(Nearly) live from Oslo…

Yes, folks, it’s that time of the year again. The Eurovision Song Contest, that multi-nation celebration of spandex, mullets, outrageous lighting effects, blatant nationalism and really cheesy pop music. I’m intending to watch the whole thing – well, intending to meaning that I put it on Sky+ so that I can fast-forward through the crap bits once I reach my pain threshold, which usually happens about 20 minutes into the show. ANYway. What follows is a collection of random thoughts as they occur to me as I watch fast-forward through the broadcast.

1. Nadia and Haddy (the female presenters) seem relatively sane. Erik (token male, a Norwegian kids’ TV presenter) does not. His grin is bizarre. I think his mouth might be made out of silly putty.

2. Alexander Rybak (last year’s winner). He sings! He gurns! He plays the violin! People do backflips behind him! It’s going to be a long evening.

3. The phone lines are open. Before any competitor has sung a note. I think we can guess how the public voting is going to play out tonight, can’t we? Probably the same way the panel votes go – so blatant nationalism, with very little to do with the talents or otherwise of any competitor. Cool.

4. First entry. Azerbaijan. She’s dressed as a gas flame, and she’s singing a generic midtempo thingy about lurve. It isn’t too bad… except for some reason it’s called “Drip Drop”. Why?!?!

5. Spain. Daniel Diges.  Algo pequeñito.  A horrifically cheesy waltz sung by a man in a shiny suit with Simon Rattle hair, while grimacing imbeciles dressed as toys dance around him. There are high notes, despite the unfortunate fact that Diges can’t sing them. If there’s any justice, this will receive nul points. There’s also a stage invasion from a deeply odd man wearing a black T-shirt and what looks like a red condom on his head. He’s more interesting than anyone in the actual act.

6. Graham Norton is warning us that Norway’s entry is a big power ballad. Duly noted. And it is. Third song of the night, second shiny grey suit. The singer – one Didrik Solli-Tangen – is flat, singing just under the note all the way through. The song is so bland that this actually improves it. Unlike Daniel Diges, though, he does manage to hit his big high note at the end. Unfortunately that’s the only note he hits dead on in the entire three minutes.

7.  Moldova’s entry has a neon blue violin, and the group’s singer is dressed like a Primark Lady Gaga. The song’s a bit like “Just Dance”, only crap. It’s called “Run Away”. I’m following their advice, and pressing the fast-forward button.

8. Cyprus’s entry, from a certain angle, looks a bit like Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”. He looks Very Serious, but the backing singers are smiling like they’re on drugs. The song is even blander than the Norwegian one.

9. Bosnia and Herzegovina field a singer who clearly fancies himself as a sort of one-man metal answer to Coldplay. Fast-forward time again.

10. And we’re off to Belgium. Tom Dice, “Me and My Guitar”. And that’s all it is, at least for the first verse. He looks very nervous, but he sings quite nicely and it’s rather charming… so it isn’t going to win.

11. Serbia. Milan Stankovic. White jeans. Sequins on his mid-blue tails. Blond pudding-bowl haircut. Pink Docs. Backing dancers doing robotics. Speeded-up oom-pa-pa backing track. This is the point where my eyes and ears start to bleed.

12. Nadia – who is wearing earrings that, under the lights, look like droplets of solidified urine – tells us that Spain will perform again at the end because of the stage invasion. Graham Norton, in VO, reminds us that the invader was more interesting than the performance he interrupted.

13. And we’re off to Belarus. Black suits (men), silver/gold/bronze sequins (women). Terribly sincere hand gestures, nice singing, bland ballad that, oddly, has a military drumbeat underneath. As the song lurches into the climactic verse, the womens’ dresses suddenly sprout butterfly wings (the song’s called “Butterflies”) – a moment of kitsch that goes a little way towards redeeming a rather dull song.

14. Ireland. Naimh Kavanagh, bringing us what sounds like a cross between “The Rose” without the harmonies and “The Wind Beneath My Wings”. There’s a Celtic flute between the verses; I don’t think Ireland are allowed to put in an entry without one. Someone should have told Ms. Kavanagh before the show that purple is not her colour. The song crashes to a melodramatic climax, and she gets a standing ovation. It’s a big, bland ballad – it’s pure Eurovision-bait. It’ll either do very well or very badly.

