I had a most unusual brand experience on Sunday when I had to drag my 14 year-old out of bed at 5 a.m. so that he could audition for the X-Factor. It was his idea, and I'd have much rather stayed in bed, but Simon Cowell's letter warned us to be at the O2 long before the cut off time of 8 a.m., and you don't argue with the man in the high-waisted trousers, do you?
We arrived at 6:30 and there were already thousands of soggy hopefuls there. It must have been the wettest bank holiday Sunday ever. How stupid are the great unwashed? So many of the hopefuls hadn't bothered bringing umbrellas or coats and, by 9 o'clock, were shivering.
A producer made a noble attempt at jollying the crowd up by explaining the process "and if you're lucky and get picked for the second round - then congratulations! But if you're unlucky, then we're sor-- actually, no, we're not sorry 'cos it's not our fault you can't sing, is it?" and, to a cheer when he announced that Dermot O'Leary was going to climb that crane over there, "I'm glad to see that there are so many gorgeous young women in the queue. And there are quite a few ugly ones too - you know who you are."
So, Dermot appears on the crane, talks to camera, waves and gurns to the crowd, and finally we're allowed into the O2.
Cue a further two hours of waiting as everyone took to their appointed seats, then another hour as the producer and Dermot got the crowd to wave and cheer for the camera.
It was explained that Simon, Sharon and co wouldn't be involved with the auditions until the third round. Today, the auditionees would be seen by one of around a dozen Sony BMG execs and assorted Cowell acolytes. They are sitting behind the black or white cubicles on the stage. You get three minutes to sing. If you're given a "Yes", then you get a golden ticket and go through Exit A, the Happy Exit. If you're told "No", then you leave through Exit B, the Sad Exit. Oh yes, and give it your best shot cos this is your big chance.
And then wait wait wait, the smell of damp clothes and desperation punctuated by thousands of mostly teenage girls practising their songs. Occasionally, someone would emerge from a cubicle with the golden ticket that ensured their progress to the second round. Much applause. It looked like about 1 in 20 were successful; about half of that 5% looked the part (young, extrovert, attractive) and the other half were (and there's no way to sound charitable about this) freakish. So when you watch the real judges, you now know that the weird ones that make Louis and Simon open their jaws in appalled dismay have already jumped through hoops to get there.
Chimplet was relaxed and didn't look nervous. A few weeks earlier, when I asked him why he'd applied, he had shrugged and said that everyone of his classmates had talked about doing it but never bothered applying so... why not? It seems he had one of those "101 things to do before you die" lists in his head.
"God! Just look at them - they take it so seriously!" This was about a line of crying teenage girls sloping towards the Sad Exit.
3 p.m. and at last our line was ushered to the stage. The first sign of nerves. We could hear some of the other singers. Finally it was Chimplet's turn and the judge, a friendly 30-something glamourpuss perched on a stool asked him a few questions and invited him to sing. He didn't want me to watch him so I turned away and heard his almost-breaking voice falter through I Believe I Can Fly. A year younger and he'd have belted it out but adolescence was playing its cruel tricks. "I'm sorry but it's a No."
At times like this you have a large choice from the Dad's book of comfort words. "Well done - you gave it your best shot. At least you had the balls to try." He was quiet in the car, but revealed a small smile when he checked his mobile. A crowded inbox of texts from his friends asking how he had got on.