The finale of the TV talent show is upon us. Once the harbinger of pop and the driving force behind the charts, its impact now barely makes a squeak
Panel beaten… 2018 X Factor judges Robbie Williams, Ayda Field, Simon Cowell and Louis Tomlinson. Photograph: Ray Burmiston
Winning The X Factor (Saturday 1 & Sunday 2 December, 7.30pm, ITV) used to guarantee a lot of things: the Christmas No 1, pride of place in Syco’s stable and, as Harry Styles once suggested to Matt Cardle, a generous amount of “pussy”. Judging by this season of the show, the champion won’t even be able to buy a tin of Whiskas with the spoils from the shrivelling talent contest.
In its glory years, this autumn telly staple gifted the nation with proper pop stars One Direction, Little Mix and Fleur East, who was last seen chowing down on a wallaby in I’m a Celebrity. Of course, with the highs have come the lows: that moment Cheryl danced like your nan on Baileys with Reggie and Bollie, a brief flirtation with presenting duo Flack and Murs, and the unsavoury sight of Tulisa’s nicotine patches.
But 2018 has brought new lows, and not just in the form of ratings. High-waisted hangdog Simon Cowell is having one too many “Oh I didn’t realise we were on live TV” moments; Robbie is Facetiming Acacia and Aaliyah from 6,000 miles away; and, as the show limps towards the final, its star-making ways are diminishing. So what, in the name of Frankie Cocozza, is going on?
You can’t blame the contestants, even though this year’s cohort were a rum old bunch. Pop Idol reject Danny Tetley’s boast of being “the best singer in Benidorm” made him look as relevant as Tesco Mary. “Brave” and “You come back each week” are the biggest compliments Cowell can now muster. There’s no joy, no Strictly-style sense of occasion, no Twitter bantz and not a sniff of a 10 million-plus rating.
Fright Night saw a shambles plagued by sound issues, and by the annual nadir of Big Band Week Robbie had buggered off, leaving Robbie Williams’ Wife™ Ayda (who’s a real treat on Loose Women) scrambling for attention like someone whose husband has done a runner from the terrible office party with the car keys. With more eyeshadow than sass, plus heavily scripted one-liners (“You were Céline DiON-it tonight!”), what even is she? The genial Nile Rodgers stepped in as a guest judge, but even he was broken by guest singer Cheryl’s hand-licking moves.
The finalists this year offer no surprises, but cover all the X Factor bases (er, from pub singer to pop star). There’s Anthony Russell, who could be the new Steve Brookstein; Scarlett Lee, the girl with a voice as rich as her tan; and Dalton Harris, the talented one who will probably be relegated to Fleur East runner-up status. With 2015’s winner Louisa Johnson slipping off from Syco without releasing an album but still producing pop bangers, is that golden record contract still a prize? A slump in viewers means fewer streams, and Cowell’s promotional juggernaut no longer has a grip, with guest performers and winners alike unable to see a return on their warbling investment. Winning used to be a shoo-in for the aforementioned festive No 1 but, in the era of streaming, Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit have done a Rage Against the Machine in recent years. As the chimes of doom sound for the once-great X Factor, it needs to follow Louis Walsh, Sharon Osbourne and Diva Fever – and bow out.