If someone had told you a year ago that you’d look forward to a badger singing Feeling Good on a Saturday night, you may not have believed them. But the last 12 months have done strange things to the world, and the second series of the ITV show The Masked Singer, where badgers, sausages and dragons belt their hearts out on primetime, feels like the perfect television for our times.
For those new to the show, the rules are simple. Celebrity contestants dress in extravagant costumes which give them a new fantasy character, such as Viking, Harlequin or Grandfather Clock. They give clues as to their identity in an introductory video, then perform a song live for the judges – the UK panel consists of Rita Ora, Davina McCall and Jonathan Ross, joined this series by Bafta-winning comedian Mo Gilligan – who guess who they are. The studio audience vote for their favourites and then the judges pick one contestant to be unmasked from the three with the lowest vote.
But these facts don’t do justice to the surreality of the show, the good humour – or the spectacle. The Masked Singer format comes from South Korea. The show King of Mask launched in 2015 and became a worldwide hit, with Thailand, Germany, Australia, France and America already enjoying their third or fourth series. The current UK series gathered 6.3 million viewers for last Saturday’s show – a 26.3% share of the audience. It was the biggest new entertainment show of 2020.
Gladys Knight performed as a bee, Patti LaBelle as a flower and LeAnn Rimes won as the Sun in the US version. Actor Ryan Reynolds made a guest appearance as a caped unicorn and sang Tomorrow from Annie on the South Korean show in 2018.
The first UK series brought us Teddy Sheringham as Tree, Katherine Jenkins as Octopus and former shadow home secretary Alan Johnson as Pharaoh. The first two stars eliminated from the current series are Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Mel B from The Spice Girls.
The show has been a big hit on social media, too, with fans and celebrity fans tweeting guesses and clues. During the first season, Peter Crouch got into the Twitter conversation about whether he was performing as Tree. Last week, when magician Dynamo was tipped as Bushbaby, he took to Twitter to say: “Have you ever seen me and Bushbaby in the same room at the same time…?” Morten Harket from A-Ha, Angela Merkel and Justin Timberlake are just some of the rumours circulating about the new performers.
Comedian Mo Gilligan is new to the panel of judges and has already been successful at guessing identities. He nailed Mel B instantly. Did he ever think he’d spend Saturday night guessing who was dressed as a sausage? “No, but I never thought I’d be on Saturday night TV,” he says. “I’m a product of watching Saturday night TV from the 90s like Gladiators, Blind Date, so to now be a part of that is quite surreal.”
While the celebrity reveals are a great finale, the show’s success comes from the surreal spectacle of the masked performances. The costumes are centre stage throughout, madcap fantasies with a troupe of backing dancers and a light show. Gilligan says the performances are even better seen live in the studio. “The big stage production with dancers, lighting, props, it’s really incredible. The costumes are mind-blowing because you forget that there is someone in there. You start seeing them as the Badger, the Sausage, the Dragon.”
The American show’s costumes, designed by Marina Toybina, have won an Emmy. The Australian outfits are by Tim Chappel, who received an Oscar for costume design for the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The British designs are equally ornate. They are the work of Plunge Creations, a Brighton-based company that has created props and costumes for such clients as magician Derren Brown, the Imperial War Museum and Disney. While the Korean originals are true to the Asian anime aesthetic, and the American outfits feel part Mardi Gras, part Vegas, the British costumes feel, well, very British. Some are elegant and beautiful, but some have a touch of panto or Doctor Who – or even It’s a Knockout.
Tim Simpson, managing director at Plunge, says the Masked Singer job is a “crazy, special” brief. The costumes for the first series took 47 craftspeople about 5,000 hours to create, including sculptors, seamstresses and metal workers. But the work was worth it. “The combination of costume, song and the backing dancers – you get to create a visual cacophony of insanity.”
Simpson comes from a theatrical background and admits his family were initially dubious about the show but, like most viewers, were seduced by its silliness. “There was a moment when Unicorn performed Sharp Dressed Man by ZZ Top with backing dancers dressed as unicorns in suits. My sister and mother rang within minutes of each other to say, ‘this is fun! We get it’.”
Simpson points out the show is actually part of a long theatrical tradition. “The history of masks goes back thousands of years. They’ve been used for terrifying your enemy, telling stories or just entertaining. There’s something exciting about them – they transform you.”
He thinks many of the performers relish the disguise. “Your relationship with the audience, which you’ve grown up over years, the songs you sing, the way you look, it’s all gone. And you’re rebuilding your performance.”
Simpson says most costumes are created without knowing who will wear them, though some members of the team have to know the celebrities’ identities to do final fittings. Simpson, like the rest of us, would rather not know so he can enjoy the guessing.
“Our perception of ourselves is denoted by how people receive us. With a mask, you alter that fundamentally. People you’re singing to or talking to see someone different. You only find yourself again by becoming the character that they perceive. When Sausage bounds on to the Masked Singer set, and the audience goes ‘Hey! Sausage!’, it tells Sausage how to behave. When Bushbaby walks on – the audience tells them they’re gorgeous.”
Another reason performers enjoy the show is because it’s fun. It’s hard to think of another reality format that is as positive and uplifting.
“These celebrities come out and blow us away with their enthusiasm and energy and voices,” says McCall. “It’s such a positive programme but it takes a moment to get your head round it because it is completely bonkers.”
Gilligan says one reason The Masked Singer is kind is because it’s an old-fashioned family show. “Celebrities do the show because their kids watch it and they want to have a bit of a laugh. It’s not a singing contest. I think that’s why we are supportive of the celebrities because they’re just having fun and the audience at home are watching it to have fun.”
Simpson says this sense of enjoyment has been integral from the start of production. “These aren’t young performers who find themselves in a spotlight. These are experienced professionals who are doing this because they’ve heard it’s a good show and it’s a giggle. It’s just colourful entertainment and we need a bit of that at the moment.”
Of course, the irony of the UK’s show’s success in a time when everyone is wearing a mask has not escaped Simpson. “I suggested a PPE character for the second show and got a firm no.” During the first lockdown in 2020, he used the company’s 3D printer to make face shields for NHS workers and, when the workshops reopened to make costumes for series two, it was the first post-lockdown work some of the team had. Like many in the creative industries, Plunge’s workforce has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“This sort of work is reassuring, it shows entertainment can come back,” says Simpson. “I think that actually the creative industries will recover, but, by golly, it’s going to be a hard journey. But people have a fundamental need to be entertained, to be taken away from themselves.”
If nothing else, The Masked Singer can definitely promise you a break from reality.