There was trouble in twinkle-toed paradise this week as news came that Dame Darcey Bussell has stepped down from the Strictly Come Dancing judging panel.
Despite the former prima ballerina’s diplomatic official statement, in which she said she had “enjoyed every minute” of her time on the show and was leaving in order to “give more focus to my many other commitments in dance,” rumour has it that as well as a declined £40,000 payrise request, she had become embarrassed by the show’s “sleazy soap opera scandals” and “celebrities falling victim to the famous curse”.
So does she have a point? Is the sequin-spangled Saturday night franchise losing some of the lustre it first brought to our screens 15 years ago, and sliding downmarket? And will the departure of “classy Darcey” see that decline deepen still?
The first thing to point out it that by any measure, Strictly is still a resounding success. Ratings remain buoyant at 11m per week, rising to a blockbusting 13m for the grand final. Simon Cowell, svengali of arch rival The X Factor over on ITV, would kill for these figures as he presides over a sinking karaoke ship.
The show's format has been exported worldwide, with more than 50 countries now airing their own versions. The UK mothership has spawned nightly companion show It Takes Two, a Christmas special, various charity editions, a podcast, two live arena tours and an entire entertainment mini-industry. It’s one of the BBC’s most lucrative properties and a jewel in our TV crown, bestriding the primetime schedules each autumn like a giant glitterball.
However, with this success has come intensifying media scrutiny and tabloid tittle-tattle. What started off as innocent family viewing, true to the spirit of its inspiration Strictly as been blighted by increasingly seedy sideshows in recent years.
Most notoriously, there are the regular “showmances” between celebrities and their professional partners, leading to the “curse of Strictly ”, which breaks up relationships either during or shortly after the series. Last autumn’s contest saw hirsute stand-up comic Seann Walsh and his married dance partner Katya Jones forced to apologise after they were photographed drunkenly snogging in the street.
The unedifying spectacle was dragged out by Walsh’s girlfriend, actress Rebecca Humphries, writing him an open letter, followed by weekly speculation about the couple’s routines – duly dubbed their “charleston of shame” and “quickstep of contrition” before they Viennese waltzed their way out of the contest.
Reigning glitterball champion Stacey Dooley recently split from her boyfriend of three years, while other alleged victims of the so-called curse include Louise Redknapp, Georgia May Foote, Joe Calzaghe, Daisy Lowe, and Kevin and Karen Clifton.
It must be pointed out that this is by no means a new development. Series one winners Natasha Kaplinsky and Brendan Cole brought the trend to life way back in 2004, when Cole split with his then-fiancée Camilla Dallerup – reportedly as a result of the pair’s chemistry on the show.
Besides, four relationships formed on Strictly are still going strong: Rachel Riley and Pasha Kovalev, Ben Cohen and Kristina Rihanoff (who have a two-year-old daughter, Milena), Jimi Mistry and Flavia Cacace, and Gemma Atkinson and Gorka Marquez.
The old “horizontal rumba” aside, every series of Strictly now seems to come accompanied by controversy. There were bullying allegations against contestant Danny John-Jules last November, with claims that the Red Dwarf actor was given a final warning by the BBC after he reportedly left pro partner Amy Dowden in tears.
There have been racism rumblings when black contestants – notably Alexandra Burke, Aston Merrygold, Charles Venn, Natalie Gumede, Vick Hope and Tameka Empson, as well as John-Jules himself – were deemed to be criticised over-harshly, or eliminated earlier than they would have otherwise been.
There have been reports of backstage bust-ups, behind-the-scenes feuds and diva behaviour – not helped by embittered former Strictly pros, like ballroom “bad boys” James Jordan and Brendan Cole, airing their dirty laundry in public.
Each year there are grumblings about celebrities perceived to have too much prior dance experience (Ashley Roberts was the main target of “ringer” accusations last series), gripes that it has turned into a popularity contest rather than pure dancing one and conspiracy theories about the judges showing favouritsm by under-scoring some couples while over-marking others.
It all means that Strictly occupies copious column inches, radio airtime and social media debate. Good for ratings, perhaps, but not always for the beloved brand’s reputation.
Another issue is that as the years have gone by, celebrity contestants have gone from “ooh!” to “who?”. In an attempt to maintain a certain standard, Strictly producers were said to have ruled out casting reality TV stars, yet those lines have becoming increasingly blurred, with a growing number of contestants enlisted who are famous for being famous, rather than any body of work.
Waters are then further muddied by the ex-Strictly pros who swap the dancefloor – if producers haven’t pushed them from it – for reality shows like Celebrity Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Dancing On Ice (the Jordans have appeared on all three). It makes Strictly feel like part of the trashy TV landscape, rather than a cut above, as it once was.
Yet this rebrand was seemingly intentional: fearing it had an ageing audience, Strictly – like many BBC shows – has been making a concerted effort to appeal to younger viewers. It has duly signed up yoof-friendly faces such as MTV presenters, Hollyoaks actors, and members of boy bands or girl groups, an approach which does, from time to time, work a treat.
YouTuber Joe Sugg and BBC Three favourite Dooley – both total unknowns to the show’s core viewership before the competition began – both proved popular last year and went on to reach the final. With the number of politicians, newsreaders and sports stars on its roster dwindling, producers must be careful to maintain the multi-generational balance at the heart of its once-magical mix.
Last year saw the introduction of “Couple’s Choice” routines, the first new dance category to be added for nine years. This let pro-celebrity pairs choose from styles including contemporary, street/commercial and theatre/jazz.
Hardly what you’d call Strictly ballroom, they were hard to mark, led to inconsistent judging and arguably detracted as much as they added. Some purists also roll their eyes at the proliferation of theme weeks; Movie Night, Halloween Special, Blackpool, Musicals, where fancy dress and novelty props distract from the actual hoofing.
Whether the show has moved downmarket or merely broadened its mass appeal is open to debate. For those who fear the former, the recent exits of gentlemanly pro Pasha and classy Darcey are hardly reassuring. There is nothing like a dame, after all.
Much now depends on two crucial decisions, both in the hands of new executive producer Sarah James, who has worked on the show for two years, and whose previous credits include Big Brother, The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. The celebrity casting for the upcoming 17th series must be clever and carefully balanced. Her other major cha-cha-challenge is selecting the right judge to replace Darcey.
To maintain the gender balance of the panel, its blend of dance disciplines and the programme’s British core, it should preferably be a homegrown female with ballroom expertise. Leading candidates include former Strictly pro Karen Hardy, leading ballroom instructor Carolyn Smith or Lorraine Barry, a judge on the Irish edition.
Strictly remains a glitzy, glamorous slice of Saturday night fun for all the family – most of the tabloid scandal doesn’t appear on-screen, after all. But it must remember its roots as a Latin and ballroom competition, rather than veer into soap opera territory. To lose its intergenerational appeal and joyous innocence really would be a dance dis-ah-ster, darling.
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