Wednesday, 30 September 2009

My Lilia girl crush ....

.....might just be reaching Marian Keyes proportions...

Seriously how good were the Divine Mr C and Lil' Lil tonight. Constructive criticism, positivity, giggles and helpful pointers. It looks as though Joe might be able to do slightly more than plonking around (I hope so for his sake); Phil and Zoe are looking promising; and alas, Aliona still seems to be overdancing. I was really interested to hear Lilia making comments about the disconnect between Craig's upper and lower body. I had started to think that he had a very loose lower back, or lacked core stability, so it was interesting to hear what Lilia was saying. Get him to a pilates class - it's not just for girls!

One of the more interesting comments tonight came from Lynda Bellingham about the nerves that contestants feel on the first show. She described it as coming out of your own little training bubble, where you have been so focused on how you are doing, and suddenly you are confronted by how everybody else is doing and start to see how you might fit in with the pecking order. I thought that gave a real insight into the whole Strictly process, not just for the celebs, but for the pros as well. It must be really difficult for the pros to have a benchmark for how well their celebs are doing and to measure the level of difficulty to give them in terms of choreography. They have spent a month building up the celebrities' confidence and bigging them up, and suddenly there is the harsh reality - there is no easing into this - the competition starts here! And if they have misjudged the level of the rest of the competitors, it could be bye-bye Strictly for this year!

Chris and Ola are really adorable - it seems to be a partnership of equals and he is bringing out a side of her that we have not really had the chance to see before. This year Ola seems much more confident in interviews, so much more positive overall somehow, and more relaxed as well. Ola seems to be enjoying her Strictly experience more this year, and it seems as though Chris's attitude - easy going, yet hard working - is playing a big part in the change.

Last, but by no means least, we had Natalie and Vincent. I think that Natalie is probably, personality-wise, the best match for Vincent out of all of his partners, because she plainly adores him, but knows just how to take him. She listens to him, works her socks off, but knows just when to take the mick out of him. It is a really balanced relationship (I felt that he needed stronger personalities than Louisa Lytton, and Rachel Stevens, although Stephanie Beacham could have given him a run for his money). Props to Natalie, she loves Strictly, is putting in the hours, takes the show seriously, but like Phil Tufnell, she doesn't seem to take herself at all seriously.

So many favourites and it is only week 3 - Phil and Katya, Natalie and Vincent, Chris and Ola, Zoe and James - soft spots for Ricky and Erin, and still keeping fingers crossed for Jade and Ian. Seems that I am supporting half the field already, so I guess Saturday will be a busy night on the phone!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Is it just me or is ITT getting better this year?

Monday was another cracking show, still slightly rushed, but with much less time spent on a seemingly endless recap of events that happened just two days previously.

This gave much more time to a proper exit interview with the lovely Richard and Lilia. Such a shame that they had to leave! I know it was pretty much their time, but they truly gave it their all and seem to have enjoyed their time together. Lilia is always so positive about her partners (bar the one gnome-like horror with which she was inflicted), and I love the way that she spoke about "we", in terms of "we had so much to learn; we had to learn to walk and talk, then we had to learn how to count", instead of "I had to teach him so much; he was starting from such a low level" etc. Lilia brings so much to the show, and I hope that she makes regular appearances on ITT and behind the scenes.

With Camilla and Karen leaving, Matthew and Lilia out so soon, and Darren and Brendan looking likely to follow fast behind them, non of the pros looks set to do the double. It is always nice that someone else gets a shot at the trophy, but let's hope that the remaining pros can step up to the plate in terms of personality and contribution to the show.

Ricky and Natalie were on next and I have to say that as a couple, I admire their undoubted talent, but as a partnership, I have yet to be drawn to them. Ricky did actually show a very humble side to him, admitting that he was lucky enough to have a head start by possessing natural rhythm, but being absolutely clear about how much he had yet to learn. I admire him for his honesty, but worry that the voting public won't be able to perceive his improvements, when set against some of the much more obvious improvements achieved by others.

When it comes to Natalie, I am unsure as to how she is coming across. If she has done her homework, she will know how Hayley Holt seemed to fade into the wallpaper last season and be determined to avoid that fate. It must be tough for the new pros to make a mark in a series where there is only one new girl that the press and viewers are interested in, especially with last year's IT girl still occupying more than her fair share of the headlines.

To add fuel to the fire, Aliona has stolen a march in terms of brand identity, by dyeing her tresses red, staking her territory as the "non-blonde" new pro. Worse still, she managed to be the first pro to stage an illegal lift, and to garner a telling-off from Len, grabbing attention for herself, all whilst the other newbies, Katya and Natalie, had yet to make it to the starting line.

So what's a girl to do? Set out her stall as the first person to get a 10 for the first dance. But hang on there, this isn't Dancing with the Stars. That might go down with the US viewers, but not with us bitchy British. A pro seeking a 10 for her teaching and choreography on her very first show - the internet has gone into meltdown for far less!

I hope these two do go a long, long way, but the GBP seem to prefer a trier, a duffer even, rather than a success story. And today the news has broken that Ricky has had previous dance training - shock, horror! Turns out that he had 5 salsa lessons (a total of two and a half hours of teaching time) in a rather stop/start fashion over a period of 7 months. And this all seems to have happened two years before he even set foot on the Strictly dance floor. (And no, it won't help at all with the ballroom, or the other latin dances, or even very much with salsa, if he had such a limited taste of it). Oh well, I am sure that the tabloids and the more rabid fans of other couples will not let a little matter of the truth get in the way of a good story/bitching session.

Moving swiftly on, I am quite enamoured of Brendan in knight in shining armour mode. If only he had been this protective last year of Lisa Snowden, things may have turned out very differently. Jo does seem such a lovely lady, but somewhat too fragile for such a tough show. I genuinely hope that she is not too devastated when the inevitable happens, and I hope that the judges can allow her to retain her dignity next Saturday.

Moving on to Tuesday's show.....

Craig and Flavia have put so much into training, but the results just aren't coming through. He seems to work hard, but is not just a natural. Something is really putting me off about his topline - the problem is usually in hunching the shoulders, but Craig seems to somehow drop his shoulders down and go all floppy (technical term, there). I wonder also whether he is too loose in the lower back.

Choreography corner - I love Len; he is a real blast from my past. But I prefer Karen! She has a way of translating technical terms so that the non-dancer can understand and take something concrete away from her comments. Len's slot comes across as more about him, than about the couples he is critiqueing. Bring back Karen!

Next up - Zoe and James. I am loving the way that Zoe is coming across! All these preconceptions that you can get about an actor, on the strength of one role that they have played, and then...all the preconceptions come tumbling down in the best possible way. I really think though, James, please let Zoe do the talking! Although it is quite interesting to hear James admit to a weakness - that he is a better teacher than choreographer. It shows a level of self-awareness that he hasn't previously shown, and I would say that he is spot on there - apart from his stunning rumba last year with Cherie, I have never seen him put together a real stand-out routine for a celeb.

Here he is! My fave of the show.....If I could pick up the phone and start voting now, I would! He has got it all - charm, humour, the ability to take the dancing seriously, but himself never...even a modicum of dance talent. And his very own dance step - the Tuffers Shuffle - what is not to love? And if he can combine his precision footwork, with the cheeky chappie persona for this week's quickstep, then surely my man is on to a winner!

Romance/showmance

It seems that every reality TV show is dying to get on the bandwagon with hints of romance in the air. From X-Factor to Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity to Strictly, love is in the air. Or is a cunningly devised ploy to up the ratings figures.

Why do TV audiences seem to lap it all though? Is it because in the "pile on the humiliation" nature of most reality shows, we look for a little heart warming storyline to temper the cruelty? Are we so raised on a diet of Hollywood films and homegrown soaps that we need a fairy tale at the heart of everything that we view? Or do we take the more pragmatic view that as so many people meet their partners at work in the "real world", so reality TV contestants have just as much chance as meeting their significant other during a stint on the box. Is the famous Katie Price/Peter Andre/Jordan love triangle less of a PR stunt run of steam, and more of an office romance that has run its natural course? And at the end of the day, why do we care?

What of the relationships, real or imagined on Strictly? Ballroom and latin dance does conjure up an intimacy that is immediately so much more intense than other situations. From the exceedingly close embrace of the ballroom hold, to simulating flirtatious, cheeky behaviour in the cha cha, and simmering passion in the rumba, Strictly poses some tough problems in re-defining personal boundaries. Add to this the long hours in the training room (alone, apart from the seemingly ubiquitous camera crews) and the endless pressure from what the couples are trying to achieve, then it is perhaps surprising that there have been so few casualties of the romance/showmance trend.

The very nature of the programme means that two people are thrown together, in an ultra competitive field, with the glare of the tabloid media, scrutinising their every move. This must engender a sort of "us against the world" mentality. I rather think that the reality is that much of the strain falls on the pro. Of course the celeb has to learn from scratch a completely different skill, and perform live on a Saturday night to an audience of millions. But the pro has to teach the celeb how to dance. Coach them in performance, build up their confidence ahead of the programme, pick up the pieces after a mauling from the judges, get them back into a fighting spirit for the next week. The pro suddenly becomes teacher, choreographer, mentor, life coach, team mate, best friend, with the very real possibility that as a result the more fragile celeb could put the pro on a pedestal as their "saviour". You have physical intimacy, endless hours spent together, possible emotional dependency, an imbalance in the relationship between teacher and protege, all in a highly pressured environment - sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Series 1 unfolded against the backdrop of a rumoured romance, and it is arguable that as a viewing public, our love for the programme grew out of the "fairy tale" being played out in front of our eyes. "It is Natasha and Brendan or Fred and Ginger?" the judges cried, and our minds instinctively took a wander back in time to those old "boy meets girl, they dance, boy gets the girl" movies. The rumours have been strenuously denied by all involved, and even the tabloids have never dug up any definitive proof. It is true, we did tune in and see Natasha fall in love. But was she falling in love with Brendan or was she falling in love with dancing? Brendan, too, was falling in love. But was it with Natasha, or the chance to share his passion for dance with millions rather than thousands? Either way, we lapped it all up, and romance became associated with watching people learn to ballroom dance. But the one thing that we forget when carried away with the whole "fairy tale" aspect of the first Strictly, is that "happily ever after" is not an all-inclusive term. The success of SCD1 was built on the back of somebody's very real heartbreak. Camilla lost her dance partner, her business partner and her fiance in one fell swoop. And I am really quite glad that she made the decision to leave the series after her win last Christmas, perhaps feeling that SCD had come full circle for her.

