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14 November 2015

Saturday night fever: The alternatives to reality shows

As more people skip Strictly and X Factor live, we take a look at the alternatives

Thatís entertainment: Strictly Come Dancing

ITV's X Factor beat BBC rival Strictly Come Dancing when they went head-to-head in their first ratings clash last month. Simon Cowell's talent show attracted a combined average audience of 8.94 million viewers - beating the 8.63 million who tuned in to watch the dancefloor action on Strictly.

Initial ratings had given Strictly a clear lead of 700,000. However, revised figures - released by the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) - are calculated on the total number of people who watched the programmes in the 28 days after broadcast. The new figures also take into account viewers who watched X Factor on ITV+1 and ITV HD - channels omitted from the initial, overnight figures. Either way, the numbers suggest that millions of us are not bothering to watch either X Factor or Strictly live on Saturday nights, and that people's viewing and weekend leisure habits are altering.

We asked four Belfast Telegraph writers what Saturday nights mean to them and how it has changed down the years ...

Frances Burscough: ‘Boy George, Bowie, Madonna... you never knew who you’d see’

When I was in my teens, Saturday nights weren't the great craic they were cracked up to be. As I was living at home with my mum and dad and seven brothers and sisters, I had to do as I was told. So, while my mates were all hanging out together at the park, swigging White Lightning and generally messing about, I was at Saturday vigil Mass at St Anthony of Padua Church.

Mum had discovered that going to a vigil Mass on Saturdays absolved you of going on a Sunday and, as Sunday dinner took all morning to make, it suited her better to go then. We weren't asked if we would go; we were told. As soon as I left home to go to university, all that benevolence went straight out of the window. As far as I was concerned, Saturday night meant the Hacienda Club in Manchester and that was the only place I wanted to worship.

In the Eighties, it was the place to be, not just in Manchester, where I was living then, but throughout the world; it was seen as the coolest club of its kind. Morrissey was usually there. Boy George, Marilyn, Divine, David Bowie, Madonna ... you never knew who you would see as you walked into that bizarre converted warehouse, and the sounds of New Order and Caberet Voltaire blasted out from behind the suspended dancefloor.

By my 30s, though, things had changed dramatically. I was married and living in Ireland, first in Dublin, then in Belfast. In the Dublin years, we went down Baggott Street on Saturdays to the good, old-fashioned spit-and-sawdust pubs, such as Doheny & Nesbitts and O'Donoghues. There was usually some kind of "session" going on, with traditional Irish music being played by men with long beards smoking pipes in between ballads. The Hacienda seemed like a whole world away.

When we moved up north in the early Nineties, it was often the Bot on the Malone Road, or The Front Page on Donegall Street.

Very often, our night was interrupted by bomb-scares, or security alerts, and so we just left one pub and moved on to another, just like everyone else did in those days. It was all part of the routine.

By my 40s, I had kids growing into teenagers into adults, plus I was divorced and living life as a single parent. So, if the boys went to their dad's for the night, I usually went out with my friends, or, occasionally, on a blind date with someone I'd met through a dating website.

Things did change for me, though, when the smoking ban was brought in. I had always enjoyed having a smoke while I was out at the pub with my friends. I was a so-called "social smoker", which meant that I only lit up when I was out on the town.

As soon as the ban came in, I completely went off the idea. Standing on a street in the rain, trying to light a cigarette in the wind, looking a bit like a hooker, never really appealed to me. So, like many others, I virtually stopped going to the pub and started to stay home on a Saturday where I could do my own thing.

Now I'm in my 50s, my sons are both adults and I can please myself what I do and with whom. But one of my favourite pastimes on a Saturday night is to cook a meal with friends, open a bottle of prosecco and simply relax in front of the fire, surrounded by my dogs. After decades of madness and mayhem, pubbing, clubbing and partying, it's like I'm finally having some properly relaxing me-time.

