Simon Cowell is back, nibbling strawberries by the breezy open door of his helicopter but looking like he could put down the squishy fruit and machine gun us all.

Cheryl is also back with yet another surname but with the same rictus grin of the Geordie who'd take a swing at you in a nightclub toilet.

The bitchy little Irishman is back as is the old format of holding the auditions in a room. In past series, the hopefuls would be onstage in a massive arena and some of their white-hot desperation would vanish into the rafters and shadows. Now, they're face-to-face with the judges again and their fate is being decided across a few short inches of parquet flooring. In this cosier space their panic and stress is concentrated for our viewing pleasure.

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But let's not pretend this is a talent contest. It's a freak show with one or two good singers thrown in, so we're correct in wanting to see the horror.

'Squeezy, squeezy, squeeze,' say Blonde Electric, the first contestants. They're two daft girls who're hugging and clutching and giggling at one another. They run into their audition screeching and bouncing and I had to set up six direct debits to various charities to counter the ugly loathing I felt for them and for everyone they know and for everyone they ever will know. They sang in the robotic Rihanna-style and it was immediately obvious they had no talent. I was glad because there are too many airheads like this who'll be lauded and made rich and held up as fine examples of womanhood to young girls. Here, at least, are two who'll be stamped out. But no, they were voted through, reminding me of what I'd forgotten: that X Factor is not a talent show.

It's a freak show which so many are desperate to parade in. Outside the studio we saw the frantic crowds, bellowing and crying and waving, and it reminded me of the camera panning the starving in Michael Buerk's Ethiopia report: those poor, stricken thousands. How has it come to this?

'I sing literally 24 hours a day,' boasted one idiot. Another, a middle-aged woman, brought her mother with her who silently peeled open Tupperware boxes of Chinese food to tempt the judges. A pensioner slowly stripped her dress off, all the way down to her black suspenders and sagging stockings. Shayden was so bad the judges walked off, with Cheryl burbling in her classy tones, 'ah need the toilet!'

It was with these older contestants - by which I mean those over 25 - that the show stepped into freak show territory, but I'm as cruel as the next person so I willingly laughed and flinched at these specimens. With the older ones you can label their display as delusion or fantasy or even illness but with the teens it's plain uncomfortable because their ridiculousness is authentic. It can't be seen through a filter of aged eccentricity. It's just them, raw and childlike and horribly unaware.

Then 16 year old Lauren Platt appeared and was a talented singer but, in the midst of this sludge, anyone half-decent beams with a glorious light. She proved herself by having a good voice but so many contestants try to squeeze past the audition stage by wheeling out sob stories. In this episode it took 45 minutes for the first one: a female contestant simpering about her dead mum. Normally it's a cancered granny, but perhaps this new batch saw they had to up their game. Granny just won't cut the mustard. The one with the dead maw got through, naturally. How baffled these dim youngsters will be when they realise you can't use stiffs in a job interview or UCAS application.

And the judge most susceptible to weeping and garish emotion is Cheryl. She sobbed and sighed and flapped her hands as the contestants sang of heartbreak and hope. The sharper ones knew this and appealed directly to her in the auditions, with one even presenting her with a green rose.

'What am I, chopped liver?' said Mel B, sick of being ignored. Thank God for her, speaking in her gruff voice as though she's leaning over a chip shop counter in Oldham. She was a relief from the sickly fawning over Cheryl. She was honest and earthy, a glad contrast to the heap of Geordie sherbet by her elbow.

A test of whether X Factor still functions as a talent show is to imagine the reaction a young Morrissey would get, with his cardigan and hearing aid and thick glasses. 'Pet, ah doan reely get why yer singin' about a gal called Sheila! You want her to take a bow, like, and throw homework on the fire? Ah don't get it, pet. I'm sorry Steven, but it's a no from me. You'll be going home to Manchester tonight.'