Every year when The X Factor comes around, Reality Bites mumbles the same lines about the Simon Cowell and ITV musical monster. "It must have peaked last year", "It can't possibly get any bigger" and "People are probably a bit bored of it now". However, by the time the final Judges' Houses episode rolled around, us, the tabloids and approximately 14 squillion viewers were frothing at the mouth about Gamu, Gamu and a little bit more Gamu. Suddenly a nation's economic woes, the safety of Chile's miners and other such 'hard news' were bumped off the front pages to focus on the urgent matters of Cheryl Cole's tarnished reputation as 'The Nation's Sweetheart', debates about Cher Lloyd's weight (she enjoys croissants, apparently) and a visa immigration saga surrounding poor Gamu, who's probably done more to promote immigration in this country than any politician has for the past 25 years.
Naturally, once the show kicked off properly on Saturday, it took all of three minutes for Gamu-Gate, Auto-Tune-Gate and Cheryl Cole Hate-Gate to be forgotten. There wasn't a Gate in sight. Well, apart from Bongo-Gate, but we'll get to that later. Once Peter Dickson had given us his best belting "JOHN ADELEYE!" and "NICOLO FESTA!" the whole country appeared to regain some rationality and sense of proportion, settling in for over two and a half hours of the most bonkers light entertainment seen on these shores since the days of Dale Winton's Pets Win Prizes. Featuring bongo solos, Cheryl sporting an Oompa-Loompa tan and a TV-am-meets-G-A-Y, bicycle shorts-wearing Diva Fever striptease, it wasn't only Simon Cowell left feeling like he was "going mad" after this Eurovision-style marathon.
Speaking of Diva Fever, the first revelation of the night was the worst-kept secret in TV and the news that four acts would be returning as wildcards. Despite Simon's best attempts, we're still not quite sure what the purpose of this "twist" was other than to help pad out ITV's winter schedules further, generate some headlines leading up to the show and create a Big Brother-esque divide in the house between the original contestants and the newbies. It was great to see Paije Richardson's cheeky chops and pudgy Marshmallow Man belly again, but the concept felt rushed. If they had wanted 16 contestants from the start, fair enough, but why go to the bother of axing a load and bringing them back? A better twist would have had the public picking one of the four as a wildcard or a new judge taking control of the wildcard category.
Aside from the four returning acts, the main talking point of the weekend was the survival of "hair salon receptionist" Katie Waissel. Intriguing Italian Nicolo Festa was the first act dumped out, punished for a bad song choice (Lady GaGa) and being dressed like a waiter with some £2 sunglasses. He was quickly followed by boyband FYD, who kept the spirit of 'Groups Of X Factor Past' alive, as they were given the boot by the judges. Handed the graveyard opening slot of the show (could anyone even remember what song FYD did by the time Wagner's bongos started?) and given minimal airtime during the audition shows, it was hardly a shock nobody bothered to vote for them. Nice lads, but they'll be playing Butlins with Kandy Rain and Eoghan Quigg soon enough.
But it was Katie's staying power which really appeared to get people's goats. With worse press than the Yorkshire Ripper right now, every twitch, nod of the head or smile from Miss Waissel is blasted as a sign of "arrogance". We're not simply being contrary here, and we're well aware of Waissel's rather precocious VTs and ugly reality TV history, but are we the only ones who actually *whisper it* don't mind Katie? Yes, she may have a penchant for daft hats. Yes, she may have done the dirty with Apprentice buffoon Michael Sophocles. Yes, she may look like Pickle from CITV's Knightmare. And yes, we know that she is as desperate for fame as a failed Big Brother contestant in Chinawhite after three bottles of Lambrini. But is that really such a bad thing?
We must all be well aware now that a significant number of X Factor hopefuls have not simply been plucked out of thin air from their local ASDA and have probably been on the singing circuit for a while trying their hand at the fame game. And it's also pretty unrealistic to assume that the contestants will all be humble, loveable and never irritating. We hate to be the ones to break the secret, but a large number of your favourite celebrities are not very nice and have egos the size of Bristol. Admittedly, Miss Waissel currently pushes things to the limit, but whatever happened to going on an X Factor "journey" and giving people a second chance? At the very least she deserves some praise from a singing perspective, as her rendition of 'Don't Let Me Down' in the sing-off had a fragility and sincerity missing from most of Saturday's performances. However, if she doesn't quit it with the Daft Punk-meets-chicken-in-a-basket headgear (we think that was the look she was going for), our sympathy won't last long.
Rather than ending on a low, let's take a moment to celebrate the high points of the weekend. Tesco Mary was a notable highlight with a barnstorming, Ruth Lorenzo-esque skirt-hitching, glass-shattering take on 'It's A Man's World'. Rebecca Ferguson proved that she could hold a tune and not break into tears, wildcard Treyc Cohen flashed us some thighs that looked like they could crack nuts and Wagner proved that he was wasted in the world of Physical Education teaching as he brought a bongo-bashing 'Love Shack' to the masses. We can only hope and pray that Wagner's Bongos become a regular fixture during the series and may we even go as far as to suggest a Bongo Week? Wagner plays the Um Bongo theme tune with backing dancers dressed as characters from the old soft drinks commercial - it sounds like a winner to us.
Not even the bonkers Brazilian's percussion-boshing could quite steal the show though, as Aiden Grimshaw ended up messing with the script (we thought Matt Cardle was supposed to win this year?) and fast-tracked his way to the bookmakers' favourite slot with a jaw-dropping rendition of 'Mad World'. Even a series of psychotic facial expressions (they even dressed him in what looked like a straight jacket) couldn't ruin his moment and he's going to take some catching after setting the early pace in the competition. Come the end of his performance and the 160-minute Cowell-marathon, one thought sprung to our minds: Gamu who?
What do you think to the first X Factor live shows of the series? Who did you love and who did you hate? Has the Katie hate gone too far?