Girls Season 5 Episode 10: I Love You Baby

This blog post is for people who have been watching Season 5 of ‘Girls’ – it contains spoilers, obv. 

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It was fitting that Hannah found her creative spark at a club called The Moth, for this was a finale of transformations, or rather reversions back to a past self. For much of this fantastic season of ‘Girls’, Hannah has been cocooned: stagnating in a ‘normal’ job with a ‘normal’ boyfriend, and increasingly losing touch with the friends and passions that make her tick. So, for Hannah, now it is time to follow the glare of the light in an attempt at personal re-discovery.

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Girls Season 5 Episode 9: ‘Love Stories’

This blog post is for people who have been watching Season 5 of ‘Girls’ – it contains spoilers, obv. 

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Somebody has been watching too many Julia Roberts movies. Yes, ‘Love Stories’ turns out to be a wholly appropriate title for this penultimate episode of the series, largely because it seems to take much inspiration from 90s rom-coms.

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Girls Season 5 Episode 8: ‘Homeward Bound’

This blog post is for people who have been watching Season 5 of ‘Girls’ – it contains spoilers, obv. 

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This week, Hannah et al are going Neanderthal and following their instincts, although it does not always help their survival in (and out of) the urban jungle of NYC.

We start with Shoshanna, who is bumped on an airport travelator while looking like a character from Yu-Gi-Oh. Her complaints about the rudeness of Americans might be well founded, but surely her views on Japan are tinted with the rose colour of the cherry blossom? Anyway, she questions ‘why am I here?’, and I suppose the main answer is that the writing requires her to be in New York for the final few episodes of the series. On a whim, she moved to Tokyo, thus ignoring her instincts, and this season we have seen more and more that Shoshanna is just another spoilt Jewish Princess: she wants is a stable job and a professional husband, but it’s taking her a while to admit that. Ultimately, she has struggled with the fact that she tried something different and she failed. Failure, for the intelligent, educated Jewess, is not an option; she has been disorientated by the Orient, and very much come home (hence the title of the episode – eh, eh?) ashamed and unmotivated.

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Re-Viewed: Bo’ Selecta!

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I tell thee, I’d never quite appreciated the genius of Bo’ Selecta.

The Year of our Lord 2002 seems like a long time ago, it’s top three popular culture moments being Attack of the Clones, Nelly and Kelly, and Rivaldo crying about being brushed in the thigh. There’s to make you feel wizened. I was but 11 years old, and Leigh Francis’s Surrealist experiment was the kind of thing I would surreptitiously watch post-midnight at sleepovers, giggling at the funny masks and swearing. I didn’t understand it, but it was inviting to the average pre-teen because of its cartoonish silliness and the fact that someone would say ‘fuck’ or ‘bugger’ every episode.

When I first stumbled across Bo’ Selecta, I probably thought it was an impressions show. When you see Craig David with a peregrine falcon, or Mel B with a hairy chest, you realise that it isn’t, but there is no way that in 2002 I understood the level of parody and social commentary implicit among the stupidity. Episode One introduces us to Transylvanian ‘salabrity’ stalker Avid Merrion, who wears a neckbrace thanks to a scuffle with Liza Tarbuck. His flat is decorated with mannequins wearing the masks of famous people, often in compromising positions: it’s like the opening scene of A Clockwork Orange, but with the milk replaced by ‘sex wee’. Within the opening minutes, we find out that Avid lives with his dead mother (who eats tuna) and has Craig off of Big Brother chained up in his toilet.

In this one image, Craig chained up, we see the raison d’etre of Bo’ Selecta. It is total lampooning/celebration of Z-list celebrity culture, which was beginning to sprout its desperate head in the early noughties. The joke, of course, is that being on TV for five minutes gives Avid enough reason to stalk you and lock you in his toilet. Thinking more meta-theatrically, Bo’ Selecta provides a stepping stone in Craig’s already dwindling TV career (he won Big Brother in 2000). Turns out the cost of fame is imprisonment among the plumbing.

Ignoring the masked tomfoolery for a moment, just look at the other famous faces who appear in Series 1: Liberty X; Kate Thornton; Christine Hamilton; Jade Goody; Keith from Boyzone; Vanessa Feltz; Sarah Cawood. This is a conveyor belt of also-rans; a kaleidoscope of thick fringes and double denim. The show never really mocked these people – it celebrated their willingness to get involved and not be too disgusted by a bear’s erection. Even in Avid’s lexis, we hear references to Big Brother, Pop Idol, Popstars: The Rivals and Fame Academy, reminding us that this was a time when normal people had more and more routes to fame, and the power of exposure (of any form) was more and more valued.

Bo’ Selecta forces Z-listers into embarrassing situations to question the cost of fame, and Francis’s work with his famous rubber masks is also an exploration of what it means to be famous, framed by a simple ‘what if’ scenario. What if the people we see on television and in magazines aren’t the idols of twenty first century existence, but are actually flawed, unimpressive human beings who are trying their hardest to stop us realising this fact? Francis’s grotesque rubber masks and costume choices are a way of separating the perceived image of celebrity from the truth, as they act as an un-airbrushed, warts-and-all portrait of previously adored celebrities.

