Simon Parke: Strictly an X factor

12 November 2008

THERE ARE some things you in­stinc­tively know. Bovril or Marmite? Robinson or Akinola? Strictly or X?

Saturday night is light enter­tainment night — and entertainment does not come much lighter than Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1) or The X Factor (ITV1). One is all-dancing, one is all-singing, and both are all-absorbing for the contestants. “It’s taken over my life”, they say, whether 16-year-old schoolboys or ex-international rugby players. Like many of us when caught up in an intoxicating bubble of experience, it feels desperately exciting. But when does light entertainment turn dark?

The format for both shows is the same: four judges, desperate contestants, and a host to mediate between the two while reminding everyone of the life-and-death nature of this event. “If you want to keep poor Sally in the competition — Sally, who lost her mum when she was five — then you really need to vote.”

Strictly is looked after by an ageing but warm Bruce Forsyth, while a young Dermot O’Leary does the honours for X. Formerly one of the more wry TV presenters, he is now paid for tub-thumping emotion­alism. “What a night! What. A. Night!”

Strictly is smuttier than X. With two famously gay men on the panel, there is no end to innuendo and euphemism, in the great tradition of the dirty seaside postcard. X is bitchier, however, because the judges don’t like each other. In the media, their vitriol gets more coverage than the singers, who are chosen mainly for their tragic — invented or otherwise — past. After the glut of MCWWTY (“My child­hood was worse than yours”) books, please welcome a generation of MCWWTY performers.

Strictly has recently had to cope with accusations that its Middle-England voters are racist. One week, the only two black dancers in the competition were ranked middle by the judges — but bottom by the public. Embarrassing.

X, on the other hand, must be reckoned more exploitative. Con­testants on Strictly all have a career elsewhere: if they fail, they have jobs and agents to return to. X con­testants, however, are younger, and desperate. Pumped up with im­possible expectation, they have nothing to fall back on. “My entire life is over if I go out tonight,” emotes a 17-year-old.

Strictly is for the ladies, of course. As one told me: “There isn’t a woman watching who doesn’t imagine herself in those costumes.” X is more edgy and raw. But, like entertainment in the Colosseum, both shows are for those who like heroes and villains. Contestants grow to be hated or loved for no very obvious reason.

This weekend, from each pro­gramme, someone must be voted out. Like executions in former times, the axe must fall. It’s slight enter­tainment.

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