Judge Hard Place & the BBC
Today's mission is a trip to London to be a judge for the BBC on one of those Pop Idol type TV shows. Life often throws up strange opportunities like this. Many are the invitations that I get, to participate in media events of one kind or another, some of which are naff and some cool. Some are cool but onerous. Some are naff but fun. This one is very much the latter. To partake of some Kinetic Ritual of this kind, in the company of millions of TV viewers, is irresistible – no matter how daft.
Twelve hours out of LA, my plane touches down at Heathrow at 11:00 am. Three hours later, after a dash across my old home town, I'm deep the bowels of the BBC TV center, getting briefed on the nature of the show and meeting my fellow judges. I’m sharing the judicial bench with Trevor Nelson, a flash radio jock, Cece Sammy, a vocal coach and the sixties icon, Lulu. Trevor is real live wire, Lulu is a dear and Cece totally looks like a pop star to me. I wonder why she hasn't got a record deal of her own.
Our boss (producer) is the formidable and heavily pregnant Nolene. It turns out that we have many bosses, some of whom we never meet. We are surrounded by identical BBC babes, all with perfect skin, posh accents and clipboards. I'll never be able to tell which is which but I’m sure that if I call out "Penelope!" one or more of them will respond.
The game is comprised of competing duets performed by one pro singer and one celebrity non-singer. I've never followed this kind of show before but to see these couples come out and sweat bullets as they lay it on for live TV, with an audience of millions is actually damned compelling. I totally get it.
After each turn, the cameras turn to us, the judges, and we lay into the brave fools. I am ever mindful that these artists do a far braver thing than us who sit in judgment upon them.
But we have a job to do. We have been appointed by Her Majesty, the BBC to add jeopardy to the show. Our judgments are hurdles that they must overcome. This isn't "We Are the World", it's "Gladiators". Each duet has a different drama, and by the end of the first rehearsal, I can see why tens of million people tune in. Once more, I've got the best seat in the house.
Hurry up and wait!
Today is the first show and it's going to be way live. My car collects me at 1:00 pm and today's Beebster is called Carly. She shows me to my dressing room - where I sit until my first actual duty, which is make-up at three o'clock. This takes about twenty minutes, then I go back to my dressing room.
4:00 Wardrobe check. Every day they give me a different shirt to wear under my black jacket. They color coordinate everything, even the judges. I’m a little disappointed that they haven’t got us in magisterial robes and wigs. Anyway, the whole transaction takes three minutes, and then I’m back in my dressing room for the rest of the hour.
5:00 Solo briefing. Two junior producers, Sharon and Debbie come into my dressing room with their clipboards and notes. They tell me a little about tonight’s show and tip me into some of the plotlines that they want to develop. This singer had a shouting match with her partner, or that singer has his mum in the audience, and might (hopefully) burst into tears. Their mission is to nudge this “reality show” into factual dramas that are stranger than fiction.
At six o’clock we go up to a conference room for our general judges meeting with producer Richard and the clipboards. We start with the video clips that they have concocted of all the duet teams throughout their rehearsals. They are always looking for a little backstage drama to share with the viewers during the show. If there isn't any drama, they employ a technique that is known in the trade as "Franken-bite".
On American shows of this kind, they film all kinds of interaction between the contestants, and then cut up the footage to create stories that don't exist. With skillful editing of comments taken out of context, they can create, for instance, sexual tension within the duo (always a favorite), or animosity, jealousy or pretty much anything they like. The BBC version is harmless enough. They aren’t taking any huge liberties, just nudging and suggesting plotlines. As a judge, I think I'm pretty safe, but I know that they are looking for stories wherever they can find them and I had better watch my step.
In our upstairs room, we also watch the previous night’s show and critique ourselves. With three BBC producers riding herd, we scrutinize our own performances. They tell us what they like and don't like. The main thing that they don't like is when we ramble. We’re supposed to keep our spiel down to fifteen seconds. If we run over, we are cutting into some other part of the show. They generally like my offbeat expostulations but point out some of the Americanisms that the British folks won't understand.
