TV review: BBC 1’s fabulous new talent show: The Voice UK

The Voice

The Voice UK

The fact that The Voice focuses on talent rather than the sheer batshit-mental, ‘eccentric’ types we’ve had the misfortune to see on other shows, makes it seem fresh, exciting, nurturing and fun – everything you’d want in a talent show, basically (…and having the lovely Danny O’Donoghue as one of the judges may also have something to do with it)

Again, I’m revealing the fact that I’ve been away, and when it comes to TV, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Happily, I’ve not been disappointed – the Easter bank holiday weekend plus the terrible weather has given me no shortage of time to check out all the shows I’ve been missing, and The Voice UK is one of the programmes that has really hit the spot.

I’ll admit I had been avoiding this programme, simply out of sheer fatigue at more bloody ‘talent’ shows. From being an avid X Factor fan a few years ago, in more recent years I have found myself getting too bored to watch; too jaded and too disappointed with the cynical, point-and-laugh formula that the Simon Cowell juggernaut kept pushing out with energy-sapping regularity. The over-the-top music, the focus on ‘sob-stories’ rather than talent, the emphasis on the judges rather than the acts, the hysteria over the US version, the less-than-inspiring competitors, the similarity to all-round freak show Britain’s Got Talent, and the frankly medieval penchant for laughing at hopefuls without a snowball’s chance in hell; it was all too much, and I could no longer be bothered (nor was I the only one – even Cowell didn’t turn up to the last series, and viewing figures plummeted as Gary Barlow and the forgettable other three took over the show’s listing reins).

Actually, as I pressed play, I didn’t expect The Voice to be that different. However, its unique selling point of not showing the judges the singers until they’d heard their voices, seemed a tantalising and worthy attempt at reversing some of the superficiality of the aforementioned show, and I wanted to see just how it worked.

Pretty much instantly, I was hooked.

Gone were the ridiculously shouty intros, the operatic music introducing the judges as if they were gods, the over-the-top sob stories, and the truly awful competitors who couldn’t sing a note.

Here were four judges, managing, despite their huge fame, popularity and status, to stay on the right side of humble, the right side of interested in the music; and while the set is predictably massive and the contestants’ family and friends are still filmed screaming slightly too-loudly backstage, for me the show’s format of not letting mentors see the acts until they’ve already decided that they like them, works impeccably well.

The Voice UK judges

The Voice UK judges - Jessie J, The Script's Danny O'Donoghue, the legendary Tom Jones and one quarter of US group The Black Eyes Peas, Will.I.Am

Not only are the judges eminently likeable, the fact that they are denied what the audience can immediately see, puts them refreshingly on the back foot as we and they are forced – unlike in so many other shows ‒ to focus on the hopeful’s talent and vocal ingenuity, rather than pointing-and-laughing at their boring/tarty/ridiculous/old/young/fat/thin look. And this means that the judges have to swallow their egos, shut up, listen, and consider the candidate purely based on their voice, rather than making a biased decision before the poor person on stage has even opened their mouth. Suddenly, it’s about the music again, as it was supposed to be right from the beginning, when Cowell’s original Pop Idol was but an infant format just hoping to take off (ah, those halcyon days).

Watching The Voice, I’m suddenly interested in the person’s vocal agility, their musical inspiration – who are they hoping will turn around? Which of the judges, and their varying musical backgrounds, will be most suited to mentoring the fresh hopeful standing vulnerably on the stage? Is there any similarity between their voice and those of the four people with their backs turned? It forces you to listen, and to appreciate the person’s looks and moves second. It’s a singer’s dream.

And while pop stars are, of course, all about the image as well as the voice (Jessie J, Will.I.Am, Tom Jones and Danny O’Donoghue are hardly sitting there looking like geography teachers, now are they?), it’s clear that this show is more interested in longevity (Tom Jones, I mean you) as well as nurturing real talent, than its ‘talent search’ predecessors. After all, anyone can get a stylist – but not everyone has the vocals to deserve one.

It certainly helps that the producers of this show seem far more interested in sourcing talent than securing controversial talking points in tomorrow’s papers. While a few hints of a sob-story do manage to eke their way in to some of the pre-song videos at times, it always stays manageable, and we still want the contestant to do well not because of a supposed ‘tragic’ past, but because we see how much it means to them, and how they’ve worked for their act. There’s also far more talent on show even at this stage, and I was never troubled by that sinking, uncomfortable feeling that I was bearing witness to the cat-strained vocal stylings of an unsound mind. It’s crazy that I’d even have to say it, but the fact that The Voice focuses on talent rather than the sheer batshit-mental, ‘eccentric’ types we’ve had the misfortune to see on other shows, makes it seem fresh, exciting, nurturing and fun – everything you’d want in a talent show, basically.

