I’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing since 2007 when, whilst channel hopping, I happened upon Alesha Dixon dancing with Matthew Cutler. I knew the format of the show but not knowing much about celebrity, and still less about ballroom dancing, I struggled to work out which was the pro and which the celebrity. From then on, I was hooked. Each September, as the nights draw in and I know the gloom of winter is approaching, I look forward to my weekly dose of sparkly, besequined escapism. I know it’s tosh. I know ballroom dancing is sexist. I know it should be fluff but boy do I take it seriously and so it seems do thousands of others.
Over the years, I’ve grown used to the sense that there is a story playing out that’s gently scripted. The producers pick the celebrities so we get certain characters in each show and then steer things to produce highs, lows, dramas and online spats. We get the comedy act, who we obligingly vote for until Blackpool week because we want to see Ann Widdecombe dragged around the floor like a giant yellow dishcloth, but not at the expense of someone who really can dance. There are those clearly destined to go out in the first few weeks as lacking any dancing ability, comedy value, or even vaguely memorable characteristics. There are the clear mid-tablers, who sometimes provide a sort of shock-exit when they lose out to the comedy act. Then there are the genuine shock exits (Pixie Lott, Helen George) who end up in impossible dance-offs, or the people like Scott Marsden who start brilliantly and run out steam. And there are those who snatch victory from better dancers just by doing Charlestons (yes Chris Hollins, I still haven’t forgiven you).
Through all this, Craig Revel Horwood plays the harsh but fair pantomime villain who possibly has a heart in there somewhere. Darcey provides helpful critique; Len spots fleckerls and Bruno just sort of madly gesticulates on the end of the judges’ table (they put him there so he can only hit one judge, and since it’s Len and he’s been getting increasingly curmudgeonly nobody really minds. Except Len).
The problem this year has been a growing sense that something’s gone wrong with the script. Usually you can enjoy the story whilst being vaguely aware of but not minding the steering. This year the steering has felt much more like manipulation and the story has become much darker and less enjoyable. The characters haven’t been doing what the producers want and their attempts to haul them back into line have revealed something almost rotten underneath the greasepaint.
It started gently enough, Carol – easy cannon fodder, minor character, should be voted out 2nd or 3rd – turned out to be incredibly likeable and when paired with Pasha saw off five other dancers. Jeremy, comedy turn, let’s put him on a plastic horse and dress him up like Woody from Toy Story. And make him dance a tango. To Go West. No, I’m not joking. And neither really was Jeremy, who it turned out could probably dance reasonably well, if the producers had had the grace to treat him with some dignity.
Then there was Peter, destined to be the star turn. The one who could really dance, though not trained in ballroom, a shoe-in for the final. Except that he plateaued, his technique stopped improving and whatever the judges did, the audience weren’t really convinced. So they put him in the DO, against then 4-time DO survivor Jamelia (also not in the script, you’re only meant to survive three at most). And then she really departed from the script by out-dancing him, getting voted out by the judges anyway, and causing a media outcry amongst people who didn’t like her enough to vote for her but didn’t want her booted out in a DO when she’d danced well.
But the one who really broke the script was boyband member Jay McGuinness – hairy, walks a bit like a caveman, too shy to talk properly on camera, spent the first two weeks shaking. Definitely supposed to go out early. Except he really could move. Aliona got his hair cut and changed the way he walked. In week 2 he did a lovely waltz that the judges praised to the heavens, so his nerves eased up. And in week 3 he did THAT JIVE. A jive that many people see the need to capitalise as a shorthand way to distinguish it from all other jives before (except maybe Jill’s). And from then onwards the judges were stuffed and didn’t know what to do with someone who became odds-on favourite in week 3 and then stayed there.
There on in, things got sour, so I have some suggestions as to what to do next year, in the hope that we keep SCD as the amazing show it is, but make it more escapist, and less Grimm tale.
1 Keep Tess and Claudia. I know one is bland and the other quirky. It works. Leave it.
2 Sack two of the judges. I don’t care which two. If you can’t decide, pick them out of a hat, they’ve all pissed me off at some point. Inform the remaining two that telling someone they have no personality is just bullying. It’s a light entertainment programme for fun and watching people get torn to pieces is neither fun nor entertaining.
3 You know the rule book that you threw out for the show dances? Where did you find it? Because you haven’t bothered with it much this year. Work out the rules and stick to them. FOR EVERYONE. If Gleb can’t lift Anita in the rumba, then Kevin (or a backing dancer) can’t hoick Kellie onto a table during a VW. I might not know a reverse fleckerl when I see it, but I can spot that.
4 Don’t give primetime TV slots to siblings for them to comment on finalists. If you do, make sure they don’t say the opposition was over-marked in the semis. Other people get sacked for less. And look up “conflict of interest” whilst you’re at it.
5 Replace Anton as a pro dancer. He will never find another woman to dive backwards off a stage into his arms. Give him choreography corner. I like Anton but he resembles fortified wine – enjoyable in small doses but if you keep glugging it you start to feel sick.
6 Give Brendan a partner that’s good who he likes. He’s looked pissed off for years. If that doesn’t work, give him choreography corner with Anton in 2017
7 Go back to basics. Watch Jay and Aliona’s showdance. He’s all in white. After the entrance there are no props. They just dance. And they won like that, despite continual negative comments; the subtle and not so subtle digs on the show and on ITT and the remarks about his face that would have been laughable had they not been at root cruel. The public have spoken. They want people who perform well in the Ten Dances, not a manic Lindy Hop that however skilled, was not strictly speaking ballroom.
8 And on that note, make sure that in the final, couples have to dance one Latin and one ballroom to start with, not the specialty dances. If they want to do those, they can do them in the show dance, where there are no rules.
As it was, during the finals this year I switched over to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because it lived up to its name whereas Strictly had become too predictable and I knew the scores before the couples danced. I want to get back to escapism and if Strictly is riddled with unfairness, nepotism and spite, I might as well walk out of the front door into the dark, wet reality of a British winter where I can find all those in spades.
And in the end, remember this. As Terry Pratchett used to argue, stories have a way of writing (and righting) themselves no matter how much you try to interfere with them. By continually sniping at Jay, the judges somehow made him both the bookies’ favourite and yet an underdog too. If there’s one thing the British love more than a favourite, it’s an underdog, so as soon as Craig said “you had no personality”, Jay was certain to win. I don’t know what the producers and judges were up to but I do know that Jay and Aliona got their happy ending in spite of it.
Mum’s the word
On It Takes Two, that font of wisdom Richard Madeley predicted that Jay just might win because of the “mum vote”. Since then I’ve heard it said that Jay won because of the granny vote, and because of the teenage girl vote. To which I have to say: so what? Why is the female vote, across all ages, perceived as less valid and less worthy? I voted for Jay because I liked watching him dance, not because I want to mother him (he has a perfectly good mother of his own) or because I fancy him or because my hormones told me to. Women can actually make rational decisions about who to vote for. So pack in the denigration of an entire sex by insinuating that our decision to vote is based on something less worthy than men’s decisions are. It’s 2015. We can vote. Deal with it.