Then we watch the dress rehearsal that’s going on downstairs. The contestants don't know this, but we are already starting to work out the scores. It’s actually for the benefit of the singers that we don’t force two full-on, judged performances out of them in one day. They can relax through their dress rehearsal – as they should – and then lay it on for the show. We factor this in. This double look at the performance helps us to be more fair and considered in our judgment at show time, when the lights are flashing and the band is playing into our faces. Or so we tell ourselves.
Downstairs on the set, it’s a rehearsal for not just the artists, but for the crew, the presenters, the cameras, the band – and us. Stand-in judges make innocuous comments and give generous scores, while upstairs, we are forming and trading opinions. We’re confirming our shared observations, and sharpening our differences. Sure, this is a breach of spontaneity, but at show time, the audience and the performers get better analysis – and better gags.
We also divide up the areas of judgment. Cece is the singing expert so she does the technical stuff - breathing, passagio and whatnot. Trevor has an encyclopedic knowledge of every song ever recorded so he does the comparisons to the original versions. Lulu, with her decades of experience on the stage deals with the stagecraft and body language. As the resident ex-rock star/drummer, I'm in charge of bullshit wisecracks.
One of the hazards is that the singing sounds great in the room, on the night. But on the video next day we can hear all the imperfections loud and clear. Performances that we applauded on the night are riddled with tuning problem and garbled lyrics. So we resolve to listen more closely during the show and assume that the slightest wiff that we can detect will be far worse for the folks watching their TVs at home.
It's all flashing lights and razzamatazz in Studio 1. There is a huge band with several guitarists, two keyboards, drums, strings and backing singers. The sound is big and the room is sparkling with energy. Schmaltzy music never sounded so good!
Everybody survives the first show. It's just a warm up, to get the folks at
home voting, so there's not much jeopardy. But the drama is there all the
same because everybody is nervous. Especially the
Radio 1 DJ Nicky Campbell. He comes on first, with an intensity that has me
completely riveted. Can’t sing worth a damn but you just can’t take your
eyes off of this hurtling train. Amazingly, he gets through the track with his
pants on. The rest of the competing duos run through their numbers, which we critique and score. Not all of us judges have mastered the pungent sound bite so we overrun our time slots, the show runs long, and they have to cut us down to two judges per turn. There are plenty of first night snafus in every department, but like on any first night, the general excitement carries the show through with a manic energy.
After the show I overhear Sian, one of the contestants, spitting with fury about her egocentric partner, Russell “The Voice” Watson. I hope the Beebsters are getting this.
The story so far is that Martin Fry and Gabby Roslin are the first team to be heaved over board. They were lame and deserved to go.
The big surprise was last night, when Fiona Bruce and Alexander O’Neil got the heave-ho. He's a great singer and I thought she was quite adequate, and pleasing to the eye in a frosty Princess Diana kind of way. She reminds me of my Fiona. I am a sucker for the long English girls. But mine is the best of them.
Nicky came out last night with a rock song that saved his bacon. He had been looking a bit vulnerable after his thin ballad performance the night before.
Not much of a storyline yet with Mark Moraghan and Natasha Hamilton. They're pretty steady every night and are loved by my colleagues on the bench. They could win.
Chris Fountain and Jo OMeara are the frothy golden couple. I hate their kind of act, but I have to confess that the little brat can sing. The kid is just eighteen!
The runaway favorite for me though, is Matt Allright and Jocelyn Brown. The big soul mama and the skinny white boy. He's got all the moves and she is just drinking that boy up like a glass of champagne.
They Frankenbit me with Sian Reeves and Russell Watson. He's a fake opera singer much be-hated by all of my fine arts friends - probably because of the zillion records that he has sold. He’s pissed me off a little with his self love, and has sensed it. So they cut together shots of him lamenting that I've got it in for him, with shots of my harshest comments from the bench. Nothing inaccurate here. The producers have sniffed out a story and they are on it. So the story is: Stewart hates Russell. Oh well, I wonder what happened to Sian hates Russell? After some argy-bargy on-air, we bump into each other in the hallway backstage and have a laugh about it. I like him now - but I will still go after him if he doesn’t lose the ponce.