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However, the mask and outfit is only half of the performance. The true parody of fame comes in Francis’s characterisation. By giving some of his creations a Northern accent, Francis goes some way in removing the veneer of the celebrity, turning them into local people with local problems. Britney Spears, for example, comes complete with a double chin, a pint in hand, and the kind of nonchalant shrugging so often seen in Britain’s northern men. Mel B is actually from Yorkshire, but here she is re-imagined as a truly scary, foul mouthed battleaxe, lacking in any grace. She refers to her fellow Spice Girls as ‘Sporty’Un’, ‘Baby’Un’, ‘Ginger’Un’ and ‘Posh’Un’ with the inelegant love of a Rovers Return landlady.

Elsewhere, Destiny’s Child are three South London girls who buy their jewellery at Index, and Elton John is an aggressive imp who threatens to bum anyone who gets in his way (art/life). Crucially, Bo’ Selecta’s most popular character, Craig David, was also its most damaging. The British public are still struggling to say his name without adopting a Leeds accent and putting their hands up into L shapes, and it’s not unrealistic to suggest that the show is the main reason we don’t see much of the real Craig on our shores any more. Does Craig David have a right to be pissed off? Well, not really. As aforementioned, Francis is not doing an impression of David, but an approximation, and the important thing is that he is mocking pop stars in general rather than David personally, whom he is merely using as a mouthpiece. Ok, the voice and piss bag might be annoying, but we must remember that Craig David is not the butt of the joke.

It’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes these creations funny, but perhaps it is simply down to the element of surprise. To see a celebrity rendered down to his/her barest parts, swearing, farting and drinking, gives us a hidden camera style voyeurism, and debunks idolatry in favour of ridicule. In the decade since Bo’ Selecta finished, we haven’t quite departed from celebrity worship, as the rise of obsessive fan groups on social media shows. Equally, the most visited website in the world is still amazed by a celebrity’s ability to go to the shops or wear a hat, which is exactly the kind of fawning nonsense mocked by Leigh Francis over ten years ago. Urrrrgh, the bastards!

No Longer Gagging For Gogglebox.

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Telly apocalypse-predicting sci-fi The Truman Show has one of the best and most chilling final lines in cinema history. As Truman begins to realise the truth about his soon-to-burst bubble, the director increases the amount of times we cut to the viewers, who stare gormlessly into the camera and offer their banal views on Truman’s plight. These die-hard fans ultimately (spoiler alert!) urge Truman out of his metallic cell, whooping euphorically as he makes the final steps away from his own reality show. When the madness has calmed, we cut to two security guards, avid fans of the 24-hour feed. One turns to the other and shrugs: “What else is on?”

For a film that was released before Big Brother, this final line does wonders to predict both the addictive nature of television and how easily it can be discarded. We are inhabitants of a fad culture that demands more, harder, sooner, quicker before we get bored and move onto the next most popular thing. Remember who won at the Brits last year? The Harlem Shake? Twerking? No, me neither. In an attempt to capitalise on our ‘What Else Is On?’ mindsets, more and more television shows have the USP of being ‘topical’. This is a fad that started somewhere in Elstree and has so far culminated in structured reality shows and the sleeper hit of last year, Gogglebox

As predicted by The Truman Show, what people really want to watch is other people watching telly. There were moments in Gogglebox last year that were a meta-theatrical triumph, as television was accepted as a communal, multi-cultural, multi-emotional experience. For every snide comment about Miss Dynamix, there were moments of true poignancy, particularly in sections which dealt with current affairs and charity events. At the heart of all this, of course, were the viewers themselves, a broad slice of our great country who delighted and surprised with their honesty and idiosyncrasies. However, as with all shows that are filmed dangerously close to transmission, there is a risk of filler, and the later episodes of Gogglebox were straining under the weight of the Tapper family.

And so, before you could even find the next box set to binge on (Hannibal, by the way) Gogglebox has invited us back into the living rooms of Britain’s weirdos. Unfortunately, if the show looked leggy at the end of the last run, it had moments of wheezing to a standstill in this week’s opener (4od). 

While the chosen viewers must represent a wide tranche of British life, the truth is that some of them aren’t interesting enough to be on telly. Like an armchair Cowell, I find myself tuning out when the boring ones start to talk, and offering subtle congratulation whenever the gay hairdresser says something catty. Well done, Stephen. You can go through to the next episode, and take your cheap vino with you. Lovely Stephen effectively acted as the voice of the audience in this episode, realising very quickly that he had been forced to watch arse-numbingly dull programming for our viewing ‘pleasure’. In a segment focussing on Dragon’s Den, Stephen accurately noted how the beast had lost its fire:

“When was the last time someone said to you, ‘Did you see that thing on Dragon’s Den last night?’

When indeed. When that bloke from the pension ads was on it, perhaps? Later in the show, the Channel 4 producers showed their sadistic side when they forced the Goggleboxers to sit through another show hosted by manic-eyed Evan Davis (take note, BBC) about how London is the tenth circle of Hell or something. The viewers yawned their way through it, and so did I, before wise, lovely Stephen concluded: 

“Well, that bored the shit out my arse.”