Considering the unfortunate circumstances of SCD1 it is perhaps surprising that Camilla became embroiled in a showmance in SCD3. But maybe the producers felt that romance was still what the public wanted (despite the fact that we had been perfectly happy to see good dancing and platonic friendships abound in series 2), and the pickings were slim in a show where so many of the pros were married to each other, or most definitely otherwise occupied. There were few candidates among the celebs either for the office romance, so it seemed that the wronged partner from the year before and the TV chef were the unlikely fodder for the public appetite. And at first sections of the audience bought into it. Bruce dragged out some cringeworthy jokes about James Martin cooking dinner for Camilla, then staying to cook breakfast; Camilla wrought some minor miracles in the teaching department with James' ballroom; the judges were scathing; the public phoned their votes in, week after week. James and Camilla reached the quarter finals, doing better than ever expected, but were then knocked out. If memory serves me right, it was the week when they came clean to just playing along with the media stories to keep people happy. No fairy tale ending there then.

Series 4 rolled into town, and what we were served up this time was the prospect of passion. Sod the romance, lets go straight for the jugular, Clare King and Brendan Cole will bring you fireworks! Sadly the only fireworks on offer were those between Brendan and Craig in their almost weekly stand-offs, and the whole partnership failed to set the dance floor alight.

Of course having failed in Series 4, the producers tried the same trick with the same pro for Series 5, dangling Kelly Brooke as the bait. But Brendan and Kelly soon established themselves as less "the will they won't they" couple as the "just how irritating can one couple be" duo. Attention turned elsewhere.

It was unfortunate that towards the end of the series run, rumours turned to the on-screen chemistry between Matt and Flavia. Tactless Tess just could not steer away from this one, and repeatedly goaded the couple, often with Flavia's dance partner, and real life boyfriend, standing inches away. For me the most poignant dance of 2007, and the non-verbal confirmation of all those rumours, came with Vincent and Flavia's heart-breaking waltz to the theme from Romeo and Juliet. They seemed to be saying goodbye to each other there and then, their emotions raw for us all to see. Because of course, we, the voyeurs, were watching, as we had been watching from the start. A timely reminder that, as in series 1, happy ever after can leave somebody in the cold.

But the real fairy tale of Series 5 wasn't a romance at all. Of course there were many who speculated how wonderful Matthew and Alesha would be together, but it really was never going to be. What we did get was surely so much better than some souped up showmance, or love triangle gone horribly wrong. It was a real and genuine friendship, likely to last much longer than a romance anyway. And I think what made it so much more compelling to watch was that it was a relationship between equals. Instead of Matt acting as teacher and mentor to Alesha, we saw Alesha giving something back. Matthew seemed to increase in confidence before the cameras, his sense of humour and personality came out so much more clearly. He made her a lady; she made him a girl's best friend. It can surely be no coincidence that just as Alesha won on a huge groundswell of public popularity, so Matthew became arguably the most popular male pro in the wake of their victory.

So SCD7 is now only two and a half weeks old, and the first rumours of romance are doing the rounds. He says yes, and she is still denying it, mindful perhaps of her future place in the show. A cynic like me would say that a) this news has come at a convenient time to knock the Alesha story out of the papers and b) Joe and Kristina may have given up all hope of being kept in the competition by their dancing skills, so they may as well play their last card. Either way, I hope that this year's romance/showmance does not have a price to pay, for either of the two protagonists, or for any of the other couples whose attempts to dance well may yet be overshadowed by the Welsh Dragon and his Siberian lovely.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The winners and the losers

Probably right up there with the winners are chippies, with a vast store of sanctimonious bile to wrap up the forthcoming week's fish and chips.

Following closely behind are Mssrs Murdoch (Junior and Senior) and Dacre. They must be thinking that Christmas has come early this year.

The obvious face of the losing team is Alesha. At the end of the day she is just a young woman trying to do a new job in the glare of public attention. I have been vacillating between irritation at, and sadness for, Alesha all week, and hope that this debacle does not have a lasting effect on her career.

Apparenly Matthew Cutler was asked by a fan is he was worried about Alesha becoming a judge, and he replied that no, the BBC would not allow Alesha to be badly produced. I think the Divine Mr C had a little too much confidence in his employers and that Alesha has been badly let down by the invisible decision-makers and PR people.

The one seemingly to come out looking best from this whole sorry mess is Arlene. Asked on The One Show about the reaction to Alesha's first week, she was all beatific smiles and reminded the public that Alesha was a new girl amidst a panel that of seasoned pros, and that she too would soon be a new girl on her upcoming new venture. Just brilliant. Magnanimous towards the pretender who had replaced her, a little reminder that Strictly has been going a long time (6 years is positively middle aged in TV terms) and finishing with a little plug for her own bright, shiney, new future. I think that is game, set and match to Ms Phillips.

If I hear "I commend you for trying" once more...

...something very heavy will be moving very fast in the direction of the TV screen.

One of the best parts of last night was that I discovered a fail safe way to get the boyfriend's attention back from I-phone land and the bliss of new apps, is to casually mention "Oh look there is Ola".

First up was Tuffers. I loved his waltz last night and also his discovery that he was actually enjoying dancing! Like Darren Gough and Matt Dawson before him, he has started to fall in love with dancing, but unlike them, his revelatory moment has come in his first week. I think his competitive streak will come out now and he will put some real work in. His cha cha was not as accomplished as last week, but he came out and engaged with the audience, danced some real cha cha, and his technique was not too bad. I thought the judges were a little harsh on him, and they should be hoping that Phil scoops up all of the loveable entertainer vote, because unlike past incumbents, he has potential to be reasonably good!. Best comment of the evening - "I need facial choreography"....

I just didn't get Craig and Flavia's rumba - it really didn't seem to be going anywhere, and I am not sure that Craig is even enjoying himself. This routine was memorable only for Alesha deciding that she is now experienced enough to contradict Len on matters of technique (!), but unfortnately she had failed to listen properly. What Len actually pointed out was that Craig had some hip action in one of his moves, but needed to bring that action in to all the other basic steps, not that he had hip action per se. Grrr.

Tactless Tess then proceeded to ask Flavia how she would feel about going out first twice in two years. Bangs head on wall. I would imagine Flavia, who in her three year stint on SCD has been runner up once, but gone out after one dance twice would be thinking that options for the renewal of her contract for next year would be limited, especially with the influx of the long of hair,long of leg new girls. Doh, Tess!

I really wish I had left the room during the next dance. The car crash that unfolded was largely the result of Anton's limited choreography. And when the judges gently tried to point this out, even highlighting the difference between yesterday's spot on tango, and this comedy cha cha that forgot the laughs, Anton just continued with an inane set of quips. He was very lucky not to get a complete dressing down (which would have been the case if Brendan had pulled that stunt). Yeah, we get it Anton, you are continuing the audition for Bruce's job, but in the mean time try some dancing. That is what you are paid for, at least for this year. I hope they stay in for a few more weeks though, because I think that Laila might be the first celeb to actually lose it and throw a slap - just not sure whether the recepient would be Anton or Tess.

The lovely Zoe and James rumba was a complete contrast. The wardrobe department definitely lavish attention on Zoe and she did pull of a convincing performance. James seemed to have lifted parts of his rumba choreo for Cherie and put them in this routine, but it didn't quite reach those heights, perhaps because it lacked tenderness, or perhaps because Zoe doesn't quite have the core strength to pull off the controlled moves as yet.

Ah, Diddy and Lil' Lil with a bewildering mixture of disco and what looked like choreographed semaphore moves, with very little cha cha, and even less attention to rhythm. But the audience loved it, he looked like he genuinely loved it, and Lilia was giving him so much support through her eyes and smile that she went up even further in my estimation.

I was even impressed with Brendan last night. Usually his self-serving tantrums do nothing for me, but this time his defence of Jo seemed genuine and heart-felt. Yes she is not a natural dancer, but she did better than last night, and she has real guts to be able to go out there and do something completely out of her comfort zone. And from what I have seen of her VTs and interviews, Ronnie Wood is a complete plank. (And I would kill to have legs like her!)

Ricky and Natalie - lovely rumba, but I think it shows that she is a ballroom pro, and he is more naturally talented at latin. Not in the hideous way that is apparent with Anton, but there is a hint of a slight mis-match there. Best dance of the night though and well deserved praise.

Natalie Cassidy has got to the bravest woman on Strictly this year. To go out and do a solo circuit of the room before your partner starts to dance with you, is the hardest thing to pull off, and pull it off she did! It is a sign of just how much confidence Vincent has in her to start the dance with a solo section as well. You go girl!

The pro dances as ever, and particularly the quickstep, were innovative and beautifully danced. I was wondering whether the wardrobe department had to raid someone's dressing up box for the paso skirts though.

Nail biting dance off - and Diddy and Lil' Lil went. It was good to see that once again Lilia has made a genuine friend in her celeb partner, and he seems to have really enjoyed his time on SCD. The competition will be much the poorer without her though, and I rather think I would have enjoyed seeing her with Tuffers.

My hearing may be going, but I am sure that I heard Bruce call Darcey Dorothy. I really hope not. I can't help feeling she may bring a bit much genuine class to SCD though. But there is a certain heart warming naivety to her though. No-one else would have thought it a good idea to say "Let's go to the bar(re) now" to a class that included the likes of Ricky Groves and Phil Tufnell........

Saturday, 26 September 2009

And the gallant Sir Bruce rode to the rescue of the Lady Alesha

.....so expect a slew of tabloid stories along the lines of "Doddery former hoofer Bruce Forsythe (185) launched a swingeing attack at the genuine and justified outrage of BBC licence payers as uncovered in the Daily Murdoch"....

This could have been Bruce being sincere, or cringeworthy, depending on your point of view, but it could also have been part of the ongoing PR disaster that is the BBC's response to all this. This was the BBC as easily offended maiden Auntie - telling us naughty children that we will sit at the table until we eat our greens, and we will enjoy it, because Auntie always knows best.

Give her her due though, Alesha has significantly improved. I particularly liked her comments to Jo Wood about not letting her face give her mistakes away (how many times have I given just that advice!) which were relevant and came as a result of Alesha's direct experience. Such a shame that she did not hit the ground running last week.

First off, another beautiful Pro dance - Waltz and Tango, with some really lovely dresses. A tough act to follow.

Natalie and Vincent did themselves proud - not the best tango of the night, but a good first dance. She has ability and confidence, and seems to work her socks off. I hope she goes far.

Zoe and James executed a nice but quite safe routine. Zoe did well but seems to suffer from nerves. I loved her dress and she rocked the Grace Kelly look, but I think the floats on the dress masked the body contact, or lack of, between them. James seems so very hard to warm to...... The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that there is some serious miscasting this show. Laila and James would have made a fiery pair, and Zoe far better suited to Anton.

Craig and Flavia up next, and I am afraid I was underwhelmed, except by Flavia's dress. The singers murdered, buried and danced on the grave of the track that they were attempting to sing, and it did Craig no favours at all. It wasn't until the very end when Flavia incorporated some hand mudras into the choreo that I realised it was actually Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps the singers could stick to instrumentals in future. And I think, Craig Devil Borewood, you may have wanted to refer to Bollywood not Bhangra.

