How casting works (at least for women)

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On the face of it, Strictly Come Dancing doesn’t have much in common with MasterChef, and stylistically they couldn’t be further apart. But the reason why I find both of them compulsive viewing has a lot to do with the way they get the basics right. There is an arc whereby the contestants develop their skills. There are meaningful tasks meant to test those skills. And there are credible judges.

The desire for credible judges may spin out of the BBC’s slightly snooty attitude to reality shows, but it works. Over on the third channel, one might chuckle at the thought of Cheryl Cole (the weakest singer in Girls Aloud, which is really saying something) judging a singing contest. Or there is the stunning absurdity of Piers Moron judging a talent show. But we all know the shows from the Cowell stable are panto, and they don’t really pretend to be otherwise.

Strictly is different, in that yes, it’s an entertainment show – as the partisans of John Sergeant pointed out at tedious length last year – but it also has some substance to it, not least thanks to the high-powered judges, who are not only experienced professional dancers themselves but serious experts in the field. You have ballroom maestro Len Goodman, proprietor for many years of his own dance school; award-winning theatrical choreographer Craig Revel Horwood; pop video specialist Bruno Tonioli, who’s worked with Michael Jackson amongst others; and yes, choreography legend Arlene Phillips. For readers of a certain age, Arlene may be best known for this:

but she’s not simply a relic of the 1970s. To this day, any time you go into the West End, it’s a fair bet that there’ll be a big Arlene Phillips show on. If there’s a revival of Guys and Dolls or Saturday Night Fever, you can be pretty sure that she’ll have a hand in it.

But you see what I mean, having a heavyweight panel adds something to it. To have these guys criticise or praise your dancing is worth so much more than, say, Piers Moron saying you can’t sing. (The proper response to which should be, “Come up here and have a go yourself, matey.”) You know the way the most emotionally charged bit of the MasterChef final is when they cook for a room full of top French chefs? It works on the same principle – people who are experts in the field are the ones most worth listening to.

So why is it that Arlene Phillips is being ditched from the Strictly judges’ panel in favour of 2007 winner Alesha Dixon? To be fair, this isn’t a total travesty, in that Alesha is a very good dancer, and she’s warm and personable enough to bring something to the show. However, one has to question what her judging credentials are, in terms of her experience and technical knowledge. And in a way, that’s a hazard of having a high-powered panel – sat beside the other three, there’s a very clear danger she’ll look like a lightweight being carried by the others.

Why, then, the move? The Beeb say it’s all about refreshing the brand, but many viewers have pointed out that it only seems to be Arlene – a well-preserved 66 – who needed refreshing. There has been no move to replace Messrs Goodman, 65, Tonioli, 53, or Revel Horwood, 44, with younger models. And of course Bruce Forsyth, 81, remains in situ as host. (Sorry Vernon, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.) What’s more, this whole affair comes on the back of a long line of complaints from female broadcasters about how women of a certain age find it difficult to get a fair crack of the whip. Why is it that “refreshing the brand” always seems to mean the older woman getting rolled over?

It’s also possible, I suppose, that after last year’s big row, when a lot of viewers took against acid-tongued Arlene for her pointed criticisms of John Sergeant’s crap dancing, that some executive somewhere thought it would be a good idea to repair the damage by ditching the panel member who had taken the most stick from the public. All the same, it looks just a bit too much like Cheryl Cole being drafted in to replace Sharon Osbourne. And the funny thing is, since Strictly has had no trouble attracting contenstants as beautiful as Lisa Snowdon or Kelly Brook, there is absolutely no need to glam up the panel.