Why Channel 4 thought that it would be interesting to watch people watch a show comparable to a colonic irrigation is beyond me. I can understand watching terrible telly; I can understand watching amazing telly; but surely no one gains anything from realising their lack of brain oxygen in a primetime Friday night slot? 

Predictably, Gogglebox has shown all the traits of a show that is suffering from its own success. In an attempt to strike while the social media buzz is hot, the show now clocks in at an hour where it used to be 45 minutes. This is clearly an attempt to sell a few more ads on a Friday night, but it is detrimental to the end product. For a show that is stitched together a couple of days before it airs, there simply isn’t enough material to cover sixty minutes. While it was fascinating to get some views on Ukraine, this was swiftly undone with a final segment on Grease, a film that we have been talking about for 35 years. Gogglebox, a show that has prided itself on being immediate and topical, need not tell us that Danny Zuko had me a blast, nor relay Sandra Olsen’s claims that it happened so fast. 

In short, Gogglebox has become yet another victim of our fad culture; attempting to produce something popular in great volume before we all forget about it about hear about the next up-and-coming drama from Tellyland. By doing this, the show will struggle to retain interest for a long period, and has evidently settled for a quick fix instead of that illusive concept in the 21st century: longevity. Gogglebox will be gobbled up by its viewers and eventually spewed out, leaving nothing but a faint taste on the tip of the tongue. 

Well? What else is on? 

Catch-Up Clinic #1

In what may become a regular feature, I take you through the top three shows with which you should be catching up. Warning: contains weird-sounding but totally correct grammar. 

Inside No. 9

Catch Up On: BBC iPlayer

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Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have been experimenting with anthology since the final season of The League of Gentlemen, and went on to hone this Hitchcockian voice in the Rope-inspired episode of Psychoville. The dark duo have long been experts at combining chilling psychological explorations with silly, almost Carry On style humour, and Inside No. 9 finds them at their subtle best. Drawing inspiration from Hammer Horror to Charlie Chaplin, each episode stands alone, telling one story in one location. In a TV climate full of big budgets, big names and big plot holes, Inside No. 9 stands out as tight, simple writing over a tight running time. Very few shows can maintain total interest over 29 minutes, but Shearsmith and Pemberton ensure this by drip-feeding plot points to the viewer and keeping them guessing until the credits roll. As expected in an anthology series, some stories will be more successful than others, and so far Episodes 2 and 3 (‘A Quiet Night In’; ‘Tom & Gerri’) have been the highlights.

What to say: The anthology series totally reflects modern society’s commitment issues.

What not to say: Is this like Through The Keyhole? 

My Mad, Fat Diary

Catch Up On: 4od

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The second series of this teen drama, based on the diaries of Rae Earl, has recently started on E4. As the title rather flippantly suggests, this is the story of an overweight, mentally ill teenager growing up in Stamford in 1996. I haven’t seen the first series of the show, but it was recommended by a friend and certainly has enough originality to make it one of the more worthy things beaming out of the telly box of late. My hesitancy about My Mad Fat Diary largely stems from how tonally problematic it is. Yes, it is an accurate depiction of an angsty, V-plate obsessed late-teenage life, but I can’t quite work out how exploitative the whole thing is. At times the show resembles the illustrated frothiness of Georgia Nicolson, but it can rapidly become uncomfortably dark. Rae (played superbly by Sharon Rooney) is irrational and lacking in any confidence, often envisaging a world where she is tormented and mocked as she walks down corridors. Put frankly, there are times when you want to give her a mad, fat slap round the face.

But, this must be the point. We see a much similar story in the fantastic Girls, where protagonist Hannah is equal parts endearing and infuriating. There’s just something about My Mad Fat Diary which doesn’t quite work, and it may be that the attempt to appeal to a teenage audience (bouncy soundtrack, primary coloured credits, hunky male lead) is completely at odds with the themes of the show and Rae herself, who is borderline suicidal.  

What to sayMy Mad Fat Diary should be compulsory viewing in all secondary schools. 

What not to say: Are there any gypsy weddings in this? 

Ja’mie: Private School Girl

Catch Up On: BBC iPlayer

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While My Mad Fat Diary attempts to ground itself in reality, this latest mockumentary from Chris Lilley is completely rooted in parody. Taking a character from Summer Heights High, Lilley explores the spoilt, bitchy, faux-glam world of private school girl Ja’mie (she added the apostrophe in Year 8). In every school (particularly in girls’ schools) there is one student who rises to the top of the social ladder without being in any way impressive: this is Ja’mie. Somehow she has become the pride of Hillford Girls’ Grammar School, largely by sucking up to the right people and shitting on the people who don’t matter. Ja’mie has cultured a sycophantic gang of prefects, without whom the queen bee would be nothing. While Chris Lilley is fantastically feminine (and almost invisible) as Ja’mie, it is her cackling, straight-haired cronies who create the true parody. Some have complained that Private School Girl is one-dimensional, and of course it is. Ja’mie and the girls speak and giggle in an endlessly rotating lexicon of boys, tits, lesbians, Facebook and Coke Zero, completely mocking the dramatic emptiness of the spoilt brat. To spend half an hour in Ja’mie’s company is exhausting, but we are merely getting the same experience as her Hillford peers: we are the incredulously gaping extras in the MTV music video that is her life.

