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:
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.