Monday, December 24, 2007

Jools Holland and the Real X-Factor: the day I discovered Joss Stone

I think the seats in Newcastle’s City Hall have got smaller since I was last there. I don’t remember my knees scrunching up against the row in front when I sat watching people with infinitely more talent than me taking their applause on the stage.

But then, apart from Thursday, when I went there to see Jools Holland, the last time I was in the City Hall was at my school speech day, and I was about half my current size.

I remember the feeling of envy when I saw the prizes handed out to my betters. I was given the wooden spoon called the Fifth Form Reading Prize. I can still remember all the words of the poem which clinched it for me: "Do You Remember an Inn, Miranda?”. At Christmas parties, when the festive spirits take over, I am inclined to launch into it -- until Joanna rushes over and throttles me.

Oh I know what it’s like to be second rate. Watching television on Saturday night, hearing the appalling cliché: “only one couple will be crowned champions (sic), the other will go home empty-handed”, my heart went out to Matt Di Angelo, bravely showing his rehearsed “well done, Alesha” expression. And the previous weekend I felt quite sorry for that strange Welsh singer Rhydian who now has to go back to Powys empty-handed. The painful sound of applause for someone else still ringing in his ears.

It’s extraordinary how worked up we get over television programmes like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. In fact, they’re not about winners at all. Who else but a group of D-List losers would have the time to go on Strictly Come Dancing? Alesha Dixon was in a group called Mis-Teeq which had a few minor hits several years ago. She recorded a solo album last year that hasn’t even been released. Rhydian is a second-grade baritone with unusual hair and a gift for reducing middle-aged women to tears with songs from Phantom of the Opera.

Really talented performers don’t need The X Factor to get their break. They get themselves into bands, perform in clubs and are discovered by an A&R talent scout from a record company. So I’m a little underwhelmed by these kinds of shows, even though in the past I have produced them myself.

Finding a gold nugget in the drift mine of wannabes is well nigh impossible. In four series of Star for a Night, presented by Jane MacDonald (her own celebrity a product of television rather than talent), we found only one true gem. In an audition room in Bristol I spotted a shy 13-year-old girl with a beautiful face and long blonde hair called Joss Stoker. I remember she had a tendency to sing sharp (I used a harmonizer to correct her final performance) but the voice made your jaw drop. It was the voice of an old blues singer. She’s now called Joss Stone.

But unlike the winners of The X Factor, pre-sold to the Cowell money-making machine, Joss’s stardom isn’t derived from one television vote. She made it through hard work and dedication.

Watching real talent on stage makes your heart surge and brings grown men to tears. Or overgrown men, like me. Which leads me back to last Thursday.

I wasn’t in that cramped City Hall seat for long. The years peeled back as the entire audience got on its feet for two magical hours. Afterwards Jools told me this was his favourite gig. Not just because of his happy times here with The Tube, but because of the wonderful atmosphere in that old, faded hall.

How Jools managed to perform at all on Thursday is beyond me. His father died last week. His Christmas plans have been cancelled because of the funeral. Yet he brought two thousand people the best possible present. Thank you, Jools, and to all of you, a very Merry Christmas.

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