As the professional travails of Cheryl Cole continue to dominate the global news agenda, it would be easy to see our current fascination with the institution of the talent-show judge as an expression of a specifically 21st-century pathology. But go back to the dawn of TV time (well, the 1960s) and these public arbiters are a constant presence.
From Thank Your Lucky Stars’ Black Country sage Janice Nicholls, with her immortal catchphrase “Oi’ll give it foive” (historic precursor of Len Goodman’s Strictly Come Dancing “Se-ven!”) to Juke Box Jury’s pioneering professional teenager Susan Stranks, X Factor newbies Gary Barlow, Tulisa Contostavlos and Kelly Rowland have some big shoes to fill. Naysayers, cheerleaders, experts, charlatans ... here are four of the best.
1. Tony Hatch
As if he hadn’t already brought us enough joy by writing Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and the theme tunes for Crossroads, Sportsnight and Neighbours, this former head chorister of All Souls, Langham Place, also gave us the template for the judge who tells it like it is. His tough-talking persona on cheesy 1970s talent quest New Faces earned him the soubriquet the “Hatchet Man” and a heartfelt personal thank-you from Simon Cowell. “You started it all,” Cowell once told this formative curmudgeon – in Fifa terms, Sir Stanley Rous to his own Sepp Blatter – “and we’re all very grateful to you”.
2. Tyra Banks
The first African-American woman ever to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue” blazed a still more inspiring trail once her modelling career had ended. As supreme leader of the Next Top Model franchise (now expanded to more than 45 countries worldwide), Tyra Banks’ assured stewardship of such mercurial helpmeets as flamboyant cross-dressing runway coach Miss J, “noted fashion photographer” Nigel Barker and American Vogue’s exquisitely sophisticated human wigwam André Leon “Dreckitude” Talley, has established her as reality TV’s Gaia-come-dominatrix.
3. Bruno Tonioli
All the Strictly ... judges have made a distinctive contribution – from lusty Arlene to firm but kindly Alesha. But where head judge Len Goodman sometimes gets a bit too irascible while hopping back and forth across the Atlantic to do America’s Dancing With The Stars, this imposingly well-preserved 55-year-old former Lindsay Kemp stalwart and Bananarama video guru never loses his amazing command of the English language (he once likened Billy Ray Cyrus to “a crazy bear lost in a swamp”).
4. Louis Walsh
Eight culls and no one knows how many hissy fits in, and the former Boyzone and Westlife svengali is the last original X Factor judge still standing. From publicly falling out with Popstars: The Rivals winners Girls Aloud, to misremembering the lyrics of Radiohead’s “Creep”, pretty much everything he does is wrong. And yet, somehow, he survives – part whipping-boy, part cockroach, and entirely an inspiration.