For those not in the know, Strictly Come Dancing is a light entertainment show in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers and taught a new dance each week. Every Saturday, one of the couples is voted off until one couple is crowned the winner. It seems like something light, sparkly, spangly and fluffy but it’s syndicated worldwide; can be used to revamp and relaunch sometimes flagging careers and is the favourite of the gutter press as some of the world’s most beautiful people occasionally start swapping partners both on and off the dance floor. In that context, the words “voted off” should raise alarm bells for it can indeed become highly controversial.
The process of voting is quite convoluted and as such perhaps not as robust as it might be. First each of the four judges award each dance a mark out of 10, to give a possible total of 40. Couples are then ranked on a scoreboard and the couple at the top are given the highest mark and so on down to the bottom couple who should in theory receive one mark (though the BBC are not good at maths and this doesn’t always happen). Then, to give audience participation, the public vote. The couples are ranked again and again the top scoring couple get the highest mark and so on down. Judges’ marks and the public scores are then combined to give an overall scoreboard.
You could at that point just wave goodbye to the person with the lowest number of points overall. However, the problem producers encountered with this format is that the fickle public don’t always vote for good dancers and sometimes, as in the case of John Sargeant, deliberately vote for people with the dancing ability of a broom pole so left to their own devices, they might give the glitter ball to the likes of Anne Widdecombe. To prevent good dancers from getting kicked out too early the dance off was introduced in which the bottom two couples both dance again and the judges then save the couple who dance the best.
The system has always thrown some curve balls and at times the judges do have to make difficult decisions. Last year Simon Webbe was up against Pixie Lott and should in theory have been toast. Simon was a great dancer but Pixie had fairly consistently beaten him, until that week in which Simon scored 35 for an American Smooth which contained an obvious mistake whilst Pixie scored the same for a Cha Cha Cha which the judges criticised for poor technique and illegal lifts. Thus all Simon had to do was correct his obvious mistake whilst Pixie, to up her score, would have had to refine her technique and choreograph out some lifts, all in the same evening. It was not to be and Len sent Pixie home, arguing “I have to judge this on this one dance that I have seen – not what has been in the past, [or] what my expectations are in the future. I tell you – this is hard as a judge but harder as person”.
Bear that quote in mind because it helps explain what happened last Saturday at Blackpool. Jamelia, with a score of 31 for a pretty passable quickstep ended up in the DO against Peter Andre with 29 for something that might have been a jive in another universe were jigging around and doing one of your old pop routines counts as a jive. The BBC’s problem is that it has created a small army of armchair experts who know what gapping is and who know about kicks and flicks. It already seemed that Andre was over-marked since Craig argued his dance was “at the bottom of the pack of jives” this season. Len gave Peter an 8 whereas in week 3 he scored Jay 9 for a jive the like of which none of us has really seen from one of the celebrities before – and I mean that in a good way. Unless Len is using a Richter scale or some other non-linear scoring system it’s hard to see how there was only one point between Jay’s and Peter’s dances.
Once it was announced that Jamelia and Peter were in the DO it was apparent that the judges were between a rock and a hard place. Jamelia had already survived a record four DOs and so was demonstrably not popular with the public but had danced better than Peter. Peter has some talent but that was not his dance and even with what looked like an inflated score he was worse than Jamelia. So for him to win the DO, in accordance with the rules stated by Len last series, Jamelia was going to have to drop points whereas Peter was going to have to gain them. To the majority of us watching at home it looked instead as if Jamelia upped her game and Peter remained the same. And yet Bruno, Darcey and Craig voted to keep Peter on the show.
The BBC might have thought that was that. Send the unpopular dancer who was never going to win home, keep their superstar signing who most of the time can dance. However, they found themselves in the midst of a storm without any apparent knowledge as to why. The BBC seemed to have forgotten that even Capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness. This was never really about Jamelia, it was about the fairness and transparency of a process. People become invested in Strictly. It’s what gets us through winter in a northern climate. It’s sparkly and fun and perfect escapist television. And what we expect with escapist fun is a sense of fair play. After all, it isn’t really escapism if skulduggery is seen to be done without any redress.
In this the BBC had a perfect storm. It’s been apparent for years that the producers could manipulate the outcome if they so chose. Each year they pick a comedy act, forgetting that comedy should arise naturally. But you go along with it, and vote to keep weaker dancers in at least until Wembley/ Blackpool week, because who wouldn’t want to see Russell Grant fired out of a cannon. There have been rumours before about fixes because some dance, music and costume choices seem odd at best. If you don’t like a celebrity, it must be hard not to ask them to dance the rumba whilst wearing a sequined bin bag, to You Spin Me Right Round. If I had the power to do that, I’m not sure I’d resist either.
To add to the storm and the rumours, SCD bosses have never really been open with their audience. They won’t give out public voting figures even after a series ends and despite FOI requests. And because of this, since they introduced online voting, I’ve only voted via this free method. Added to which although it’s pretty obvious that the Sunday results show is filmed straight after the live Saturday show, the BBC go through an odd charade in which they don’t lie outright, but do refer to “last night” and “on Saturday” repeatedly during the Sunday show and refer to “Sunday” repeatedly afterwards even though most of us know the result is available on spoiler sites around 10:30pm on Saturday.
So in a situation in which you have a vague but tolerable sense of some manipulation and lack of transparency, to find out just how ugly SCD’s face might be underneath all the makeup and sequins is something of a shock. Jamelia was obviously the better dancer on the night so why then keep Peter? Was it just because he’s been better in the series? In which case how do we know what the rules are? And why force celebs to go through a DO when in the end whatever they do doesn’t matter?
To compound the situation, the BBC published a blog by the studio director who explained to us “how a large scale entertainment show like Strictly Come Dancing – The Results is made” thereby making me feel like a 1950s housewife being told not to worry my pretty head about things I don’t really understand. Len was then wheeled out on It Takes Two to argue that he’d seen improvement in Peter’s dance and that that is why Peter was saved. Even though on the night Len said he would have saved Jamelia and in fact it was the other three judges who apparently spotted this miraculous improvement.
Whilst this is not really about Jamelia, it is about Peter. Like him or loath him he is an international star with a huge PR machine behind him. Once it’s clear that the BBC don’t respect its audience, treat you like children and are not transparent, you do start to wonder what hold someone like Peter has over them and quite what terms might be in his contract. I’ve long thought that the most sincere and real part of Peter is his fake tan. I’d rather not think so ill of Strictly, too.