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Why a Maggie Smith drama has the real X Factor for me

Sharon Owens

I have to confess that I've never watched X Factor, Big Brother, Hell's Kitchen, Strictly Come Dancing, Pop Idol, I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, or any other 'reality' TV show.

It's not because I'm a culture-vulture, mind you. One of my favourite shows is Celebrity Juice starring the preposterous comic creation, cheesy wannabe lothario, Keith Lemon, and his permanently sprained right hand. (I'll leave you to work that one out for yourself.) My other favourite show is King of Queens, an American sitcom featuring laid-back van driver Doug Heffernan and his eccentric father-in-law Arthur Spooner.

No, I can't bring myself to watch anything with a phone vote or a panel of judges, simply because I don't like seeing ordinary people under pressure. I know I'm in a tiny minority here, but it makes me feel anxious when I see other people feeling anxious. And it makes me feel uneasy when I see people trembling with fright, sobbing backstage, having panic attacks, begging the judges for another chance or begging the public to save them from elimination.

These shows remind me of those dance marathons they used to have in Depression-era America. You know, where couples had to dance for days until they literally collapsed with low blood sugar, and the winners were the last couple standing. I've no idea how or why reality TV has taken over television and become our national pastime.

And there's no getting away from it. Magazines and newspapers are packed with interviews and photo-shoots with the winning contestants, and also the losing contestants. And the mantra of the losers is always, 'You haven't seen the last of me'.

Daytime TV is packed with invited guests and experts discussing every detail of every show. Unless I go and live in my attic I can't escape the latest round of post-show analysis.

Is Katie Waissel being deliberately 'saved' by Simon Cowell because he wants a quirky, fragile Lady Gaga clone to win this year's X Factor? And won't it be hilarious to see nutrition expert Gillian McKeith eating a kangaroo's bits on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here? And is Felicity Kendall too 'mature' to be spinning round the dance-floor in sultry costumes?

I know there's a recession on and everybody is flat broke and soon we'll have to carry out our own operations, and so on. And I dare say all of this hysterical nonsense is a bit of a distraction from gas bills and house repossessions and the cost of petrol. But is it healthy when popular culture is based on crying contestants, sobbing relatives, begging teen-agers, ancient pop songs, millions of phone votes and smug middle-aged judges caked in orange pan-stick? It's a treadmill, isn't it?

Every year on X Factor it seems to be the same line-up: a fragile girl, a pretty boy, a larger lady, some geeky teens, a novelty act and a working class soul singer. I wonder why that is?

Do you think it could be anything to do with mass appeal to the voting public? The Romans knew a thing or two about putting bums on seats. Fair enough they had wild animals killing live Christians, or enslaved gladiators killing other enslaved gladiators. But it got the crowds in, and shifted flags and snacks by the cartload.

I can't help feeling that if Simon Cowell could get away with flinging the losers in a cage of lions he might be tempted to do it.

That emotionally detached smile of his never falters. I expect he's thinking of his mansion in sunny California and how he'll he soon be toasting his toes on the patio, while the cannon-fodder on X Factor tout their tales of heartbreak up and down the length of Fleet Street in a black taxi.

Oh, call me Scrooge if you like. I don't mind. It's water off a duck's back to me. But I'll never see the attraction of reality TV. Yes, it takes courage to sing live in front of millions. Yes, it takes guts to eat, well, guts in the jungle. But give me Maggie Smith in a period drama any day. Give me a beautiful set (mostly) devoid of satellite dishes. Oh bliss! No orange pan-stick, no pitifully underweight starlets, no hysterical audience, no plucky defiance from the losers, no panicky gushing from the winners. And best-of-all: no smug-bake multi-millionaire Simon Cowell. He's the real winner of reality TV.