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. []

A Strictly analogy you may not have heard before

This dude wants to get the voting figures for the last series of Strictly. He’s quite anxious about it:

Former North Cornwall MP, Lord Tyler, is engaged in a fierce exchange of letters with the BBC over the disclosure of the number of telephone votes in the controversial semi-final of Strictly Come Dancing.

The botched semi-final saw three, rather than two, couples progress to the finals last month and the incensed Lib Dem peer wants to find out exactly how many votes were cast for each competitor.

Right. The maths wasn’t hard to understand on the night, but whatever. Thing is, the BBC aren’t keen on releasing actual numbers, so as not to embarrass the participants1. Lord Tyler is unimpressed by this. 

Tell you what, before you read on, try to guess what Lord Tyler thinks this is analogous to. Remember, this is the BBC not releasing phone-vote numbers, because people might be embarrassed. I’ll give you a clue: it’s not Hitler.

Had a go?

Lord Tyler said: “These are standards of transparency more resonant of Zimbabwe than of a democratic country with effective freedom of information rules. Even Mugabe eventually had to release voting figures once the election was over.”

Right. Good. I think someone needs a sandwich and a lie down. Weirdly, the guy’s TheyWorkForYou page has no indication of nutjobbery.

  1. which it would in this case, because I have concluded that every woman in the country hated Lisa Snowdon for Reasons That Are There And Very Important But Cannot Be Explained, despite her clearly being the best (I am extrapolating from a few (bizarre) conversations here). So her numbers would likely be very low. []

Strictly final

w00t! I do enjoy the Strictly final. I always end up emotionally investing in one of the couples, and have to hide behind a cushion during their routines. And don’t even mention the final – endless – ‘moment of truth’. My favourite has always won, but it’s a bit more open tonight. My bias going into the show is Lisa, but she’s probably the underdog against Rachel…I’ll try to judge by the dancing alone, though. That said, Lisa’s showdance is apparently to I Would Do Anything For Love, and you know me and power ballads…

Halfway point: ZOMG. My girl pulled it out of the bag – 80/80! But I’m worried. The public’s votes last week obviously put Tom at the top and Lisa at the bottom…if they do the same this week she’s out. Which would be awful, as she got a perfect score. Everyone vote Lisa!

End of show: Hmph. The public votes were a reversal of the judges’, so Lisa went out first. Then came the two big showdances. Tom’s was undeniably better than Rachel’s, but I’m not a fan of the smarmy Fred Astaire swingy arms / silly expressions / style – it’s forced and annoying. That’s just me, though, and it certainly seems to be the minority opinion. To be fair, that’s been Tom’s schtick the whole way through, and if that floats your boat I’m sure it was lovely. So the result was a bit flat for me, but then I’ve had five years of the ‘correct’ result, so it had to happen sometime 🙂