Dancing with demagogy


What would James Madison have made of Strictly Come Dancing? The question is whimsical, I’ll admit, but it’s not altogether surreal.

If you go back to the Federalist Papers, which is always worthwhile anyway, you’ll notice that Madison and Hamilton spend an awful lot of their time wrestling with the question of whether democracy invariably leads to dictatorship. It’s an old concern of classical political philosophy – you’ll recall that the Roman republicans opposed Caesar not only because of his dictatorial proclivities but because he was the candidate of the plebs. In fact, the two facets of Caesar were seen as complementary. By contrast, Madison and Hamilton tried to prove that there was no necessary connection between democracy and dictatorship, and therefore placed themselves squarely in opposition to the British tradition of political philosophy which has usually sought to limit the power of the masses.

This comes down to the age-old problem of whether a good system necessarily means good outcomes. And that’s why you find a lot of liberals or leftists who are all in favour of democracy in theory, until the great unwashed turn around and support positions (capital punishment, immigration controls) or people (Ian Paisley, Jörg Haider) who they find distasteful. Then they rail against democracy big time, only they call it “populism”.

And so we return to the John Sergeant Show, formerly known as Strictly Come Dancing. Firstly, let me say that I didn’t like the way the Sarge went yesterday. I thought he should have gone, but I would have preferred him to be eliminated fair and square. But the resignation and press conference allows him to retire undefeated while keeping himself at the centre of the story, which is how the Sarge likes a story to be. On the other hand, and I think I agree with Malachi on this, the Beeb has really been hoist by its own pseudo-democratic petard. You can’t have a talent show without an audience vote these days. And such is the backlash from last year’s vote-rigging scandals that what the punters want, the punters must have.

It’s built into the format of the show, which is why half of the vote goes to the judges and half to the public. There’s been a certain know-nothingism in this debate, with punters on the message boards demanding to know who the judges think they are giving their, er, judgements on contestants. Do they think they know better than us? Well, actually, they do. All four are heavyweights in their field, well respected by their peers, and are being paid to give their professional opinion. The inbuilt tension is that what the judges think and what the public think don’t always coincide. The judges are marking on the technical aspects. The public tend to vote on who’s the most appealing character. As Arlene Phillips says, we’ve been here before. In the first season you had wee Chris from EastEnders, who was a pretty bad dancer but got all the way to the final on the strength of women finding him cute. He could easily have won, and lots of people wanted him to win. Last year you had Kate Garraway being returned week after week, not because of her dancing ability but because of her warm and likeable personality, while the more talented Gabby Logan went out early because the public found her abrasive and super-competitive. Worth remarking, too, that last year the dance-off and judges’ final say on eliminations was introduced due to the public vote having been just a bit too capricious for comfort.

But it’s still there. They always shuffle a few jokers into the pack, just because it excites interest in the early weeks. And they know about the tension between the judges’ scoring and the public vote – when even Brucie is twitting the judges, you know that that’s being consciously played up to. The difference is that this year the joker has threatened to take over.

There have been certain aspects of this that have worked to the Sarge’s advantage. Firstly, there’s the voting system. You don’t vote to eliminate as on Big Brother. (Which might explain why on BB the most interesting contestants are usually the first to go.) You vote for your favourite. The Sarge hasn’t needed a majority on his side, he’s just needed enough support to stay out of the bottom two. It helps, too, that some of the more technically accomplished contestants, naming no names, have been a bit dull.

As for the public vote, you can’t do a scientific analysis, but the Strictly message boards provide some anecdotal evidence as to motivations. There’s a certain element there who just find it funny to watch an elderly man walk up and down for 90 seconds. But there are other aspects as well. I think there’s an identification with the perceived underdog, in the way that a lot of Brits think “competitive” is a dirty word and prefer their entertainers or sportsmen to be endearingly crap. How this goes down with those contestants who’ve been practicing seven hours a day but aren’t possessed of twinkly grins is another matter.

There’s also the big play that’s been made of the judges’ comments. I have limited sympathy for this. The judges, as I’ve said, are employed to give their professional opinions. If Rachel Stevens, say, put a few steps wrong in an otherwise good performance, you expect them to say so. I don’t see why they should not be critical of much worse performances just because it’s the Sarge – he’s not the Queen Mother or something. But they seem to have fallen foul of this victim culture that paints any criticism, however justified, as “bullying”. As if a hard-bitten journalist is going to feel victimised that easily.

Perhaps more interesting is the sympathy for what appears to be the naughty boy in the class who’s cocking a snook at the teachers. Talk to any dance teacher and you’ll hear stories of how hard it is to get the kids to listen to them, especially with parents who want little Jimmy wrapped in cotton wool. This explains as well as anything why the judges, who have spent decades as dance teachers and choreographers, have been so extremely pissed off – they wouldn’t have minded half as much if it was a contestant, like some bad contestants in the past, who listened to them and showed some signs of improvement.

So we’ve seen all the makings of this fiasco before, just not on this scale. The internet-based campaign to raise votes for the Sarge has been significant. The press attention has been preposterous. And the irate responses from people like myself who want to be entertained by good dancing has only stoked the row, which has built up the ratings and the press even further. I can’t ever remember the judges having to go to the media and campaign for their position – that’s a significant change. And the Sarge has played on all these factors like the political pro he is.

