Like any communist state, the Chinese government holds its own country in massively high regard, and likes nothing more than revelling in the achievements of China on the world stage. And what achievements they are. Twenty years ago in Seoul, they took home just 29 medals, falling way short of the podium. By 2000, they were third with 59, and last time around in Athens, were pipped to the post only by the ever-omnipotent USA, who took home only 4 more golds than the Chinese. This year, they will be certainly hoping to keep the Americans on their chubby little toes.

Part of the reason for their success is obvious. If the world were a school playground, the Chinese team captain would have far more kids lined against the fence to pick for his team. To put this metaphor into some kind perspective, by comparison Britain would be left with the fat kid and the nerdy one with glasses.

However, sheer population does not automatically denote success. What you need is a system, and that’s one thing the Chinese are rather good at. You see there isn’t many sports that China has great tradition in. Given that re-educating Tibetans is not yet officially recognised as an event at the games, they are left with only a couple of historical specialities. Martial arts are the main one, for which the rest of the world turn up every four years for a total pasting, and the other for some bizarre reason is table tennis. So instead of the British approach; training up anyone who shows promise in their chosen discipline, the Chinese do it the other way round and find sports, however alien, and make people good at them. This explains the production line of freakishly talented (if in many ways totally abused) young gymnasts we have seen over the past few decades.

I read a news piece recently concerning the Chinese rowing team. The government were looking for a sport that had the maximum number of categories, (i.e potential medals) and decided that rowing was it. They set aside a pile of cash, hired one of Europe’s best coaches, picked out 10,000 men and women and put them in a camp for a year and hey presto, a world beating rowing team is born. A little soulless yes, but a winning formula nonetheless. This strategy has enraged the rowing world and put more than one nose out of joint in Henley-On-Thames. In fact, in a television interview recently Steve Redgrave, the sort of Olympic hero whose life you just know is an empty void since his retirement, said that it just wasn’t on that the Chinese rowing team had come from nowhere, and what’s more, they must probably all be on drugs anyway. Nothing like embracing new competition eh Steve?

As for team GB's chances, Redgrave will be happy to know that rowing is amongst our top sports, with experts predicting a gold medal or two despite the challenge from the potentially chemically enhanced Chinese robots he seems so concerned about. We also have a small boy hoping for diving success, which angers me somewhat, because when I was young the swimming pool staff never let me on the high board. He must have his own pool.

Elsewhere, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by disqualifying our best sprinter, tennis’s Andy Murray will be hoping nobody good shows up so he can bag a medal and the badminton mixed doubles pair who claim they aren’t a couple, but everyone knows are at it, are aiming to go one better than the silver of four years ago. Sadly, there is no GB football team, and the absence of such a squad entering the games looks set to continue after the Scottish FA refused to participate, claiming their independence would suffer as a result. Hmm, I really think they have missed the point.

There is little doubt that Beijing will be a success, from a logistical point of view anyway. The IOC will be hoping for a peaceful few weeks, with sporting prowess taking the headlines, but the games may be remembered from a far more political standpoint. ‘One World, One Dream’ is the maxim under which the 2008 Olympics are being played. Quite whose world, and what dream are unclear, but one thing is for sure, if you are anywhere near Tibet or Darfur, it certainly isn’t yours.