What Happened To The Disastrous ‘Celebrity X-Factor’?

‘X-Factor with celebrities’. As a pitch in three words, it’s pretty compelling, and would have had ITV executives heading off for an early lunch. It was a win-win, an open goal, shooting fish in a barrel and other phrases meaning that it should have been ‘a good thing’. In theory, 2006’s ‘The X-Factor: Battle of the Stars’ might have cleaned up. But in practice, it was a complete disaster.

The clue being very much in the title, so-called ‘celebrity’ shows really do stand or fall on the quality of their quarry. Celebs, believe it or not, work a fair bit, so co-ordinating schedules means that trying to get a group of them together is like herding cats. It’s also a bit of a crap shoot – a particularly apt phrase in this case – and with its dismal celebrity contestants, ‘Battle of the Stars’ really did fall at the first fence. To extend the horse racing metaphor, it would have been kinder to take it into a little tent and have it shot.

The contestants comprised (prepare to be underwhelmed) ex-EastEnder Lucy Benjamin, affable rugby union prop Matt Stevens, former breakfast show motormouth Chris Moyles, ‘The Chefs’ (a culinary ‘supergroup’ consisting of Jean-Christophe Novelli, Aldo Zilli, Paul Rankin and Ross Burden), Nikki Sanderson (Candice from Corrie), Paul and Debbie McGee, the baffling duet of James Hewitt and Rebecca Loos, glamour model Michelle Marsh, and TV stool inspector Gillian McKeith.

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It was a grim and grisly line-up, barely more salubrious than the talent mustered up for a series of ‘Celebrity Coach Trip’, with judges Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne considerably more famous than any of the contestants. Perhaps it was for this reason that – rather like ripping off a plaster – ITV decided to get it over with by screening it over eight consecutive nights.

Things started inauspiciously, and went downhill from there. Launch night brought in 5.5 million viewers, about a million down from the launch of the normal ‘X Factor’, but still beating rival reality show ‘Big Brother’ over on Channel 4. Small victories. Sadly, both shows trailed behind an episode of ‘New Tricks’ on BBC1 which, aptly, features its own celebrity theme tune.

Night after tortuous night, songs like ‘River Deep – Mountain High’ and ‘Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay’ were murdered, while others like Robbie’s ‘Rock DJ’ and Alanis Morisette’s ‘Ironic’ got precisely what they deserved.

Suffice to say the notices were somewhat unkind, Charlie Brooker in The Guardian calling it an ‘unending howlfest’, and arguing that it might even fall into ‘sonic weapon territory’.

Of Gillian McKeith’s performance, he surmised: “I won’t get over that in a hurry: my least favourite atrophied Hazel McWitch lookalike in the world, singing ‘I just want to make love to you’, right there on primetime telly. She has to be the only person on Earth who can take a lyric like that and make it seem like a blood-curdling threat without changing any of the words. It was so horrible, I felt my brain straining to repress all memories of the event before they’d had a chance to form. I almost blacked out.”

“You can’t submit an entire population to this kind of punishment. It just isn’t right,” he concluded.

Debbie and Paul were the first succumb to the cruelty of the public vote, despite Cowell voting to save their rendition of ‘Let Me Entertain You’ over McKeith’s shuddersome rendition of Etta James’ sultry standard.

They were then picked off slowly, contestant by tragic contestant; McKeith, Marsh, Hewitt and Loos, Sanderson, The Chefs, and Moyles. One by one they fell, tumbling into ignominy.

In the end Lucy Benjamin won. And we can see how her career in the music business took off from there, can’t we. That said, the series did end on a ratings high, with eight million people tuning in to see Benjamin thump it home, beating unlikely competitor Matt Stevens in the final.

Damningly, even Simon Cowell appeared to have hated his own idea once it clawed its way over the finishing line, like a marathon runner in a fetid, sweat-drenched Scooby Doo outfit, completing the event for the sake of their obligations, but resolving never, ever to do it again. After announcing that the show would be axed, he called it ‘pointless’, the point of the show, of course, being to find a new star rather than someone who already has a job doing something else. He might have considered that earlier. “We are never going to do it again,” he added.

Since then, he’s possibly warmed to the idea of bringing it back. Asked in 2014 whether he’d be up for another roll of the dice, he admitted to the Daily Star that things hadn’t gone well. “We tried the whole X Factor Celebrity show one year but it was a nightmare,” he said, ominously adding: “I kind of think it would be an idea to try it again. Maybe for Text Santa.”

Even for charity, there are, perhaps, acts too heinous.

Image credits: Rex Features