15. Greece. Omigod. White jumpsuit and, I think, fake pearls. It’s a bit like watching a number from  a really bad production of “Zorba!”, set to a techno beat and choreographed by one of the Muppets.

16. And now it’s the UK. Stock, Waterman but no Aitken. The song’s called “That Sounds Good To Me”. Compared to the previous entry, yes it does. Actually, it sounds like every record SAW made in the 80s – written by a robot, irritatingly catchy, nicely sung by someone with an OK voice but not much personality. It’s a competent pop single, in other words. We’re toast.

17. Graham Norton is being interviewed by Haddy while Graham Norton provides commentary in VO on a separate channel. My brain hurts.

18. Georgia. Sofia Nizharadze singing “Shine”. Nice ballad, creepy staging – the poor woman has to keep singing while bare-chested dancers manhandle her, lift her up, paw at her and writhe at her feet. Then the electric guitars come in, and it gets really overwrought. She’s very pretty, though, and is probably the best singer so far.

19. Turkey. We’re being told to clap our hands.  They look like they really want to be Muse. I like Muse, but it’s fast-forward time.

20. Albania. Juliana Pasha, costumed in castoffs from “Blake’s 7”, with a disco number in 6/8 time called “It’s All About You”. Her backing singers have to be on drugs. So does the violinist. It’s actually not bad – unabashedly tacky, but fun, and she can sing – but those backing singers are either high or performing at gunpoint.

21. Iceland. Hera Bjork. No, not Bjork. Hera Bjork. She looks a bit like Sookie off “Gilmore Girls”. Big nightclub dancefloor anthem, she’s got a good voice, but the actual performance is very static – the lights move more than her backing singer/dancers. Odd.

22. Ukraine. “Sweet People”. Oh. My. God. Jewel soundalike wearing a flesh-coloured slip, red bondage chains and a black Grim Reaper hood, singing in an increasingly overwrought manner about… something, while someone aims a wind machine at her. I’m sure it’s all terribly meaningful. Every red light in Scandinavia is going off behind her. It is, at least, relatively short.

23. France. Described, accurately, by Graham Norton as ‘cheesy europop’. I assume Jessy Matador is not his real name. The kind of song that one suspects might work better played at a campsite disco somewhere near the Mediterranean.

24. Romania have a perspex tandem piano. Yes, two keyboards. The song is quite scary. Imagine David Gest and Catwoman singing a musical collaboration between Peter Allen and Bananarama, with operatic high notes thrown into the middle eight. Yikes.

25. Russian entry. Maudlin, sincere, sounds like a throwback to 70s folk rock, and none the worse for that. It’s a resolutely un-showbusiness performance, though the singing-to-the-photograph bit should have been cut in rehearsals. We know it’s a maudlin ballad, thank you. It sounds a bit like the sort of thing you’d expect to hear someone singing as they crawl out of a bar half an hour after closing time, after drinking an unfeasible amount of vodka.

26. The Icelandic team’s table has a volcano centrepiece. Heh.

27. The Armenian entry. She’s gorgeous. People appear to be acting out prehistoric tableaux behind her. I can’t tell why because the lyrics make no sense. What the hell, it’s Eurovision.

28. Germany. Lena. “Satellite”, it’s called. The bookies’ favourite, apparently. Catchy, fun performance of an upbeat song with a nice swing to it. She’s possibly trying a little bit too hard to be quirky, and in some ways it’s a very un-Eurovision performance – by which I mean that nothing about it is notably bizarre and it doesn’t make you want to poke your eyes out with a toilet brush – but this is pretty good.

29. Portugal. We’re in full-on Céline territory here. She’s very pretty, but the song is sludge.

30. Israel. I’m sure he’s very pretty too, but this song, also, is sludge.

31. Denmark’s entry seems to have been created and performed by someone who is fixated on Synchronicity-era Police and ABBA – the song sounds like someone put “Every Breath You Take” in a blender with side one of “Super Trouper”. If the thought of that scares you… it should.

32. And Spain gets to perform again because of the stage invasion, the perpetrator of which is apparently now in custody.

…and it’s voting time. Erik is showing us how to vote by phone. He  has very odd eyebrows, and he’s just ripped off his tux to reveal a lime green sequined fitted shirt. There’s only another 15 minutes left in which to vote. Damn.