What to say: After the sincerity of Educating Yorkshire, it’s easy to forget that teenagers can and should be mocked for their institutionalised idiosyncrasies.

What not to say: Is this Tory propaganda?  

peep peep peeeeeeeep: the x factor half time analysis

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Today I am releasing my inner Jamie Redknapp, a sartorially gifted gent with a love of package holidays and hanging out the back of it, because it’s half time on this year’s X Factor. So grab some orange wedges and brush up on Nicole Sherzinger’s dead balls, as we analyse the season so far for these top, top, top players.

Hannah Barrett

Belting Barrett started the show as Misha B without the kerazy eyes, but has since become a bit of a Treyc Cohen, ending up in the bottom two twice. The vagueness of her sob story (randomly dead relative, randomly poor home life) has perhaps alienated the public, while her boisterous singing is sometimes so much like an exorcism that you half expect Hannah to throw up pea soup on the judges while pissing on the shiny floor.

Tamera Foster

She was the one to beat, they said. She’d walk to the final, they said. She’s a shoe-in for a record deal, they said. What ‘they’ didn’t say is that Tamera is only sixteen, and her inexperience has showed in every Live Show. She has tackled some big songs decently, but has nothing like the natural pop-star confidence seen in, for example, Cher Lloyd. Tamera lacks personality so much that one of her ‘stories’ on the show has been about getting blonde hair, but after forgetting the lyrics to ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (a song she probably thought was by Kanye West), Tamera is proof that blondes don’t have very much fun at all.

Luke Friend

Who’d have thunk it? Stig of the Dump has only gone and become this year’s sleeper hit, a horse so dark that it would suit the Nazgûl. Luke has fashioned himself into a croaky crooner, and his performance of ‘Kiss From a Rose’ remains one of the highlights of the series. Like an inverse (and less jihadi) Samson, Luke had his hair cut and grew in strength, and is now surely challenging for a place in the Top 3. Just don’t chain him to any pillars.

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Nicholas McDonald

It’s difficult to say too much about SEXTEEN YER AULD Nicholas, because he might be The X Factor‘s first test-tube contestant: young, competent and likeable. The Baby Bublé is pulling in both the Scottish vote and the Granny vote (and the Scottish Granny vote) and will certainly make it to the final. He won’t sell any records, but he will be a big name on the charity fundraiser circuit in 2014. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Sam Callahan

Sam Callahan is the worst contestant ever to grace The X Factor live shows. It’s bad enough that he can’t sing and can’t dance, but he also shares a first name with the singer who is going to win the whole thing, making him look even more bumhole-clenchingly awful than he already is. Sam isn’t funny-bad like Rylan or Jedward, he just makes the audience feel uncomfortable, like they are watching a kid fluff his way through a holiday camp talent show, and then have to applaud politely as he shuffles off stage. With contoured eyebrows to rival Rikki Loney’s, Sam has forged himself as a ‘fighter’, but he really needs to just lie down and stay down, like a disheartened movie henchman.

Rough Copy

The urban trio call their mentor ‘Uncle Gary’, but it would be more apt to call him ‘Uncle Tom’. It’s no secret that, back in the day, it didn’t pay to be black in the music biz, but you would hope that we had moved on a bit. Instead, Uncle Tom has turned cool, exciting Rough Copy into three Nat King Coles, crooning out honky hits (Bryan Adams?!) and forgetting about the tight harmonies that got the group into the Lives in the first place. I’m not suggesting that Rough Copy should be confined to rapping and body-popping, but they are a can of relaxer away from screwing up their chances. Gary has done such a terrible job with Rough Copy that I actually miss The Female Boss.

Sam Bailey

The X Factor has made a big deal this year of going back to basics, but nothing is more retro than the prospect of an older woman winning the show. The Susan Boyle comparisons aren’t just unfair, they are plain wrong, because Sam is Britain’s answer to Barbra Streisand: glamorous and humble, with a killer voice. Not only has Sam produced note-perfect renditions of massive pop songs, she is the only contestant who can ‘perform’ a song without looking over directed. Her version of ‘(No More Tears) Enough Is Enough’ was powerful, and the best performance of the series so far. In another time Sam could have been one of the biggest stars on the planet, and I sincerely hope that she gets all the success she deserves post-show.

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the nightclub toilet: engaged, never vacant.

“If the club was, like, the main bit, the main plot, then the toilet is like a sub-plot to the main club. It’s like the underneath; the workings of the club.”

Thus spake Charlie, an 18-year-old from Crawley who would soon be off to study Psychology at Reading Uneh. If you were waiting outside in the queue, worrying about whether or not your Nikes count as ‘trainers’ and eagerly awaiting an evening with Channel 4’s new series Up All Night, you might not be expecting much more than a surreptitious grope. Superficially, this episode looked to be Channel 4 at its best and worst, as minicab-loads of Crawley folk descended on JJ Whispers nightclub for an evening of osculation and urination, all to the sound of your favourite MASSIVE CLUB BANGERZ.