Diddy and Lil' Lil up next. Bless, he looked so petrified but managed to pull off a reasonably convincing routine, nicely choreographed by Lilia, until about the mid point when the standing spin threatened to unravel wildly out of control. I know I shouldn't, but I agreed with Alesha's comment that he was cute!

Next up - a threesome with Anton, Laila and the best dress of the series! I want that dress so badly! Nice tango, best choreographed of the night, unsurprisingly, and best music too. Slightly undermarked I thought compared to Zoe's waltz though. Laila will not go far in this competition. Her behaviour, in direct contrast to Zoe who seemed almost shaking with nerves, will not win votes. "I will have to wait till tomorow to whip your butt" made Denise Lewis look uncompetitive. Not a promising start.

The surprise of the night! A well danced, happy and relaxed waltz from my Tuffers (he is so getting my vote), and perfectly pitched by Katya. Tuffers has played this game well - by allowing himself to be portrayed as a bit lazy, a bit laissez-faire, he built up the impression of a hopeless duffer, and then last night we had the surprise unveiling. Bet he was a bit miffed when Shirley Ballas praised him, and remarked that he had potential and let slip that he had put in some extra hours of hard work!

Jo and Brendan. She wore a lovely dress and I am just about to start making my Christmas list (hint, hint).

Ricky and Natalie - best dance of the night, and a good recovery from a little slip. I am already a bit worried about them being seen as too good too soon. Just as the pre-show bookies' fave has never won Strictly, so the person at the top of the leaderboard in their first week has never won SCD. They need to have an off week or two, preferably around week 5 or 6, before the pack starts to thin too much and it leaves them vulnerable. Then we can have the "favourite falters, but makes trimphant return" storyline. But sod Alesha, it is going to be Ricky Whittle getting the "yoof" viewers in this season. Gorgeous, talented and cool - what more could you want.

And so to the judging panel. Well there were no wars between judges, no overly harsh comments, not even any ridiculous scores. Alesha has a new script writer, Bruno has got the balance between his Ritalin and caffeine sorted out, Len has banished Mr Hyde and as for Craig....well I think the producers must have attached electric shocking devices to his 1-3 paddles because he avoided them almost all night, only venturing one for Jo Wood - but it was nearly the end of the show, so he probably felt he could risk it.

In their critique of the group dance, the judges even singled out Lynda for praise, Joe for improvement and Rav as proof that they had got it right last week.

If only the panel would have behaved like this for the last 4 series, it could all have panned out so much better. Instead, somewhere during Series 3, the producers seemed to take a turn down the "pour humilation over a celeb" road, and lost the instructions on the map on how to get back.

Long may the mellowness continue! After all, the recent furore has totally masked the fact that this series has a much stronger cast than most series 6, the changes to the format are largely for the best, and there are already some very good dancers and some pleasant surprises on the show.

But I guess the proof of the pudding will be tonight. If it is not Jo and Richard in the dance off, the public have decided not to take the bait!

Friday, 25 September 2009

"I am going to make you a lucky sandwich"

Claudism of the week - said to Joe Calzaghe (apparently it was to be peanut butter and banana). Only rivalled by an excited squeal of "I am going down" which surely has to rival the unfortunate "Swallowing - and going on - as we say in my house" as the most YouTube-able Claudia moment.

Seriously, rounding up a lovely week of ITT (only ruined in my living room by shouts of "It's so not about you, Johnny Vaughan"), tonight was a lovely canape for the main event. And ITT/SCD are using their best assets - former and evicted pros for great effect as contributors this year. There was even a great piece by the Divine Mr C on the SCD website, with promises of more to come.

So the big question is - what should my voting strategy be this year? Last year, I voted for the best dance of the evening, the most improved dancer/surprise of the night, and the "Saturday evening after a couple of glasses of wine" candidate. So my votes went mainly to Austin, Cherie, Jodie, Don and John. I will leave you to work out which dancer belongs in which category.

This year so far I have voted for Jade, Chris and Ricky. So my personal favourite female performance, male performance and facial performance. Logic would suggest from now on favourite female, favourite male and a little help to a mid table person who I want to dance again. But that would suggest logic, and hell, what do sequins, spray tans, and Strictly-tastic fun have to do with logic on a Saturday night?

I am going to get very confused .....

2 Craigs, 2 Natalies, 2 Rickys, a Richard, a Jo and a Joe. It is already too much for my poor brain to deal with.

I have enjoyed ITT all week so far, and need to get into the habit of recording it rather than skipping home straight after work for the wonderful Claudia. I think she is in her element in this show, and the show has been a really good combination of fun banter and insightful interviews. I do feel slightly sorry for the Group 1 contenders though, because they not only had to dance first, but we didn't have the chance to get to "know them" in the way that we have the Group 2 lot this week. A plea for just one episode of ITT to preview the show next year please? (And while I am at it, what about a post-final ITT for Claudia to celebrate with the finalists?)

OK - predictions for tonight. There is going to be some tough competition for the bottom of the leader board slot. Richard Dunwoody, Jo Wood and Phil Tufnell are going to be fighting it out, although Phil may just surprise. I think that Joe Calzaghe may be out next week as instead of being "entertaining bad/endearing bad/annoy the judges bad" (more Gary Rhodes than John Sergeant if you like), he is plain bad bad. And there is more than enough "entertaining/endearing/annoying bad" on the horizon to keep the public happy.

First off Richard and Lilia - or Diddy Dunwoody and Little Lil, as I think of them. I can just imagine their first ITT interview - how many "so sweets" will Claudia shoehorn in? But really - how will anyone resist Diddy and Little Lil?

Jo and Brendan. Well Brendan, this could be payback time for last year's quarter finals! If you appear to be wincing at any stage, I predict a legion of Austin and Erin fans hitting the phone lines to prolong your misery. I am already rubbing my hands with glee!

Phil and Katya - is it very wrong to have a TV crush on an older man called Tuffers? He makes me laugh, and he is quite handsome, in a crinkly kind of way. Bit like Michael Palin really. Beeb - get lovely Michael Palin on next year. Please, oh pretty pretty please. Lovely, lovely Michael Palin.

I have taken my meds. Normal service resumed.

Phil and Katya are going to be here for some time, and it looks as though some of it could be down to merit.

The top of the leader board. Well I reckon a close run thing between Ricky and Natalie and Natalie and Vincent (told you it was confusing!) The pressure is on for Ricky, but will his ballroom live up to the tantalising promise of his Latin last week? Will he suffer a bit in the voting because everyone is now expecting him to be so very hot? The fact that his pro is already talking about getting a 10 for his first dance may have a backlash. Poor Natalie might not yet realise that tall poppy syndrome is every bit as vicious here as it is down under. Hope she doesn't get a harsh wake up call.

So to Natalie Cassidy. I want so much for her to be good. The poor lass has had such a pasting in the press about her looks, her weight, her this, her that, the fact that she dares get up in the morning and breathe. Her training clips are looking good - stage presence, rhythm, and a real determination to train hard. Call me old-fashioned, but I like signs of a decent work ethic (except when it is my Tuffers!).

The dreaded middle ground. Craig and Flavia are looking ok. They could be good; they could disappoint. Either way, I see them right where they don't want to be - mid table. I think part of the trouble is that Flavia simply ignites a dance floor, and expectations on any reasonably fit young man are going to be quite high, and could drop rather low, rather quickly. I hope to be proved wrong.

Zoe and James are looking good in training. She comes across as very honest and very humble. She looks to be a reasonable dancer, but lacking a bit of sparkle maybe. The elephant in the room is of course "have the public forgiven James for last year's outburst?". It may have been justified, but James needs to remember there is a time and a place, and that it took him two years to get back into public approval after Georgina Bouzova.

The miscasting of SCD7! I am betting Anton and Laila will be top two for the ballroom, and somewhere not far off the bottom for Latin (and it won't be entirely her fault). Why oh why, put someone with the potential of Laila with Anton? I love his ballroom, but he must know he is never going to win Strictly. I even think he might quite like going out early. Gives him more time to spend honing his skills on the interviewing couch.

I hope I am wrong because I like both of these couples, but I am thinking a shock "Footballers' Wives" dance off. If it is a ballroom dance off, then expect fireworks from James as Len sends him home prematurely for the third series in a row. If it is a Latin dance off, well Anton obviously spent the summer cavorting on "Hole in the Wall" rather than working on his Latin, so..........I think my mother is going to be crying this week!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The positivity post

OK I have done enough whinging, cattiness and verbose analysis of the state of the current media world. This is going to be a post full of happiness!

The best thing of all is that Strictly is back and is with us till Christmas, but here are some other reasons to raise a smile.

Tess seems to have given up all hope of being able to dance a step. (But there are still plenty of opportunities for her to insert foot into mouth with her interviews in the Tess-pit. Ricky Whittle, get a restraining order now - ask Austen Healey and his guns why).

Claudia is still delightfully mad, and is back every weekday to delight us. On which other programme would the host sprinkle batty comments such as "If in doubt, take your top off", or "They are tickling each other, it is adorable"?

ITT has featured sensible sections with Karen, Shirley Ballas, Matthew and Camilla, who have talked knowledgeably and entertainingly about progress behind the scenes. Keep all the judges away from ITT, scrap Ask Len, and ban Craig from delivering his ghost-written training updates, and my cup of joy will over floweth!

There are some real characters in the show to keep us entertained.(Would it be very wrong to develop a crush on Phil Tufnell?)

There are some potentially good dancers – and some unexpected delights such as Chris Hollins, and possibly Natalie Cassidy.

The pro dances have been sublime!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

I have a funny itching feeling in my claws today...

I have actually thought of a brilliant addition to the judging panel. Claudia!

Well why not? Claudia is actually brilliant at live TV, can do sympathetic and "viewer's friend" when needed, and is actually so delightfully ditsy that you really do not know what she will say or do next. Much more fun and less predictable than Bruno waving various body parts in the air.

She is genuinely more articulate and witty than any of the current members of the panel.

Knowledge? Is that necessary to be a judge?

Well, if Alesha (soon to lose her title of "my favourite SCD contestant of all time") can boast four months tuition from a world champion, well then our Claude can boast 5 series of master classes with Len. Sod having to go out and perform in front of millions, Claudia has had to take her very first faltering attempts at all the dances in front of a couple of million.

And just one more thing before I head out the cat flap, reference the Radio Times. A little less time preening in pretty dresses, a bit more time practising your witty one-liners, non?

Miaow for now

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Naughty - and rhythm - tick!

Possibly my favourite Claudism this programme, although I also liked "I just want to sit on your lap" said to Ricky Groves, "I have jumped of course, but normally to reach something" said to Aliona.