The thing is, the contest is sort of a joke, but it’s also a platform. It’s more or less irrelevant to the British music industry (which might be why our entries are routinely so dreadful), but it’s a means for singers/groups from countries that don’t have the same kind of entertainment infrastructure to get to perform in front of a huge worldwide audience. It doesn’t happen very often, but huge careers have been launched via Eurovision – most notably ABBA, though I’m not sure that there was anything at that level among the entrants this evening. And it does, at least, usually yield a compellingly overblown TV show – a kind of variety show of the damned, with bad hair, sequins and strobe lighting, followed by voting conducted along blatantly nationalistic lines (you’re not allowed to vote for your own country, so you vote for your neighbours/allies – and if you’re in Eastern Europe, you cast all your votes behind the former Iron Curtain).

But before the voting starts, it’s time for a flash-mob style interval act, in which a lot of people planted in the audience get up and dance, with video links to flash mob audience dancing in other countries. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t quite come off, because the location shots from various cities across Europe are actually more fun than the scenes in the Telenor Arena itself.

…and we’re back. Now Erik has sprouted butterfly wings, and it’s time for the results. Whoopee. Nadia’s removed the pee earrings. I miss Katie Boyle. It’s time to fast-forward through the country-by-country announcement of the results, because life’s just too short.

And, ooh, the results are fun. As usual. Germany wins – deservedly, they had the best song, a good performer, and managed a performance that didn’t look completely ridiculous. Lena, the very young singer (she’s 19) looks genuinely shocked; Alexander Rybak shows up again to hand over the gong. He leaps into the air for no apparent reason. Poor Lena’s trying to give an acceptance speech in English, and doing quite well, but she’s not enthusiastic about singing again. Norwegian Erik’s grin is now truly disturbing. I think he’s about to eat Oslo.

The UK, of course, came last, though unfortunately we didn’t get nul points. Bummer. Somehow, at Eurovision, total ignominy is better than simple failure. Still, there’s always next year. Meanwhile, for your viewing pleasure, here’s this year’s winner:

103. Or, Elwyn Watkins: Big Girl’s Blouse

Just when you thought the election was finally over, and it was safe to look at the news again without keeping a barf bag next to the television, along comes this gem:

Losing candidate challenges Oldham election result

“Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins came second in Oldham East and Saddleworth on 7 May following two recounts. But he claims Labour leaflets contained misleading claims about his reputation and campaign and has begun a High Court bid to have the result quashed.”

Unfortunately, some of the story is missing from the BBC piece above. There’s a word for Mr. Watkins, and it isn’t “dignified”.

Since this is happening on my doorstep, I saw the campaign material that’s the bone of contention here – it came through my letterbox, along with leaflets from the Conservatives, UKIP, and a bunch of lobotomised baboons the BNP. In terms of demographics, this is an unusual constituency – a mixture of inner-city deprivation and wealthy rural villages/commuter belt, with a narrow strip of middle-class suburbia separating the two. The Conservatives, since the boundaries were redrawn 15 years or so ago, are never going to win this seat because the staunchly left-wing inner area core more than counterbalances the pockets of Tory loyalists further out in the villages. UKIP’s role in the election was essentially to inject levity by enabling us all to laugh at their touchingly delusional party leaders, and the BNP are a group of offensive, racist thugs whose party literature, when it dropped through my letterbox, went straight into the recycling bin (unfortunately their leaflets were printed on glossy paper, so I couldn’t flush them down the toilet where they belonged). So the contest, here, is between Labour and the Lib Dems, who hold a significant number of seats on the borough council, with the Tories placing a distant third.

This was not, in fact, one of the top thirty Lib Dem target seats this time around, but the campaign here, nevertheless, got very nasty. In the end, it was one of the ten closest election races in the UK, with Labour incumbent Phil Woolas holding on to the seat by just 103 votes. There were two recounts because the numbers were so close; this seat usually calls a winner at around 3.30am the morning after the election, but the results were not called until around 11.30am. At that point, one would have hoped that Mr. Watkins would at least have known how to lose gracefully – and indeed it seemed he did, for about ten minutes. But apparently the honeymoon period of his defeat is now over, and he’s suffered the hideous torment of not seeing his name printed in the Oldham Evening Chronicle (a newspaper so dire that they probably couldn’t get a camera to the Second Coming if it happened on Union Street outside their office building at lunchtime on a quiet Wednesday) for four whole days in a row. For as loudly mediocre a publicity whore as Mr. Watkins, that’s like crack withdrawal. Imagine what he’d be like if his name started appearing regularly in papers people actually read, that contain actual news. We’d have to build a new planet to house his head. If he succeeds in getting the result thrown out (unlikely, I would have thought), we’ll have to have a by-election. Whoopee.

