So long . . . it's been real


HILARY FANNIN's weekly TV review...

The X Factor

Prime Time InvestigatesRTÉ1, Monday

SATURDAY NIGHT, and Main Street is deserted. Tumbleweed blows through parched streets; in bars silent as mildewed tombs the lonely innkeeper polishes a glass. But where is everyone, you ask, where are the pre-Christmas revellers in their dangerous shoes and flimsy suits, their thighs mottling in the cold blue night, their thinning cash crouching in their frayed pockets, their pasty faces topped with sweatshop Santa hats? Where, oh where, have they gone? Why, they’re at home by their firesides, feet up on their leather sofas, with a couple of bottles of tax-reduced plonk and a two-for-the-price-of-one tube of potato chips in their mitts. Peer through the mist and you’ll see them – they’re opening their doors to friends and neighbours, popping on kettles and buttering scones, they’re slipping a lemon wedge into their gin, rearranging the sleeping cat, and settling down to watch The X Factor.

As another series of TV’s biggest reality spectacle bit the dust last weekend, heralding Christmas as deftly as three wise men with a six-pack under their oxters, the wisdom on the streets (okay, okay, one taxi driver) had it that town was as dead as a doornail during the show’s transmission times. This year it is estimated that a staggering 20 million British viewers stayed home to watch “the X Factorweekend”, which included a celebrity turn from Sir Paul McCartney, who turned up with a psychedelic piano and dewlaps, sounding like an ungenerous parody of himself and looking like an ageing stylist in a suburban hairdresser’s. Watching the former Beatle succumb to Cowell’s charms was a reductive experience, which left me wishing he’d stuck to preserving his genius in the digitally remastered box set.

Anyway, fun-size Joe McElderry scooped the £1 million recording contract, the dewy-eyed 18-year-old beating chirpy Essex lad Olly Murs, whose vocal range was limited but whose pork-pie hat sat at a jaunty angle and whose crotch-centric gyrations were deemed photogenic.

ALSO GARNERINGa massive audience this week was a gritty examination of petty crime in Prime Time Investigates. Interviews with numerous ODCs (ordinary decent criminals, former or current, one of whom proudly stated, “I hung up the balaclava and crowbar years ago”) revealed a judicial system in crisis, an increasingly frenzied drug and crime culture and profound, generational damage. “There’s no one to mind them, I have to bring them robbing,” said a young heroin-addicted mother and recidivist shoplifter, one of the many who are losing the rag trade 4 to 5 per cent of its turnover every year.

“Visceral contempt” was the phrase used to describe the utter indifference of many of those involved in petty crime, and those offenders interviewed in Barry O’Kelly’s memorably depressing film did seem entirely deadened to the impact their crimes have on their victims, ordinary decent non-criminals who, even years after an assault on their homes and families, can feel anxious and violated.

Watching the heartbreaking footage of a pretty young 17-year-old girl shooting up in a filthy city stairwell, amidst the loot of her morning’s robbing, the despair on the streets felt as pervasive and unavoidable as Jingle Bellsand a turkey carcass.

SO . . . I BEGANto write the TV review towards the end of 2004. Like life, that thing that happens while you’re planning something else entirely, the TV review and I kind of accidentally stumbled across one another. I had written a play for the Peacock Theatre that had a few gags in it, so somebody – somewhat creatively – mooted that I, a quaking newspaper virgin, might try my hand at a spot of journalism. And well . . . as week followed cloudy week, and one rambling review collided into the next, we more or less hung on to one another, the TV review and I, in the process fashioning a little marriage of convenience, one that has in fact lasted longer than some I have stumbled across in my perusal of celebrity culture, just one of the many delights of watching telly for a living.

Even back then when the noughties were still in the century’s kindergarten, reality programming was chewing up the schedules. From celebrity jungle neophytes hanging their implants on the banana trees, to Alan Sugar babes shaking their pin-striped booties for a six-figure salary, from chefs to ballroom dancers, via every kind of scalpel-induced transmogrification possible (God, don’t even get me started on the makeover shows), collectively, no matter how much we like to flick our tails in disdain at this cheap and plentiful entertainment, we have been lapping up the genre like thirsty little cats mewling at the programme-makers’ doors. Our communal benediction, it seems, has become the weekend elimination of some expectant contestant or other and our much-coveted casting vote our murmured amen.

