Do you not ever think, alone to yourself in quiet moments, staring up at the wonder of the universe, of the stars burning bright and distant above us, at the magic in the soil beneath us, of life and death and motion and fire, and do you not ever think to yourself: man. Who are those people who make up live studio audiences on British TV shows, though? What are they doing with the days they are not here? Wither the misery in their life that makes this such joy?
I am at Elstree Studios to find out.
Lip Sync Battle UK is the British offshoot of Lip Sync Battle, which is the glossy TV offshoot of a segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which was lifted wholesale from the drag scene. We are three, maybe four removals away from the original seed of the idea, and Mel B presents it. That is what Lip Sync Battle UK is.
In case you are unfamiliar with the format, it is this: two celebrities face off to lipsync along to two 90-second cuts of popular music songs each. In between, the host will shepherd like sheep to the slaughterhouse some semi-competitive banter out of their mouths – Lip Sync Battle is a place for people to say, "you're going down", to get a "well, I think you'd be surprised" out of their systems, to drop their best "oh, I've got some moves" – and then there is some patter with the co-host (Chrissy Teigen in the US; Professor Green in the UK), who judges the various performances in warm tones. The celebrities then do their lipsyncs – one straight lipsync in civilian clothing, no props; a second, with backing dancers and glitter cannons – and the audience decides the winner by cheering a lot. It's basically just a party game that's got a bit out of hand, and now it's in 12 countries across two seasons.
It is also, crucially, A Bit of Fun, and we tend to forget that sometimes. It is December, where I am, outside Elstree Studios in the pissing rain and cold, and it is 2016 – the end of a long, hard year – and we have lost sight of A Bit of Fun. Do we remember A Bit of Fun, or has 2016 left us numb, the ends of our Fun nerves frayed to nothing, oblivious to delight in an ocean of horror? As Christmas huddles in and the hard reset of New Year's Eve approaches, is there hope left in the dregs of this year? Are there strong light-like beams of joy to be had, or is there nothing but those complex dark emotions, the ones that spread black like oil amongst us?
I am watching Ben Fogle pretend to be Dizzee Rascal in the middle of the afternoon. In America, Lip Sync Battle attracts the most super of the superstars – The Rock syncing "Shake It Off", Terry Crews vs. Mike Tyson, Justin Bieber losing to Deion Sanders, Channing Tatum wheeling out Actual Beyoncé in a lipsync with his wife. Here, though, it is the UK, so we have Ben Fogle – your mum's favourite posh-lad, our nation's David Attenborough-elect – facing off against Katie Price, the Princess Di of the Nando's Generation.
Katie Price is not doing press, because Katie Price is an empire, and empires can be toppled by arch journalists. That's where she is today, while Ben Fogle toils away in rehearsals. In many ways, today's lipsync is a class war expressed by two very wealthy people pretending to sing: in one corner, Price, the up-from-her-tit-straps ultimate girl-done-well; and in the other, Fogle, rich before he was rich, that toffy streak of adventure running through him the way it only does through people who've never had to work in a shop before. Fogle is doing the lipsync equivalent of turning to the teachers and asking for more homework, by which I mean he is rehearsing until he sweats in the hot heat of afternoon rehearsals. Fogle has been running through his showstopper lipsync ("Bonkers") for an hour-and-a-half now; his no-props lipsync, Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA", he knows word for word, and cracks in two runs. I look at my watch. Katie Price still hasn't turned up. I am beginning to suspect she is going to hit this all-in, no rehearsals, and absolutely smash it regardless. Katie Price is a lot of things, to a lot of people, is the thing. Is this her final form? Is Katie Price's ultimate evolution into that of a lipsync savant?
In the afternoon I talk to Mel B and Professor Green, who have heard of VICE documentaries but not of VICE.com.
Mel B is doing the most showbiz thing I have ever personally seen, which is having a series of rings braided into her hair by some sort of tame hair lackey while she looks at her phone and simultaneously conducts an interview with me. Mel B has been famous for two decades now, so this is de rigueur for her. I wonder, sometimes, what Mel B makes of Elstree – with its squidgy carpets and lacquered dark wood door frames, low roofs and long corridors, cafeterias and cold white-washed toilet rooms; a lot like a school that was meant to be destroyed in the 80s but never was – because I imagine she has spent the last 20 years getting $600 massage after $600 massage in various gleaming mansions and six-star hotels, pausing only occasionally to get extremely furious at Eddie Murphy. When was the last time Mel B ate dinner off a tray, do you think? When do you think Mel B last had to queue up at a Post Office? She lives a different life to you and me. Elstree – which, if you walked me round it and said "this was a youth offenders rehabilitation centre that hasn't had funding since the 1970s", I would believe you – is far below her pay grade. Seeing Mel B get her hair plaited in the kind of place you can vividly imagine a schoolboy being shanked is like seeing an exquisite orchid growing out of a ground up turd.