I know, I know. I sound angry about this. I am angry about this. You see, I voted for Elwyn Watkins, holding my nose as I did so, and after having sworn, in the first week of the campaign, that I would not. I voted, for once, for a party far more than a person, as a deliberate statement, because I am convinced that this country needs major electoral reform, and I hoped, since it looked as if we would be heading for a hung parliament, that the Lib Dems would be in a position to force a referendum. And the reason why I held my nose as I voted for Mr. Watkins is, well, Mr. Watkins himself – he’s basically a gob on legs – and the election materials sent out by Mr. Watkins’ own campaign, which were downright obnoxious. As I said, the campaign here between Labour and the Lib Dems was nasty. Mr Watkins’ own campaign leaflets made some very unpleasant insinuations about Phil Woolas, particularly regarding Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims, making a great deal out of minor irregularities in Woolas’s claims that were almost certainly the result of Woolas simply forgetting to highlight specific items on a couple of supermarket receipts. Not necessarily admirable, but it’s not as if Woolas claimed for a floating duck island, or mortgage interest on a loan that had already been repaid. The sums involved were minor, and Woolas’s claims were essentially within the rules that were in place at the time, with a (very) few minor aberrations which were probably genuine mistakes. And yet I got three separate Lib Dem campaign leaflets through my letterbox, each of which stopped just short of calling Mr. Woolas a criminal, and each of which was a masterpiece of half-truth, negative spin and innuendo.

And now Mr. Watkins – who, evidently, has approximately the same level of self-awareness as, say, Jeffrey Archer or Zsa Zsa Gabor – is loudly whining to anybody who will listen that Woolas’s win was unfair because Labour’s election materials in this constituency “contained numerous misleading and erroneous claims regarding my personal character and reputation, and that of my campaign”, which would be in contravention of the Representation of the People Act (1983). The righteous anger is impressive. Prick him with a needle, and you’ll get enough hot air to heat most of Lancashire for a couple of years. The act might even be convincing if he hadn’t shown us on the campaign trail that he’s all mouth and trousers.

Because hot air is all it is. I read all of the campaign material that came through the letterbox. Masochistic of me, I know, but I did. Labour’s leaflets pulled no punches, particularly regarding Mr. Watkins (they paid little attention to Kashif Ali, the Tory candidate, because the chance of his ever winning was similar to the chance that Simon Cowell might be human), but the most borderline-defamatory, vituperatively negative materials, bar none, that I received came from Elwyn Watkins and the local Lib Dems. And now he’s crying foul and trying to force a by-election, because he lost. There’s a word for that. There are lots of words for that, most of them quite short.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that the Lib Dem central office will step in and squash this idiot like a bug. He got my vote once. He won’t get it again.

Please wait while the machine checks which decade you’re in…

Meet Ben Nelson. He’s 69 years old, and is one of two Senators representing Nebraska.  He looks a little bit confused here, doesn’t he?

It’s not entirely surprising. The modern world, it seems, is a place in which Senator Nelson chooses not to live. There is currently, in the US, an ongoing debate about legislating a cap on ATM fees – the charges you pay when you use an ATM from a bank other than your own, or a private white-label ATM that’s unaffiliated with any financial institution. Senator Nelson was asked for a quote on the subject by a journalist from his local newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, and his response, to anybody who lives a life that’s, well, anything resembling normal, will seem a little surprising. Senator Nelson, at 69 years of age, has never used an ATM. Ever. He says he understands the holograms, though… except by ‘holograms’ he means ‘barcodes’. Never mind.

His senate colleague Mike Johanns is almost as confused. At 59, he’s a decade younger; he admits to having used ATM machines fewer than five times in his life – an oddly specific answer, you might think, but I suppose if you engage in a particular activity that infrequently you’ll remember each time as if it was your first. Or something.