And yet, once you navigated through the dry ice, peeled your feet along the Jaegermeister-stained dancefloor and entered the titular toilet, you soon realised that this was not your bog-standard sexploitation show, but rather fifty minutes of sustained, microcosmic genius. Student Charlie was right: in the toilet we see the unravelling of life itself played out in the guise of sub-plot. The nightclub is the Athenian woodland, where the shallow Helenas and Lysanders of suburbia can be lusty by moonlight; but in the toilet we meet the Mechanicals, and the true tragicomedy of the modern world.

Oddly, in another Channel 4 revelation, Gogglebox, The Nightclub Toilet was panned by the armchair critics. It seemed that the ‘normal’ families couldn’t see past the sleaziness of it all, and were too perturbed by bodily functions to actually listen to the narratives of the clubbers. Curiously, the most touching tales did not come from the clubbers, but from the people so affectionately known as toilet attendants. I was unaware that toilet attendants were not employed by the club, and make money simply from the tips they receive from choosing the right product. Some stick with deodorant and aftershave; others have branched out into lollipops and flip-flops. They are twentyfirst century rag-and-bone men, and some have even come up with catchy sales techniques. Desmond, a Nigerian national who has been working in nightclub toilets for three years, encourages tips with poetry like ‘No spray, no lay’ and ‘No splash, no gash’. Before you are outraged by this misogyny, consider that Desmond’s female equivalent, Dami (also Nigerian – apparently it is the easiest work for an African immigrant to acquire) entices her female customers with this ditty, sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’: ‘Freshen up your punani, for your boyfriend!’ Unlike Desmond, Dami is at least promoting monogamy, and the extra pennies earned through a comedy song are vital.

Often, the toilet attendant has his or her own story to tell, but is instead resigned to the role of confidant(e), listening to the comparatively banal anxieties of the weekend clubbers. Off-shift, Desmond tells of his family plight in Nigeria: he has lost his mother, father and sister, and came to the UK, naturally, for a better life. Dami needs to provide for her children, and naively thought that after five years in the country, she would have more to offer them. Unfortunately the details of her story are silenced, as she listens with boredom to tales of online-dating and backcombing. At one point she has to rip some toilet paper for an inebriated reveller, too weary to wipe herself after urination. Demi nods and smiles, in a post-slavery ‘ahyessir’ mutation, static in her toilet, showing so much of the futile determination of a Beckettian heroine that she may as well be buried up to her neck in sand.

ImageHowever, all this pessimism is not entirely fair on the clubbers who, more often than not, are genuinely interesting to listen to and observe. Charlie picks up on this in his point about sub-plots, but the fascination of the nightclub toilet begins in its architecture. In the loud, sweaty, whirling environment of the dancefloor/bar, the toilet is a sanctuary: a quiet place which gives great opportunity for discussion, revelation and reflection. The presence of the toilet attendant even gives the space an air of confession, where one can puke up their soul as well as their vomit. The staff of JJ Whispers are quick to gender stereotype: in general, men take minutes in the toilet while gaggles of women chanting ‘Here Come The Girls’ spend hours doing their hair, reapplying their makeup and gossiping with strangers.

This stereotype is largely accurate, but this is not to say that men do not go through moments of self-discovery in the loos. Perhaps the most affecting of these moments came from military man Daniel, who was adopted at a young age and has only just discovered his cousin, Michael, with whom he was out on the lash. Michael looks up to his cuz, and having been dumped by his wife and estranged from his young son, he has decided to follow his new hero into the Army. Daniel, bathing in the praise, slurs his poignant advice back to his Padawan, telling him that Michael can’t join to the Army just to get over his missus, and must consider the effect on his son. But Michael won’t budge. He could be a builder, or a tree-surgeon, but all that is just ‘bullshit’ compared to slipping on an IED in Afghanistan and getting your limbs torn apart. Nothing will make little Mike Jr more proud that to see his daddy with a bionic arm, right? In their exploration of pride, masculinity, the motivations of war and the art of the man hug, Daniel and Michael are two Hemingwayan juggernauts in the already brimming literary maze that is the nightclub toilet.

Before Charlie’s concluding words (which began this essay), we see the student inspecting a twenty pence coin that has nestled in the urinals. It was there when he first soberly entered the toilet, and it remains at the end of the evening, a strange symbol of continuity amid the chaos in Crawley. In his drunken state, Charlie considers picking out the urine-stained coin as a kind of trophy, but instead leaves it, not willing to conclude his club experience with piss-soaked hands. The fact that this coin stays put for next weekend’s party people seems somehow mimetic of the shining nuggets of real life that can be found in this usually dirty environment. The nightclub toilet is a place where fools become wise men; where the vacant become the engaged.

how the x factor slipped on its boots and went back to its roots.

