05/10/2011 13:26 BST | Updated 04/12/2011 05:12 GMT

X Factor cry babies could use some Downton grit. Kind of.

It happens every year, of course. A young singer with a deep ache in their ego, I mean soul, blubs before the X Factor cameras. They say things that might as well be written on cue cards, helpfully held up by the producers: 'It means everything to me.' And: 'I don't want to let people down.' If The X Factor ever reaches its last series, which is like saying that Bruce Forsyth actually does have a sell-by date, then sales of water-proof mascara will plummet so much that world leaders will need to hold an emergency economic summit.

Dusty Springfield once sang: 'I just don't know what to do with myself,' and that, indeed, is the theme tune of X Factor wannabees who make it to the judges' houses, where they are so near and yet so far from the live shows, and utterly at the mercy of one person's judgment. They fidget, and pace, and brood. It's almost cruel, which is why it's compelling. In an educational world in which sports days have been made non-competitive, X Factor is a much-needed dose of reality for molly-coddled middle-class kids. Winners and losers really do exist. Goodness me, how awfully old-fashioned, and utterly ridiculous, too. If The X Factor represents real life then there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In Downton Abbey, meanwhile, the First World War is playing out in the background of country house life. Last week, a valet discombobulated by shell shock dropped a dish at dinner. Clearly, pre-war, that was something to be lamented in the strongest, furrowed-brow terms. The dish-dropping, that is. But conflict is changing the social order, and so, also last week, Lady Edith befriended a farmer. In a romantic way. As if that wasn't shocking enough, she'd already driven his tractor. Which was almost more surprising.

But back to The X Factor. The number of candidates in tears this year appears to have risen like the national debt under Gordon Brown. A few people reaching for tissues is fair enough. There will always be luvvies whose waterworks are like a high-pressure hose at a car wash. On Saturday night, however, and although I didn't count, a dry eye appeared to be a rarity. And then on Sunday night, when the final four in each category were chosen, the local tissue warehouse in each locality must have run out, leaving the candidates sniffling into newspaper, presumably. A young lad called Frankie, whose first audition was notable for the eight girls' names he had tattooed on his bottom, appeared almost inconsolable. And he got through. Just what is The X Factor doing to him? Tattoos of ladies' names seems relatively normal, compared to the blubbing as he was told his dream had come true.

In Downton, there's also an upwardly mobile zing in the air. The new housemaid, Ethel, played by Amy Nuttall, is dreaming, almost constantly it seems, of a better life beyond service, and is about to begin an affair with an officer convalescing at Downton. If Hello! and OK! magazines had been around in 1917, Ethel would have wanted to appear in them. And if she was living now, and had any sort of singing voice, she would have been queuing up to audition for Gary and Tulisa quicker than you could say 'chocolate box'.

Which is partly to say: is there enough grit in this new series of Downton Abbey? Is it all soft centres when a few teeth-testing pieces of nougat should have been included too? Matthew Crawley, despite having spent time at the front, looks and sounds utterly unaffected. What appeared to be uppermost in his mind this week was replacing his departed army servant. To be fair, he did tell Lady Mary he'd rather not talk about the war, which was entirely understandable, and temporary footman Lang is traumatised by what he witnessed in the trenches. Thus the conflict isn't entirely absent, not least because of the scenes filmed in remarkable replica trenches just outside Ipswich. But the general focus remains on the house, and its goings on, and because of the momentous historical background, that beautiful dwelling and its well-drilled, high-class cast seems somehow less alluring this season.

When the cast cry, however, it's over something properly worth crying over. Such as when the cook, Mrs Patmore, learns that her nephew has been shot for cowardice. Head Housemaid Anna Smith takes the news that her would-be husband, if only he wasn't married already, Mr Bates, has to leave the house with a stoicism X Factor contestants could only dream of. And a soldier who's lost his left hand, with which he wrote, asks Lady Edith with humble, self-deprecating charm if she will write to his mother for him.

The X Factor contestants are crying for a reason too, of course. They have a dream they want desperately to fulfil. It's partly the producers, one suspects, coaxing a few tears from young, inexperienced eyes. It's in danger of backfiring, though. Any more tears over the weekend and it would have been like one long Oscars acceptance speech: cloying, sentimental, and ultimately irritating.

There was one cause for optimism, though, apart from the clear talents of Misha Bryan and Janet Devlin.

Louis Walsh picked Goldie as one of his four 'Overs' for the live shows, despite her inability to sing. Well, not very much, anyway.

But Goldie has pulled out for family reasons. Louis has replaced her with Sami Brookes. Meaning that Louis has ended up with a better singer by accident, rather than by design.

It's so ridiculous, it almost makes you want to cry.