Shiny, shabby people

The Brits was a mega-show, falling apart at the seams

Who was she? That's what I want to know. The Brits had many lowlights - One Direction, Olly Murs, One Direction - but a particular highlight was the disembodied female voice that boomed across the ferry-like O2 arena. She would say things like, "What a fantastic evening we have planned!" and "Coming up: Rihanna!" before the show cut to ad breaks.

I suppose she was meant to cover the links as James Corden traversed the floor to tell One Direction how beautiful and underage they were. Or the fist-chewingly awkward pause after the blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Whitney Houston. But it felt like being at an airport. Any second now she was going to warn Kylie not to leave her luggage unattended.

The voice provided welcome relief, though, from the images. It was all so shiny. The X Factor has had more than a musical effect on the pop industry: it has changed the aesthetic of the arena spectacle. Of course Rihanna was going to perform with a small-town population of paint- weilding dancers. There is now no other way. Coldplay, in their matching but individually customised khaki boiler suits, were dressed like one of Louis Walsh's boy bands. Even Noel Gallagher had the look of a man who had been primped into a cartoon version of himself.

Thank God for Ed Sheeran and George Michael, who were, respectively, shabby and pissed and ably scuffed the metallic sheen of the event. When ex-Pussycat Doll (the epitaph of epitaphs) Nicole Scherzinger gave Sheeran one of his awards she looked like a woman whose understanding of the world (looks and money win) was being overturned. In Scherzinger-land, Sheeran is the kind of guy you expect to pick up the sweet wrappers from around your chair, not someone who wins an award. The disembodied voice didn't know what to make of Sheeran either, introducing him to the crowd by citing the number of his Twitter followers, Facebook fans and YouTube subscribers. Forget the album, Sheeran, check out those social media stats!

There were other sources of light relief in the form of Rob Brydon and Alex James (unwittingly), but the big prize for the night should go to the blokes who nonchalantly walked in front of the camera as James Corden pattered away into the ether. Never mind the dancers, the lights, the outfits: nothing reveals the true, shoddy heart of a show than the back of a suit jacket obscuring the view.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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