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“Strange, I’ve seen that face before.” – Grace Jones

A long time before The X Factor returned to our telly screens in August, all the tabloid whispers pointed to the fact that this series would be going back to basics, in a attempt to revive the glory days of the mid-noughties. This was a fairly predictable move given the lack of talent/fun in recent years, and one that has been modelled successfully over at Channel 5 with Big Brother. Superficially at least, X Factor X (that’s ten in Rocky language) has some features of the good old days, most of all the return of cackling Sharon Osbourne, to whom everything (apart from Dannii Minogue) is faaabulous. Shazza’s reunion with Louish Waltz is a true blast from the past, and an admission from the production team that, actually, experience is what matters on the panel. Despite experimenting with wizened old hags like Pixie Lott, Rita Ora and that drug dealer out of The N-Dubz, we now have four judges that have been around the world and I-I-I, if you get my drift.

On top of this, room auditions were back. The rationale behind moving the auditions to an arena was about finding stage presence, but really turned the whole thing into more of a pantomime than it already was. I attended the Manchester auditions last year, and was struck by how orchestrated the theatrics are. One woman was laughed off the stage for singing in an African accent, and I realised that the arena auditions were creating a foaming mob of racist, unthinking fools. The return of the room audition has thankfully removed the ignorance of the British public, while also drawing attention back to the singing. Even the laughably terrible acts have had a nostalgic silliness to them which was turned to near bullying in the arena. This focus on vocal ability instead of audience interaction has meant that for the first time since Jedward cartwheeled into our consciousnesses, we are entering the Live Shows without a joke act. It remains to be seen how boring this will make the darkening Saturday nights until Xmas, but it seems that the circus is inching slowly out of town.

Or is it? For, while singing has definitely been back on the menu this year, one of the more contrived elements of early twentieth century singing competitions is back with a blub: the sob story. Over on the BBC, that other singing competition with the swivel-chairs promised to eradicate the sob story, but failed when the two winners were fat and/or blind. This year, The X Factor is taking sob stories to a new level by making them ludicrously vague. Rejected wife-beater Joseph Whelan went with ‘I have a son’, while Wagon-Wheel-shaped Hannah Barratt mumbled something about living away from home. I presume it is up to the tabloids to go digging for skeletons, but so far this series the contestants have been getting very upset about nothing too specific. Zoe Devlin was worried about what her three-year-old daughter would think of her failure, and her concerns were justified. When Zoe finally had the courage to break the news, the little girl blew a spit bubble and picked her nose for a bit. Damning. Other excellently pathetic blub-tales included: ‘I drive a van’ (Shelley Smith); ‘I love my husband’ (Sam Bailey); ‘I can’t afford shampoo’ (Luke Friend) and ‘We are poor hipsters who inexplicably live in an expensive part of London’ (Kingsland Road).

ImageIf the format and the style remind you of the days when Kate Thornton hadn’t been melted down for scrap, just look at the contestants. The Boys category in particular is so dated that it should come with Computers-For-Schools vouchers. In fairness to the lads, they are being mentored by Louis Walsh, a man so out-of-touch with reality that he still leaves confused voicemail messages on Stephen Gately’s answering machine. Even Louis’ choice of guest judges was baffling, as the bankrupt one from Westlife, an Appleton sister and (who else) Sinitta joined him in Saint-Tropez. The whole thing was like an audition for the next series of The Big Reunion, or a strange, meta reality show where washed up celebrities sunbathe for charity. I half expected Rebecca Loos to show up and toss off a pig while Paul Danan fell in love with something. The Boys have a decent chance, but their coup is Nicholas McDonald, a sparkly-eyed Scot with a good tone and zero chance of being a pop star. I was surprised that he made it to the Lives, but he has the classic ‘confidence problem’ of a Leon Jackson or Joe McElderry, and no doubt the whole of Scotland will push him into the final three. Hell, he might even win it, and that truly would be a return to the past of the show, when the contestants could actually get to Xmas Number One with a stinky ballad about overcoming adversity.

Elsewhere, there is little to suggest that this series will produce any bona fide pop stars. Poor Sharon O has picked three average pub singers who can belt the favourites but have no concept of music, and her three girls will certainly be fighting over the Mary Byrne-issue billowing black fabric. Meanwhile, the Girls gave Nicole Scherzinger ample opportunity to do her ‘I’m listening intently’ face and some pretty tough decisions to make. Scherzy ended up sending home two of the best singers in the competition (Melanie McCabe and Relley C) in favour of the Wagon Wheel and Andrea Begley in disguise (she was blind, but now she can see!) Abi Alton. Abi has an average voice, but she wears a flower in her hair so she’s like totes current and like visceral, do you know what I mean by that? The Girls is a good category, but surely no one will get further than Tamera Foster, who is definitely lying about her age. In an attempt to show more of her ‘personality’, Tamera has been droning on about upsetting her family, but considering her age, the worst she could have done is accidently deleted Don’t Tell The Bride on the Sky Plus. It is worth noting that having a personality bypass didn’t hurt Leona Lewis or A-Burke, so I don’t quite understand what the producers are playing at here.