The strongest storyline is Penny Smith and Curtis Stigers . The woman cannot sing. At all. But she has three big assets. Curtis is a great singer, Penny has an engagingly warm personality, and most important of all, she has her own morning TV show - watched by millions. Every morning during her show, she has the voting telephone number at the bottom of the screen, with the message "SAVE PENNY! VOTE NOW!” So she is judge-proof. We cannot get rid of her. Which is no tragedy because she's so likable.
Three shows down and five to go...
One strange thing is that we interact with the contestants all day - in make-up, backstage and in the green room after the show. That should make it hard to be cruel, but oddly, it doesn't. The contestants have been (mostly) good sports about it.
The main hang is in the make-up room. While sitting in our bibs the judges and contestants josh each other and I pretend that I don’t have The Whole Story about their upcoming performances. One or two of them are a little frosty.
Matt and Jocelyn are out!
Everybody is gob smacked when the tear-away favorites, who got the highest score from the judges, are cast out by the viewers at home. And Penny Smith is still in! I guess this makes it pretty clear that this is a personality competition and music is secondary. She does have an infectious charm. Her partner, Curtis is an extremely good musician, so maybe the combination of his music and her glow adds up to a survival strategy.
There is a new element to my afternoon solo briefings. Before the upstairs judges meeting, there are private conferences in my dressing room with two clipboard ladies. I am given the clear instruction to cause trouble on the bench. They like it when I throw bombs, and they want more. Well I never...! I debate whether or not to share this dirt with my newly bonded judge buddies but am quickly shushed.
“Blindside them!” I am commanded.
A dark smile crosses my face...
The shows really are fun. About twenty minutes till show time, the contestants, presenters and judges gather in the wings of the big sound stage. When the audience is seated we amble to our positions.
My spot is on the bench, which is a raised platform directly overlooking the stage. There is a bank of audience behind us and a desk in front of us, from which we have been engaged to cast aspersions on the singers. This is some kind of serious drummer’s revenge.
Before we go on air, there are a few rituals to perform. First, two of the pro singers mount the stage. The band strikes up and the pros hurl into a song together. This performance will be slugged into the live broadcast, as a way of keeping the action moving along while the public vote is tallied, when the competition singing is done.
They are usually quite good. Unhitched from the celebrity amateur baggage, the erstwhile competitors can really rip. The Nicky Campbell traumas have been so riveting that I never noticed his partner, the incredible Beverly Knight. Put her on the stage with Jocelyn Brown, a raging big band and a classic R&B tune, and we get a ninety second blast of hair raising actual music ecstasy.
This wakes up the 300 punters in their seats who are then further aroused by the pre show teaser, who comes onto the stage and plays with the audience. His job is to rowdy up the crowd so that, during the show, the music will be wildly applauded and the jokes will get hysterical laughs. He gets this side of the room to shout louder than that side of the room. He gets punters onto the stage to perform dumb tricks. He exhorts booing for mean judge’s comments and cheers for happy ones. It's all about limbering up the punters, who enjoy this unexpected pre-show entertainment.
Then it's time for Tess and Vernon to bound onto the stage. They are the show hosts and as a newly married alpha couple, they are the very latest in dazzling co-presenters.
They are good together. She may look like just a stunning blonde, but she handles the trickiest links and rides herd on the judges while Vernon keeps up the cheerful banter. For his part, he's not only good at making all the scripted gags sound spontaneous, but is pretty sparkly at the rare improvised moments.
Then there is the ten-second countdown to show time. Just like New Year’s Eve. The band kicks up and we are live with seven million TV viewers.