Anyway, obviously I could put the quotes here from the 12-minute interview I conducted with Mel B, but what I did instead is I recorded the few seconds after the interview – where I enthusiastically said, "Ooh, yeah, Nando's!" in answer to an off-mic offer of lunch – and not the interview itself, so I'm going to have to fabricate these quotes based on my own fractured memories of the day:
Mel B: "I like Lip Sync Battle UK, it's fun"
Professor Green: "I, also, like Lip Sync Battle UK. I share the sentiment that it is fun."
Mel B [ really northernly]: "Shane Ritchie was really good, wasn't he?"
Professor Green: "He was really good. We were surprised."
Mel B: [ Plays a song really, really loudly on Spotify via her dressing room TV]
Professor Green: "It's good."
Anyway, they both liked the VICE News documentary about ISIS and promised to watch the one about grime in Blackpool. We do not mention my articles. The ensuing Nando's is absolutely banging.
It's 4PM and the light turns from grey to blue to black and I am outside, in the cold, with the formative little traces of a queue. The ticketing system for TV works like this: through a third-party ticketing website, audience members apply for free tickets, but – like a Virgin train or any common-or-garden domestic or European flight – the audience is oversubscribed to ensure a full house, meaning for the more popular shows – some of the people who turn up to watch, say, James Corden honking his way through a two-hour recording of League of Their Own – are turned away at the door. Can you imagine something less dignified that being told you cannot watch James Corden perform for free? No. Exactly. Which is why people get here early for the queue. That's the system and we all respect it.
But why, exactly, would someone trek out to Elstree to see TV being made? I have been asking the question of myself all day, and I got a medium-heat chicken wrap out of the bargain. We approach the queue – there's this whole thing with a security guard, who will let us out but needs to see two forms of ID to let us back in, even though we are literally going three paces out of the studio, within both his line of sight and earshot; I mean, oh my god, security guards, why are you all like this? – and ask the couple who are first in it. A very nice woman whose name I have entirely forgotten and neglected entirely to write down tells me:
Q. Why did you decide to come?
Because I'm into music quite a lot. I had no idea which celebrities were coming but obviously now I know. I'm kind of gutted that I didn't come to last week's one, for Peter Andre. But me and my family watch it so I thought I'd give it a bash and see what it's like.
Q. Have you never seen TV actually get made?
Q. Looking forward to it?
Q. Who do you want to win out of Fogle and Price?
Fogle, of course.
And then an older couple, a little bit up the queue, whose names I didn't even ask, according to this transcript. Fuck alone knows where my head was at on this day:
So is it your first show?
First Lip Sync, yeah.
Have you seen other live studio things?
Yeah, I've been to loads. I've been to Alan Carr's stuff, mainly at the ITV studios. Chat show stuff.
Cool. So you don't mind the queuing?
No, you've got to get used to it.
You've got a system down.
Yeah. Get here early.
Are you a bit gutted that you're second in the queue, and not first?
Still no closer to figuring this one out, guys.
Katie Price is still yet to turn up to rehearsals and nothing has ever made me respect another person more. The thing with Lip Sync Battle is this: you can only embarrass yourself by half-arseing it. There is no way – no way – that getting up on a stage and performing, in any capacity at all, isn't entirely humiliating and self-conscious. So with Lip Sync, you cannot be "above" it. You cannot phone this one in and pretend to be better than it, like sober people do at karaoke. It doesn't work like that: pretending to sing a song but not singing it is essentially a thirsty Snapchat story spun out and put on a stage, so it is necessarily cringeworthy, and so by extension the only way to get out of it with any dignity intact at all is to fully commit to it: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, nail every line and every move. You cannot over-prepare for Lip Sync Battle UK. It is impossible to do that. The only way to avoid embarrassment is with intense-to-the-point-that-the-effort-itself-becomes-embarrassing practice. And this is what Fogle is doing: after 90 intense minutes of running through his dance number, I am watching Ben Fogle, in a shark onesie and troubling grey Asics, mutter the lyrics of "Bonkers" to himself as though he's hyping himself up for a life-or-death rap battle. Fogle has not come here to fuck around. So, obviously, I am worried about Katie Price.
Katie Price occupies a very unique place in Britain's hearts and minds, and I think our culture would be notably diminished without her. She's been everything: she turned being a Page 3 model into a career like nobody since Sam Fox had managed before her, and no one else since, then became an early-noughties tabloid staple as a result – high profile relationship with a footballer, podiatric sex tape with Dane Bowers, the usual – before somehow pulling the most astonishing, unseen career U-turn in history. Like, remember one day when she was Jordan, all blonde highlights and G-cup tits? And then she was called Katie Price and was a wholesome mother on her third husband? And nobody ever saw that metamorphosis happen? When did that happen? At what moment did that happen?