One of the most retro images from this weekend’s offerings was the sight of Gary Barlow in a sitting room in South London. He was telling a member of Rough Copy that, despite his illegal immigrant status, he would be able to go to the ball. This all seems fine now, but will take a tragic turn when Rough Copy are condemned to playing ice rinks in the North of England. Anyway, the image of Gaz Baz living like proper folk brought back lovely memories of the days when Judges Houses’ was nought but an idea, and the mentors actually had to visit their contestants to break the news. In a potent wave of nostalgia I saw Nigel Lythgoe telling Myleene Klass that she had made it into Hear’Say; I imagined Sharon O pulling up to a grotty, terraced house in Hull, stepping over piles of dog shit and Sports Direct bags-for-life, just so she could crush someone’s singing career. Oh, the memories! Oh, what a happy day!

Aside from these infrequent fits of ecstasy, this series has been exhausting so far. Everything is so familiar, with only subtle changes, that watching The X Factor is like watching a conveyor belt of your own, half-remembered memories, as infinite reference points come to the fore and drown us in our viewing history. I find myself predicting that Hannah Barrett will get booted off the show for happy slapping somebody; that Abi Alton will forget the words to MMM-Bop; that Sam Callahan will go on to release a single which references soon-to-be-defunct social networking sites. It’s all too saturating; at once canny and wholly uncanny, like watching The X Factor from an alternate reality. It’s a bizzarre and unnerving process, and one that makes series, contestants and years merge into one shapeless blob of pop culture information that is struggling to be contained. Crumbs.

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the only way is out: how towie’s structured reality fell apart

[Originally written in March 2013]
 
The writer of this piece is real, although some of what he has done has been set up for your entertainment. 
 
On a recent transatlantic flight, I was delighted to see that not only could I watch some of the latest Hollywood blockbusters, but I could also relive some of the finest episodes of British television. Alongside ‘Only Fools…’ and the ‘Father Ted’ (staples of entertainment at thirty thousand feet) was a single episode of BAFTA award-winning reality show ‘The Only Way Is Essex’.
 
Having been a fan of the show since its debut in late 2010, I was curious to see which episode from the oeuvre Virgin Atlantic had picked for my viewing pleasure. After a few minutes it was clear that Dickie Branson had gone for the final episode of Series 3, notable for being the last episode which featured the perpetually grinning Mark Wright. 
 
Like Indiana Jones at the end of ‘The Last Crusade’, Virgin had chosen wisely. In terms of ratings, this episode is by far the most successful in the TOWIE’s history, grabbing the attention of over 2.2 million people when it first aired at the end of 2011. As I sat in Economy, I laughed, I sighed, and I almost shed a tear (and this was all before the in-flight meal). 
 
Mark and best-mate James Argent’s blubbery heart-to-heart, as the former announced his intentions to leave Essex, was a welcome anomaly considering the lack of emotion showed by cast members in the previous series. However, it was Mark’s eventual exit which left a scar on 21st century popular culture. Sound-tracked by a power ballad, Mark sauntered around a Fireworks party, declared his everlasting love for real-life Kat Slater Lauren Goodger, bear-hugged Arg, and simply walked off into the night like a permatanned cowboy. Brentwood jus’ weren’t big enough for Marky Wright. 
 
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Now, eighteen months and five series later, TOWIE is a dark shadow of its former, vajazzled self. The first year or so of the show was characterised by a saucy, British silliness and a noticeable helping of heart, seen when Kirk Norcross nervously walked Amy Childs around the zoo, or when Arg had a colonic irrigation and subsequently did a very cleansing poo. Moments like this were few and far between in later episodes, and there are, I think, a number of reasons that I would like to suggest for this dip in form. 
 
Firstly, a novelty of TOWIE is that it is filmed three days before its transmission date (Wednesdays and Sundays). This has some advantages, as the show can respond to public opinion, tabloid interest and whatever is trending on Twitter to create a wholly interactive and involving television experience. TOWIE is, I would argue, the modern equivalent of Dickens’ novel serialisation. Dickens was very sensitive to what his readers thought of his narratives and characters, and by publishing in weekly or monthly instalments, he could respond to what his adoring public wanted to see happen (or not). We have, over time, seen a similar practice in TOWIE. The positive public response to Joey Essex, for example, has meant that he could be catapulted from fawning wannabe Wright to arguably the protagonist of the whole show. Less popular characters, like Georgina Dorsett (Series 4) and Danni Park-Dempsey (Series 5) were lost quickly among the bodycons when the powers that be saw their lack of pulling power. 
 
This is all very good when it works (as in the case of Joey and Mario Falcone), but TOWIE is like the floor of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory; it is littered with failed experiments. Since the show’s first episode, there have been 44 named cast members, and that is before you even take into account those who did not even make it past one or two episodes. A hardcore TOWIE fan might remember staccato-speaking Greek gnomes Dino and Georgio, but I doubt they could envisage the face of beautician Paloma, band manager Julian, or Bobby, the hunk who Lydia Bright once met in a car park. 
 
