At the London auditions for this year's X Factor Cheryl Cole sighs, while Dannii Minogue is on maternity leave: "it's hard work; working with those two without Dannii." As the only woman on the judging panel, for one audition at least, the Girls Aloud singer is the sole target for Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh's teasing. It's fun to watch, but it's also slightly awkward, which is why the appearance of famous female guest-judges is so crucial to the seventh series. And that's before Cheryl gets Malaria.
First up is former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. Kicking the launch show off in Glasgow, the Raining Men singer declares: "I don't know if she knows this, but I picked Cheryl on Popstars." She's keen to emulate her talent-spotting success on The X Factor too: with a serious, perma-smile she's the first to welcome auditionees to the stage, and the first to comfort the rejects.
When a tone-deaf singer pays tribute to Michael Jackson with a dance routine resembling a washing-machine Geri turns away from a giggling Cheryl to concentrate on his performance. At first it's refreshing that she doesn't mock the contestants, but then we crave the banter back. Thankfully, she has a habit of talking too much, which the creators helpfully point out with the use of a traditional montage in which the judges pull faces and the audience falls asleep.
Geri Halliwell may not make the best judge, but it is nice to have a change. Her motor mouth gives the judges something new to ridicule, while her sensitive side softens the manipulative nature of the show. Previews of upcoming guest appearances (including Natalie Imbruglia and Nicole Scherzinger) suggest the best guest judges are yet to come. Highlights include Katy Perry convincing a hopeful to strip and Pixie Lott arguing with Louie.
The 50-50 gender split certainly works best on The X Factor panel. Without women to curb the men's stubborn probing the show would be uncomfortably irritating to watch. And though we were never huge fans of new mum Dannii as a judge her absence reminds us how complementary her easy-going approach is to the dynamics of the team. Though the guest judges are a nice novelty, we'll be glad when the main team's back together again.
Unfortunately, Cheryl's recent battle with Malaria means she won't be in the last audition show, or the boot camp stages that follow. Both her and Dannii will be back, however, for this season's judges' houses section – where the shortlisted categories are prepped for the live shows at--yep you guessed it--the judges' houses.
The seventh season of The X Factor starts on Saturday, August 21, at 7.30pm on ITV1 and ITV HD.