Frances Burscough's column appears in the Belfast Telegraph's Weekend magazine every Saturday

Billy Weir: 'I used to go round to my granny's, read comics and eat my body weight in crisps'

I was sitting pleasantly minding my own business on the sofa yesterday morning, the following message pinged into my existence - "Get some breads and oil for Sat nite. And some harissa. X."

Now, don't get me wrong, I have no problem as a modern-day man doing my share of the household chores, and the "X" is to be welcomed at any stage, but it set me thinking - when did Saturday night become a very different being than the one that I can just about remember?

My meanderings come at a time when all our Saturday nights could be in for a seismic change, with another X in serious jeopardy.

Ratings for this season's much-changed X Factor have slipped as far as Simon Cowell's waistband has since he first barged onto our screens, with Strictly Come Dancing even waltzing past the wannabe music show briefly.

Worse was to come when Countryfile squelched past Cheryl, Rita and Nick on a Sunday evening and Cowell is probably a very relieved man that Thora Hird still isn't around.

The problem is that staying in may be the new going out, but it's what we're doing - only armed with some oil, a baguette and a copy of the Radio Times. And harissa.

I can split my history of Saturday nights into four distinct phases of my life, which we shall call Elton, Pink, Whigfield and Harissa. No, not the next four judges on a revamped X Factor, but I like your thinking.

We'll start with Elton, for whom Saturday Night, according to his musical musings, was fine and dandy for a bit of fisticuffs.

For me, it was radically different. For me, it was about being shipped off to my granny's, reading comics and eating my own body weight in Tudor crisps (pickled onion, or gammon, above, if you're asking).

This was accompanied in the evenings by the telly, when there always seemed to be something on that was essential viewing - the Dukes of Hazzard a particular favourite back in the day and, off the top of my head, The Two Ronnies, The Generation Game (Larry Grayson vintage), The Dick Emery Show, even though I hadn't the first clue what was going on, Starsky and Hutch or Kojak and Match of the Day.

The only oil used then was Crisp n Dry and the bread merely an integral part of a chip butty and poor harissa hadn't even been given a second thought at this stage.

That was winter months; summer months brought even more glamour and the caravan in Carnlough, but this was to open my eyes to a new world of no TV and not staying in as trouser suit and sports jacket were donned and it was off to the pub.

What happened in there I was never sure: there was clinking, drinking and it was stinking, with more smoke than a kipper convention, but I was ushered off into the pool room armed to the teeth with 10 pence pieces and full-fat Coke. Yes, I may have diabetes now but, on the plus side, I am quite good at pool.

This, then, moves us into the Pink stage and if you're thinking American pop songstress, I'll stop you there. This was THE Saturday Night, Ireland's and the Tele's sports paper, and never known as anything else in our house, or caravan, other than "The Pink".

It's why I became a football reporter in the first place and, other than Daisy Duke's shorts, I can't think of anything else that helped form me so much as a human being in the Eighties.

Incidentally, the sender of the text earlier informs me that it played a big part in her life, too, as when completed by her father on a Saturday evening it was immediately recycled and used as a rudimentary poke for sweets for her and her siblings.

The Whigfield era is slightly more cloudy, as the Nineties meant going out was the law and, as the saying goes, if you can remember the Sixties you weren't there, but for me it was the same in the Nineties, except that I can remember far too much of it.

TV wasn't even on the agenda; by now you could set the video and watch Match of the Day on a Sunday morning, thus spending quality time with your hangover and longing for a canny bag of Tudor.

The Noughties brought more responsibility and socialising, having to sit and watch someone else's programmes on a Saturday night in an effort to sneak a look at Match of the Day and the first inkling of harissa's existence. The oil was still in the cupboard, or the motor.

Suddenly, going out meant going out to another house and the TV is never on. Yes, there's chat, friendship, a chance to talk knowledgeably about something cheeky from Bordeaux and the odd panna cotta, and you may be longing to see X Factor, Strictly, or - heaven help us - something else on ITV, but there's wine and cheese to be had and not a hope of seeing Match of the Day. Thank God for Sky+.

