A tyrannical television battle played out on British televisions last night, as the BBC unveiled their long-awaited version of global smash The Voice, and ITV began yet another series of Britain's Got Talent.
Both had reason to draw a huge amount of interest. The Voice was developed off the back of the success the US version had last summer (where ratings bested what X Factor USA achieved in the autumn), and has freshness on its side because it's a brand new show. There are judges (nay coaches) we haven't met yet, too, in the impressive line-up of Will.i.am, Jessie J (the Elvira of pop), Tom Jones (or was that his whitened ghost?) and Danny O'Donoghue from The Script. But, more importantly, it has a signature gimmick that does away with the X Factor's nastier side...
Auditions are done with the coaches blind to who's performing, as their chairs are turned away from the stage. So "it's all about the voice", as the slogan says. This means there should be fewer people getting through on physical attractiveness alone. It also means there's practically no chance of X Factor-style "novelties" like Jedward or Wagner getting beyond a first appearance, especially as the BBC are against allowing "crazies" onto the show, because they've chosen to avoid auditioning the kind of person you'd avoid eye contact with on public transport.
I applaud The Voice for its noble intentions; which is get the TV talent show back to basics, because almost a decade of X Factor has eroded the genre into a freakshow/karaoke hybrid. Naturally, X Factor is still able to find major world stars (this is the week where third-place One Direction had a No1 album in the US), but overall the X Factor has become a place for viewers to point and laugh at deranged people. Or, failing that, the place where most of its own publicity is fuelled by real/manufactured arguments amongst the judges. There was a time last year where the UK was more interested in Kelly Rowland and Tulisa's off-screen tiff than any of the actual contestants on the show; while the antics of Frankie Cocozza off-stage (snorting drugs, bedding girls) overshadowed whatever song he was attempting to sing every week.
The Voice doesn't seem to have any patience for that kind of tabloid-courting nonsense. There was a more pleasing, upbeat vibe to it. The coaches get along and had good-natured banter, rather than petty squabbles. Only occasionally did their ego's overshadow the contestants; most notably when Tom Jones couldn't resist a suspicious Elvis anecdote (he didn't have a guitar in the house?) and Will.i.am tried to trump it with a Michael Jackson story. It also helps that the coaches on The Voice are talented performers themselves. They even sang together as a "super-group" to kick-off the show, although it's debatable if this unlikely collaboration worked. Still, individually, you can't argue with their credentials and success. Compare them to X Factor's judges; where Louie Walsh is a laughing stock clutching to his '90s heyday managing Boyzone; Kelly Rowland's career crumbled the moment former-bandmate Beyonce went solo; and N-Dubz's Tulisa was largely unknown to the public, and has only just started a solo career amidst a sex tape scandal.
Only, here's the thing: as much as I admire The Voice and all it stands for, it didn't equal an enthralling hour of TV. I came to the sudden realisation that, truthfully, I just don't care about the TV magic of discovering a singer. Or, to put it another way, of helping to sire a multi-millionaire popstar by phone-voting and perhaps buying their music in the summer. I really don't. I found myself hoping for an odd person to audition for a giggle, as much as it pains me to admit that. Maybe The Voice has arrived too late on British shores, because our early-'00s desire to "watch an everyday person become a popstar" has given way to "laughing at hopeless nobodies with dreams bigger than their ability". I don't like myself for this, but I just didn't feel compelled to watch more of The Voice... especially as its chair-spinning difference to X Factor will vanish after a month on-air, with the show becoming more of a traditional watching-singers-sing-every-weekend show.
THE VOICE, BBC1, Saturdays, 7PM.
Overlapping The Voice by 20-minutes (don't you love petty TV schedulers?) was Britain's Got Talent. This show's been running for five years on ITV, and the tried-and-trusted format remains the same. It's basically a condensed version of X Factor, with a variety of people demonstrating a wider range of skills, and buzzers replacing the silly mentoring concept. The big news for 2012 is that Simon Cowell's back to judge, in an attempt to reverse the show's ratings decline last year (while he was prepping X Factor's US debut), and there are two new judges joining him and Amanda Holden on the panel. These are David Walliams (filling the "comedian slot" vacated by Michael McIntyre) and Alesha Dixon (controversially poached from X Factor rival Strictly Come Dancing to replace David Hasselhoff). Neither made much of an impression in this premiere, however. Walliams made some of his obligatory, predictable, sexually-ambiguous jokes in Cowell's direction, while the beautiful Alesha sat around perfecting muted "wow" and "WTF" expressions.
But the key thing is that BGT was more entertaining than The Voice. Its cold open alone, featuring presenters Ant n' Dec with a flashmob dancing around London, was funnier than the entire 80-minutes of The Voice—which seemed to take itself much too seriously for a Saturday night show. Naturally, the variety of people/skills on BGT was much higher, as the format allows you to both laugh at idiots, marvel at oddly-entertaining folk (like two gay ballroom dancers), and celebrate unexpected sources of genuine talent (like the stout young man with self-esteem issues who sang like Pavarotti).
In comparison, The Voice offered a monotonous stream of competent singers, and it was sometimes difficult to understand what was making the coaches decide to turn around in the first place. Sometimes it even felt like peer pressure! I mean, those they didn't turn for weren't bad singers, per se, and those they did turn for were hardly the nascent superstars the overly-optimistic coaches claimed they were. Also, with each successful performer getting to choose which of the coaches to ally themselves with, I'm still unsure why anyone would choose Tom Jones or Danny O'Donoghue over Will.i.am and Jessie J!
Which show pleased you the most? Was The Voice a refreshing return to the traditions and values of talent shows pre-Cowell, or a tedious bore with honorable intentions? Did Britain's Got Talent weave its magic once again, boosted by the return of Cowell himself, or is the magic fading? Or did neither take your fancy, because you were doing other things?
BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT, ITV1, Saturdays, 8PM.
My Random Tweets:
Jessie J. I have a lot of respect for a woman who chooses to wear funky ironing board covers. #TheVoiceUKFollow me on Twitter @danowen79.
Audience members: spoil everything by bringing mirrors to the studio recordings. #TheVoiceUK
Can't wait for #XFactor's response to #TheVoiceUK's super-group moment. Cowell on guitar? Louis on bongo drums?
So, basically, #TheVoiceUK is the perfect RADIO concept.
So far, coaches turn around if (a) you sing a song of theirs, or (b) a coach thinks you sound like THEM. #TheVoiceUK
The last time a chair spun round like this on British TV it contained Patrick McGoohan in a monkey mask. #TheVoiceUK #Prisoner
Forget the chairs, this show needs trapdoors. #TheVoiceUK
I thought Tom Jones had fallen asleep in his chair for a second. Guy's old. #TheVoiceUK
Why are Holly and Reggie even here? Less screen presence than Steve Jones on #XFactorUSA! Oh dear #TheVoiceUK.
I think I took #TheVoiceUK's concept too seriously. I spent most of the show sat on my sofa, facing the other direction.
Unless there's a hairy man running in slow motion, or a stripper, what is Carmen Electra doing on #BGT?
Simon Cowell makes most of his decisions with his dick. How else do you explain BAYWATCH's Carmen Electra as a guest-judge of talent?! #BGT
The look on Alesha Dixon's face, knowing she had to judge some ballroom dancing without first sneaking a glance at Len Goodman's notes! #BGT
Still boggles my mind that Amanda Holden's on #BGT, judging talent. She must have been Cowell's '90s crush. Sinitta, 80s; Cheryl Cole 00s.