On first view, the trailer for Peter Kay’s new comedy vehicle, Britain’s Got The Pop Factor..., was a bit worrying. Poking fun at talent contests is hardly a cutting edge comedic idea. And anyway, haven’t these shows become so ridiculous that they’re beyond spoofing?
But then, Kay’s comedy targets – warm pop, working men’s clubs, the way dads can’t get their heads around the concept of garlic bread – have typically been cosily familiar rather than ground-breakingly post-modern and it hasn’t made him any less funny.
And actually, there is something rather po-mo about the way that Kay has constructed this, his first piece of TV since the Phoenix Nights spin off Max and Paddy. Presented as the final stages of a talent contest, the show’s panel comprises real life talent show judges Pete Waterman, Neil 'Doctor' Fox and Nicky Chapman and is hosted by the ubiquitous Cat Deeley, who plays it winningly straight throughout until a delightful outburst at the end.
Then there were the contestants. R Wayne, “Tyneside’s answer to R Kelly”, was the spitting image of current X Factor skriker Austin, only R Wayne cried a lot less which was why he didn’t make it through to the live show; his story was just not sad enough. That is, until news of his failure killed off his nan. Cue Peter Waterman swooping in at the funeral, cameras rolling. “Due to recent circumstances” he said, patting the coffin, “we’d like to offer you a place in the live show.”
It’s not only Kay’s clever way of lampooning the obvious which delights, but also his ear for language: When R Wayne sang for his place in the final, Pete declared that his nan would be proud. “She loved that song, Pete,” R Wayne replied. “I was going to sing it at her funeral.” It was 'Do the Hucklebuck'.
Then there was 2 Up 2 Down, a four piece, the female half of which were confined to wheelchairs following a honeymoon jet ski accident at Niagara Falls. Fulfilling the scarily-chipper-in-the-face-of-adversity contingent, they sang 'Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls' and in one hilarious sequence, duetted with nice guy Rick Astley, who we saw torn between rescuing one of the girls from having fallen off her stool and delivering a good performance. Teetering on the edge of bad taste, this was funny mainly because it is only really one rung down the ladder from what we’re already seeing on our screens.
Then there was Geraldine, played by Kay. A trooper (not literally) from Northern Ireland, Geraldine used to be Gerald until she had the operation under a surgeon in Bangkok. “He really knew his onions. And now he’s got mine.” Geraldine, “Ireland’s answer to Enya”, was like a glamorous Michelle McManus. She won over the public following the shock revelation of her erstwhile gender with a rousing rendition of 'Man, I Feel Like a Woman'. Kay is such a good actor, I didn’t think of him once whilst I was watching Geraldine, though if previous stand-up shows are anything to go by, that accent was stolen directly from his mum. And the wig from Ginger Spice.
As well as lots of fun with the contestants’ horrific medleys, audition process and home life, there were also some sublime cameos from celebrities who, perhaps following Ricky Gervais' efforts, seem more than happy to send themselves up. Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs singing the Muppet theme. Lionel Blair, drafted in to teach the finalists to dance: “People say you can’t polish a turd,” said Lionel. “Well I’ve polished hundreds.” I’m still laughing at that now.
Another major coup for Kay was Paul McCartney tinkling the ivories as Geraldine sang the Blankety Blank theme tune. “We made a special connection that day. I’m sure we'll be seeing each other again. He keeps poking me on Facebook.”
In the end, my fears for this programme weren’t realised. Yes, everyone knows that reality TV talent shows are bizarre and silly, but it seems that doesn’t make them any less laughable. And Kay picks up on everything: the looks exchanged between the judges; the lame analogies, supplied by Dr Fox (you’re a boxer, a pony, a pie); the superlatives, delivered with gusto by Pete Waterman: “That’s the best harmonising I’ve heard for 25 years – since Brother Beyond.” And also, more importantly, how the meaning is sucked out of the songs to make them palatable pap, a fact which hit home watching Geraldine astride a motorbike trilling the Boss’ paean to frustrated youth and rebellion, ‘Born to Run’, or segueing cheerfully from ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ to Rhianna's ‘Umbrella.’
Eventually 2 Up 2 Down and Geraldine made it to the final and both had to perform the single that would be released by the winner. It was called 'The Winner’s Song'. As Geraldine delivered the triumphant version, it is testament to Kay that the song managed to be both an excruciating example of the bland pop ballads churned out by these shows to secure an Xmas number one, and also a rather nice, listenable tune. I blame Gary Barlow, with whom Kay collaborated on the track.
Actually, it is this tricky combination which lay at the heart of this programme’s success. Whilst satirising such shows, Kay also has a fondness for contemporary culture which imbues everything he does with warmth so that in the end you aren’t only despairing at the state of modern entertainment but also cheering on the non-existent Geraldine and hoping that she didn’t really choke to death on the ticker tape.
So – a hit, I think. Now I’m holding out for a special Xmas number one. No, not Geraldine’s 'The Winner Song'. Paul McCartney and Geradline with the theme to Home and Away. The best McCartney effort for 25 years…since 'The Frog Chorus'.