Quite how you get to age 59 having only used an ATM five times, though, is entirely another question. Getting to age 69 without ever using one beggars belief. Getting through life without ever using a bank machine constitutes the kind of exercise in avoiding dealing with the world that should win several awards and be made into a documentary. It’s the sort of achievement that those of us with normal, humdrum lives view with awe and wonder. I mean, really, being able to spend your entire life on a plane of existence that far removed from normality deserves at least a round of applause, if not a standing ovation.

Except, of course, they’re elected representatives, and their job is to represent the interests of their constituents in the Senate. Doing that job necessitates having at least a basic understanding of the processes of everyday life. If Senator Nelson is so out of touch that he’s managed to live almost seven decades without familiarising himself with something as ordinary as a bank machine, then he’s in the wrong line of work.

“It works best if you pretend like you’re getting tasered…”

Oh, “Glee”, why don’t I love you?

I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. It’s not the high school setting – I loved both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Veronica Mars” – and it’s certainly not the fact that it’s a musical. Sometimes, it grabs my attention, I get caught up in it, and I start to fall in love with it, but somehow “Glee” never holds my attention beyond the next commercial break, and it’s a little hard to put my finger on the reasons why.

The show, certainly, has flashes of genius. Mercedes singing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” – a song I really, really don’t like – at the pep rally was genuinely moving, even if you could see that particular musical selection coming half-a-dozen scenes in advance. The big chorus numbers are often exciting, even if the musical arrangements tend to pummel whatever song is being performed into middle-of-the-road sludge with a power-pop backing track.  Brittany – who finds recipes confusing, thinks dolphins are gay sharks, and doesn’t know how to turn on a computer – is a brilliant creation (and has been getting more and more to do), and Heather Morris’s performance is both flawless and hysterically funny. The relationship between the flamboyantly gay Kurt and his straight-as-they-come father is sensitively and touchingly handled, and Kevin McHale and the writers do a generally good job of portraying the paraplegic Artie Abrams.  Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester is a powerhouse villain; Lynch has grabbed hold of the show’s showiest role with both hands, and is clearly having a wonderful time spitting out her character’s ever more evil/deranged one-liners. And the guest stars are usually cleverly cast, and often get the best of the writing.

And yet, and yet… I still haven’t fallen in love with the show, and every week there’s something in it that has me hitting the fast-forward button. This week, it was the excruciatingly self-indulgent vocals in Idina Menzel and Lea Michele’s duet of “I Dreamed a Dream” – it started well enough, but then very quickly took a swan-dive into the land that taste forgot, becoming so unpleasant that I had to hit the button and Make It Stop. The writing for the principal characters is often not as clever as it thinks it is, and some of the central casting is problematic. Lea Michele acts her character perfectly, but pulls ridiculous faces when she sings; part of the problem with “I Dreamed a Dream” tonight was that when she hit a big note she looked like she was trying to poo out a microwave (to be fair, Ms. Menzel, here, must share the blame, since she was equally dreadful). Matthew Morrison’s Mr. Schuster comes alive whenever he sings, which is fortunate because when he’s not singing it’s as if some scientist has found a way to deliver a dose of Mogadon via the technological miracle of television. Cory Monteith doesn’t even come alive when he’s singing, though his adenoidal vocals and ditchwater-dull acting will certainly make you want to contemplate his mortality. The show’s music team have clearly spent a little bit too long watching American Idol and X-Factor, and are rather too ready to apply those production techniques to music that would be better suited to a more restrained approach (and we’re back to tonight’s desecration of “I Dreamed a Dream”).  And so on. For everything I genuinely enjoy about the show, there’s another thing that makes me wince and reach for the remote.

And that’s too bad, because I really wanted to love it, and I just can’t. Some of it’s great and a lot of it’s good – but some of it’s flat, and some of it is flat-out bad. I’m still watching, but – to quote a much, much better musical – a lot of the time, I’m sorry-grateful.

Chaos! Chaos! Ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca chaos!

Or, an excursion into one of the murkier recesses of my iPod.