In related news, we’re still waiting for ITV to confirm who will be replacing Fern Britton on the This Morning sofa. While there has been no formal announcement, the smart money is on the big job going to former kids’ TV presenter Holly Willoughby, who is pleasant enough but has no experience in hosting a talk show. Why is it that, when her former Ministry of Mayhem co-presenter Stephen Mulhern is marooned on Animals Do The Funniest Things, Holly is enjoying such a meteoric rise up the televisual pecking order? I’ll give you two guesses:

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It’s possible, even likely, that there are experienced female broadcasters out there who are not amused at the idea of Holly’s norks beating them to a big presenting job. But they will probably stay quiet if they want to work for ITV in the future.

Of course, the really shocking examples of this casting theory are to be found on News 24. But that’s another story.

11 Comments

  1. harpymarx said,

    July 12, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Well, Hollywood practice that policy known as any woman over 40 rarely gets a good part in a film… While blokes do (I mean, the superannuated action hero, Harrison Ford was allowed to dust off the Indiana Jones persona at 65 somehow I doubt if Angelina Joile will be allowed to reprise the Lara Croft role at 65!). This highlights the obsession with youth, though the sexist double-standards spotlights the fact men are allowed to age not women, instead they kinda erased from good starring roles in film/television.

    So what has happened to Arlene Phillips is of no surprise (and yeah, lets not forget she was choreographer of Hot Gossip!) and I thought she was the only one of any cop on Strictly. It is blatantly age and sex discrimination. It is a continuation of women of a ‘certain age’ being sidelined and out of sight from public view (background is ok).

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 12, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    The thing is, too, that it’s been spun as an attempt to poach the yoof audience from X Factor by having their own Cheryl Cole. I can’t see that working. Strictly has succeeded in large part by appealing to older viewers and families, huge demographics that get missed out a lot by schedulers. I get the sense that a lot of people, especially women, are deeply annoyed by this. The execs probably won’t retreat, but they will at least have an uncomfortable time of it.

  3. Ciarán said,

    July 12, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Harpy: (I mean, the superannuated action hero, Harrison Ford was allowed to dust off the Indiana Jones persona at 65 somehow I doubt if Angelina Joile will be allowed to reprise the Lara Croft role at 65!)

    Funny you should say that, as there is going to be a third Tomb Raider movie without Angelina (34), and the three most prominent names to have been mentioned so far are Rhona Mitra (32), Summer Glau (27) and Megan Fox (23).

  4. Garibaldy said,

    July 12, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    I think Summer Glau is too fragile looking to be Laura Croft, and her figure doesn’t match that of the game character. Which Jolie’s did. The other two candidates seem to be more like that body shape.

    My own presumption was that Jolie had gotten too big for this kind of role, and would cost too much money, rather than being too old.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 12, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Yeah, but it’s not like they’re about to cast Tura Satana. Who, at 71, would be more convincing than some of these young actresses.

  6. Garibaldy said,

    July 12, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    This is true. I am not disagreeing that ageism is a major and disgraceful problem. Although it is to a large extent giving the audience what they want let’s not forget.

  7. harpymarx said,

    July 12, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Ciarán: “Funny you should say that, as there is going to be a third Tomb Raider movie without Angelina (34), and the three most prominent names to have been mentioned so far are Rhona Mitra (32), Summer Glau (27) and Megan Fox (23).”

    Not surprised in the least and I had to look up on the imdb who Rhona Mitra and Summer Glau are. And usually I am not too bad keeping up-to-date on the latest in Hollywood. Way behind……

  8. ejh said,

    July 12, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Is Maxine Mawhinney still on News 24? She didn’t seem to me to be obviously in the dolly-bird bracket.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 12, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Big Maxine was on this morning. She’s kind of the exception who proves the rule though.

  10. ejh said,

    July 12, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    I always thought that she was marooned on News 24 because of her obvious fondness for cakes.

  11. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 12, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    I was surprised Arlene Phillips is 66. My God, if I look as healthy as her at that age… If you’d asked me I’d have put her at least a decade younger. Which makes it pretty odd that they’d want to get her out.

    Re Tomb Raider, what age is Lara Croft meant to be in it? I’d agree Summer Glau doesn’t seem quite right for it.


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