God, what a jammy job, strangers hiss when I tell them how I make a living. You do what? Watch the television and get paid for it? Sure, that’s not a job, that’s a piece of . . .

Family would tell you a different story, one of panic and hysteria (especially in the days before the online player and the digital recorder), when I wept in traffic jams knowing that the lead piece for the column had started five minutes ago, and suffered storms of unreasonable frustration when prising free the plastic footballers my sons had posted into the video slot before I could start watching some earnest documentary about Blasket Island sheep that hadn’t got any subtitles (the programme, that is, not the sheep). Being a television reviewer is a privileged and stimulating job, but if I told youto watch The Rose of Traleein its entirety(that’s every shaky recorder note, every warbling lilt, every poetic effort, every proud weeping mother), well . . .

I must say, “live pause” revolutionised my world and it has probably added years to the lifespan of my kidneys. I can now answer the phone, or even run screaming around the block, while the San Francisco Rose is telling us how she met her square-jawed boyfriend on a charity paraglide over the Rockies.

Anyway, it’s time to apply what’s left of my faculties to other challenges, and this will be my last TV review. This new year my list of good intentions will, as ever, include writing a novel/losing a stone/learning to type properly, only this time I won’t have the telly to blame for my failure. To all who have offered their encouragement, praise or criticism to the column over the years, I offer my sincere thanks – the best part of this job is the dialogue with the readers, so thank you for reaching out to share your opinions.

Strangely, or maybe inevitably, looking back at the first television review I wrote five years ago, I find – quelle surprise – that I have simply been on a long circular walk that begins and ends with Simon Cowell. Here is the closing paragraph of that first review: “ The X Factorvisited Dublin last week. Louis Walsh said yes to all the hopefuls and a priest blessed a competing boyband in the hotel toilet. Stranger things have happened. Haven’t they? Later, in Leeds, contestants – one of whom had just lost her appendix (and I mean just), and another whose girlfriend was in labour (the act, not the party) – competed for a second-round place with identical twins who looked like two Bet Lynches and sounded like my washing machine.

“Simon Cowell, meanwhile, said he wasn’t quite sure what the X factor was, but he’ll know it when he sees it. If you see it first, run.”

BRYLCREEM, BOTOX AND VINCENT BROWNE THE SHINING STARS WHO MADE MY TV HELL MORE BEARABLE:There is one occupational hazard to a career as a reviewer: sadly, over the course of the years that I have been venting my spleen on the back page of Weekend Review, and generally treating the allotted space of 1,400 words a week as a kind of scattered personal diary of woe and irritation (with the occasional critique of television thrown in), I have developed a strange neurological condition which I believe is common to most goldfish – 30-second recall. Of the hundreds of hours of television that it has been my pleasure (well . . .) and privilege (certainly) to watch on your behalf, there are a mere handful of programmes that survive in my increasingly baggy and flaccid memory.

But, for what it’s worth, here is an entirely personal and idiosyncratic television awards list. The winners can choose from an assortment of offerings that have survived the last five years inside the old video recorder – I think there may even be some toast, circa 2005, in there. Don’t all rush at once.

Best drama: Mad Men– the suits, the Brylcreem, the cigs, the script.

Best culture: Arts Lives– from John Banville to the Kilfenora Céilí Band, a superb strand.

Best natural history:David Attenborough’s Life– from amoebas to amphibians, it’s the best weepie you’ll see this or any other year.

Best reality:I suppose you’ve got to hand it to The X Factor– as thick as Cheryl Cole’s hair extensions and as dodgy as Dannii Minogue’s Botox, it is still the television phenomenon of the past five years.

Best news/current affairs:RTÉ’s news and current affairs output, including Prime Timeand Frontline, is consistently excellent, but it will have to share my crust with TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Brownefor its memorable coverage of the clerical sex abuse scandal.