The Voice UK 2019, episode 1: old friends reunited and irresistible moments were had - but the show still needs to find a real star
The swivel chairs were back to take on The Greatest Dancer’s sliding wall in yet another Saturday night talent show battle. Here are all the talking points from the singing contest’s series opener…
Lonnie Donegan’s son made for magical moment
Auditionee Peter Donegan seemed like a bit of a busker – a stubbly Jeremy Renner lookalike with a nice tone but nothing spectacular – until he dropped the big twist. Peter was the son of pioneering Sixties star Lonnie Donegan, used to tour as his father’s piano player and was even performing with one of the King of Skiffle’s old guitars.
When Sir Tom Jones heard Peter’s surname, he casually asked: “Any relation to Lonnie?” and was astonished by the answer – especially as Donegan Senior co-wrote Jones’s 1967 single I’ll Never Fall in Love Again and the pair were friends who played gigs together.
Veteran pro Tom and 35-year-old Peter promptly teamed up an impromptu duet, exchanging emotional looks across the stage as they did so. When the house band joined in right on cue, the cynic in me suspected this might have been rehearsed but regardless of whether it was contrived, it was still magical.
Lonnie died of a heart attack in 2002, mid-tour and shortly before he was due to perform a George Harrison memorial concert with the Rolling Stones. However, his widow Sharon was in the wings, shedding a tear. It made for a shivery moment and fitting tribute. Lonnie Donegan on primetime ITV in 2019 – who’d have thought?
First ever trio had nice harmonies, nasty hats and one shoe
There has been a tweak to the entry criteria for this eighth series: trios are allowed to compete for the first time. Naturally, this meant a threesome was wheeled out for this first episode.
With their Monsoon skirts and matching fedoras, Surrey three-piece Remember Monday badly needed a stylist but this was the Blind Auditions and such superficial concerns were quickly forgotten when Charlotte Steele, Holly-Ann Hull and Lauren Byrne launched into a country-tinged, Dixie Chicks-esque rendition of Seal’s Kiss from a Rose, rich with honeyed harmonies.
All four coaches turned for them and Jennifer Hudson even threw her shoe on-stage in strange tribute. “It’s a compliment if I take my shoe off and throw it at you,” J-Hud sort-of-explained earlier this week. “It’s like a standing ovation because the performance has moved me. I’m not throwing it at them, I’m throwing it for them.” Riiiight.
Will.i.am punningly chipped in: “You have soul, so she gave you sole.” Cue J-Hud lopsidedly limping on-stage in one high-heeled ankle boot to embrace Remember Monday after they agreed to join her team. Well, it would have been cobblers if they hadn’t.
Dreamgirls duet provided a rousing crescendo
This curtain-raising episode climaxed with the audition of likeable north Londoner Nicole Dennis. The 24-year-old isn’t quite an undiscovered amateur, since she’s currently appearing in the West End production of R&B musical Dreamgirls as part of the ensemble cast and understudy to the Effie White character – the role that happened to be played by Jennifer Hudson in the Oscar-winning 2006 film.
She obviously wanted her idol to hit her button and J-Hud duly did so when Nicole unleashed out a slow-building, lung-busting rendition of ballad Never Enough from The Greatest Showman. It was a heart-warming dream come true when Hudson then joined her on-stage for a big-voiced, even bigger-haired duet of Dreamgirls’ signature torch song And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.
Like with Peter Donegan, this might have been pre-planned but it still made an irresistible moment, especially when Nicole beamed: “I’m on cloud 10!”
Olly Murs was resident clown among coaches
Sitting in the judging panel’s designated “cheeky chappie” chair, previously occupied by Danny O’Donoghue, Gavin Rossdale (remember him?) and Ricky Wilson, Olly Murs took it upon himself to be the office joker.
He ostentatiously sang along to every audition. He sniffed J-Hud’s shoe and did press-ups with will.i.am. When he finally recruited a singer, he celebrated with air-punches, face-pulling and puffed on a faux-cigar.
As the most junior and least musically credible of the four coaches, Murs might have trouble persuading hopefuls to join his team. Still, there’s always his side-hustle as a war reporter from Selfridges department store to fall back on.
Most original voices were both West Country teen girls
Maybe it’s all those cream teas and pasties but the standout young voices in this episode came from Devon and Cornwall.
Dreadlocked 16-year-old Brieya May from the North Devon market town of Chulmleigh crooned a jazzy take on Frankie Valli’s Can't Take My Eyes Off You that recalled Amy Winehouse.
Just a year older was dungaree-clad Molly Hocking from surfing hotspot St Ives, who showcased her beautifully controlled, sweetly delicate voice as she sang Eva Cassidy's You Take My Breath Away. This wasn’t Molly’s first rodeo – she reached The X Factor’s boot camp phase in 2017 – but could she progress further here?
Will.i.am had been working out – just not his button-pressing muscles
The panel’s longest-standing coach, Black Eyed Peas frontman and super-producer will.i.am, unveiled a new look for this series. Gone were the sci-fi costumes, wacky hats and novelty glasses, replaced by stripped-back denim workwear.
Rolled-up short sleeves were all the better to show off his new buff physique – which, frankly, we wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t crowbarred in several mentions of his “guns”, even hitting the studio floor for some press-ups.
It was notable, though, how will.i.am was the only judge who didn’t turn for the last two acts, Molly and Nicole. Perhaps he was to busy muscle-flexing.
Contrasting fortunes for Taff twosome
For the first 20 minutes, this episode seemed to have been sponsored by the Visit Wales tourist board, since we opened with two turns from the Valleys.
Singing fireman Mike Platt belted out Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven with an impressive high range – so much so that Olly Murs thought it was a female vocalist. All four judges turned but Platt quipped: “I wouldn’t be allowed back in Aberdare if I didn’t choose Tom Jones.”
Sadly, there were no turns for 17-year-old Tredegar student Heidi Lewis. She confessed she was “mega-scared” and nerves got the better of her when she performed Lost Without You by Freya Ridings. Heidi might be back. In the meantime, she’ll be on till five, aisle one at Home Bargains.
Show badly needs to find a star
The Voice’s victor stands to earn a recording contract with Polydor but the contest remains hamstrung by its reputation for winners sinking without trace.
The seven previous champions – Leane Mitchell, Andrea Begley, Jermain Jackman, Stevie McCrorie, Kevin Simm, Mo Jamil and Ruti Olajugbagbe – have hardly set the charts alight and could walk down most high streets without any heads turning.
Indeed, will.i.am admitted this week that stars nowadays are more likely to be made on social media than on reality TV. Which begs the question: why should we bother watching The Voice when we could be scrolling through Instagram or Twitter instead?
ITV singing vs BBC dancing… again
No sooner had one ITV musical talent search finished in The X Factor than another arrived in the shape of The Voice. It was a similar story with hoofing contests over on BBC One, where Strictly Come Dancing was replaced by new arrival The Greatest Dancer.
With both airing at 8pm, it will be intriguing to see which achieves ascendancy in the viewing figures: The Greatest Dancer’s heavily hyped novelty factor or The Voice’s familiar brand? Spinning chairs or sliding mirror? Cheryl Tweedy or her former collaborator will.i.am?
This was a solid opening episode but with only nine acts in 95 minutes, The Voice still lacks pace, often feeling ponderously worthy. It also faces its ongoing problem of interest flagging once the Blind Audition phase is over.
ITV execs will be praying that January’s Saturday night ratings battle doesn’t become another Strictly vs X Factor walkover.