I enjoyed this show a lot better, although it did all feel rushed. Slow down, breathe, and let us enjoy the show please! Jade seems to be having a slightly negative edit already - showing a montage of her whinging about pain....so this year's competitive woman is being shown as a moaner in episode 2 - hmmmm...

I enjoyed Karen Hardy, as ever, and think she will be much missed from the main show for her enthusiasm and general madness. I am rubbing my hands at the thought of the promised focus on choreography for ITT though. I thought that Karen did a pretty good job, and only name checked Ramps about ten times in a five minute slot. What she said was pretty balanced and I liked the way that she didn't just focus on the good dancers, but managed to find something positive to say about Kristina's choreo for Joe.

Shirley Ballas - what a legend! Knowledgeable, experienced, respected, articulate, constructive, fair. Now what role could she occupy on SCD? I would gladly see her replace any of the current judges. I think she did a very good job in summing up the contestants' potential in a couple of sentences. She said something positive about each, in language that the non-dancer could understand, gave little insights into the personalities of her charges (Ricky is naughty, Natalie has a great smile and attitude) so that we could relate to them. She even managed to give an honest, but not cutting view of any problems, but had something positive to say about each dancer. What an addition to Strictly she would make. And she looks Fab-u-lous!

And so ITT is back on our screens...

and Claudia is still so delightfully mad. My fave quote of the programme was her comment to Martina Hingis about all the other things she could be doing like "playing cards or watching llamas".

The show itself seemed very rushed though. 10 minutes of recap of the weekend (maybe for those who gave up on SCD and switched over to the X Factor) against approximately 3minutes of interview with Martina and Matthew. I think Claudia asked about five questions and then showed their best bits - which also revealed how this couple could well have suffered by the lack of a preview show. Their training clips showed a relaxed and fun friendship in its early stages, and if only the public had seen a bit more of this prior to the weekend, the result may have been a little different.

And so to the meat of the evening, the defence of the new judge. The BBC seems to be responding to the complaints about Alesha by digging its heels in, and saying to the public "You are wrong, your views don't count, and you will like our casting decisions". Whilst I am sure that the whole furore is being whipped up by the media, the BBC (like any organisation) would do better to listen to the views of its customers, rather than pretend they are irrelevant. There are plenty of ways to defend your viewpoint, and maybe defusing a situation is a more effective way to win back public opinion than going on the attack.

Anyway, I think ITT mishandled the situation and misjudged its response. Instead of the three line whip, over-emphasising the BBC line, a one-on-one interview with a reflective, vulnerable Alesha could have turned the situation around. Craig came across as holier-than-thou and patronising. He offended me by proclaiming that Alesha was almost the standard of a professional dancer, showing his lack of knowledge of ballroom, and his lack of respect for professional ballroom and latin dancers. Alesha, who has every right to defend herself, but needs to think very carefully about how she comes across, came across as almost arrogant. The public fell in love with her on Series 5 becaues she came across as unpretentious, sweet, humble, and as willing to admit to her mistakes as she was delighted with her successes.

My ideal scenario to turn the backlash away from Alesha would have run something like this. Claudia presenting a little montage of Alesha's SCD journey in clips from past series - Alesha appearing on ITT as a superfan (just to remind us that Alesha was once just like us, just a fan of the show, falling in love with dancing); Alesha as a contestant (to remind us what led us to crown her one of the most popular series winners ever); Alesha dancing with the pros on one of last year's shows (to illustrate how she remained part of the Strictly family); and finally Alesha on Saturday, the next stage of her Strictly journey.

Talk could have turned to last year's Strictly, and how her experience of competing influenced her enjoyment of the show. Alesha could have then brought in her empathy for contestants and the nerves they experience. That could have been the ideal moment to mention that she actually voted for John Sergeant. Cue montage of public support versus judges' opprobrium, a shot of John and Kristina's dejected faces. The viewers at home might have been reminded of last year's fury and their pleas for change. Well look - goes the subliminal message - the BBC does listen to your views, you wanted this change! Alesha could then have talked about the audience point of view - that sometimes the most technically excellent dance isn't the one that the public take to their hearts. That she is there to say that out loud. She may not necessarily be able to give a higher score, but she knows that sometimes a contestant needs some words of encouragement; they need to hear that their dance may not have been perfect, but it was their personal best and they are deserving of praise. Oh, think the viewers at home, the panel is going to be a bit more balanced than before, less emphasis on putting the boot in. What a good idea!

Finally, Alesha could have admitted to nerves, perhaps even self-doubt. To knowing how important the change would be to the viewing public. Admitted maybe to watching back the footage to see what improvements to make, because after all, just like the contestants, she is on a steep learning curve. Cut to the shot of Alesha looking devastated at Matthew going out early, to prove that this is not a walk in the park for her.

It would have taken some spinning, and wouldn't necessarily have dealt with the media backlash. But it might have started to get the viewers back on board, and calm the mutterings for a scalp. Sometimes eating a little humble pie is the best way to get what you want. And surely it can't be worse than having the internet abound with fury about Alesha's arrogance on ITT!.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The scores are in....

....and it’s a win for the X Factor and a spectacular own goal for the Beeb.

The ratings, the newspapers and opinion on the internet are united in considering that Alesha’s debut was a complete turn off SCD, turn on ITV. I feel so dreadfully sorry for Alesha, because I admired her as a contestant, and it is awful to see the backlash building. But she was ill-advised to take the gig, and will need a really thick skin to get through the next few weeks. Watching both shows this weekend, I really felt that the judging panel has lost its chemistry, and the other judges treading on eggshells. The lowest point of Alesha’s performance was the infamous “he’s wearing pink” comment. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

And what of Arlene? I think that she genuinely loved Strictly, so I imagine that seeing the slings and arrows directed at the programme is not a pleasant experience for her. The producers treated her terribly – she was the only “name” on the judging panel at the start of Series 1, and without her experience of staging large, travelling dance shows, I very much doubt that the Strictly tour would have had the success that it has enjoyed for the past two years. At least she has the comforting thought that her career has seen more achievements and longevity than that of the hapless suit behind this piece of decision making.

I would love to be a fly on the wall in the production meeting in Strictly Towers today. Selecting a judge to go head to head with Cheryl Cole, and opting to schedule the show directly against the X Factor were huge gambles, and the price of failure will be high. The right wing press always leaps at an opportunity to take aim at the BBC, and any trouble with the flagship autumn show will be seized on with tenacity and joy. The anger of the BBC’s commercial rivals has been mounting all summer, with accusations about its size, scope and anti-competitive stance. So how does the BBC respond? By loading and cocking two pistols, handing one to Simon Cowell and the other to Rupert Murdoch, and saying “I’ll just stand here while you pull the trigger”.

Anger coming from ITV is fully justified. The BBC is publicly funded, and is not facing a cut in its income. ITV is dependent on advertising revenue and needs to win the ratings war, especially among the 18 – 34 age group, which the BBC seems desperate to target. With the recession hitting media companies hard, and the advertising industry collapsing by 20%, the BBC’s aggressive scheduling just looks like a hostile act.

The BBC have built their brand around the personification of Auntie, everyone’s much-loved relative and best friend. Being portrayed as ruthless competitors could bang a nail in the coffin of the brand. And TV’s Mr Nasty has seen the opportunity to be Mr Magnanimous, and is working it well. The news today is Simon Cowell may re-schedule the X-Factor because he knows his mum will want to watch Strictly. Master class in how to win a PR war.

And the BBC’s counter stroke? To announce that they are thrilled with Alesha’s debut, and although there is criticism on the internet, it is not representative of public opinion. However, the criticism on the internet is not rabble rousing to score a cheap point at a rival, such as we see in the red tops. It is real comment coming from the show’s staunchest fans. Internet wisdom may not seem representative enough of public opinion for the BBC, but the preferences of the 10.7 million viewers who opted for the X Factor cannot be so easily dismissed.

This story is set to run and run, so expect a head on a platter by the end of the month. I am just hoping that it won’t be Alesha Dixon’s, and would far rather see the actual instigator of the mess fall on his or her sword.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The morning after the night before

Tess appears to have upset the wardrobe department already this year. The Cadbury's Milk one shoulder number did her no favours at all, and I really think a new mum should not be going unsupported!

And it came to pass - half my prediction came true with the divine Matthew and the Swiss Miss in the dance off and then dancing off the show. Yes the first programme saw the shock exit of the highest profile celeb and the highest rated pro dancer, and the show had its money shot of Alesha crying! Job well done then, and at least the producers have got rid of the problem of perceived bias in Alesha's marking. She did of course vote for Matt to stay but was over-ruled by Len. It is often thought that Len is biased against Matt, but in this case I agreed with his decision (based on the performance in the dance off). Of course the dance off should have been between Joe and Lynda going by actual performance, but where would be the fun of that? The surprise was in seeing chunky thighs hunk in the dance off with Martina.

Kristina must be suffering from a severe case of deja vu. Joe danced like a man in his 60s, stiff legs, no spark, shuffling around as if he would rather be anywhere else. He perfomed worse over both shows than John Sergeant, and at least Kristina and John has a bit of magic about them that made them a pleasure to watch. I got that one wrong!

Lynda and Darren did as well as could be expected with their Cha Cha. The great thing about Darren is that whether he is dancing with Jill Halfpenny or Lynda Bellingham, he always gives it his best smile as if he really believes that he is dancing with the world's best partner. He would have made Lynda feel really special last night.

Rav and Aliona - not a lot of potential there, but the real problem lies with Aliona. She seems to be a me me me dancer and needs to look at Lilia or Kristina for inspiration on how to showcase an unpromising partner.

Erin and Ricky - Erin knows the game and knows when she has to pull a performance out of her partner. Ricky worked the crowd, flapped his mouth open like a giant salmon, and pulled off the performance of the night. There was no way this couple were going home.

Martina and Matthew - there was no hint of a tennis player here, with weak legs, core and floppy arms. She never seemed to engage her muscles, and crucially, never seemed to relax and enjoy the dance.

Jade and Ian - my favourite female performance of the night. Sloppy footwork and poor arm lines did not detract from a good performance, and a promising dance. She can move her body with fluidity and ease and the use of straight legs to generate hip movement shows that Ian has covered the basic technique well.

Ali and Brian - lovely Rumba but lacking a connection for me. This couple seem so very nice, and they urgently need to get their personalities across. With the judges gushing in week 1, and rumours of previous dance training starting to circulate (I would guess she has done ballet as a child, from the use of her arms, her leg lines and her suppleness)she could well suffer the fate of previous teachers' pets (Zoe, Emma, Lisa, Rachel) with a place in the final but dumped by the public.