But for now, as the afternoon dwindles away and a queue snakes quietly outside, Katie Price's backing dancers are practising Katie Price's big dance number without Katie Price. The role of Katie Price is being played by a professional dancer whose full-time job it is to rapidly learn dance routines, and even still is taking a few run-thrus to get this right. When Katie Price arrives: how is Katie Price going to learn this dance sufficiently? How does Katie Price plan to do this? How can she get away with this? Katie Price, in front of a studio audience that has been waiting for hours, caught in the bright hot headlights of TV, more naked than she's ever been, plainly unknowing of the moves of the dance. Oh, this could be horrible. This could be a disaster.
A man left work five hours early to watch this and he does not want to talk to us about it.
The queue has now swollen from four people to a pretty solid 200, and, astonishingly, there are people in blankets with foldable fishing chairs, and with flasks, and thick hats. For Lip Sync Battle UK. A TV show where Mel B makes people pretend to sing.
At some point the security guard stops going mental at us about the precise place where we are standing and instead opens the main gate and lets the audience in, where they are funnelled between various anonymous buildings into a canteen-type room where their bags are searched and their coats are hung up for them before they are given somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour to have a go on a bar. And that's where I strike. That's where I leap upon them. When they are trapped and captive and in need of a drink. That's when I pop a squat down by a nice family and ask them why they are here:
Why are you here?
THE DAD OR AT LEAST DAD-FIGURE: We go to loads of different shows, this is just the latest one we've come to see.
Are you on a newsletter or something?
So how often do you come down to one?
Once every five weeks?
And what's the appeal?
We just like seeing shows.
I am a rapport machine. I am building rapport.
Is this a show you watch regularly? Did you watch the first series a lot?
Did you queue up a lot to get in here?
SON OR AT LEAST THE SON-FIGURE: We got here relatively early, a bit early.
Were you the guys who were the queuing professionals I saw with blankets and flasks?
EVERYONE, KEENLY: No.
They were showing the rest of the queue up, everyone else was amateur hour. Those guys knew how to queue.
And then I meet him. A shining beacon of pre-show banter. Michael Jackson. Michael actual Jackson.
(This man's name is Michael Jackson)
MICHAEL JACKSON: I'm Michael Jackson!
I'm sorry, I really should have known that.
MICHAEL JACKSON: You're talking to Michael Jackson.
I ask Michael Jackson and his friend, Kevin, why they are spending a Tuesday watching Katie Price pretend to sing at Ben Fogle.
So what brings you here?
MICHAEL JACKSON, POINTING TO KEVIN: He does. It gets me out of the house. My wife just had a baby and I have four kids, so I don't get out often. When things like this come up, I say, 'Do you mind if I go out for a few hours and come back?'
So this is your lad time?
I've been trying to get him out for the last few months. I've been to Davina McCall's 'This Time Last Year'. That was really interesting.
Is that a chat show?
The one where you have to transform. It was really good. The final was good; it was really good. But yeah, this is the first time I've been this side of the room. I came all the way from Twickenham.
So you really made a pilgrimage down.
Yeah. I thought this would be quite a good laugh.
We've seen the rehearsals of this – they're way funnier than I was expecting.
I like watching it on TV so I thought it would be quite funny.
There's something so disconcerting about seeing them doing it while you can't hear, though. On TV, you're like, 'They're near enough the mark, so that's pretty impressive,' but when you see it for real it's so weird. It's so weird what Ben Fogle is doing. I had a bit of a freak out watching it. So you come to quite a few, is this the first one for you?
Kevin doesn't like me as much.
When we're inside, and I'm watching Ben Fogle perform – we have seen the warm-up comedian get the crowd buzzing (I am taking lessons from the warm-up comedian about how to get the vibe going on a slow night at the pub, and I am here to share this knowledge with you: ask everyone their favourite crisp, then repeat the name of it then say "shite!" afterwards, and ride the ensuing argument for 10 to 15) (NB: "Skips? Shite!"), and we have seen Mel B come out in full PVC like an excessively sexy Catwoman, and Professor Green has said "fuck" into the microphone about 25 times now, each "fuck" somehow getting a laugh; The People Love Professor Green And The Way He Says Fuck – and now Ben Fogle is here, intensely giving it his all.
