Strictly 2009 will be less about dancing, more about entertainment

Strictly Come Dancing news now, and judge Arlene Phillips (66) is to be replaced with Alesha Dixon (30). It’s sexism, says Mark Lawson. Which is odd, given they’re replacing a woman with a woman – if anything, it’s surely ageism. But the outraged coverage misses the implied radical shift in the programme’s ethos: the dancing will be less important.

Until now, the Strictly format hasn’t changed much: couples dance, judges judge their ability to dance, the public do whatever they like. This worked ok until last year, when the John Sergeant affair devolved into hysterical tedium. He couldn’t dance, the judges told him so, and a vocal proportion of the public accused them of bullying and elitism. It all boiled down to one question: is Strictly a dance competition or an entertainment show?

Obviously, it’s both. Everyone treats it differently, and the question has no objective answer. But in all situations the judges have to be there to judge the dancing, or what’s the point of them? Their expertise is in dancing – if they start judging entertainment, taking into account people’s age / how-hard-they’re-trying / etc., they’re no more informed than the general public, and so don’t deserve an important vote. Whether competition or entertainment, that the judges value skill is, I think, a crucial foundation of the show.

It’s important because the competitors know the judges’ marks are the most important factor. All competitors need the votes of the judges and the public, but the latter are notoriously unpredictable. The judges, though, are the opposite: you get good marks by dancing well. So, the competitors learn to dance. Sure, plenty work hard on the wow factor, but the footwork comes first – without it, they’ll be slated. And I like this about the show: it’s the only reality TV programme I watch precisely because dancing is difficult. The competitors have to work very hard, for a long time, to achieve good results. I admire that. But replacing Arlene changes this entire interaction.

Arlene was a dancing expert, but Alesha isn’t. She can’t be there to judge dancing ability: she must be there to judge entertainment value. She’s the public’s representative on the panel, and essentially there to stick up for the John Sergeants of the next series.

But if the judges are watching for entertainment as well as dancing ability, the competitors’ priorities change. Putting on a good show becomes as, if not more, important than the dancing. Yes, there’ll still be three judges watching for skill, but Bruno’s capricious, and Alesha plus (much of) the audience will be after something else.

Whether you think this is a good thing is up to you. Hell, for all I know the show may be better for it. But it’s still a fundamental change: Strictly will be less about dancing, more about the whole performance. And when Alesha stands up for the entertaining dancers, the other three judges will appear curmudgeonly and old-fashioned: exactly how the John Sergeant fans portrayed them. That’s a cheap trick, and unfair on them.

Personally, I find this less interesting. Thinking up novel ways to entertain an audience is an entirely different skill (and one that could be outsourced pretty easily). I like that competitors put in huge amounts of effort, and it would be disappointing to see people’s hard work trumped by a flashy gimmick or comedy moment. I’m the polar opposite of the viewers complaining about John Sergeant.

I can actually understand the BBC’s motivation. Alesha’s presence should avoid a repeat of last year’s shenanigans, as she’ll break the judge’s united ‘bullying’ front. Alesha is also extremely easy on the eye, which should help bring in the younger viewers1. And I can even see why Arlene should be the one to go – the head of BBC1 said:

It was not an easy decision to take. When I looked at the four people we had, Bruno is the joker, Craig is the Simon Cowell of the show and Len is the head judge. Arlene has elements of all of them, but when you look at it, Arlene was the obvious one to change.

I can buy that – if you have to lose one, you lose least if it’s her. I’ll let them off the ageism/sexism charges. But at the same time the BBC1 controller admits Strictly is shifting from dance-competition to overall-entertainment-show:

Strictly is not the Olympics for ballroom dancing, it’s an entertainment show. Alesha has lived through it, [but] we’ve still got all the experts who understand the technicalities of the Argentinian tango. Strictly will feel like an event on the channel that you haven’t seen before.

That’s a shame. I adore Strictly, and I hope it doesn’t become Britain’s Got Dancing Talent. I like that it’s difficult. I like that it’s an unpredictable mixture of competition and entertainment, but I liked that the dancing was always the top priority. I hope the changes don’t spoil it.

  1. I love that the head of BBC1 said “The average age of the BBC1 viewer is 52, so why would I take older women off the channel?” – I think 52-year-old men still want to see attractive young women. []