But the performance of the night came from Chris Hollins! He had it hard - a tango and a rumba in week 1, but he rose to the challenge and has earned a lot of fans. There were errors in his technique but I have never before seen a male celebrity commit so completely to the mood of the dance and he delivered a performance of astonishingly powerful emotion. That took real guts and won my respect. I have a new found respect for Ola as she actually choreographed for her celebrity. I just wish she would stop shopping for her dance outfits at Ann Summers though.

The pro dances were amazing again - three in one night woohoo! It was interesting to see the three new dancers with their partners in one dance, and I enjoyed the themed Sweet Charity dance featuring the other five. For one moment I was slightly perturbed at the sight of Gary Rhodes looking rather good in the pro dance line up, but then breathed a sigh of relief when I realised that James Jordan had had a hair cut.

And so the evening drew to an end with Tom and Camilla performing surely the best showdance Strictly has ever seen. A timely reminder to those of who are moaning of the treats in store if we stick it out until December!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Strictly Come Playing it Safe

Well just like many anticipated events - Christmas, a summer holiday in England, a new flavour of Haagen Dasz - when the build-up can be more exciting than the reality, so it was with Strictly last night.

Everyone played it safe - from Tess in the opening routine who seems to have given up all attempts at dancing and now just points, gurns and poses, to the tranquilised judging panel, to much of the choreography. The only hint at former sparkle came near the end, when we caught a glimpse of the formerly bitchy Craig, when he purred at Brendan "I feel sorry for you next week, darling".

The waltzes were nice, but are now slipping through my memory like water through my hands. Ali and Martina were better than expected, and Ali deservedly got the highest score of the evening, but more personality needs to show. Ricky was slightly undermarked; I thought he was elegant, light on his feet,and moved well around the floor to the best Waltz choreography of the evening. However, his posture needs work, and fast. He needs to be aware of it and correcting it every waking second of the day, not just when the music starts.

Jade was a slight disappointment, but there is potential there. The ugly clawed hand could and should have been sorted before the first show. Maybe the problem lies deeper, in her not letting Ian lead. We hear a lot about how hard it is for the male celebs to learn how to lead, but it is just as hard for a female celeb to learn to trust and let go, to let the man lead her, rather than trundle her round the floor, and to follow not anticipate the moves. Most sports people come to Strictly as their careers come to an end, but Jade is unusual in that she is still training, still competing. It must be hard for a driven sportswoman in a solo discipline to learn to relinquish control, but that could be the key to improving her ballroom.

The Tango is one of my favourite dances, but it is hard for novices to pull off as it requires an intimacy and emotional intensity that does not come easy. It was tough for the four celebs who drew it at this stage of the game. But whichever production flunky responsible for the music should be locked in a cell, bound and gagged and forced to listen to thrash metal for 24 hours! Three of those choices greatly hindered the contestants, and there is no point in choosing music to appeal to cool kids when the programme goes out at 8.30 on a Friday evening.

Rav was a bit better than expected, but Aliona over-danced, and the choreography did him no favours. Chris too was a pleasant surprise and the best Tango of the night. Both have serious bum problems! Lynda looked so much better in rehearsal, without the music, which was her underdoing. I am a big Queen fan, but the relentless Under Pressure does not a Tango make. If she had been allowed to dance to appropriate music, and allowed her acting skills to bring character to the role, she would have looked so much better.

Joe was the shock of the evening - a fearless boxer felled by a ballroom dance, the posture shocking, the lack of chemistry screaming loud.

The highlight of the evening for me was the pro dance - a gorgeous symphony in white, with latin and ballroom dances cunningly woven together in one great medley. Last year's opening dance, featuring all 16 pros, was an ill-judged affair, more reminiscent of 1970s formation style. But this was a triumph of dancing, choreography and staging.

So what will tonight bring? I am not convinced that the audience is going to be hooked for two nights, so the voting may be strongly skewed in favour of tonight's dances. That could let Joe and Jade off the hook, but could bode ill for the Rumba dancers.

Anyway, I am a glass half full kind of person, so despite the shaky start am looking forward to tonight. My boyfriend is going out, so I will be having a Strictly night in, with a large glass of wine (or 3) and a special treat - a Domino's just for me! What more could you want for a Saturday evening...

Friday, 18 September 2009

Predictions for tonight

Tess will be dressed in a gown inspired by a Quality Street wrapper, and will bumble through the opening routine resembling Jake the Peg's less talented sister. She may get a bit carried away with excitement at the first show, and flinging her arms akimbo with more zest and relief than usual, knock Bruce's toupee flying into the lap of one of the singers.

Bruce will win plaudits for his ad-libbing should anything go wrong, but will make a woeful attempt at reading the autocue. If we are in for a really memorable show, he will make a gaffe worse than last year's "Jellie Wallace".

Len will feel threatened in his position as nice judge by the arrival of Alesha, and will be itching to get his Sev-ern paddle out. He may even get carried away and award it to Tess and Bruce's little jig, just to be the first judge to dole out a good score.

Bruno will find his favourite right there this evening and will not be able to contain his excitement. The public though will fail to share his crush and Bruno's plethora of tens (probably starting in week 3 of this series) will not be matched by audience vote. He usually seems to fall for either Ian or Vincent's partner, so here's hoping that this year he continues his Italian theme.

Craig will give a 1 or a 2, and look like he has a bad smell under his nose when the object of his disfavour is not dumped into the dance off by the public. Come on Craig - we know that you know that we know the score. A 2 is worth tens of thousands of votes, and a 1 hundreds of thousands. If you really can't bear to see someone dance again - give them a 5 or a 6 and the job will be done.

As for the contestants - top of the boys could be Joe Calzaghe and top of the girls Jade Johnson. (I am really hoping that the judges don't make her teachers' pet this year too early, because that will be the kiss of death for the public vote).

Dancing badly - Rav Wilding and Chris Hollins. Both will go through - Rav on his charm, Chris on his partner's charms.

Lynda and Ricky - even with a wobble, both stand to go through on fan base votes alone.

So could there be a shock bottom 2 - Ali and Martina? Will new judge Alesha have to face rejecting her best friend Matt Cutler? Will the ratings battle hinge on who has the most telegenic tears - Cheryl Cole or Alesha Dixon?

The count down starts here!

Only ten hours to go - way hay! It's like going to meet a loved one at an airport, when they have been away for a while. You get there ridiculously early, and then have to embark on a series of time-wasting tasks to fill the hours. Still far too early, you station yourself at the barrier in the arrivals hall, just in case the flight somehow arrives earlier than scheduled. Hopping up and down, desperate for the first glimpse....

The BBC have released a sneaky preview clip to whet our appetite, but on careful viewing does it conceal more than it reveals? The training clips shown could be from any point in the training, from first session to earlier this week. So Ricky Groves looking decidedly shaky is juxtaposed against Jade Johnson looking polished and ready to Rumba. Jo Woods is seen falling over (and that was just walking!), and Tuffers is seen larking around. Zoe Lucker talks about nerves, and Laila Rouass talks about winning. Zoe and James are looking promising, Laila and Anton less so. Tantalising hints, or red herrings?

Joe Calzaghe has been the bookies favourite, and he and Kristina have featured in many of the red tops. He is in the preview tape, talking about never having lost a fight. But of his dancing - we see not one step. Kristina isn't even in the clip - perhaps she had popped to the loo, or perhaps the fabled chemistry, like her partner's dance prowess, is only to be revealed tonight! What a great teaser - but if the show is to survive head-to-head against the X Factor, the producers are going to have to pull stuff like this out of the bag in every episode to keep us hooked.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Series 6 - why did it all go wrong?

SCD5 seemed to have won a real place in people’s hearts, and had done exceptionally well in the ratings. Together with the success of a sell-out spin-off tour, expectations for SCD6 were riding high.

But the series seemed to get off to a slow start. Sixteen couples seemed at least two couples too many, with reduced chances to get to know the couples properly.

The turgid “boy week girl week boy week girl week” just seemed to delay the start of the real competition, and the casual viewer could just as well have put off tuning in until programme 5, and not missed out on very much at all.

The casting didn’t really gel – 3 ex Eastenders, two pop princesses, two models, a GMTV presenter and a couple of journeying sports stars was perhaps a little too formulaic. The early elimination of all Eastenders, a lack of sparkle from the singers, a GMTV presenter with some rhythm, and the battle of the sportsmen cancelled when one proved lacklustre and the other streaked out far ahead – it was not boding well. Among the pros, public favourites (and larger than life characters) Anton, Karen and Lilia were all out early; James Jordan seemed tamed, and Brendan Cole keen to announce his new-found good boy credentials.

Thank goodness for John and Kristina!

Weaker dancers outstaying their welcome with the judges, to the great glee of the public, even if stronger dancers pay the penalty, have always been a feature of Strictly. In fact the thrills and spills of the shock exits are largely responsible for high ratings, as well as the associated media coverage. The judges may well feign outrage, and fans of promising dancers tear their hair out, but producers, judges and dancers alike know that the bigger the surprise elimination, the bigger the next week’s ratings.

This was not a new phenomenon, so why did the situation in series 6 spiral out of control? In series 3 and 4, and even to an extent series 5, the same game had been played. Weaker dancer gets slated by the judges, and receives a high percentage of the sympathy vote. An undeserving celebrity gets forgotten and voted out early. The next week, the duffer improves enough to receive better marks and faint praise. A new underdog is found to occupy the sympathy voters. The duffer goes out, amidst platitudes about going out on a high, having performed their best dance to date.

When it came to their American Smooth, the judges could have marked John and Kristina higher, given deserved praise even, and prepared the way for a gentle exit. But even though they would have been justified, as it was a nice, if not exciting dance (and the judges must by this time have realised the psychology of the mass voting public), they choose not to. John lingered on a further 10 days, before quitting in a sea of acrimony. Why did it all go so wrong this time, when previous series had not succumbed to a storm in a teacup?

Social networking


Maybe the producers failed to realise the power of the social networking craze, not only in terms of fan groups growing up around a figure, but celebs and dancers being able to talk directly to their voters. When a celeb can vlog, blog, or now Tweet directly to the masses, carefully crafted storylines and producer manipulation are circumvented.

Greed

Did the producers push the story of the underdog too far? True, John had outlasted Phil, Gillian, Gary, Jessie, Don, Mark, Andrew and Heather, but with the exception of Don and perhaps Heather, none of them had set either the dance floor or the public imagination alight. Were the producers hanging out for a big story – the shock of the series – before letting John go? And that is what indeed happened the week after their American Smooth, when Cherie Lunghi and Lisa Snowden found themselves in the dance off.

But did the producers want still more from the people’s favourite? They already had the iconic image of John dragging Kristina across the floor during the Paso. But were they angling for further comedy gold with images of the Salsa (the Strictly luck of the draw had been unkind to John and Kristina by allocating them the Samba, Paso, Cha Cha and Salsa in such quick succession). Did someone yearn for the ultimate “money shot” – John in the Saturday Night Fever group dance, portly, short and 60 odd, dressed in identical white suit and dancing alongside rugby hunk Austen and matinee idol Tom, the comparison highlighted for everyone to chortle at? Was this the moment that John realised that his Strictly experience had gone from being a bit of a hoot to abject humiliation?

