TV review: Wonderland: I Had the X Factor...25 Years Ago

From the spotlight to the gutter is a hard road, says Gary Day, reminding us that losers have lives, too

December 22, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

It's not often you see genuine emotion on TV, especially at Christmas, but there were tears aplenty in the Wonderland special I Had the X Factor...25 Years Ago (BBC Two, Monday 12 December, 9pm). After all the shrieks and screams that greeted X Factor winners Little Mix, after all the leaping up and down and clapping of hands, it was salutary to be reminded that losers have lives, too.

And theirs contain more light and shade. Success casts no shadow. It is defined solely in terms of money and fame and endorses what G.K. Chesterton called "the evil poetry of worldliness". Failure has many forms. We should learn to value it. It humanises us and teaches us far more than success ever can.

There's also something faintly heroic about failure. Take Vinny, one of the finalists from the 1986 edition of the talent show New Faces. He was one half of the comedy duo Walker and Cadman. Vinny's part, judging from the clips, consisted of not being able to stay on his feet for more than a few seconds, thereby almost guaranteeing his fall from stardom. He compared winning New Faces to shaking hands with God, making his drop from the zenith back into the council estate from which he came almost as epic as Lucifer's tumble from the realm of light.

"Over here were the groupies," said Vinny, pointing to some empty stools. He was showing us round The Dutchman, his old drinking den. And flat out on the floor there, he might have added, was Oliver Reed. The tanked-up actor was one of Vinny's boozing companions. Another was Roy Chubby Brown, whose language is as colourful as his trademark costume. It would have been a treat to hear him order a pint.

Vinny turned to the sauce to get back that feeling of being on top of the world, but it only thrust him further down into the infernal regions or, for those who prefer plain English, Wigan. He spent time in jail for drink-driving and slept in a bin for nearly a year. But even though he was in the gutter, Vinny was looking at the stars. He refused to accept that all was lost. Unconquerable will and courage would make him overcome this dire calamity.

Tracy, one of his three ex-wives, thought he should get "a normal job" instead of dreaming about going back on the stage. "Why don't you do that?" the invisible interviewer echoed. There was a long pause. "Because it's boring," said Vinny eventually. And he's right. The grind of the 9 to 5 cannot compare with the glamour of the television studio.

But strip away the glitter, and shop work and The X Factor begin to look remarkably similar. The assistant must follow a script when answering the telephone, while contestants must surrender their personality to their mentors. Fame is the reward for doing what you are told. Failure is the price you pay for being an individual.

Last week saw the penultimate episode of series two of Rev. (BBC Two, Thursday 15 December, 9pm). Set in inner London, it is partly a reaction to The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007), but it is also a return to the sort of dithering clergyman most memorably portrayed by Derek Nimmo in All Gas and Gaiters (1966-71). The Reverend Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) seems to have only two regular people in his parish - the alcoholic Colin Lambert (Steve Evets) and the motherly Adoha Onyeka (Ellen Thomas).

Of the two, it is Adoha who is the most dangerous. Barely has Alex (Olivia Colman), Adam's wife, left for a weekend's walking in Shropshire than Adoha is at the door with a hotpot steaming suggestively. And this is the woman entrusted with the flower arranging in church.

Nigel (Miles Jupp), the verger, has decided that if Adam can be a vicar, someone who puts his pens and pencils in the same drawer, then so can he. He has all the qualities needed for the post - a good knowledge of theology, a skill in drawing up rotas and an ability to balance the petty cash. If God did not want him to be ordained, why did He bestow these gifts upon him? Adam recommends that Nigel show a little humility in his application. I was reminded of Groucho Marx's dictum. "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

And finishing this week was The Slap (BBC Four, Thursday 15 December, 10pm), the story of the repercussions after a child is smacked at a party. Described as an adaptation of the novel by Christos Tsiolkas, it was more an improvisation, with characters who are dead in the novel making an appearance on screen. After the third week, I stopped making comparisons and began to enjoy it.

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