The X Factor musicalYou’re watching one of those torture porn movies, like Saw or The Collection, in which human captives have their bodies mutilated, dismembered or painfully abused. You’ve paid your admission, bought your popcorn and are enjoying the opening sequences of the Grand Guignol. Then, the first grotesquery approaches, and you can barely watch; you clench your fists and prepare yourself for the bloodshed. You are mortified by your reaction– but enjoying it all the same.
That’s how I – and I suspect many other millions of viewers – feel when watching The X Factor, a television show that has a resilient charm and which returns to itv later this year for its eleventh series. The show features people with slender talent but limitless ambition, who are invulnerable to humiliation even when cruelly derided by members of a panel of judges. We watch not as observers, but as active agents who can cast judgement on the wannabe celebrities by just texting our votes. The X Factor captivates us typically for five months of the year, concluding in December when the winner is elected. We start watching like anarchists and end up as participants in a cultural democracy. Often the acts that don’t win our votes, like One Direction and Olly Murs, become more successful than the actual winners.
The show is a ratings phenomenon: even in it’s declining years it attracts more viewers than Coronation Street. At its height of popularity in 2010 it drew 17.5 million viewers (that’s nearly 28% of the UK population) to their screens. It also thrives on a kind of symbiotic relationship with redtop tabloids, all of which carry gossipy stories, often scurrilous, on the contestants. And now it has even spawned a stage show (see picture, above). I Can’t Sing! isn’t the first musical based on a tv show. Corrie has been the subject of Street of Dreams. Jerry Springer Show, the template for so many shows, has also been the source of a musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera. Happy Days will also be a musical. There have been countless stage versions of movies, of course; so television is presumably the next logical source of inspiration. All the same The X Factor is a curious transposition: its plot notionally inspired by an unscripted, plotless talent contest that has plenty of humorous moments, but which is, if we dare utter this with a straight face, a talent competition.
There are uncertainties. For example, I Can’t Sing! will have an original soundtrack, which means audiences will not be familiar with the music and may not even like it. Unlike musicals based on movies with a soundtrack, such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Dirty Dancing, The X Factor tv programme has no original score, apart from its theme music. There has been one attempt to dramatize The X Factor-type shows. Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor, in 2008, was a misfiring parody. It was one of shows you almost wanted to laugh at. Then you realized it couldn’t exaggerate or caricature The X Factor: in fact, it was more restrained and thus less funny than the show it was meant to lampoon.
So why take the risk? As I Can’t Sing! is written by Harry Hill, we can safely presume it will not have the solemnity of, say, King Lear. Hill is a known commodity with a strong audience that’s receptive to his singular comedy. Then there is the original show’s fan base. The X Factor has accrued a loyal following. If only a small fraction of the millions who have watched the show avidly over the years are curious enough to see the musical, then the show will be a commercial success. Of course, those fans may also balk at not seeing the real Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh. Street of Dreams probably flopped because audiences were so inured to seeing the likes of Rita, Ken and Deidre on their tv screens five times a week that they couldn’t stand impersonators. In I Can’t Sing, actors will be doing their best impressions of Simon et al. They’ll be playing (irreverently, I assume) real figures, rather than dramatic artifices. And that could be crucial to the musical’s success.
It’s a gamble, but the kind a company like Colgate-Palmolive takes when launching a new dental product. The X Factor is a proven brand, so the musical will be an addition to an already-established range of products bearing its imprimatur. So, there is a commercial logic guiding this play. The same logic could deliver us other tv shows that have proven track records. A comedy drama like Benidorm seems a natural. Or even more serious shows such as Downton Abbey or Call the Midwife, both of which pull in eight or so million viewers in the UK alone. But please, please, please: not TOWIE. The programme’s paper-thin conceit surely couldn’t bear the weight of multilayering. Could it?This is a slightly abridged version of an article that appeared in The Conversation.