Celebrity

Kate Garroway had not appeared to enjoy her final weeks on Strictly, but despite the slating from the judges and the cruel jibes in the media she carried gamely on. She knew her role. It was only afterwards that she admitted how painful it had been to go from being known to her audience as someone who was good at doing something, to being known by the nation as someone who was very bad at something. But Kate was a fully paid up member of the celebrity club. Married to one of the most notorious figures associated with New Labour, selling spreads to the likes of OK magazine– she knew what modern celebrity involved.

But John was a different man entirely. There were no shots of his wife or family supporting him; no stories in red tops or weekly magazines. The intrusion into his private life must have been painful to say the least. As a witty, articulate, media savvy journalist, he could have out talked Arlene, Craig, James Jordan, every one of them. The war of the words was his to be won. But when ignorant, cruel members of the public began telephoning his wife to abuse her, surely that must have been the catalyst for throwing in the towel.

And so the recriminations began. Accusations of bullying. Vitriol. Rancour. The producers could have chosen to arrange for a three person final at this stage, but they stubbornly clung to a two hander. The public dug their heels in, scenting favouritism amongst the judges, and continually landed the perceived teachers’ pets in the dance off. The public may accept the judges shepherding one of their favourites into a three person final, but two favourites getting into a two person final. Unforgivable!

In the end, the voting fiasco of the semi final proved to be the saving of the series. Humiliating though the very public mea culpa may have been for the BBC, it saved the series from a final between Rachel and Lisa , which would probably have been the least watched in Strictly history. And the judges should be thankful that the public chose to overturn their preferred finishing order. Otherwise, “Experiments with baco foil” would be the abiding memory of the SCD6 champions!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The couples - part 2


Ali Bastian and Brian Fortuna


Ali seems nice enough and has let it be known that she likes sequins, so that is a good first step. She might be the dark horse of the competition – but she could also just fly under the radar. Not good enough to win the judges vote, nor bad enough to get the sympathy vote. I fear she is a candidate for first female out. However, Brian knows how to work the social media to his advantage, and he was a popular new entrant to the show last year. Although his partnership with Heather Small didn’t really ignite the public’s imagination, his subsequent appearances on ITT did. I remember one delicious episode where Brian quietly, firmly, but with scrupulous politeness put Craig Revel-Horward in his place. Bliss!


Lynda Bellingham and Darren Bennett


Lynda has obviously been signed up this year as one of the “token women over 50”, but may turn out to be a bit of a surprise. I loved Cherie Lunghi last year, but her grace and class seemed to be largely interpreted as aloofness, or even disdain, which meant that she never really captured the public imagination. Lynda comes across as more down to earth, and “one of the girls”, so may succeed where Cherie didn’t. Her big advantage is her pro partner, who has choreographed sympathetically for a whole range of celebrities from the sublime Jill to the “never going to last long” Gloria Hunniford, the “never quite fulfilled her hype” Emma Bunton to the “far exceeded expectations” Letitia Dean. The only time his good taste seemed to fail him was in choosing “Help” for his quickstep with Jessie Wallace, but perhaps it really was a cry from the heart from poor Darren.

Natalie Cassidy and Vincent Simone

There have already been some pretty unkind comments written about Natalie Cassidy, which gets me rooting for her from the start. Chief among the bile spouted was Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail (women bashing in the Daily Mail, surely not?), who seems to have been half hoping for a starring role herself. (Note to Amanda Platell. Strictly is like a long lost friend, the one who has always been more glamorous and daring than us, who turns up out of the blue after a summer away, to keep us company through the dark months, regaling us with their exploits. There are some people, like Natalie, for whom I would fling the front door wide open; there are others, Amanda dear, for whom I would double bolt the door, and bury the telephone deep under a cushion.)

Anyway, I hope Natalie does herself proud, although I would prefer to have seen her partnered with safe pair of hands Darren Bennett. Nothing against Vincent, but I have a feeling he, like his dance partner Flavia, cope better with celebrities that they can really push hard, but I hope to be proved wrong.

Martina Hingis and Matthew Cutler

The SCD voting public seem to love their sportsman on a journey storyline, but just don’t take to the sportswomen in the same way. Denise Lewis and Gaby Logan both were slated for being competitive in a way that their male counterparts never had to deal with, and failed to win the public affections. Will being paired with arguably the favourite male pro change this for Martina Hingis? Or will her admission that she has only watched clips of the series on YouTube sour the dream? Will the presence of Alesha on the panel lead to extra scrutiny of the judges’ votes for any sign of favouritism, and mean that a second stab at the title remains out of reach for the delectable Mr C?

Jade Johnson and Ian Waite

The same comments apply for Jade and Ian really. But will they prove the exception to the rule with the public getting behind a Brit girl who will be representing us at our home Olympics in just three years time? I would dearly love to see Ian have a crack at the title, having been so near, yet so far with Denise and Zoe. In the past two series, his genuine friendship with Penny Lancaster and Jodie Kidd have endeared him to the viewers, so could Ian succeed where he has been just pipped at the post before? I have just caught a glimpse of their early rumba training - and she is looking good! My tip for last female celeb standing.

Zoe Lucker and James Jordan

This seems like lazy casting to me, in that the producers seem to be holding out for a re-run of Clare King and Brendan Cole from Series 4. I also object to the mooted “Battle of the Bitches” between Zoe and Laila. For the producers to try and transpose the characters that they played on “Footballers’ Wives” to Strictly seems unimaginative and clich├ęd (and not a little tasteless). Nothing wrong with good healthy competition, but to stage a “Battle of the Bitches” seems inappropriate for family TV. And it didn’t work last year, when the purported rivalry between Tom and Austen was exposed as claptrap, and Austen went all out as a Tom supporter after his own defeat.

But moving on, will this be the year that James Jordan redeems himself? Portrayed as a nasty bully in his first series, the elephantine public memory may have had something to do with his early exit with Gaby in Series 5. Things were looking up for Series 6, but then he became embroiled in Sergeantgate and received round condemnation from many quarters.

Laila Rouass and Anton du Beke

I am a big Anton fan, really I am. I love his ballroom and the persona that he has chosen to create for Strictly. He is as much a part of the show as the glitterball itself. But his Latin is the weakest of all the pros, and the public seem to prefer Latin dances over ballroom. Not entirely his fault, as he is the only male ballroom specialist on the show, and he came late to dance, starting at only 14, and giving up Latin after only three years. Most of the other pros seem to have started around the ages of 6 or 7, and competed in both disciplines until their early twenties, before specialising. So whatever Anton does, he will always be the weakest link at Latin. His chosen strategy seems to be to make sure that the audience is laughing with him, and not at him, by presenting cheesetastic dance routines, and appearing clad in all-in-one jump suits in primary colours, or satin shirts slashed to the navel. This may wash with, ahem, the slightly older lady who might struggle with any of the Latin dances, but Laila looks like a real firecracker with a serious shot at the trophy! Serious miscasting – possibly the worst of the series.

Jo Wood and Brendan Cole

Ignore the last sentence above. Nothing to say really – oh dear. Just oh dear.

The couples - part 1

There has been a fair bit of criticism of this year’s set of contestants, along the lines of “boo, hiss, they not famous enough”. Of course, this is the reaction from sections of the media every year, and I always think that it misses the point somewhat. The likes of Kylie Minogue, Keira Knightley, David Beckham et al are going to be far too busy to commit a potential 16 weeks to a reality TV show (and are not going to be at all interested in the Beeb’s going rate for such appearances anyway).

The only winner that I had heard of prior to her appearance on Strictly was Jill Halfpenny. I became a dedicated fan of Mark Ramprakash, Alesha Dixon and Austen Healey never having heard mention of their names before. To me, that is the magic of Strictly – watching two strangers form a bond and a working partnership. And it is the partnership that interests me most, not the previous achievements of the celebrity half of the team.

We have barely seen any training footage of this season’s couples so the remarks below are based largely on existing profiles, media interest and internet buzz.

Joe Calzaghe and Kristina Rihanoff

On paper, this couple already looks very promising. There are all the ingredients of a “sportsman on a journey”, and having a boxer in this role instead of a cricketer or rugby player will be a refreshing change. I assume that he brings fitness, agility and lightness of feet to this new challenge, and having won BBC Sportsperson of the Year in 2008, he also has an obvious phone-voting fan base. Kristina was savvy enough last series to build up her fan base via social networking sites. She also choreographed some memorable routines, and won a great deal of good will by taking the role as the “selfless dancer”. This pair look strong, but could yet be derailed by overly high expectations, and a media-led backlash. It seems that the red tops are already scenting their Strictly Scandal Story for 2009, and it would be all too easy for them to turn the public against this partnership.

Richard Dunwoody and Lilia Kopylova

Could be a dark horse (pardon the pun). As a former sportsman, he will be driven and can be expected to cope well with the training, although he may initially be too reserved to make a great impression. The former jockey’s huge advantage is his professional partner, Lilia, who has proved a great teacher and choreographer, able to showcase each of her celebrities brilliantly. She has taken previous partners far further than originally thought possible. Darren Gough, under her tutelage, was the original sportsman on a journey, and together they won their series, Christmas specials and many dates on the first Strictly tour. Hugely popular in her own right, Lilia has had disappointing runs the last two years, so her fans will be keeping their fingers crossed and poised to dial for better luck this time. Lilia is arguably a great secret weapon for any male celebrity.

Ricky Groves and Erin Boag

Ricky could be another dark horse. He has a substantial (and recent) Eastenders fan base to draw upon, comes across as a likeable chappie, and most importantly, appears to be taking the dancing seriously, but not himself. Erin is one of my favourite female pros, and I particularly admire the way that she has changed the whole psychology of her teaching approach to suit each celebrity. She is a ballroom pro through and through though, and the public tend to vote for flashier Latin than Erin usually presents. Having drawn a place in the first group (which looks slightly stronger than the second group), they will have to get past the danger zone of the first Latin dance. But if the huge Erin and Austen fan base, still chafing from last year’s defeat in the quarter final dance off, turn into an Erin and Ricky fanbase and protect them through the first weeks, these two could be a couple to watch.

Chris Hollins and Ola Jordan

I had never heard of Chris but apparently he is the face of sport on BBC Breakfast TV, so should have a reasonably high level of recognition. Partnered with Ola, her costumes could guarantee the Dad vote on their first outing. My thoughts on Ola are mixed. On the one hand, the VT footage of her partnership with Kenny Logan in Series 5 was sweet and a genuine highlight, and she seemed to grow in confidence with Kenny’s encouragement. On the other hand, I have yet to see her come up with innovative choreography to suit her celebrity’s needs, preferring instead the “Park and Dance approach”, whereby she sticks a dance-challenged celebrity in the middle of the floor, and lets her outfits do the talking. There doesn’t seem to be any buzz building out there on the internet, nor any media interest, so this couple may not be long for the competition. Having just found out that their Saturday night dance is the notoriously low-scoring (with public and judges alike) rumba….I think they may be doomed.

