Does This Lord Deserves More Praise?

Ratings may have been a disaster, but ITV’s Superstar showed how effectively you can package a reality show.

The trouble with most reality TV is the way it drags on. However engaging the concept, however interesting the contestants after week 7 or something, the novelty wears thin. The likes of Big Brother, The X Factor et al seem to go on for months and months so that by the time the winner is announced, even the most ardent viewer is thinking “enough, already”. Britain’s Got Talent on the other hand runs its live shows daily and it is this far more effective template that Superstar used taking us from the start to the final in under two weeks. The format allows far less time for the contestants to sit around contemplating their `journey` or how lucky they are to be here, instead they have to prepare a new song each day.

The result is a much tighter show, with relatively brief behind the scenes nonsense and, apart from the final, no lengthy wait for the outcome of the viewer’s vote. Not that the format was initially perfect. For some reason it was decided to announce the result at the start of each show which was both anti climatic and meant that some poor soul had spent the day being expensively trained to perform something nobody would ever see. Ever the shrewd judge of what works, Andrew Lloyd Webber nipped this in the bud after show 2, instead insisting we would see the performances before he chose who to eliminate, based on the bottom two from viewers votes, at the end.

The Lord is an old hand at this sort of thing having overseen the selection of Maria, Joseph, Dorothy and Nancy in a quartet of BBC shows. Superstar – looking for someone to play the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar -is different in that it’s on ITV. Also, as the new production of Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim’s early work  is to take place in arenas, so we seem to be in the X Factor studio, creating a somewhat different atmosphere to the cosier BBC shows.

The ever restless tv critics did not like Superstar one bit, laying into the series before the live shows and subsequently refusing to mention it. Even the `Radio Times`, which you feel still stays loyal to its BBC roots but does grudgingly acknowledge ITV’s bigger offerings declined to make it a pick of the day once. So like a lot of ignored tv, the show was left to flourish under what might be termed a more selective audience. Yet flourish it did.

Uniquely  for this sort of competition , there were no really weak finalists; indeed such was the standard that the final ten were joined by the reserve, sunny Jon, and he made it to the end of the first week and give one of the best performances of the series. Even in the auditions we caught glimpses of good singers who never made the cut.

As ever it was a specific type of singer they were looking for. Jesus Christ Superstar is described as a rock opera, not really that credible and artform now never mind forty years ago. What snippets we got from the show itself suggested the esteemed songwriters were still learning their trade and some of the music has dated- even the Andrew Lloyd Webber himself declared one the only two chord song he’d ever written.

One of these men will play Jesus....
No doubting the quality though of` I Don’t Know How To Love Him`, the show’s best song performed   sung in the final by former Sporty Spice Melanie C who will be on the tour. She was one of four judges along with Lloyd Webber himself, Jason Donovan (who kept encouraging the contestants to enjoy themselves but spoke with the serious brow of a politician) and Dawn French (whose ribald comments lightened the tension). The whole thing was held together efficiently by Amanda Holden maintaining her poise despite a series of dresses that could easily double as art installations, notably one outfit that made her seem as if she was stuck inside a giant silver vase.

There was much shaking of long hair and heavy metal screaming in the early rounds mainly because the judges kept emphasising the word “rock”. Then, as the rockers were dismissed by the viewers one by one, it became apparent that perhaps that wasn’t what they were looking for at all.  Slowly but surely, the power ballads and more varied songs were dusted off leading to an incredibly high standard in the last five shows. In fact the standard was so high that when guest stars came on they did not seem to be as good as the contestants! In the end the producers had to reach for Katherine Jenkins to find somebody who actually matched them.

As the competition developed a divide opened up between those who were good singers who could easily have a great career doing just that and those who were suitable for the role of Jesus himself,  a part that requires as much vulnerability as it does rock chops. This did for early favourite and wannabe Axl Rose Nathan who seemed to believe he was the best performer in the world ever but could clearly not act or interpret a song. The show’s only live flashpoint was when ALW criticised Nathan over his attitude. Now the composer may generally seem eccentrically genial and encouraging but you don’t maintain a forty year career without some steel and it flashed here.
After dramatic David was surprisingly axed in the semis, the final pitched soulful Roger, much to Dawn French’s delight against Scouse Rory and Sunderland’s Ben. All three belted out `Gethsemane`, one of the trickiest things to sing and it was Ben who ultimately prevailed. He is an excellent singer and, crucially, gets under the skin of the lyrics though someone needs to tell him not to bend forward every time he emphasises a note.

Unfortunately Superstar proved a ratings disaster never coming near the heady 8 million plus that ALW’s BBC shows often attained and dipping below 3 million near the end. However those other shows were on peak time Saturdays in the Spring whereas this series coincided with the final emergence of the summer. As a show it was slick and entertaining and it is certainly the case that all of the finalists could have a strong career.  Perhaps the combination of hot weather and early negative press damaged the show before it really got going.

Watching Superstar was seeing the essence of this sort of show with all the more vapid and infuriating parts sucked out leaving the kernel of talent that is the important thing. While other reality tv shows could learn that less is sometimes more the poor public response to this format means we could see even more drawn out contests in future.

Yes, it's him. Well done, Ben

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