So, Saturday nights are very much different: Elton can't put up much of a fight, the Pink is no more, Whigfield is still drying her hair and, as for harissa, that reminds me, I must nip off to Lidl and set the video for Strictly ...

Billy Weir writes about Strictly Come Dancing in the Belfast Telegraph every Monday
Ruth Dudley Edwards: 'For me, weekends are work as usual but I do like watching Strictly'

Once upon a time, when I was at University College Dublin, Saturday night was centred on the Literary and Historical Debating Society. It was hardly Saturday Night Fever, but it was the most convivial night of the week.

With a husband and a normal job, Saturday nights were for socialising or television.

Like so many others, we tried to stay at home on the nights when our favourite programmes were on.

Since then, between divorce, the iPlayer and boxed sets like Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, apart from the news I rarely watch anything except on my computer.

I've almost given up drama series. There isn't time and they're too often sickeningly violent. I write crime novels, but no one ever got nightmares from them.

Freelancers have an erratic life and, for me, weekends are business as usual and Saturdays have no special significance.

In theory, though, during Strictly Come Dancing season, it is still special, as for years I've liked watching it with my friend Nina, who, unlike me, knows the difference between an axel and a fleckerl.

We drink wine, judiciously weigh up the merits of the contestants, struggle to be fair-minded and ring each other up after the Sunday results programme to lament, or cheer.

This autumn, however, has been what Craig Revel Horwood would call a "disaster, darlings", as my professional and social life seem to have spun out of control. Nina and I managed a convivial evening on September 5, the night the dancers were introduced to us, but since the series began three weeks later, on September 26, I've missed every single Saturday.

The reasons have included a debate in Newry on culpability for the Great Famine, a discussion in Portlaoise about Easter 1916, the birthday party in London of an 18-year-old Goth, performing as a crime writer at Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis and visits to friends for which no other dates were possible.

Tonight is no better. I'm visiting a cemetery in the afternoon with a friend whose hobby this is and afterwards we will meet up with her husband and talk about global catastrophes of one kind or another. Don't worry. We'll find a lot to laugh at, too.

I haven't given up on Strictly. When I've had time, I've caught up a bit, but I'm still way behind, muddled-up between the pretty young women and - since Ainsley Harriott was chucked out - have at the moment no favourite contestant.

Next Saturday, I'll be watching with Nina again.

However, at present, I'm feeling like an exam candidate who hasn't done her coursework and am hoping this week to deal with the arrears so as not to ruin her evening by asking idiotic questions.

I'm also trying to keep the next few Saturday nights free ahead of the grand finale before Christmas, which we'll watch at her son's house with various enthusiasts whose sense of occasion will be, I trust, enhanced by the rotating disco ball I gave his children last year.

A proper Saturday night needs a bit of glamour.

Ruth Dudley Edwards writes in the Belfast Telegraph every Monday
Alex Kane: 'It's nice when you can all watch something together'

Saturday nights had a set pattern when I was in my teens in the early Seventies: Basil Brush, Doctor Who, The Generation Game, The Two Ronnies, and then next door to play board games and get high on Sherbet Dabs (they were huge back then) and Creamola Foam (a drink made from soluble crystals and with enough sugar to induce diabetes).

When I reached 16, the board games were replaced with beer, girls, discos and the back row of the local cinema - although I still remember missing the board games.

Anyway, by the time I went to university, Saturday nights were for snooker, the Students' Union bar (one of the few neutral places in Belfast at that time) and serious dating - which meant that I had a bath and changed into a clean shirt before calculating how much I could afford at the Skandia Restaurant.

In those days the Skandia, with its prawn cocktails, chicken in a basket and banana splits, was the place to go if you wanted to impress.

