Change afoot at The X Factor?

Gamuchirai, Shirlena and Katie Gamuchirai (left), Shirlena and Katie (right) all performed for the judges

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The tears, the tantrums and the tension - it can mean only one thing... The X Factor is back.

The seventh series kicks off this weekend on ITV1 which, frighteningly, means the countdown to the Christmas number one has begun.

The annual talent search always brings some unexpected drama - from JLS causing crowd surges to Calvin Harris's pineapple-fuelled stage invasion.

This year it began before the show even reached the screen, as judge Cheryl Cole was struck down by malaria, causing her to miss several weeks of filming.

X FACTOR WINNERS

  • 2004 - Steve Brookstein
  • 2005 - Shayne Ward
  • 2006 - Leona Lewis
  • 2007 - Leon Jackson
  • 2008 - Alexandra Burke
  • 2009 - Joe McElderry

But Elaine Bedell, ITV's head of entertainment, says the pop star is now "fighting fit" - but with Dannii Minougue also off on maternity leave, the show had to recruit several guest panellists for the audition stage.

Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell is up first.

She has previous form, having helped to put together Girls Aloud in 2002's Pop Stars: The Rivals, and will be seen on Saturday night doling out "thoughtful" advice to all the hopefuls.

So keen is she to impart her pearls of wisdom that producers have edited together a comical montage of her talking... and talking... and talking...

Cheryl Cole Cheryl Cole says she wants a girl band to win this year

The debut show also sees the re-appearance of the Cole / Cowell double-act.

Apparently, Cole wants a girl band to win this year - but she is quick to criticise the first few all-female groups who take to the stage in Scotland and London.

She puts one through, but warns them to "lay off the fake tan". A second trio are sent packing and told to audition for children's TV instead.

Cowell repeatedly asks for Cole to be served a saucer of milk for her catty remarks - before eventually serving one himself.

Cobbled together

There will be a few changes this year, most noticeably with Konnie Huq replacing Holly Willoughby on ITV2 spin-off show The Xtra Factor.

The age ranges in some of the categories have changed (over-27s are the new over-25s) and eight acts will now be put through to the judges' house stage, instead of six.

But the cliches of "giving it 100%", "this has always been my dream" and "I promise, I won't let you down" still trip off the tongue of all the hopefuls, who seem to be a bit more savvy about how to get noticed this year.

There are the usual disastrous acts that one cannot help cringing when watching, including 30-year-old single mum Shirlena, who admits she has cobbled together her performance the night before.

Out of tune, shockingly uncoordinated and constantly growling into the microphone, she is certainly memorable.

So is Madonna look-a-like Katie. Her quirky dress sense, based on the queen of pop's style back in the days of Holiday and Like A Virgin, catches the judge' s attention.

Jahm Jahm left the judges speechless after their performance

A duo called G&S, short for Gay and Straight, prove to be a troublesome combination, pairing an above-average singer with a deluded Elton John wannabe.

And trio Jahm, who liken themselves to the JLS and N-Dubz literally leave the judges speechless.

When they finally find their voices, Cowell calls them the "worst group he's ever heard", Walsh says they sound like "three cats being strangled in an alleyway" and Cole calls them "shocking".

However, lack of talent in some of the group acts does not neccessarily mean that their dreams are over, as twins Jedward, who were mentored by Louis Walsh last year, have started to carve out a career in the music business.

But the singer to look out for is 18-year-old Gamuchirai, who moved to London from Zimbabwe five years ago.

Exceptionally close to her mother, she tells the audience she wants to change the lives of her family and give something back to her mum.

Her unique performance of Walking On Sunshine blows the judges and audience away.

Clips from future episodes also hint at a punch-up, a striptease, and an unlikely altercation between Pixie Lott and Louis Walsh.

But as the show enters its seventh year - and with Cole and Minogue largely absent from the initial stages - can The X Factor still attract audiences?

Radio Times critic David Butcher is certain it will continue to keep people tuned in.

"I'd be astonished if it doesn't do well," he says.

"It is a fantastically well-crafted show and there is an enormous team behind it who make sure that it's seamless.

"At some point one imagines that the show will peak - but I don't think it has happened yet. It's still very much in its prime."

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