Off with their heads! Why The Masked Singer is TV’s most brutal gladiatorial contest

Rita Ora plays the emperor in the feral singing show. Who will she give the thumbs down to in tonight’s final?

Feels gladiatorial, doesn’t it – a baying and screaming crowd, chanting in violent unison, demanding Denise van Outen rip her own head off. Perhaps this is the deep truth at the heart of The Masked Singer (Saturday, 7pm, ITV): that it unmasks not its weak singers buried deep within the costume of a monster, but the crowd themselves, the raw and feral omniperson we become when we’re in them. The same crowds that called for Roman slaves to murder each other are present, here, in a pre-record studio somewhere in Hertfordshire. Rita Ora is the emperor, her thumb wavering in the air for a moment, and lo, she does point it down, and what is almost certainly Jason Manford in a hedgehog costume has to pull his own guts out with a sword, for God and for glory.

If you have not yet seen ITV’s Saturday night not-quite crown jewel, you have managed to miss absolutely nothing at all, or perhaps everything. The format is something that plunges you into a fever dream: huge unblinking creatures – a monster, a yellow bath duck, a wizened old tree – waddle on to the stage, and perform a song, and we are told a celebrity is inside there, somewhere. A panel of judges – Davina McCall, Jonathan Ross, former Community star Ken Jeong when he can be bothered, and Rita Ora – review the song and make frantic, incorrect guesses about who the celebrity inside the beast could be.

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Off with their heads! Why The Masked Singer is TV’s most brutal gladiatorial contest