It's actually quite hard to look at Ben Fogle when he's in the lipsync zone: flashbangs keep going off behind him, so you can't look directly at him, like he is the sun. He only knows three dance moves away from his choreography, and one of them is a pleading arm to the camera, like he's begging outside the Gare du Nord; and also I've watched Ben Fogle pretend to sing "Bonkers" anywhere up to a dozen times today. When did Ben Fogle first encountered the song "Bonkers", do you think? That's what troubles me the most about this. I cannot think of a single situation where Ben Fogle would encounter the song "Bonkers". He lived for a year on an isolated Scottish island! He presents Countryfile! He went to A&E for tests on his heart and brain after a little dab of LSD! What stars aligned for him to hear the song "Bonkers" unprovoked!
Observation: there is no real dignity in the bend-and-high-five audience interaction. But is that going to stop Mel B? Reader: that is not going to stop Mel B.
Halfway through, while Fogle and The Pricey change into their stage outfits for Act Two, the warm-up comedian stages a dance off, where people can come up from the audience to try their hand at competitive karaoke lipsyncing, something that frequently devolves into frenetic public dancing as soon as they realise they don't know as many words to "Don't Stop Believin'" as they first thought. The crowning dance off is between Rudy, a beautiful man in his late I-would-guess-thirties who dances spectacularly, who is paired off against John, a dad so uncoordinated he can't land the high five Rudy offers him afterwards. Rudy crushes him, absolutely crushes him. The man was born to dance. He is the greatest living talent I have ever seen. The audience clap to decide the winner. The results call it a draw. I'm six Peronis in and fuming, shouting about injustice, about the system, about "the man". It's Just a Bit of Fun, though – remember. It's Just a Bit of Fun.
I'm not going to tell you the ultimate result, but, obviously, Ben Fogle is crushing it. He's not missed a single beat of "Party in the USA", the crowd going genuinely bananas with every girlish writhe and coquettish lip-lick, and I am watching Katie Price with rapt attention: how is she going to play this? How is she going to follow this up?
Katie Price is wearing leather trousers and has done three separate crotch flashes at the audience. Katie Price is softly clapping her hands and saying into the mic "Didn't he do well?" then, as the audience roars, softer now, "He did really well." She performs "Humps" – Katie Price thinks the Black Eyed Peas song "My Humps" is just called "Humps", and she pronounces it like this, bluntly: "HAMPS" – combined with a frankly appalling ad-libbed stripper dance that I imagine is sealed dark into Kieran Hayler's psyche forever. The room loses energy, takes a breath, then erupts. She grabs the mic again and tells them how well Ben Fogle did.
She's going to genuflect. She's going to sexily genuflect. That's her gameplan, here. She's going to baffle them with the age-old combination of tits and being nice.
The people are here, I guess, for one of two reasons: it's a regular activity, a free – or more-or-less free – hobby that gets you out the house for an evening of entertainment; like going to the cinema or the theatre, but with much more "Mel B fucking up and saying 'shit' twice and having to run-through her opening lines again". The other reason is: they don't know why they are here. They shrug and look at me and honestly cannot tell me why they are here. And why should they? Why does everything need a reason these days?
Now it is Katie Price's turn to do Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five", a practised dance routine I have not witnessed her practise. There's a pause, and then: and then Katie Price does a few veneery smiles and then just smashes it. She crushes it. She fucking crushes it. I'm baffled, and then I realise. She is a talent: her talent is turning herself to anything, filling whatever vessel is asked of her, becoming whoever you want her to be. Author, model, mum; saint, sinner. She is everything, and you all think she is nothing. She is everything.
And then it's over, and the audience leaves, and the stage is packed away before I can finish my beer (not even a pint! A bottle! That's how quick they work!), and an after-the-party hush descends, and I am granted a few holy seconds with Ben Fogle. By this point I wasn't even bothering with the dictaphone, but then did I really need it, because I asked – I had to ask – when did Ben Fogle, Ben actual Fogle, first encounter Dizzee Rascal's "Bonkers"? And Ben Fogle did come down from the mountain and say to me this, something I did not need a dictaphone to record, seared as it was into my memory forever.:
"Oh, I'm a fan of Dizzee. I was actually in Spain, recently, getting my para-motor license, so I listened to it a lot then."
Is that not the most Ben Fogle thing you've ever heard Ben Fogle say? Isn't that the Ben Fogliest thing in the world? No: this next thing is, overheard in the green room a few minutes later, when Katie Price had convinced Ben Fogle to stay for one drink, and Katie Price strides in in those leather trousers and a pair of green-and-gold wellies, roaring "I WANT TO PICK YOUR BRAINS ABOUT SHEEP," and there, rising just above the hubbub a little later, I hear Ben Fogle saying this, the most Ben Fogle thing ever said in the world, the most Ben Fogle thing there is:
"Of course, I've written a book about Labradors"
Lip Sync Battle UK starts on Channel 5 this Friday.