Monday, 28 June 2010

The Vex Factor

The X-Factor, that terrifying combination of talent contest, freak show and Roman ampitheatre, is gearing up for its next series. According to my dazed and bewildered memory, this will be its eight-hundreth edition, and before long every single person in the country will have participated in at least one episode, if necessary being forcibly bundled into a broom cupboard at ITV and made to sing a cruel and unusual karaoke version of California Dreaming.

However, it turns out that some people actually choose to go on the wretched thing, and one of them is my aunt, a genuine showbiz type whose hands you might recognise if you’ve ever spent a day watching QVC. No, I don’t know why you would have, but you never know. This aunt is decidedly good at making a tuneful racket, and armed with a gaggle of old-school showtunes and a willingness to get stuck in (I quote Dermot O’Leary: ‘I bet she doesn’t lose many arguments’) she managed to sashay through to what I think was the fourth round of the show.

I don’t know how far this is in X-Factor terms, but there was a studio audience (four million sixteen-year-olds, who when not screaming, chanting or cheering spent the evening examining their neighbours to make sure their elaborate outfits hadn’t gone out of fashion since recording started), lots of cameras, and a reasonable degree of havoc.

Sadly things didn’t go too well onstage, but I can't really complain about that because it was just the way the game works. Yes, it’s artistically unpleasant that ‘you’re old-fashioned’ is enough to send someone off, but the programme exists to generate publicity for flash-in-the-pan singles sold to the kind of overexcited teens who filled the audience, so it isn’t really surprising. Also, my aunt gave pretty much as good as she got, and refused to go quietly. Having a pop at the panel can only be a good thing, and frankly, being booed by a horde of overexcited audience-loons is something we should all aspire to.

Incidentally, if anyone’s wondering why there seem to be so many angry nutters on these things, you might be interested to know that the contestants are actively encouraged to argue with Cowell & co, presumably so they can be edited into mad, foolish caricatures of themselves. I’m wondering how my irate relative will look once she’s been through the cutting room.

It wasn’t all bad. Auntie'o'mine was also described by Cheryl [insert whatever surname the tabloids currently feel is most appropriate] as ‘The most beautiful 57-year-old I’ve ever seen’. Which is nice, even if it does sideline the whole singing thing that the programme is ostensibly about. Still, at least it shows that Cheryl had read the contestant biographies. Also, despite my grumbling about the pubescent hordes (I felt genuinely old on the tube home. My dad must have felt like Methuselah), there were a few good souls out there, including one gentleman (and his embarrassed friend) who rushed up afterwards with kind words and enthusiasm.

But like I say, this isn’t what I’m here to burble about. No: in a curious inversion of everything I thought I knew about the world, the bit with Simon Cowell was the least offensive part of the programme. The real mess happened behind the scenes.

Each contestant can bring a small army of supporters with them to hang around with them in the run-up to their performance and to hug them wildly as they leave the stage. Intending to be one of these, I turned up at about seven-thirty and meandered into the ‘holding area’, which sounds a bit like it’s where you store livestock or prisoners before transferring them to somewhere less pleasant. This turned out to be fairly appropriate.

The holding area is a large room full of uncomfortable chairs and screens showing X-Factor logos. This is where you wait. You get really good at waiting. I had it easy – by only arriving at half seven, I only had three hours of loitering before things started happening. Others weren’t so lucky – one group of dishevelled, dead-eyed souls had been there since mid-day. Also, you can forget about being looked after while you’re in there: no food or drink is provided, and at no point did anyone know what was going on or how long they would have to wait for something to happen.

Things became worse when the cameras were rolling. The contestants gave pre-show interviews in the holding cell, er, area, and while that was happening the supporters more or less became furniture. We were moved around constantly to make the background look busy and exciting, forbidden from eating or drinking anything we did manage to track down (the crew, bless them, did their best to deal with the increasingly irate public, and after complaints did scrounge us some crisps and water), and we were even told not to talk. Basically, sit down, shut up, and don't do anything that might be distracting or unphotogenic.

