The X Factor cries out for a burst of Miss World mischief | Jenny Turner

It won't be as easy as 1970. But someone will see a non-violent, poetically explosive way of cracking today's sado-gawping TV

Forty years ago the 1970 Miss World final featured Bob Hope, Michael Aspel, and two beauty queens – black and white – from apartheid South Africa. No one today would remember much about the show, except that it was disrupted, mocked, completely rubbished by representatives of the Women's Liberation Movement, armed with whistles, football rattles, sub-prime vegetables and water pistols filled with blue ink.

Radio 4 has marked the occasion with a terrific Reunion programme, in which Sue MacGregor moderates a discussion between three of these feminist heroines, Aspel, Jennifer Hosten (as Miss Grenada the night's actual winner) and a Miss World trusty – "It was a question of smack on the bum, get out and smile, because this was live!" I listened with delight, and a growing question. Why did no one try something similar on Big Brother eviction night, why does no one try it on The X Factor? Did they, maybe, except that they got stopped and censored? Will something real and hilarious happen tonight, supposedly BB's last? Will we ever get to hear about it if so?

You can look up the 1970 Miss World final on YouTube. It's an appalling spectacle, old-style BBC light entertainment at its worst. The Albert Hall is done up as a glittery sound stage, on which glide and slither dinner-jacketed, lounge-lizardy males. The "girls" come on in national costume, like dollies stuck on toilet rolls, then in high-on-the-leg one-piece swimsuits worn with heels. Hope is old, sour, deeply rattled (the phrase "cattle market" had been used on a chatshow; the day began with a small explosion, claimed by the Angry Brigade, under an empty BBC outside broadcast van). As MacGregor put it, the show was "both anachronistic and degrading". Watching it, even nowadays, I feel myself flush all over with waves of early-70s pre-feminist girlishness – misery, a sense of imprisonment, sexual shame.

Forty years later, the battered shell of the Miss World pageant drags itself along, like a zombie – in 2002 the show provoked riots in Abuja, Nigeria, in which 120 people were killed; the 2010 final happens next month, in Sanya, a beach resort in China. Its spirit, though, lives on: in BB, The X Factor, all those gruesome television spectacles in which usually good-looking, often vulnerable young people – mostly though not invariably women (because that would be sexist) – submit themselves to harsh, even sadistic judgment, delivered by glossed-up celebrity professionals in the studio, and by the baying mob at home.

In the olden days Miss World was idiotic, but blessedly superficial; "vital statistics" were noted, rear views admired, token commitments made to world peace. These days the sizing-up goes on 24/7, scrutinising looks, abilities, hopes, delusions – any aspect of a person's outer or inner being that happens to capture the fancy of the all-seeing camera eye.

Sometimes the method picks up on moments that are warm, odd, funny, touching – like lots of people, I have spent loads of time over the past decade gripped by Big Brother, fascinated by the "reality" or otherwise of romances, tantrums, breasts, hanks of hair. And yet the surveillance is also demeaning and depressing, with an insidious, invidious way of pumping yet more pressure into a viewer's already overloaded head. Keep up the work on the look, the smile, the chirpiness, the perfection. Keep up the phoney self-belief, or else!

On last week's X Factor, for example, we saw a couple of nice-looking young people with fantastic voices, pleasant manners, and so little weirdness or neuroticism that the cameras barely stopped to note their names. More time was given to Ablisa, the one who lost it and started fighting, and to 17-year-old Cher Lloyd, who can't really sing or rap or anything, but who admires Cheryl Cole so much she has copied the tattoo she wears on her hand. Cher, apparently, is the bookies' favourite, and already a tabloid darling. The other day, the Daily Mail was happily fretting that she's been seen "shaking" and not eating much for her dinner. Maybe, it gleefully speculates, Cher "can't take the strain".

It's not that The X Factor is the cause or source of this hateful media sado-gawping. But then, neither was Miss World the cause or source of the grotesque objectification from which it took its shape. Its very crassness, however, made it a useful vehicle, as the historian Sally Alexander – one of the demonstrators in 1970 – has said, for the "public announcement" regarding the place of women in society that she and her comrades wanted to make. Now it won't be so easy for anyone trying to do something similar with a programme. The tech, the PR, the security are so sophisticated. You've got to be very careful to avoid a hint of terrorism, no Nerf Blasters or Super Soakers or anything resembling guns or bombs.

I won't be there, unfortunately, when someone finally works out how to do it – I'm too old and tired, too stuck at home with childcare, too out of touch with all this social media stuff. From where I'm sitting, though, I keep hearing about how entertainment industry employers exploit young people's energy and ambition in internships that never turn into proper life-sustaining jobs; I hear about Facebook groups and flash mobs and vuvuzelas. Sooner or later, someone will see a physically non-violent, poetically explosive way of cracking it all open, if only for a second. All I can say is that if you care to try it, sweethearts, I for one will be cheering you all the way.


Jenny Turner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The success of The Choir's military wives suggests we're losing our taste for malice TV | Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland: No pantomime villain judges. And no losers. In the age of austerity we want shows that lift us up, not put us down

Jonathan Freedland

20, Dec, 2011 @9:45 PM

Article image
Rewind TV: Big Brother; The X Factor; Dispatches
Whatever we learned from Big Brother, we'll forget because of The X Factor. And Dispatches shows there are far bigger lessons to be learned, writes Euan Ferguson

Euan Ferguson

28, Aug, 2010 @11:06 PM

The Gamu Nhengu Factor | Mark Lawson
Mark Lawson: The singer's ejection from X Factor and maybe Britain could have an impact well beyond TV

Mark Lawson

09, Oct, 2010 @8:30 AM

Article image
Reality TV: The fallout from 15 minutes of fame

As reality TV producers introduce more vulnerable people, Leigh Holmwood asks if they are doing enough to help contestants handle the limelight

Leigh Holmwood

23, Aug, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
The X Factor forced to cancel live public vote over sound problems
Viewers will be allowed to vote on Sunday night’s programme instead

Jim Waterson Media editor

04, Nov, 2018 @11:52 AM

Article image
Strictly Come Dancing v The X Factor: Is it a ballroom blitz?
Peace is unlikely to break out between ITV and BBC in the latest Saturday scheduling war

John Plunkett

13, Sep, 2015 @5:07 PM

Article image
Cheryl Cole to join Simon Cowell on US version of X Factor
£3m deal will mean gruelling twice-weekly transatlantic commute for British star

Dan Sabbagh and John Plunkett

30, Nov, 2010 @9:28 PM

Article image
From Big Brother to Strictly and The X Factor, reality TV has a black women problem
Misrepresentation of black women is all over television, but talent shows create the perfect storm of anxiety viewing – and don’t look set to change any time soon

Yomi Adegoke

17, Jun, 2020 @12:00 PM

One nation Christmas television | Joe Moran
Joe Moran: In romanticising our Christmas viewing past, we reveal an undimmed yearning for community

Joe Moran

20, Dec, 2010 @10:00 PM

Article image
Simon Cowell signs £150m deal to keep X Factor on air despite sagging ratings
ITV breathes sigh of relief as it keeps hold of treasured star, but some pundits say his grip on Saturday nights is weakening

John Plunkett

15, Nov, 2013 @4:47 PM