Most elements of the show are what they call "branded" which means that they are ritualized and repeated in every show. The contestants are introduced the same way every night, even though there are fewer and fewer of them. Each performance is preceded by a video clip of the tribulations suffered during the teams' journey to this point (my harangues are a popular tribulation). The same ritual follows each turn, with Tess leading the defendants over to the judges like lambs to the slaughter. Criticism is always greeted by ritual boos. Sometimes the punters are not sure how to take my more esoteric comments and they do a kind of "BOOooYYAAAaahhHunh?
Then they move down to the fake green room, decorated like a pink sixties fairy bar. Here they meet Vernon who riffs with them about the judge’s comments. Then the dramatic prerecorded music swells and the judges deliver their scores. The cheers/boos are relative. If the first judge gives a six than the second judge will be cheered for a seven. If the first judge gives an eight, then a seven will be booed. At first CeCe is appalled to get booed - such a sweet girl - but we soon come to enjoy it all. The producers want to hear a big noise - up or down.
During the show, Sharon and Debbie are hiding in a trench behind us. They have headsets and are getting directions from somewhere mysterious upstairs. They poke us in the back and hand us notes. Mostly, they are innocuous enough things like "Running long - three words only" or "More technical" (or less). But sometimes I get "more hostile" or "pick a fight".
A keen eyed audient close to the judges’ stand would observe that the judges are checking, not writing notes about about the performances. We have already pre-prepared our shtick and tentative scores. Most nights, the singers sound way better in the room than they did upstairs on the screen during the rehearsal. Which does cause just a smidgen of unwelcome spontaneity to insert itself into the proceedings. We try not to look too surprised when they get it right instead of wrong.
One night, after the show, I cruise the Internet to check the vibe out there.
There is one site that contains a long list of hostile posts. Man, they hate the show! Strange thing is that there are a lot of them. Why are they on-line chatting about a show that they hate? I think that they are reality competition show regulars, who care deeply about any manifestation of the genre. For these aficionados, our show looks scrappy and thrown together. Jeez! If they could only see the huge resources that the BBC has thrown into this show! I’m not an expert but it all looks pretty slick to me. They also complain about the lack of spontaneity. Well they got that right. The only thing that is actually scripted is the hosts' patter, but all other aspects of the show are closely managed to get a desired result. In my humble opinion, this is show business, not the Olympics. The bullets that the singers sweat are real. Only the jeopardy is fake.
There is another site, with an equally long list of posts, that is much more congenial. These people aren’t commenting on the quality of the show, but rather, are concerned with the competition itself. They love some singers and hate others. They occasionally refer to the judging, and this is the interesting part. Most of my artistic endeavors are received by people who know something of my history. I’m kind of a niche guy. This show is in the big main stream. Most of those millions of people who watch the show, have never heard of my investiture as a Hero Of The Pizzica – nor of The Police for that matter. On this site there is the occasional post asking: “Who is that American guy with the glasses?” They think I’m nuts, but they’re laughing…
On my own site, members are confused at first. What is their tortured artist doing on such a schlocky show? A few words of explanation from me quickly dispels their concern and they get into the cheerful frivolity of the mission. A few of them even get into caring who wins!
In show six, we finely get rid of Penny. I’m sure she could have held on for a couple more shows but Sian and Russell “The Voice” have pulled a fast one. After an excruciating performance that has surely earned the wrath of the judges, Sian bursts into tears. I’m the first judge up and my meat cleaver is raised in a righteous fury when the waterworks hit. For an instant, I’m stunned. She is blubbing, and I’m stammering. So I switch over to my pre-planned Russell abuse. Which, under the circumstances, just sounds mean. The other judges, thankful for the chance to regroup, offer loving support to the poor distressed contestant. Hearts are breaking for her all over the country. As she straggles off to the pink fairy green room, Trevor leans over:
“Wait a minute, she’s an actress!”
I have a sudden new respect for Sian’s game.
