Saturday night’s talent show battle was billed as the BBC versus ITV. Svengali Simon Cowell versus BBC One controller Danny Cohen. New hope vs established heavy hitter. Worthy Blue Peter-ish Beeb versus Brash Trashy Commercialism. And after round one of this fight, what can we conclude? That not only the moral victory belonged to The Voice but it struck a surprise blow in the ratings war too.
First off the blocks was The Voice (BBC One). The Beeb’s megabucks singing contest has a clever gimmick: "blind" auditions in which the celebrity coaches sit with their backs to the stage, so they judge singers on vocal talent alone. If they like what they hear, they press a button and their chair spins round in a sinister Bond villain style. A neat device that adds drama and tension to each audition. Yet it was the interplay of the four coaches that provided most entertainment. Sir Tom Jones relished his role as elder statesman, rambling on about Elvis and Aretha like a granddad telling war stories. US producer Will.i.am turned out to have a sweet sense of humour behind the daft sunglasses and leather gloves. Even the least famous of the four, The Script frontman Danny O’Donoghue (bound to be nicknamed Danny O’Dono-who?) was cheekily charming, taking the mickey whenever Jones dropped a name or Will.i.am “casually” mentioned Michael Jackson.
The star, though, was undoubtedly Jessie J. She might resemble Mystic Meg or Hilary Devey from Dragon’s Den but she was energetic, engaging and passionate. Her pressing of the button became a mini-saga in itself – her hand hovered teasingly over it while she gurned with indecision. She used her foot, even her forehead. The 23-year-old Londoner could prove the show’s secret weapon.
There were three potential discoveries: Irish schoolgirl Jessica Hammond, mash-up urchin Max Milner and bow-tied Ulster pianist Ben Kelly (he claimed to be “a Youtube sensation” but doesn’t everyone these days?). Elsewhere, there was a woman with alopecia, a singer from Strictly Come Dancing (nice bit of BBC cross-promotion there), a camp Brummie called Samuel Buttery (can’t wait for his debut album, Utterly Buttery) and an ex-boyband member in the shape of Sean Conlon from 5ive. Sweetly, a 5ive gig was the first concert Jessie J ever attended, but she still didn’t put Conlon through. Perhaps she bears a grudge over the price of souvenir T-shirts or Tizer.
Refreshingly, there were no novelty contestants or deluded nutjobs. No-one got near the cameras unless they could sing. This meant that in contrast to the cruel (if amusing) bearpit of The X Factor auditions, The Voice was warmer - about music not mockery, constructive criticism rather than barbed put-downs. Failures took rejection philosophically and didn’t throw sweary strops. The show had, however, promised no sob stories but still crowbarred in a couple.
Of course, any “credible” BBC talent show raises the spectre of the dreaded Fame Academy, which flopped a decade ago. There were moments when The Voice was too po-faced, with the judges pouring praise even on the acts they’d rejected. Pessimists might also point out that the first round (there are only four of these blind audition shows) is where its magic lies. The challenge is to sustain its appeal into later rounds, once the gimmick has gone. The producers promise they have some tricks up their sleeves.
Lack of zip was also a problem. Too many montages setting up the premise and a tendency to dwell on each audition meant it only got through 11 hopefuls in 80 minutes. The Voice needs to pick up the pace next week but this was a promising start.
An hour later came Britain’s Got Talent (ITV1), wheeled out a month earlier than usual to see off this new upstart. Last year’s series was distinctly lacklustre (bet you can’t remember who won it) so boss Simon Cowell was pulling out all the stops.
The judging panel was rejuvenated by the addition of comedian David Walliams and popstrel Alesha Dixon (poached from Strictly, just to add extra spice), plus Cowell himself – he only deigned to return for the final week last time but arrived late in a limo here, like a homecoming hero in Ray Bans. The budget had blatantly been boosted too. Proceedings opened with a pop video-style sequence of loveable hosts Ant and Dec, while flashy new touches included fly-on-the-wall filming and audience voxpops.
Walliams was the star – BGT’s equivalent of Jessie J. He clearly enjoyed himself, poking fun at the contestants and most deliciously, at Cowell himself. Fourth judge Amanda Holden, meanwhile, was embarrassingly redundant. At one point, she disappeared to have a baby and was replaced by American D-lister Carmen Electra, who seemed to be mute. Until Dixon came to the fore in the final section (she seemed more comfortable here than on Strictly), this was at risk of becoming the Wallliams and Cowell show.
In contrast to its BBC rival, BGT had no qualms abut exploiting eccentrics. So we got a pensioner doing pitiful Gladiator impressions, hippies banging gongs, a scary stilt-walker, oddballs playing sax on their thumbs and harmonicas with their nostrils, an eye-watering rollerskate accident, an hilarious bickering poetry-dance couple and, much more charmingly, a ballroom-dancing gay pair called The Sugar Dandies.
A hopeful called Dennis Engel got booed just for being German but by the end of his bizarre act, which saw him crooning while transforming into a giant gold angel, was taken to the crowd’s hearts. We’re an odd bunch, us Brits. Unusually, there were no dancing dogs or streetdance troupes. Cowell must be saving them up for later in the series.
As on The Voice, three acts stood out. Student guitarist Sam Kelly got a standing ovation, even though he seemed to belong more on the BBC show than here. Welsh schoolboy choir Only Boys Aloud were impressive, perhaps potential winners, but their appearance was a clear attempt to replicate the Beeb’s “Gareth Malone effect”. Indeed, they’re the junior choir to Only Men Allowed, who won BBC Two’s Last Choir Standing four years ago. “I’ve got a good feeling about you lot,” twinkled Cowell, pound signs in his eyes.
Last up were teenagers Charlotte and Jonathan, a sweetly awkward duo who had Cowell doing panto villain grimaces before they’d sung a note. When obese Jonathan Antoine opened his mouth to sing opera, it was something of a Susan Boyle moment and brought the house down. Spine-tingling and uplifting, if a little contrived. Cowell’s eyes flashed “ker-ching!” again.
In summary, then, The Voice wasn’t perfect but boasted the better talent and made a strong start. Its well-meaning sincerity proved in stark contrast to the cynical heartstring-tugging over on Britain’s Got Talent but the variety show has bounced back, mainly thanks to Cowell and Walliams. One show was slightly too BBC, the other was shamelessly ITV. Well, what else did we expect?
Oh and by the way, last year’s BGT winner was Jai McDowall. Who? Exactly.