Tonight, Harry, I’m Going to be A Post-Postmodern Nightmare: The Dismal Return of 'Stars in their Eyes'

This might not be the show we remember, or the one we wanted, but it’s the one we’ve been given, the one we’ll take without a fight. It’s what we deserve, and ITV know it.

Jan 16 2015, 3:48pm

In theory ITV have just single handedly saved Saturday night. Pairing Paddy McGuiness’s seminal lift-heavy televisual Tinder swipefest Take Me Out with the return of a 90s tea time classic in the guise of Stars In Their Eyes looked like a surefire way to ensure that our dry January promises might extend into the second weekend of the month and see the nation’s already at-risk pubs take a financial battering as we swap supped pints for sofa swigged soft drinks and grab bags of Skittles. Throw in the fact that they’d swapped leonine former host Matthew Kelly for slapheaded surrealist Harry Hill and this should be everything you could ask for from a programme that specialised in giving mechanics from Wakefield a chance to live out their Gerry and the Pacemakers dreams to the nation’s living-room bound grannies.

But as anyone who’s ever half-arsedly tossed a Derrida quote into an essay knows, theory doesn’t always quite comply with the rigidity of real life’s crushing actuality. Instead of the quiet, dignified charm and calm of the Kelly days, what we got was a dizzying, painful, archly self-aware mess that left us wondering who, if anyone, the joke was on.

If the classic run of episodes - episodes which sent members of the public like Freddy Mercury wannabe Gary Mullen on the road to low-level fame - were all about celebrating the power of the ordinary person who has both the ability to accurately mimic the voice of another and the confidence to think that doing so is a talent worth pursuing enough that there’s a potential career to be made of it, then 2015’s brash incarnation is a macabre acknowledgment of light entertainment’s current inability to just sit still and fucking CONCENTRATE on anything for more than a minute or two.

The problems with it are multitudinous: the zany skits Hill’s known for come across as cheap and tawdry, adding nothing and taking away from the essential drama of the show; the performers, thus far, are genuinely terrible rather than, as they used to be, crushingly competent.

But, despite all this, despite the show-wrecking flaws and the fact that it looks doomed for a dismal one series run before getting scrapped and eventually finding kitsch, ironic re-appreciation on Challenge TV in a decade or so, there’s something to be applauded about this legacy ruining wreck: this is ITV becoming self-aware even reflective.

This is ITV, a somewhat unfairly maligned channel that sits queasily and uneasily in the grand scheme of British television with a shit-eating gring forcing their viewers’ faces into what they’ve just eaten. It’s like the channel is on reading week of the first term at university: they’ve just heard of postmodernism and they want you to know they know about it.

Unable to fully sever the umbilical chord to its former incarnation, the programme is full of meta-twists. Letting the audience know that, yes, this is all just fantasy, a construct, a playful tug on the past. They play with the very formula of the programme itself as a dramatic device and failsafe way of cutting between scenes. Dear old Matthew Kelly arrives, suited and alarmingly booted, to reclaim his rightful spot in the makeup chair of the Stars In Their Eye dressing room.

But, and here’s the rub, wait...that dry ice filled doorway opens to reveal…

Harry Hill! A nation falls to the floor, laughing hysterically and uncontrollably at the sight of a man wearing another man’s clothes! They don’t fit! The other man’s clothes don’t fit this man’s body! You cannot write that! Physical comedy at its absolute finest! They’ve pulled the rug from under our feet! We’ve laughed so much that it’s less Stars in Their Eyes and more Stars in OUR Eyes because we’re rolling about looking up unable to move from the sheer force of the howls of laughter that we’re pumping out of our tightening throats!

