movie film review | chris tookey

Strictly Come Dancing (TV)

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  Strictly Come Dancing (TV) Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
4.00 /10
Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli, Craig Revel Horwood
Full Cast >

Directed by: Nikki Parsons, Alex Rudzinski and others
Written by: Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli, Craig Revel Horwood , Arlene Phillips, Alesha Dixon, Shirley Ballas, Tess Daly, Bruce Forsyth, Claudia Winkleman , Zoe Ball and many dancers and “celebrities”

Released: 2004
Origin: UK
Length: 0

“Celebrities” learn to dance with professionals, and are judged on their efforts, which are wildly variable in quality.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Strictly Come Dancing has developed hugely since its modest, low-budget beginnings in 2004, when there were only eight “celebrity” contestants, as opposed to the fifteen there are now. Viewed today, those first few shows look laughably primitive.

It has become a worldwide success, with numerous overseas franchises, from America’s Dancing With The Stars to China’s weirdly titled Miracles of Dance Moves. It has turned into the BBC’s single most valuable export.

So what’s the central appeal of this reality TV show? After all, for a talent competition, there isn’t much at stake: just a naff glitter-ball. Past contestants, including Tom Chambers and Danny Mac, have gone on to star in stage musicals; but the show is certainly not a passport to superstardom, in the way that The X Factor has occasionally proved to be. (Take a bow, winner Leona Lewis and non-winners One Direction.) And yet Strictly’s ratings are about double those of its ITV rival.

One reason is that it is the most consistently joyful, uplifting show on TV. Strictly has its detractors, accusing it of fake tan and even more fake bonhomie, but the show gives audiences more pleasure than anything else that has been on TV in the past two decades.

It’s a fine example of Light Entertainment. The way the directors don’t always include the feet in their shots consistently annoys me, and leaves the home audience at a disadvantage, compared with the judges. But technically Strictly is of the highest quality, using state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment in a way that’s astonishingly ambitious for a live weekly programme. The Sunday results show is quite obviously pre-recorded later on the Saturday night, but it is still “as live”. I doubt if there are any retakes.

From my own days at ATV and Central, where I used to ply my trade as a Producer/Director, I well remember the horror and confusion of Musical Director Jack Parnell’s excellent but mostly elderly musicians when I asked them to play a reggae version of “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place”. Dave Arch’s band and talented backing singers are magnificently versatile, whatever kind of music they are asked to play.

The costumes (with one or two exceptions – God knows what went wrong with Alexandra Burke’s horribly unflattering Mary Poppins outfit in her Charleston) are of an amazingly high standard, as is the make-up, especially on the Halloween specials.

Original presenter Bruce Forsyth held the show together in the early days, but dithery old age did catch up with him, and he was wise to retire when he did. Despite their bizarre dress sense, Tess Daly (the tall, mumsy, protective one, who looks as if she is attending a gypsy wedding) and Claudia Winkleman (shorter, sharper, funnier - but who seems to have borrowed her wardrobe from Helena Bonham-Carter) show that it is possible to have two contrasting female presenters - not that I ever doubted it. Whenever she has been asked to stand in, Zoe Ball the vivacious host of the BBC2 spinoff, It Takes Two, has been infectiously joyous as well.

Cynics may scoff that this is in many ways an unreality show. And it’s true that anything unpleasant or controversial is carefully airbrushed from the screen. When one of the professional dancers, Gorka “The Corka” Marquez, was mugged by yobs when the show travelled to Blackpool, not a whisper of it reached viewers of Strictly or its sister show.

It is a fair comment that many of the “celebrities” on display hardly deserve that status. The demands of a long winter season plus a tour in the early months of the following year mean that few genuine celebrities take part, unless they are past the peak of their career.

The most high-profile contestants in 2017 were a former winner of the X-Factor, Alexandra Burke; Aston Merrygold, of the group JLS, former runners-up on the same season of the ITV show; Brian Conley, a comedian and past West End star; and Paralympics sprinter Jonnie Peacock. We’re not talking superstars.

Fortunately, the show has a knack of turning lesser-known people into celebrities. This year, magician’s assistant Debbie McGee emerged from the shadow of her late husband Paul Daniels, and showed that she was extraordinary supple and agile for her age (she turned 59 during the run of the show). Like Pamela Stephenson before her, she showed that there is life – and talent - after 50. This is always good to know.

Joe McFadden, a little-known Scottish actor in his forties, became the second Holby City actor to win the prize (the first was Tom Chambers), with a succession of crowd-pleasing dances expertly choreographed by his professional partner, Katya Jones, possessor of the most amazing Cockney-Russian accent in history. It was Ms Jones who made an unlikely Light Entertainment star last year out of former shadow chancellor Ed Balls, so she was well equipped to get the most out of a celebrity who didn’t dance as if he had two left legs.

For the first time this year, there were some ugly moments. Social media were to blame, with many viewers expressing disgust that non-dancers were having to compete with trained ones. Some people seemed so horrified that Debbie McGee had had ballet training thirty years previously that they couldn’t enjoy her obvious delight in discovering a new talent for ballroom dancing. You have to feel sorry for them.

Alexandra Burke, who had danced in West End musicals including Sister Act (where she had been choreographed by Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood) was also targeted, which seemed a tad unfair, especially as the eventual winner, Joe McFadden, had also taken leading roles in musicals including Rent in the West End and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in Edinburgh. This latter fact was, surprisingly, overlooked by virtually everyone.

The show was also accused of racism. That is patently unjust to the show and to its audience. Clearly, the public did not warm to the talented Ms Burke, and she found herself in two dance-offs, even though the judging panel had rated her at the top of the leader board. However, black contestants have won in the past, most memorably sports presenter Ore Oduba in the 2016 final, when he beat a noticeably more talented rival, Danny Mac, who was white. Similarly, the black disc jockey Melvin Odoom, triumphed in the 2016 Christmas Special.

The biggest controversy of all came in week 7. Aston Merrygold – a “natural” in the Latin ballroom dances - was eliminated early, when many had considered him hot favourite to win. Most of the social media whingers failed to take into account the rules, which lay down that the judges must adjudicate on the strength of rival performances in the dance-off, not on which of the two is more likely to win the competition. On this basis, new head judge Shirley Ballas was correct to vote for singer Mollie King, whose performance in the dance-off was by a long way superior to Merrygold’s. The JLS singer looked stiff and uncomfortable in his waltz, and it was obvious that his professional partner/ choreographer Jeanette Manrara had simplified the dance moves to the point where they were dull and unimpressive.

Some people might argue that the rule is wrong, but the fact that one bad dance can result in a front-runner being eliminated adds greatly to the entertainment value of the show. Without it, there would be much less suspense.

It’s true that the best dancer rarely wins the show. But much of the show’s appeal lies in the way less talented dancers show improvement during the competition. Many high spots in the show – especially the attempts to dance by John Sergeant, Ann Widdecombe and Ed Balls - have nothing to do with dancing ability, and plenty to do with comedy. In defence of the audience, the bad but entertaining dancers do tend to get voted off before the semi-finals. I suspect that most of the contestants find sufficient reward in reaching the final; they too must have noticed that the best dancer hardly ever triumphs.

In an era when good critics are mostly being fired, I like the fact that the judges are almost all genuine experts (I am treating Alesha Dixon as a solitary aberration) and dole out constructive criticism whenever they can. Craig Revel Horwood, who choreographed one of my Musicals in the West End, may be soundly booed most weeks by the studio audience, but I imagine most viewers are impressed by his honesty. I, for one, find that his marks most resemble the ones I would give, were I a judge. So boo me.

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