Craig Kelly and Flavia Caccace

Hadn’t heard of Craig Kelly either, but he seems to come across as a thoroughly nice chap, and in it for the experience of learning to dance, rather than raising his profile. Flavia is without doubt the most versatile female pro on Strictly, and is a stunning dancer. She strikes me as someone who is very shy though, and neither a natural at talking in front of the cameras, nor a natural at “taking the lead” with her celebrity partner. Flavia is very good with a gifted celebrity dancer, less so with the rhythmically challenged. She pushed Matt di Angelo with some of the most complicated choreography we have seen on Strictly, and together they took second place in Series 5. But her other two appearances have seen her and her partner leaving after just one dance (although Jimmy Tarbuck’s withdrawal was due to health problems). Hard to predict whether this could be an early exit, or a lucky run.

Phil Tufnell and Katya Virshilas

I watched the film “Take the Lead” last night and, boy, is Katya, one of this season’s new pros, a formidable presence. From dancing in a Hollywood movie with Antonio Banderas, to tackling Strictly with Phil Tufnell, Katya could be forgiven for thinking that her career has peaked and is now rushing downhill. I like Tuffers – I like his laconic charm and his sense of humour. He is likely to have a substantial fan base from his days as a cricketer, his appearances on I Am a Celebrity, Question of Sport, and on the One Show, so the votes could come trundling in, regardless of whether he can deliver the goods. But Katya is already said to be frustrated with the Cat’s easy come, easy go attitude, so they may not quite have that magic factor that saw John and Kristina last for many weeks last year. I kind of hope that they stay until at least mid-series, because I think he is going to be a hoot!

Ricky Whittle and Natalie Lowe

Another male celeb that is off my radar, and this time the pro dancer is as well. Natalie is joining the show from the Australian version, and I have no inkling of her ability, achievements, personality - not a clue. Ricky is apparently ex Hollyoaks, and already has a “storyline” courtesy of a “snub” from with Zoe Lucker. But will the Hollyoaks fan base translate into votes on Strictly? There seems to be absolutely no buzz about this couple on any of the forums, and no appreciation threads, which is not a good sign. They need to start tweeting or Facebooking, because if you are the lowest profile couple in the competition, you can’t rely on just the dancing to do the talking. They won’t dance until next weekend but could be the first shock exit of 2009.

Rav Wilding and Aliona Vilani

Aliona is another new pro, the last to be signed, and there were no leaks to the media in advance of the signing, no gossip about her joining the show. Rav seems to be an unlikely candidate for Strictly – not high profile enough to come with a pre-existing fanbase, not likely to be bad enough to catch the sympathy vote. However Rav has a healthy internet fan base, and a Twitter following, with Aliona working Facebook and visiting the BBC forums. They could create just enough interest to last beyond those first tricky weeks.

The future!

Last night I dreamed I went to Strictly 2016. It was a strange and scarey place, banished to a commercial TV station. There were adverts every 10 minutes; the dancers would dance for around 30 seconds and then engage in a war of words with the judges; the audience bayed loudly for blood, and whoever shouted long and loudest was deemed to have won. Bruce had been carefully mothballed, to be brought out only for Christmas specials. His replacements a double act of Lisa Snowden and Pauline Quirke (I really must stop eating cheese as a late night snack).

There were no VTs of training couples; instead snippets of celebs racing round the ballroom in swimming trunks; pro dancers leaping into swimming pools (how did Hole in the Wall get in here?).

The forums were diminishing in their love for Strictly. Fans were hard to find. Len Goodman popped round to our house for a glass of wine and to rue the mess that Strictly had become.

I guess it's time to count our blessings on the Strictly front while we can!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The judges

By far the biggest change to this year’s Strictly has been that wreaked on the judging panel. A change in the make up of the panel was long overdue, and Strictly 6 seemed to have deteriorated into a battle of wills – public versus judges.

Instead of constructive criticism and praise for the contestants when due, with a dash of genuine persiflage between host and judges, the judging segment of SCD6 became a viper’s nest, with real acrimony threatening to overtake the whole series.

The panel had always been unbalanced with only one ballroom and Latin expert pitted against three jazz and modern choreographers. The genius Strictly is that it takes ballroom dancing out of the ballroom and puts it on a “stage”. With the pro dancers free to use the lyrics of the song to tell a story, or the tone of the music to set a mood, the dancers were able to engage directly with the audience in a way not possible in a traditional dancing competition. The inclusion of West End choreographers to comment on performance and pizzazz was therefore justified, although a ratio of two ballroom experts and two performance judges would have struck a better balance.

With Len Goodman the only judge with the expertise to comment on technique and required content, that left limited “territory” for the other three judges to occupy. With Len also in the role of “nice judge”, the only judge who had direct experience of teaching and judging beginner and less talented dancers (I doubt Arlene and co would know a beginner dancer if one jumped up and bit them on the bottom; they are used to dealing only with the very best of the most talented professionals), the judging territory was further narrowed for the other three. Initially, they seemed content to play up to their caricatures – Bruno, the eccentric Italian, given to waving his hands, and latterly his legs in the air; Arlene, the hard-bitten professional, passing on some sound advice amongst the annoying alliteration; and Craig the Mr Nasty, content to be the subject of audience booing each week. It was when the three choreographers began to try and “extend” their territory and comment on matters technical that the problems began, and the arguments between judges began to take up increasing amounts of air time.

I realise that a lot of viewers like the souped up arguments and personal insults (part of me suspects that the judges have producers in their ear pieces screaming “ITV are going for an ad break. Go nuts!”, in a deliberate ratings ploy). I, however, am rapidly turning into a grumpy old woman and hated the sight of four people whose professional achievements I respect reducing themselves to the level of stroppy 7 year olds. I hated seeing a celebrity, already way out of his or her comfort zone, stand there hearing their performance squabbled over and picked apart; and hated seeing the pro dancer, reputation on the line, see their charge ripped to shreds by ignorant remarks.

Something obviously needed to be done. The BBC could have substituted one of the choreographers with Karen Hardy, a “marmite” character (much valued by reality TV) who is articulate and holds strong opinions. Karen has achieved the highest levels of success in her own competitive career, and has nothing to prove to anyone. She now teaches and judges, and in addition to winning Strictly, she has also known the challenges of unpromising partners. Having taken early baths the last couple of years, she has become less associated in the public mind with competing and more with commentating. She is better with words and more even tempered than Len, and would be able to counter Craig’s barbed comments more effectively. A panel of Craig, Karen, Arlene, Len (or even Craig, Karen, Len, Bruno) would have been a strong panel, and one which still encompassed a variety of experience and views.

But the BBC chose not to go this route. They chose one that would lay them wide open to accusations of dumbing down, as well as the more dangerous ones of ageism and sexism.

I am a great admirer of Alesha Dixon. I voted incessantly for her in Series 5 (the first time I had ever lifted the phone to vote in a reality TV show), and I have since followed her career and bought her music. I hope for her sake that this career move works out for her, because at the least I feel that she has been badly advised, and in line to take the flak for any problems in SCD7.

And as for the BBC –a publicly funded body - they have acted woefully in terms of promulgating outmoded sexist and ageist stereotypes. SCD7 will be reinforcing the prejudice that men are the ones with real authority, who can judge from experience and use facts to back up their arguments, whilst women are there to be decorative, to be seen but not listened to with any respect.

By replacing a 66 year-old woman, who has 40 years of experience as a top professional with a 30 year old who has 16 weeks of experience of learning to follow a routine, the BBC are giving out the message that achievement, hard work and dedication are worth nothing in the face of youth and good looks. It reinforces the obsession with instant fame and immediate gratification that seems to be the holy grail of the “yoof” of today (told you I was turning into a grumpy old woman). As an aside, I wonder whether the remake of that 80s classic will feature the iconic phrase “You want fame? Well fame costs, and right here is where you start paying. In sweat” or whether it will be replaced by “You want fame? Well call a publicist and have them set you up a kiss and tell with another wannabe and a few mag deals”.

It is of course crystal clear with the rescheduling of the Saturday night show that Alesha is being pitched directly against Cheryl Cole in a further bid to win the ratings war. Although whether the BBC should be pursuing the “yoof” demographic so crucial to ITV due to their dependence on advertising revenue, instead of concentrating on producing entertainment for family viewing, is a whole different debate.

The new series - the changes

Strictly Come Dancing 6 was mired with rancour, and ill feeling between judges and public. It was a shame that just as SCD5 was winning awards at the National Television Awards, so SCD6 was gaining viewers and column inches for all the wrong reasons.

So Series 7 is upon us, and the production team appear to have pulled out all the stops to address the problems.

Gone is the much reviled Sunday night results show. This made its first appearance in Series 5 and seemed to have been conceived as a cheap(ish) way to extend the Strictly brand and to fill another prime time weekend slot. The reality was that the show often suffered from over padding, and was often scheduled too late for real family viewing. The overnight wait for results was hated by diehard fans, many of whom yearned for the tension of a live Saturday night results show. I have to admit to being in two minds over this. I resented the Sunday show initially, but when I discovered the place for spoiler threads on the internet, I found that I could have the best of both worlds. I could satisfy my burning curiosity by around 10:30 on a Saturday night, and could have my seven day a week Strictly fix by tuning in on a Sunday night to watch the pro dances, tuning out before the dance off if I knew that it was going to be an emotionally charged episode. Part of me will miss those Saturday evening Digital Spy vigils.

Whether the BBC’s decision to go directly up against the X Factor will prove to be a wise one, time will tell, although initial feedback is not looking good. Still, it would be surprising if the ratings figures of the last two years could be maintained, or bettered, so here is the ready-made reason for any slump.

This series still has 16 couples, which I feel is too many (12 or 14 seemed to work so much better). At least we have lost the bore-fest of the “boy only”/”girl only” weeks, which made the beginning of the last series seem so very drawn out. It was frustratingly pointless to sit through two weeks of men only, with entertainment and decent dancing in short supply last year, whilst the far more talented ladies lost two of their number to slightly premature exits. With even Tess Daly opining at the end of programme 4, “join us next week when the real competition starts”, it seems that everyone had a sense of marking time through the first month of the series.

An interesting new twist is to schedule the first and second episodes over the Friday and Saturday (although this assumes a level of loyalty from fans that may not yet have been fully earned back), and to have all couples dance both a ballroom and a Latin dance before the first and second elimination. I always feel so sorry for the first couple to be unceremoniously booted out, after a mere 90 seconds to prove their worth, so this change ticks the boxes for me. There will be no hiding behind the stronger discipline, be it ballroom or Latin, so a shock start to the season may be in store!