And now he’s gone. Yes, I know, there’s that cruise engagement, but I also think his personal conservatism has played a factor here. The Sarge is, at the end of the day, an establishment figure who doesn’t want to discredit the whole system. A little demagogy is one thing, but I’m not sure he would feel comfortable at the head of a mob, which is what it was starting to look like.

I suppose the Madisonian response would be to hope that the public will eventually reward quality, while recognising philosophically that if the public want crap, then they deserve crap.

But it is interesting, is it not, that we keep hearing about all the great democratic potential of new communications technology, but it’s the entertainment industry that’s leading the way. Some of that potential has begun to filter into American politics, with the early viral campaign for O’Bama, which is how he defeated the Clintonite Democratic machine, and on a smaller scale with Ron Paul’s pitch for the Republican nomination. But it hasn’t shown much sign of crossing the Atlantic.

On the other hand, you might say that we should simply co-opt politics into the entertainment industry. The House on the Hill is a case in point. Restoring Stormont could be justified on purely entertainment grounds. The SDLP’s Alban Maginness has just shaved off his trademark moustache for Children in Need. We’ve now got the Assembly cookbook, wherein Stormont MLAs share their recipes for chocolate salty balls and such like. Is there any chance we could draft in the real Chuckle Brothers?

Rud eile: Here’s another little gem of populism. Remember last year, when 13,000 Santas crammed Derry city centre to set a world record for the number of Santas in one place? Yesterday some irate bloke from Derry was on Talk Back giving off that the record wasn’t in this year’s Guinness Book of Records. Guinness gave out that they had 60,000 records on file but could only fit 4000 in the book, but our Derryman wasn’t satisfied. This was a cross-community event, he said, and if the Derry Santas got a mention the book would sell an additional 120,000 copies in Norn Iron. Even by the standards of Derry civic boosterism, that strikes me as on the optimistic side.

Rud eile fós: It’s practically beyond comment, but I couldn’t resist flagging up the nude portrait of Nell McCafferty. And apparently the artist wants other local folks to volunteer! Are you listening, Sammy? Sammy?


  1. Garibaldy said,

    November 20, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    Coincidentally, there is also an old naked photo of Germaine Greer posted in a thread at drink soaked trots for war. Not very decent to put that up. It’s been a traumatic day.

    And surely Madison would have been on the judges’ side? With suitably rigged elections to make sure the judges were men of wealth and taste, but with a democratic veneer.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 21, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I take your point – a republic, not a democracy, and all that. It’s the problem of outcomes again. I was just thinking of Hegel’s idea of the enlightened monarch, which is a pretty good system as long as your monarch is Frederick the Great.

    I notice a lot of punters coming forward with Madisonian proposals for a three strikes rule, giving the judges 70% of the vote and so on. It would make more sense intellectually to give the judges 100% of the vote, but then you wouldn’t get the public involved. Like that big Vote Christine banner I saw at Bloomfield this morning. That democratic veneer is important.

  3. Renegade Eye said,

    November 21, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Minority rights issues as gay marriage, is not for plebiscites to decide.

  4. yourcousin said,

    November 22, 2008 at 12:46 am

    That idea is one of the more interesting things to come out of this election. In California African American voting went up and so did support for a ban on gay marriage.

  5. malachi said,

    November 22, 2008 at 10:55 am

    What I enjoy about this blog when it isn’t being obsessive about George Galloway and Respect is that it applies elegant thought to popular culture. But you contradict yourself then when you sneer at the media for running the big story on John Sergeant. It is a big story. Like oedipus is a big story.
    That’s how you treat it yourself so where are the grounds for criticising others for doing the same.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 22, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    I don’t think I’m exactly criticising the media for running the story, just wondering how these stories get to snowball.

  7. Garibaldy said,

    November 22, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    The democratic veneer certainly is important, especially with all the bullshit about interactivity with the audience etc. I wonder also how much money is made from it, if any.

    I do think the coverageof the Sergeant story has been over the top. There was something like 5 minutes or more on the news about it, interviews with Bruce Forsyth etc. I mean, I doubt all that was really necessary. It would have been funnier if one of the dancers was revealed to be in the BNP like that ballerina.

  8. November 22, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    […] conference. * Boris triangulates, with reservations. * Reds for red light districts. * Finally, someone else with a penchant for The Federalist […]

  9. skidmarx said,

    November 26, 2008 at 11:39 am

    In Sergeant’s autobiography, he mentions that when his mother was passing through St.Petersburg in 1917, she had pointed out to her the platform from which Lenin had given speeches. “And who is Lenin?” she replied.

  10. ejh said,

    November 26, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    She couldn’t have passed through St Petersburg in 1917, it was called Petrograd.

  11. skidmarx said,

    November 26, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Well that’s how John Sergeant described it, and you don’t want to be attacking the nation’s sweetheart now it’s moved on from Andrew Sachs this week. And I seem to remember from my reading of Shlyapnikov’s memoirs that Russian revolutionaries called it Peter.

  12. ejh said,

    November 26, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    That whole book could have done with being shorter than it actually was….

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