There’s something uniquely satisfying about a really good piece of pop music – and I mean pop, as opposed to rock, meaning music that seems to be relatively lightweight, that on the surface is essentially disposable. Done well, a good pop song can hook itself into your brain; once it’s in there, you’ll never be rid of it, however hard you try to flush it out of your memory. And “flush” is often the operative word; there’s an awful lot of crap out there, and an awful lot of guilty pleasures.

This is neither. The song is a French classic – ‘Désenchantée’, sung by Mylène Farmer (who also wrote the lyrics; the music is by Laurent Boutonnat). Musically, it’s several steps above most of Ms. Farmer’s output, which tends towards the cheesy end of the europop spectrum – it’s got a strong melody and an infuriatingly catchy chorus – but it’s the lyrics that make this so intriguing. It’s a strong, upbeat Eurodisco song with a really, really bleak lyric – existential nihilism set to a dance beat, reinforced rather than mitigated by Farmer’s expressionless, clear, somewhat wan vocals. Ms. Farmer’s lyrics paint a world in which there’s neither comfort nor purpose, and suggest that the defining feature of her generation is a state of disenchantment:

Si je dois tomber de haut,

Que ma chute soit lente.

Je n’ai trouvé de repos

Que dans l’indifférence.

Pourtant, je voudrais retrouver l’innocence,

Mais rien n’a de sens,

Et rien ne va.

The chorus is even happier:

Tout est chaos

A côté,

Tous mes idéaux:

Des mots abimés.

Je cherche une âme qui

Pourra m’aider – je suis

D’une génération désenchantée,

Désenchantée.

Grim, yes, but it’s also the biggest-selling single ever by a solo female in France. The video, directed by Boutonnat, is equally fascinating – it’s a full-on nine-minute costume prison drama, starring Ms. Farmer as a concentration camp prisoner who leads her fellow inmates in a rebellion against the guards, with an ending that manages to be bleaker even than the song’s lyrics:

It’s got it all. Guns! Violence! A kid with a machine gun! Grimy make-up! Gruel! Bugs! Bugs in the gruel! And – oh yes – a whopper of a miserable ending. Farmer leads the inmates in a rebellion. Chaos ensues, and a band of inmates overpower the guards and force their way out of the prison camp, and run over the crest of a hill outside the camp walls… to discover that they’re in the middle of a remote plain, with no civilisation in sight, miles from anywhere, in the snow, and that they’ll probably die of starvation or exposure before they reach safety. Farmer stops for a moment, then starts to walk, and the prisoners follow.

There’s often something a bit ridiculous about pop stars trying to make Big Statements (see, for example, Bono’s entire career). That’s certainly, elsewhere, a criticism you can level at Mylène Farmer herself (she’s sort of the French Madonna, prone to lyrical and visual imagery that generate shock more or less for the sake of it). But this, more than anything else she’s done, works. It seems to sum up a sense of political malaise that had been creeping across much of western Europe since at least the late 1970s (and which is, I think, even more pronounced today, on both sides of the Channel), it’s weary rather than angry, and it manages to deliver a relatively bitter pill in the form of an irresistably catchy throwaway pop song – which, in itself, could be taken as a comment on the culture that produced it. It’s a very, very easy song to over-analyse (and I’ll stop in a minute), because it’s an essentially contradictory piece of writing. It says something depressing, and it’s fun. More than that – it’s disposable pop, but it’s lasted. I first heard this in France in 1991. 19 years later, I’m still listening to it.

Sublebrity Sits Vac

Graham Norton on a flying bicycle! Sheila Hancock saying ‘tits’ in prime-time, then announcing “I don’t care, they can’t sack me!” Charlotte Church perfecting her Margaret Thatcher death glare! Yes, folks, it can only be the final of “Over the Rainbow”. There will now be a short hiatus while the Munchkins are put to work replenishing the global supply of sequins, lip-gloss, gingham and cheese. The rest of us, once we’ve taken two Solpadeine Plus to recover from the headache induced by the set and lighting designers, will continue to wonder why the licence fee has, once again, been spent on an extended infomercial for a commercial theatrical production. Don’t think about that one too much, the answer will depress you.