Basically, backstage showed little but organisational chaos (‘are you Holly’s family?’, asked one flustered runner) and careless, selfishly commercial thinking. At some point, a bunch of faceless, bean-counting pencilnecks decided it would be a good idea to take sixty-odd people (many of whom had taken days off work to support their friends and family and, indirectly, talkbackTHAMES, the bewilderingly capitalised company that makes the thing), dump them in a room for up to ten hours and treat them like naughty schoolchildren (‘put your telephone away now!’). That, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of television.

Oh no, wait, what’s this two-thirds of the way down the agreement we were all given?
‘The contributor shall not disclose or permit the disclosure to any persons... of any information relating to... the Programme...’
Buggery, I suppose that means I can’t publish all those words above. In fact, I can’t even publish the bit telling you that I’m not allowed to publish it because I’m also forbidden from ‘permitting the disclosure... of any information relating to... this Agreement’.

Cripes. So, as a result of this ‘ere agreement, I’m not allowed to tell you anything about the programme, and I’m not allowed to tell you why I can’t tell you anything about the programme.

Oh well, lucky I never signed it, isn’t it?

You see, as part of the mess they made backstage, talkbackTHAMES (look, I can’t be bothered to write that nasty bit of branding in full any more, so I’m just going to call it ‘TaT’ from now on) neglected to check that any of their disgruntled internees had actually agreed to their treatment.

Actually, in fairness, most of the agreement isn't that bad, and bar a few typos it’s almost competently written. However, since I object to the idea of banning people from even discussing what’s in it, I thought I’d make the most of not being bound by it, and go hunting for weirdness.

The first thing you notice is that the TaT legal mob don’t do things by halves:
‘[The contribution can be] exhibited or otherwise exploited by all means and in all media and formats throughout the universe.’
The universe? The whole ruddy universe? Not just the UK or the world, or even the solar system or anything like that, but the very boundaries of existence itself. Just what kind of intergalactic merchandising deal is TaT contemplating? Are download sales rocketing among the slime-creatures of Formalhaut b? Do the little grey men want something to play on their spacePods on the long journey home? Is God getting a bit fed up of the whole harp scene?

Alright, that doesn’t make any practical difference, but it is a bit silly. Let’s move on to something a bit more sinister:
‘... the Company shall have the unfettered right to modify the Contribution or any part of it in any way that it sees fit.’
Yes indeed, ‘any way it sees fit’. TaT has no need to make any efforts to make what it shows representative of how people performed or what they did. In fact, if someone annoys them they can edit the recording in any way they like, and anyone involved will have to bow to TaT's opinions 'involving artistic taste and judgement'. Remember that next time you laugh at someone making a pillock of themselves on prime time. Incidentally, TaT can also ‘dub the Contributor’s voice in any language’, which seems a bit bizarre for a singing competition.

Okay, mildly creepy, but not massively unsurprising. Here, however, is one that left me really baffled:
‘Except as fully disclosed in writing to the Company prior to the Programme the Contributor has not now and has never been involved in any criminal proceedings whether as a defendant, witness or in any way whatsoever...’
Not content with keeping an eye on convicted criminals, TaT want to know if you’ve ever been acquitted of doing anything wrong (innocence, apparently, is no defence), or even if you were in the courtroom at the time. Sure, you can notify them in writing in advance, but that isn’t much good if you’re a supporter who’s turned up on the day. Bit of a bugger if you’ve done jury service, or otherwise performed some noble social duty to support the workings of the criminal justice system.

Right, one final manky bit of legal nonsense:
‘The Company shall be entitled to assign the benefit of this agreement either in whole or in part to any to any [sic] of our subsidiary of associated companies or successors in title...’
Sounds reasonable, I suppose, right? Oh, wait, there’s a bit more to this sentence:
‘... and/or any third party.’
Yes, TaT can happily give all the slightly loopy rights mentioned above to absolutely anyone else they feel like. This, I imagine, includes those aliens they’re planning on selling distribution rights to. More distressingly, it also means they can sell ‘the Contributor’s name, likeness, voice, biographical details, photographs... and recordings... separately from or in conjunction with the Programme’ to wrong’uns, like spammers, gangsters, pornographers, totalitarians, pirates, terrorists and the Daily Mail in whatever way they bally well like.


Oh, and a cheap parting shot:
‘the Contribution... shall not contain anything which is... calculated to bring the Programme, the Company or the commissioning broadcaster into disrepute.’
Disrepute? Have they watched this stuff? 

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