The fact that the chairs the judges sit on are just so freaking cool – bash! Around they go, a rollercoaster seat lit with lightsabers, ringing to the sound that a super-hero makes as they jet off into space ‒ is but a super ass-kicking addition to what has become a new and guilty televisual pleasure. I was on the edge of my (sadly way less cool) seat waiting to see which judge would turn round, which would stay still, and what their faces would look like when they saw the act that I’d already started to cheer on with the rest of the audience.

That the show is on the BBC and therefore blissfully unabridged by inane, head-banging-into-wall adverts every fifteen seconds, also helps my enjoyment enormously (while the fact that Danny O’Donoghue melts my heart and mind with every move, smile, swagger and head-nod is, obviously, neither here nor there.)

Looks versus talent?   

Prior to watching, I’d read a lot of criticisms about The Voice – all of which pretty much centred upon the fact that they judges DO eventually see the contestants, DUH, because they turn around, thereby, it has been alleged, negating the show’s whole USP.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that this judgement actually, I think, falls flat given that the judges see the contestants only when they’ve already made a decision. Of course they see them – attempting to hide the singers away forever would be nonsensical and ignoring the fact that image is still important when it comes to acts; which is, I hasten to add, not necessarily a bad thing. (This post isn’t the place to go in to a full-blown discussion about it, and of course there are serious issues inherent within the act of emphasising a singer’s look to the expense of their sound, sexing them up and styling them to the point where their raw talent is all but obliterated, but in this case, that Tom Jones looks different to Will.I.Am is just common sense, not to mention indicative of the kind of artists they are.)

Basically, the fact that the judges have to make a decision before setting eyes on the hopefuls gives the fledgling singers a chance, and allows their raw style (if it’s there) to come through, putting the judges firmly in their place, giving the floor (and sometimes, the power to choose which mentor they have) back in the hands of the singer themselves. It is sad that some of the more memorable and promising contestants aren’t chosen, but that’s the intriguing point of The Voice – someone who on other programmes might have been whisked through to the next round purely thanks to their crazy look or desperate eyes, just doesn’t cut the mustard on this particular show.

Sometimes, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – it was certainly weird when Kerry Ellis, a fantastically powerful singer who has sung accompanied by Brian May from Queen and is well-known in the West End for her many roles on some of the most famous musicals ever, didn’t get through. But perhaps she just wasn’t original or interesting enough  – after all, the judges can still enjoy a singer without feeling compelled to push the button in desperate hope that they will be given the chance to mentor that particular talent. In a twist that makes the show even more watchable, the judges don’t merely have to say whether they like an act or not – they also have to believe in them enough to actually want to mentor them. The stakes are higher – and I love it.

With the ‘Blind Auditions’ nearly over (although I’ve got one episode to go before I’m fully caught up with the rest of the nation), I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Will the show descend in to arguments between judges, fights over style; battles of wills as the huge egos of judges and contestants alike become tangled in sad, slippery tugs-of-war that end in over-the-top TV sending viewers turning off in droves? Will the show lose its unique and heartfelt selling point now that we can see what the singers actually look like? Will the talent, so raw and stunning at the beginning, become forgotten as the ‘mentoring’ kicks in?

Who knows – but I truly hope not. Of course, The Voice is but a TV show, and can’t escape all the cynical, money-making publicity/ratings battle/music industry problems inherent within that fact. But if, despite this, it manages to stay true to the ideals that ostensibly set it apart from The X Factors of this world, then good on it – I’ll keep watching.

Because, if The Voice succeeds, it will have done something amazing (as well as bringing Danny O’Donoghue’s delectable demeanour and heart-wrenchingly beautiful Irish accent onto primetime TV where it so obviously belongs): it will have resurrected a TV format that we all thought was gone and dead in the water – and put centre stage what has long been forgotten.

Not the ridiculousness of the person’s look, the obnoxiousness of their act; the madness of their approach; the dollar-signs shining in the eyes of their cynical producers; the extent to which they can garner baffled column inches and incredulous laughs; but something altogether more pure, interesting, creative, artistic and human: their voice.

The Voice UK continues on Saturday, 7pm on BBC 1

See the show’s website here

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