Where was I? Oh yes. Oz. That’s Oz, not Oz or Oz. Or rather, some TV studio with a hideous set featuring a couple of staircases, a giant-sized pair of ruby slippers, a disturbing number of flashing lights including some highly regrettable green lasers, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who at least didn’t make a tacky gag about having a mouthful of chipolata this week (that was last Saturday; I didn’t blog about it because I was too busy washing my brain out with bleach in a desperate attempt to make the several resulting unappealing mental images go away). “Over the Rainbow” is the latest in an increasingly long line of let’s-cast-a-musical reality TV shows, and, yes, this search for a Dorothy for a new West End stage production of “The Wizard of Oz” has, at times, been ghastly, teeth-achingly twee television, but it’s also been intermittently compelling, despite the awful musical arrangements and the bombastic production.

First, there’s the great Sheila Hancock on the judging panel. Sharp, acerbic but genuinely supportive, she apparently ripped up the reality TV rulebook in the first ten minutes of her first day and has spent the entire series saying exactly what she thinks, instead of following the usual route of alternating between bland criticism and “you go, girl” clichés. Second, there’s the contestants. Well, some of them, at least (we’ll draw a polite veil over Emilie, who proved again in her one solo line in her reappearance in the final that she couldn’t find a note even if armed with a sat-nav, a compass, a map and a dowsing rod).  The semi-finalists – Steph Fearon, Lauren Samuels, Sophie Evans and Danielle Hope – are all strong pop singers and at least passable actors, and the winner – Danielle Hope – is, I suspect, a real find. She has, I think, been the front-runner for several weeks now. Not because she had the best voice in the competition (that was probably Ms. Samuels), but because she’s consistently shown, despite her relative youth and her lack of formal training, an intelligence in her acting choices, however cheesy the song she was called upon to sing in any given week. Her “Over the Rainbow” in the final was quietly spectacular – she sang the song as if it was a newly-minted piece that nobody had ever heard before, delivered a flawless vocal that was entirely free of the MOR pop grandstanding that’s usually the signature of most of the singing in these contests (most of her fellow contestants succumbed to that particular disease at some point in the competition), and acted the lyrics as Dorothy, finding the emotional impulse underneath each line, each beat, rather than just making pretty sounds that didn’t connect to the lyrical content. More than that, she wasn’t afraid to be still. In the context of a reality TV contest, it was a genuinely remarkable performance, simply because it was, well, genuine.

The thing is, so much about the show is hideous. The TV show is staged and packaged in much the same way as pop-star shows like X-Factor and Pop Idol, as a multi-week full-out assault on common sense and good taste, presided over by a gaggle of sublebrity mediocrities, with tacky, lowest-common-denominator musical direction, sets fashioned from glitter and solidified vomit, and perhaps one sane, intelligent judge among the sleb-mag loons. Even the musical repertoire is similar, despite the fact that it’s not necessarily all that easy to judge whether a singer has the necessary qualities to bring out the best in a selection of Arlen classics from a broad, unsubtle diet of contemporary pop sludge. And yet, somehow, this particular show, I think, has managed to find someone with real potential. For the first time, watching one of these shows, I’m actually interested in shelling out for a theatre ticket.

Oh yes – and after sitting through several weeks of this, I’m now convinced that Charlotte Church is a zombie and John Partridge is a vampire. So there.

It’s a… oh dear. Never mind.

The mascots have been unveiled, and it appears that the 2012 Olympics will be screened exclusively on CBeebies.

Meet Wenlock (on the left) and Mandeville (duh). Should you be wondering exactly what they’re supposed to be, well, so are the rest of us. I thought they might be a pair of stale Peeps that had been left a little too long in the microwave, but the press release says that they’re supposed to be beings made from droplets of molten steel that was used in the construction of the  new stadium. Presumably, later there’ll be bad cartoons explaining how they came into existence.  Oh joy. To my eyes, they look like the love children of a Moomintroll and a cyclops, with taxi signs bizarrely stuck on top of their heads (no, really, that’s what they’re supposed to be) and a disturbing  joint fetish for asexual day-glo jumpsuits. Either that, or someone sprayed bleach at Tinky Winky and Laa-Laa, then stretched them on a rack. The single eyes, apparently, are supposed to represent cameras. Riiiight. Wenlock, bless him/her/it, has the Olympic logo stencilled in orange across the chestal area. At least in this context it’s unlikely to induce seizures – just, perhaps, retinal bleeding.

And that photo’s scary. Either they’re vogueing, or they’re getting ready to karate-kick the photographer into next week. It’s going to be a long two years.