Part of the reason why the makers of TOWIE can get away with such inconsistency is because everything happens so quickly. The show airs in bi-weekly slots in a five week burst, which suits the hard, fast and now tastes of the average twenty-first century telly fan. This is the Decade of the Fad: one second we are raising awareness about African war lords; the next second we are dancing to Gangnam Style; one second we think we’ve found the best American drama ever made; the next second we think we’ve found the best American drama ever made. The same is true of TOWIE. Despite running for eight series,TOWIE has only been on for two and a half years, suiting the public’s need for brevity. Much like a soap opera, the show encourages the viewer to think about multiple storylines at the same time, with the crucial difference that it only asks this of us over a short time frame. There is no long game here, as there is with ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Coronation Street’, and instead TOWIE capitalises on throwing characters and narratives at the screen and hoping that some of them will stick before the next episode in four days time. 
 
It is no surprise that TOWIE’s star is now waning, considering the pace with which it has been transmitted over the past couple of years. It was almost inevitable that the show would burn out, taking the toll from too many hits of adrenaline over a concentrated period of time. The audience has now seen Mario accused of unfaithfulness at least eighteen times, while Arg has been losing weight for so long now that even he must think that he is living in some kind of Super Mario screenshot, where he gets to the end of the screen only to find himself back where he started. 
 
If this is boring for the audience, imagine what it must be like for the cast members, who are forced to spew out the same old faecal talk because the exhausted production team have nothing else for them to do. If it wasn’t for Mick Norcross, who hosts a party in almost every episode, one fears that the cast would be tucked up indoors, melancholically discussing the weather and gas prices while watching someone else’s life on the telly box.
 
This exhaustion is certainly clear from the most recent series, currently showing on ITV2. We began with a repeat of the Mario/Lucy saga, this time with added Northern birds, and then a repeat of the Gemma/Arg ‘Fat Friends’ sequel. To fill the time before the long sleep, the other cast members have been busy selling stuff in their shops on Brentwood High Street and occasionally going on awkward silence-filled dates. It is clear that the panic stations button had been hit with the introduction of a new cast member, machine-gun-jubblied Abi Clarke. With nothing left to offer, the producers gave us massive plastic tits, which have buoyed the viewing figures to just above one million per episode (which is, admittedly, still quite good for a show in a 10pm slot on a digital channel). 
 
Mick and Kirk Norcross have recently jumped the sinking ship, realising that a whole harem of bouncing boobies will not keep TOWIE afloat. Kirk tweeted that he thought the show had ‘changed too much’. This was certainly evident at the end of a recent episode, in which Joey Essex confronted Ricky Rayment about his conduct towards the shell-like Walia siblings, Jasmin and Danny. We have, over the past few years, become accustomed to seeing an explosive argument as the climax of an episode (the die-hards among you will remember Kirk’s “you’re just a fuckin’ extra!” speech in Series 2), and it looked like the beef between Joey and Ricky was going to kick off. Yes, any minute now they are going to go mad… Just wait… Hang on, they are talking civilly. Oh… Ricky has agreed to lay off the Walias for a bit. They are now shaking hands. This episode ended with a shot of a pensive Ricky, perhaps thinking about the gentlemanly and un-dramatic way in which the ruckus was dealt with. However, such tired eyes have not been seen since Hugh Jackson was brought home in ‘Les Miserables’. Ricky looked weary: weary of the repetition, weary of the banality; and weary of the fact that, somehow, enough people are still watching for his exhaustion to continue. 
 
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Final Thoughts
 
I do not wish merely to observe the demise of TOWIE without offering some solutions or suggestions. It seems to me that if TOWIE is going to continue (a likely outcome considering the ratings), there are three things that could happen to restore faith in the show and return it to the award-winning celebration of British sub-culture that it once was.
 
First, I think the scheduling and transmission process needs to be changed. A weekly, slightly longer episode would suffice, which would give more time for planning storylines and would not result in the exhaustive overkill seen over the past two and a half years. There would be fewer storylines, fewer characters and ultimately less waste. 
 
A more daring option would be to ‘do a Skins’ and completely start again, which a new cast and new locations. Part of the reason that TOWIE was so successful when Mark Wright was on it, is that he was the top of a very clear hierarchy. Every storyline was somehow linked to him (his family, his girlfriends, his rivalries) and this meant that the show had a clearer focus and protagonist. Since his departure, both Arg and Joey have fought to be the main man in Essex, and neither has created the web of scandal that Mark left in his wake. A new cast would need a new hero, with sufficient connections to carry the show. 
 
Finally, it has become apparent that TOWIE can be at its most poignant when dealing with the world outside of materialism and phony relationships. The swift appearance of Chloe Sims’ daughter raised interesting issues about single-motherhood, while this series he have seen Joey and Frankie Essex come to terms with the suicide of their mother. Too often these real-life issues are washed over in favour of tits and scandal, completely undermining their importance in how we view and feel about the characters. Kirk’s inferiority complex and Arg’s blatant misogyny are two more issues that could be dealt with in subtle yet educational ways. I am not calling for TOWIE to become a kind of new-age ‘Grange Hill’, but if the public become bored of the fakery, then one option is to create the kind of warts-and-all programming that we used to call ‘reality television’.