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June 4, 2011 12:39 am

Hell hath no fury like a Geordie spurned

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Simon Cowell will probably weather the Cheryl Cole storm

Strange to report of six young women with big breasts and shapely legs who do provocative dances, but Girls Roc, the first act on the semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent (ITV1 Monday; the final is on Saturday) weren’t sexy. This is partly because their act, honed for clubs and private parties, is so grindingly bad (they didn’t win) – but mainly because Girls Roc performed, not for the audience before them or the many millions at home, but for the judges of the show who can give them fame and fortune if they win. And above all for Simon Cowell. This is what a “family show”, watched by nearly half of the nation’s viewers, now is: a kind of sultan’s command performance.

Cowell, who created The X Factor, from which the more diverse Britain’s Got Talent evolved, is now a star of the English-speaking world. Creator, impresario, talent judge and, at 51, avid to present himself as a sex symbol – he appears in shirts unbuttoned to mid-chest – he has been able to control and develop music and TV businesses in the UK and the US and to surf celebrity scandals that, so far, emphasise his power, wealth and personal force.

So far. The singer Cheryl Cole who had been a judge on Cowell’s X Factor, was taken by him to be a judge on the US version of the show – and fired, apparently on the insistence of Fox, which airs the show, reportedly because her light Newcastle accent was comprehensible to a US audience (that is, she was judged to be insufficiently English-speaking; several US commentators, who found her perfectly comprehensible, expressed their sorrow for this – but the deed is done). Cowell, it appears, acquiesced; in an apparent (who can know if these massaged stories have a basis?) effort to placate Cole, he offered to give her place back on the UK X Factor judging panel – a move so far contemptuously spurned, with her press agents putting it out that she wishes to “take stock of her career”.

Cole, whom Cowell had praised for her ability to connect with “ordinary people” – she was raised, the fourth of five children of separated parents, on a Newcastle council estate – has an instant narrative of glitzy martyrdom for the tabloids, which might give Cowell some grief. He was reportedly booed by a section of the crowd when he appeared (to the Superman theme) on Monday’s show, and Dec Donnelly of the duo Ant and Dec, the show’s comperes and themselves from Newcastle, asked Cowell if he could understand them.

North-eastern pride is a volatile thing: the new reality series Geordie Shore (MTV Thursday) – based on the popular US show Jersey Shore and capitalising on the popularity of Bafta winning The Only Way is Essex (recently ended on ITV2) – drew local ire for a portrayal of young Geordies interested in casual sex and aggressively ignorant conversation. Watching its crude cavorting, you can see the complainants’ point. Chi Onwura, the Newcastle Central MP (Labour) has said she will raise local concerns in parliament: an unintended compliment to the vast cultural power even a minority channel’s tawdry show can exert. The Only Way is Essex, by contrast, was funny and sometimes charming, and introduced an audience to the new service of vajazzling – adhering diamante sparkles to the skin just above the pubic area – administered by the beautician Amy, the unstoppable star of the show, who had believed Pakistan was the capital of India, but no longer does.

Reality TV – or “alternative entertainment”, as Fox calls it – is a vast swamp, from which great beasts of scandal rise to fill the celebrity magazines, tabloids and, more and more, TV – then fall back into the ooze, having brought what delight and done what damage they can. Cowell is a king of this patch and, with his record label, his show franchises and his chutzpah, will probably weather the Cheryl storm. Cowell has created a fortune for himself, through hard work and ruthless manipulation of the talent; the fawning will probably continue to smother the booing. But don’t turn your back on the Geordies, pet.

In a different part of the jungle, where the viewers are fewer and nobody makes real money, BBC4 presented four documentaries over four nights, in the Storyville strand, on human rights – a running theme on the channel. They were variable: a film on the Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN commissioner for human rights killed by a bomb in Baghdad in 2003, spent too long describing his death; another on Amnesty didn’t fully grapple with the contemporary contradictions in which it is caught. But in all – these were buttressed by a horror story of Comrade Duch, the head of the Tuol Sleng prison camp in Phnom Penh, where thousands were tortured to their death when Cambodia was run by the Khmer Rouge; and another on the Argentinian Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague – they were a cold bath of reasoning and argument, confronting us with the dilemmas of a globalised world in which justice remains trapped in nation states.

All efforts to extend the concept and practice of respecting the rights of all equally beyond the wealthy west meet resistance, suspicion and outright opposition. As we now see in Libya, it is quickly represented as western imperialism. These films took on board complexity, which is what we should expect, at times, from our television.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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