I will miss the preview show that has been aired in previous years (although as the “preview” show seems to have been part preview, part review of the series before, there may be good reason to draw a veil over aspects of Series 6). I have always enjoyed “the getting to know the partnerships” angle of those first VTs, and feel that the three new pros and their partners are going to be at a disadvantage for the start of this series.

The best change from my point of view is the tweaking of the scoring system. Something needed to be done after last year’s semi final debacle, when the tie at the top of the leader board meant that any votes cast for Tom and Camilla were wasted votes. But there had been occasions (over all series) when a tie near the top of the leader board meant a couple scoring only marginally less had found themselves in that tricky mid table position, neither good enough to win immunity with the judges’ votes, nor bad enough to garner the public sympathy vote, so doomed to the dance off before their time. The new points system seems set to iron out that snag and be fairer all round.

The new time slot is a winner with me as well. I do like to start my Strictly evening with a glass of wine, and it seems somehow much more satisfying if I can time the easing out of the cork to match that first exuberant “Oh” of the theme tune. A Strictly start anytime after 7 means that those first few sips are a well deserved treat. A six o’ clock start does a Strictly lush signify!

Farewell to an inspiration

I stopped dancing for a long time in my early 20s, but finally came back home. There were many reasons for me to start dancing again, but the biggest push came for a film, and in particular, from the lead of that film. I missed the film when it first came out, and missed the whole phenomenon. About seven years later I actually caught up, and that was when I knew I had to dance again. Shortly afterwards I went to my first salsa class and dancewise have never looked back. So you can say that I owe it all to the late, great legend.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Strictly and me

Way back when, a few decades ago, I was a Ballroom and Latin dancer. Spent my entire childhood and adolescence in classes, competitions and medal tests. But then university beckoned, and ballroom dance became naff and I became cool.

Years later I finally realised what the massive hole in my life labelled missing was, and went back to dance. Ballet, belly and bolly, flamenco and Fosse, street and salsa – dance became my obsession, my passion. Through dance I have met some of the very best friends in my life, and my partner; it has kept me fit, and seen me through periods of depression; provided joy, challenges and outlets for my creativity that are lacking elsewhere in my life.

All this time I had kept away from my roots, although ballroom was no longer naff, and I had certainly never really been cool. Then one May evening I spied a familiar face on the box – a judge from my early years, one Len Goodman, and a programme featuring celebs learning to dance. Curious, I tuned into a few episodes, but summer was coming, the evenings were long, and the great outdoors more alluring.

A few months later, the second series looked set to provide some interest through the winter months, but I wouldn’t have described myself a bona fide fan. Then one Saturday, I was performing at an event with a dance group. We were uncertain at first, as it was our first performance, in front of our dance peers to boot. But the audience reaction was inspiring and we finished to cheers. Then came the icing on the cake – the headline dancer, a well known teacher and performer, came up to me at the end of the evening and congratulated us on our performance. I danced on air all the way home.

Later that night I switched on the video to see what had happened on Strictly. That was the moment that I became a fan, because that was the week of that Jive – the show-stopping dance by Jill Halfpenny and Darren Bennett. On her face I saw reflected all of my emotions from earlier in the evening (only she had had to pull out all of the stops in front of a few million, whereas I had had a couple of hundred witnesses!) Nerves, self doubt, blissful enjoyment of the performance, the dawning realisation that she could actually do this, a new confidence, euphoria. And I was hooked from that moment, and so it seemed that Strictly became my story.

I spent that Christmas with my parents and grandmother, with Strictly proving that the BBC had created the magic formula to keep all generations hooked. My grandmother had been an Aled fan, and only cheered up during the final because of Bruce (“We want to see Brucie dance” was her oft-repeated mantra). I was of course rooting for Jill, my mother a secret Julian fan, and my father pretended to doze, waking up only for Denise. I was in agonies of suspense, despite that rapturous moment when all four 10s filled the screen after that Jive, but after a nail-biting final, the worthy winners were crowned.

The Christmas Special provided so much fun as well. With the tension gone, we could enjoy the fun. It was unusual for my grandmother and me to say quiet for long, but Aled and Lilia’s dance to “Walking in the air” reduced us to awed silence. It was to be the last time we watched telly together.

Series 3 rolled onto our screens, and I had my winner singled out in episode 1. Zoe the ladette seemed to turn into a lady in front of our very eyes in the arms of her Henry Higgins, with her delighted father, a much-loved TV presenter from my childhood, wiping away his tears, in the audience. But wait – a challenge from a snake hipped hurdler and his whip-cracking pro. The scene of another epic battle seemed set, but the series had a couple of surprises in store.

The final of this series would not have met favour with my grandmother. A proud Lancashire lass, she could never have stomached the sight of Yorkshire cricketer and all-round lad lifting the trophy (more so, since Darren Gough’s partner had been pipped at the post of the semi final with her lovely Aled the year before). I had switched my allegiances firmly to Colin and Erin by then, so much so that I thought the infamous muppet dance was a stroke of sheer genius and a brilliant way to showcase Colin’s skills. Look what loyalty can do to the brain. It was only years later, at the Strictly tour, that mother and daughter both had an epiphany and cried out loud “So that is what people see in Darren Gough!”)

Series 4 and by now was getting to know a nice young man. It was week 5, just after our second date, and I was rushing out to yet another dance performance. Disaster struck – the ageing video had broken. Not even hitting it seemed to work. Time only for a quick text. “Please record SCD for me”. I knew when the prompt answer “Of course” came back that a man who not only knew what SCD meant, but would agree to record it for me must be the man for me.

The next day at lunch he told me what a very exciting episode it had been, but he would give nothing away. But I am the sort of girl who likes to give her wrapped Christmas gifts a bit of a squeeze and feel in mid December, so I pestered and pestered, unable to wait until evening. Out it all came, slowly at first, hesitating, and then faster, the gripping story of the night before. The salsa. The couple faltering. The confusion. The cable. Stuck fast. Impossible to rip. The despair. The wardrobe lady. Bruce. Bruce dancing with the wardrobe lady. The appeal to the audience. The second chance. The triumph.

I couldn’t wait to get home that evening and watch my precious silver disk. And I found my winner right there and then. At the moment the shy cricketer showed how much the dance meant to him when he pleaded “Please can we do it again”.

From then on, there was no other couple in the competition for me, and I was hooked by Ramps and Karen – a suave Smooth, a faltering Rumba, a lyrical Viennese Waltz, a disastrous Foxtrot and Jive, the highs and the lows, through to that spine tingling Argentine Tango.

We escaped for Christmas to a cosy country cottage, and watched Ramps and Karen win their crowns. And so Strictly became our story and remains so today.

The much awaited Series 5 dawned. I had my winner picked in week 3. Years ago I had performed with a community dance group, and our finale had been a wonderfully anarchic Blue Brothers riff, with dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes, 6 to 60, pouring onto the stage, with the audience grooving in their seats, unable to keep still. That music has a powerful resonance for me, and when I saw Alesha Dixon shake her tail feather in the Jive, I knew who my vote was going to.

Every week, Alesha, under Matt’s perfect guidance, fell in love each new dance and with dancing itself. Yes there were things lacking in her technique, but she cast a spell on her audience, and with each episode, she seemed to embody the spirit of that dance, and convey that spirit directly to us watching at home. In the quarter final, Matt swept her around the ballroom to the strains of “Memory”, and the viewer entered into a special world, where dreams come true, and the beautiful princess would wake up and find her handsome prince right there in front of her eyes.

The week of the final Matt was interviewed and told us how precious Alesha was to him and how he never wanted to let her go. All over the country, thousands of women, tears in their eyes, were rushing to the phone to multi-vote, thinking “Why can’t I find someone to say that about me?”

Another Christmas, another country cottage, another Strictly final. The nervous wait for the result. When it was announced, I jumped out of my seat and danced around the room. Then I saw Alesha jumping up and down; then Matt; then Bruce. All four of us jumping for sheer joy.

Series 6. But what could top Series 5? Well I found my winner in episode 1. The lovely Waltz, the perfect footwork, great topline. But what clinched it for me came right at the end. The music faded, and there was a slight, last minute adjustment, pointing the foot to make the line complete. And then a smile, relief perhaps at having noticed the mistake and been in time to correct it. It was going to be Austen and Erin all the way for me!

But there was another Waltz that evening that got my vote. I had made a spiteful comment as Kristina walked down the stairs - “At least the BBC has made sure she has got the best dress, even though she has drawn the short straw with everything else”. Minutes later I was eating my words and casting my vote, in a shame-faced reminder to myself not to pre-judge a person. For John and Kristina performed a beautiful dance. It was like watching a proud father dance with his radiant daughter at her wedding and it moved me to tears.

And so I continued to vote for John and Kristina, because I enjoyed their dances more than the dances of many of their counterparts. Because dance is for everyone, not just the very young, and the super lithe. If more people are led to experience the joy of dance through watching a short, portly, middle aged chap have a go on TV, then that can only be a good thing.

But after a few weeks I stopped my votes. It wasn’t that I fell out of love with John and Kristina, it just got to a stage when there were other couples that I preferred. But the producers, the judges, the press and sections of the public wouldn’t let it go, and what started out as an inspiring story in an otherwise insipid series became a mill around the Strictly neck.

The series struggled to regain its sparkle, and shuffled from PR disaster to PR disaster. John quit at a press conference, with reports on the 10 o’clock news, and pages in all of the broadsheets; the producers stood their ground and decreed yet another two person final for the third year running, not willing to brook a compromise; the judges knocked out the bookies’ favourite (and mine!) in a controversial quarter final; the producers made a monumental blunder in the semi final by not foreseeing what countless forumites all other the country had been predicting for an entire week; the producers had to relent and head honchos were dispatched to explain why the public vote had been discounted and the judges’ votes overturned.

Another year, another final, but lacking something of its usual excitement. The judges gave us their marks, and we public gave them our collective two fingers. The favourite of the judges, scoring 80 out of 80, was knocked out first. Shock, horror. But then something happened that showed that maybe the judges weren’t quite so right, and the public weren’t quite so wrong. Lisa and Brendan’s show dance. Meatloaf. A very original interpretation. Bacofoil (well ‘twas the season for a turkey). The horror! The memories still lingering that will not go away. (A special montage version for those strong enough:- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAZ0nOmfWwY ) Then it was the turn of Rachel and Vincent. If she had danced like that all series she would have got my vote! She came out and performed a blinder, all her passion for dance shining in her eyes. But they sure saved the best till last this series. Tom and Camilla – what a stunningly appropriate dance. What an end to the series. What a start to Christmas.