The outfit based banter doesn’t stop there. The postmodern accepts the contemporary as an amalgamation of all that has passed into being, acknowledges the futility of even conceiving of anything that could remotely class itself as "new". So it’s only fitting that the nation’s favourite follically challenged proponent of wacky slapstick and head tilting camera glances strides on stage to posit himself as the new king of Saturday night prime time wearing…

Pharrell’s big hat! Rather than being a simple, slightly embarrassing, out of date cultural reference that probably had ¾ of the audience wondering why Harry had to wear a hat, because he never normally wears a hat, oh no, he’s normally a bald man without a hat, and the remainder wondering why he’s referencing something that, in pop culture terms, happened so long ago that he might as well have rolled out on a penny farthing, it’s actually a very clever postmodern joke about living in a culture which prizes the sign and the reference over the real.

In case we were so thrown off by the hat that we didn’t know that the man wearing it was Harry Hill, Harry Hill and his big hat are joined by two fully sized Harry Hill puppetman who have horrifically engorged and enlarged Harry Hill heads. The trio sing a song about what the audience is about to see. This is those clever people at ITV simultaneously looking down on their audience by literally telling them what is going to happen in the next hour just in case the linear narrative that’s set to follow causes confusion and viewers are tricked into thinking that the man in a hat has real celebrities singing songs for all of us, and alluding to the very artificiality of televisual entertainment which reinforces our concept of the world as a narrative construct that could implode at any point lest we repeatedly tell ourselves and others of said artificiality.

After the ontological onslaught of the opening sequence, we’re eased into the familiar realm of identity politics and the subsumation of another within one’s self. This is, a now hatless Harry tells us, a show so steeped in TV history, so much of a part of the nicotine stained fabric of shared British cultural consciousness that in it’s first run, King Herod hosted it. Sterling work: self-deprecation is the sign of high intelligence and poking fun at what you and a large team of other people have spent a lot of money and a tonne of time working on to be the best product it can be for the benefit of it’s audience, and more importantly it’s financial backers, is a classic move. He follows it up by letting us know that the show no longer builds up to a tense live final. Rather than the possibility of sustaining a cruise ship career for a year or two as a result of being able to sing “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” moderately well while wearing a ginger wig and big specs, the eventual winner receives a trophy. “Winning Stars in their Eyes,” Hill begins, “won’t change your life. But it won’t ruin it either.” The producers cackle as Hill pushes pin after pin into an already sagging balloon.

The enjoyment, or potential for enjoyment, still comes from attempting to second guess that which is unfolding in front of us. Who will first contestant, dog groomer Ann, become? Whose body will she slip into, whose soul is she going to feast upon, whose voice is she going to summon?

Before we find out we’re treated to the kind of sequence this iteration of the programme depends upon: knowingly arch pisstakes of the mundanity of the contestants lives outside of the impersonation game, which come across as both cruel and consented. Ann used to live in Texas. Now she lives in Stroud. So we get shots of bin men. Because nothing makes us feel better on a Saturday night than watching people do jobs we perceive as below us. A chat about dogs in lipsticks ensues and the audience sit waiting for the clues to come, for that magic moment when the penny drops and we know what the smokey transformation is going to entail. But no. The programme deploys a blocking device, a narratorial derailment in the form of a painful sketch in which Harry Hill stands in a van holding some water. But they clues, they come. Eventually. We wait with baited breath for the magic moment, the best bit, the reveal. “Well, tonight, Matthew…” “It’s Harry!” Harry Hill looks furious. Ann looks remorseful. She tries again. Enters the smoke. Re-emerges.

She’s Kylie! Ann trudges through an uninspired version of “On a Night Like This” that sounds more suited to Butlins than the big stage of Saturday night prime time. It is unequivocally awful.

The programme runs on, dispiritingly, sneering at the sadsack normal people who had the temerity to think they were worthy of being filmed doing something they care about without ridicule. A couple creepily perform an Everly Brothers song but have to endure watching a skit involving large plastic bags before they can do so. A nice labourer called Blake from Stoke who likes space and GTA has to watch Harry Hill get in a playfight in a ball pool from which former Big Brother contestant Brian Belo emerges, pretending he’s pissed himself, before he can do a dire Eminem impression.

This might not be the show we remember, or the one we wanted, but it’s the one we’ve been given, the one we’ll take without a fight. It’s what we deserve, and ITV know it.

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