In almost every sport that I know of, semi finals are always ugly, and this game is no different. We are down to three couples. The frothy golden couple whom I have dubbed “Barbie and Ken”, Sian/Russell “The Voice”; and my favorites, the bricklayer Mark and pop diva Natasha. With a churlish disregard for impartiality, I want to get rid of Sian. Although she’s a plucky soul and works hard to carry the tune, I am way sick of her infernal screeching. The sound that comes out of her throat is just painful. I have actually come to like her partner Russell, who has been through a personal voyage of self-discovery during this show. He may be a fake opera singer who has never sung in an actual opera, but he does have a pretty incredible G od given voice. It’s just that I want to see a final where the two ex-girl-band-chicks square off, accompanied by the Golden Kid versus the Bricklayer.
Mark the Brick is a character actor on British TV and has a kind of lowbrow charm as he hefts his heavy self around the stage. As an actor, he knows how to adopt the role of a singer. He’s also got a pretty good voice. His partner, Natasha was the main singer of a girl band called Atomic Kitten. She’s pretty good too, and way better than the frothy golden girl, Jo/Barbie.
The other team’s Jo/Barbie would be a stunning blonde, except for her brick face. She has an evil Swiss sado-masseuse vibe. Her singing is the real problem though, since she had her tonsils out three weeks before starting rehearsals. The good thing about her team is the frothy golden boy, Chris/Ken. The kid is amazing. Like Mark his day job is acting, and he too has adopted the role of singer with professional ease. He has been choreographed and ward-robed like a piece of dancing candy. A real Back Street Boy. I have been haranguing this team for their plastic presentation, all the while marveling at the kid’s chops. Of all the contestants, his gifts are the most startling. Probably hasn’t got an original thought in his head, but he takes direction well and hits all his marks with panache. He sure looks and sounds the part.
Since Sian has survived her performance tonight without tears, the judges can now slash and burn. In fact we get a little carried away, so you know what happens next. Barbie and Ken are out! The voters at home have once again overruled the learned, but somewhat mean judges to bring us to a final between The Screecher and The Bricklayer.
Well it’s the first time I slink home after the show in a slump. For just a minute, the competition has actually got me under its spell. For a fleeting moment, winning or losing this charade has meaning.
By the next day, however, my equilibrium has returned. There are no losers on this show and I’m not even sure what the prize is for winning. In the afternoon conference, I ask how the result will be tallied if the public votes one way and the judges vote the opposite. Public vote decides a draw, I’m told quickly. It takes a minute to sink in. What this means that the judge vote has no effect at all. Think about it. Like I could care less, really.
For the final showdown, the two teams have to sing four songs each. Mark and Natasha more or less nail every one and Sian screeches horribly for all of hers. At this point, I have not a shred left of any kind of judicial consideration of musical merit. Your humble reporter is thinking only of appearing balanced and fair-minded, without having any intention of actually being so. In this desperate race for the finish, I’m being all supportive to both teams, when I get a poke in the back: “Be Hostile – DRAW BLOOD!” Ha Ha! I love the BBC!
So, playing for gasps, I rip into my pet team and lavish praise on Screech. Then I turn about again and erratically heap praise and scorn in the most obscure fashion as the teams take their alternate turns. All the while my scores are dead even. I have already decided to call it a draw and let the public chose their winner. What would I know about this kind of schlock music anyway?
And the winner is…………Screecher and “The Voice”!!!
Now comes the final comedy. After the dramatic victory moment, after the winning duo has been presented with the coveted Perspex slab trophy, it’s time for the victory performance of the winning song. Great Balls of Fire is the unlucky tune. The choreography for this number is very strenuous. Russell has to throw the girl around in that old Rockabilly style and at the end she has to jump into his arms for the final pose. After a pretty tough week of competition, Sian and Russell are tired. Their moves don’t quite work out as planned, and her singing is pretty much reduced to grunts and yelps. When the moment comes for the big leap, she just hasn’t got the gas. Her rubbery legs only launch her about as high as his knees, and she almost bowls him completely over. The final pose finds them locked in a weird embrace, with her legs scissoring his thighs and him trying to gather her up, clutching at any and every protuberance.
I ought to give up music and take this up full time!