Post-university employment meant more money, serious, "meaningful" relationships and dinner parties, so Saturday night viewing usually meant an hour between six and seven, with one eye on the box and the other eye on a hand-held mirror trying to calculate my weekly rate of baldness.

A few years later and Saturday nights often involved cooing over the latest baby to arrive within our circle of friends while trying to kill off the aroma of vomit and pee with outrageously large - although very trendy at the time - incense sticks. Televisions were kept on in those days, but were never allowed to interrupt the free flow of conversation.

But the one constant through all those years was that the television - and very few houses had more than one - remained in the main room and the main room remained the place where you entertained friends.

Nowadays, there are televisions and computers of one sort or another in every room, which means that visitors and family scatter around the house; quite often watching different things and having their own separate, excluding conversations.

And "catch-up" TV means that people can choose not to watch at the same time. That's a pity. It's actually quite nice when you can all sit together and watch something, particularly since there are so few all-family friendly mainstream films and most computer games require just one player.

As an older dad - Lilah-Liberty has just turned six - we find that we are mostly in on Saturday nights. And yep - and I know it's because everything seemed better when you were younger - I still miss that run of family-focused programmes that used to dominate the Saturday schedules; when everyone could gather round without any fear of potential discomfort or embarrassment.

Doctor Who is still there, but the old fun has been replaced with an "aren't-we-terribly-clever-and-socially-significant" style of writing.

I don't understand the present TV obsession with trying to attract audiences to sit in judgment, sneer, belittle and generally wallow in the ritual humiliation of others. It's lazy television. It's bad television.

And it's not something I want the girls to remember when they think of their own Saturday nights in a few decades' time.

Alex Kane is a writer and commentator
What some well-known faces do

Rebecca Maguire (23) is a former Miss Ireland and model and lives in Belfast. She says:

I work very hard during the week. As well as modelling, I work as a pharmacist during the week, so I love my Saturday nights. Belfast has a brilliant nightlife, too.

Usually, it starts off with dinner out.

Quite often, my family will go out to dinner together somewhere in town.

After that we might go somewhere for cocktails and then, if my friends and I feel up to it, we might go for a dance afterwards.

I never stay in on a Saturday night."

Tracey Rodgers (47) is director of model agency Style Academy and lives in Belfast with her husband, Stefan. She says:

Well, I would watch X Factor on a Saturday night, but my husband refuses to, so I haven't seen it this series at all.

Saturday night for us at the moment is date night.

We're renovating a house at the moment, so even when we're not working late during the week, our spare time is taken up with stripping wallpaper and knocking through walls, so we try to get out for dinner on a Saturday night, even for a while.

If we don't and it's Stefan's turn to cook, then we will stay in and he cooks a big roast dinner with all the trimmings and we'll finish off the evening with a DVD."

Lynette Fay (37) presents the Lynette Fay Show on Radio Ulster every Saturday. She says:

Currently, I have a radio show on Saturday night on Radio Ulster and, by the time that's finished, I've been hearing what everyone else is doing then I decide where to go.

There are some really good bars near Broadcasting House in Belfast, so it's easy to go out. I don't go clubbing. If I don't go to a bar, then I end up at a friend's house for drinks and dinner. Sometimes I will have a gig to present somewhere else.

During Strictly season I have the programme on in the background, but I'll still watch it again on repeat."

Pete Snodden (34) is a Cool FM DJ and lives in Bangor with his wife, Julia, and their daughters, Ivanna (3) and Elayna (9 months). He says:

My Saturday nights are spent DJing - I've been doing that since I was about 18.

On Saturday afternoons, I play hockey and go for a quick drink with the team. After that, I head home to have dinner with Jules and the girls. Then I leave the house for my residency - I've been DJing at 21 Social in Belfast for more than two years now - and I get home about 2.30-3am. There was a period about two years ago when I didn't have a residency, so I only had one or two gigs a month, which was quite nice.

I'd like to keep going at it for a while longer, because I think I'm going to get too old for it at some point."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards