Saturday, September 27, 2008

"I don't make up this rubbish!": Strictly Come Dancing, Week 2

This week's episodes, along with all the individual dances, can be seen at the Strictly Come Dancing website. The individual dances are also available on Youtube.

She might only have been joint-second bottom after the dancing, but it always seemed fairly clear that Gillian Taylforth was going this week for the simple reason that, of all the female dancers, she was the most expendable - her partner, Anton du Beke, is probably more famous than her right at this moment, due to his being a team captain on SCD's Saturday night schedule partner, Hole In The Wall, upon which there may well be more once any of our writers can bear to sit through an entire episode of the thing (someone at the BBC has decided that you need to see Vic Reeves in a skintight silver lycra jumpsuit). Gillian would have needed to have finished in at least the top half of the leaderboard to have had a hope of surviving, and, while her foxtrot was hardly terrible (her 22 points would have been enough for joint fourth last week), she just didn't quite do enough to stand out.

The night's big surprise was seeing her joined in the bottom two by Jodie Kidd, who had oozed elegance during her foxtrot and totted up 25 points. However, where that would have been good enough to put her clear in third last week, this week she was only fifth, and unfortunately her routine featured the most toe-curling (dance-based) moment of this week's episode - the final movement of the routine sees partner Ian Waite bend over, kiss her on the cheek, then flash a gaping-mouthed H-From-Steps style gurn-grin straight into the camera. Words cannot quite convey the horror of it, so here's an embed:

Also, despite the fact that at six-foot-two Jodie has some rather sizeable physical obstacles to overcome, the thing with programmes of this nature is that they tend to be all about the JOURNEY, and apparently tall girl learning to dance isn't as much of a JOURNEY as Lisa Snowdon and Brendan Cole being all tension-y. Despite being both a TV presenter and top model of several years' standing, Lisa appears to have all the self-esteem of your average lemming. Nerves consumed her and swallowed her whole. Sure, she twisted and pivoted like no-one's business, but her face told an entirely different story - she had to keep remembering to smile, flashing up forced grins to try and act like she was relaxed, like she was into it... it was oddly uncomfortable. When Craig informed her that she had the most natural rhythm of any contestant he'd seen on the programme, she reacted as if she'd just been informed that she was an android.

However, as Len Goodman flagged up on Sunday, the bottom two had both danced the foxtrot, whereas Lisa and Jessie Wallace, the week's lowest scorer, had gone for the showier, more exciting salsa and wound up getting saved - the suggestion being that these slow dances were perhaps not the best thing to try and win the votes of a Saturday night BBC1 audience, who would be more naturally attuned to Jessie Wallace jiggling in a golden tinsel flapper dress. Jessie wound up with 20 points, and on this evidence isn't really much of a mover - admittedly, her choreography did basically consist of her jiggling, a lot, but her knee bending seemed a bit laboured, and she seemed to clearly miss at least one or two steps. The thing here is that this leaves clear and identifiable room for improvement, and the public have voted fairly resoundingly to save her on this occasion; given that whole JOURNEY thing, if she makes continual improvements week-on-week, she might not be out of the hunt for the title just yet.

Another thing this Saturday showed me is that I'm not quite as good a casual viewer as I'd previously thought, since I completely failed to spot that the clear winner of the evening was Cherie Lunghi, who carded a whopping 33 points out of 40 to get the best first-dance score of the competition. She was elegant, graceful and seemingly quite nerveless in her foxtrotting, but if you were to ask me to explain why she was any better than, say, Jodie Kidd, I'd be totally incapable of so doing. I do have an excuse, however - Cherie was dancing to the house band's rendition of "Sweet About Me", which they somehow managed to completely butcher. Yes, they took "Sweet About Me" and made it massively, quantifiably worse; the various intricacies of the song's arrangement were shunted up to the front so it sounded like a five-year-old in a dressing-up box, while the singer appeared to be going off a set of lyrics that had been hurriedly transcribed by someone listening to the original down a particuarly dodgy phone line.

Similar treatment got meted out to "Mercy" last week, and I don't doubt we're going to bump into "Chasing Pavements" at least once before this series is finished, too. It's a pity, because watched without the sound on, Cherie's virtues become more obvious: it's all in the upper body, particularly the extension of her hands and the rolling of her shoulders; also, her kicks seemed more natural and graceful than her fellow foxtrotters - Jodie, for instance, sort of looked as though she was doing the can-can.

It meant that, in what can safely be regarded as quite the colossal upset, she beat Rachel Stevens into second place. As previously stated, Rachel is a bit of a ringer - one could tell that she had a fair bit of dancing experience, her movements and ability to stick to choreography while performing within it stuck out ever so slightly from the rest. However, one thing remains unchanging: Rachel Stevens has the charisma of muesli. So technically it's all grand, and her smile is steady and unwavering, but there remains something obdurately dull about the woman, to say nothing of the incessant perving of her partner, Vincent Simone. No story was told, and I got the sense that the dance wasn't actually releasing anything of her; not that she was holding back, necessarily, but that if she has any wit, charm or invention, it just wasn't conveyed. Her technical prowess will get her through most of this competition, but she's going to need to really dig very deep to win the audience and the title.

Compare this with Heather Small. In terms of sexual chemistry, she and her partner, Brian Fortuna, had the whole field licked. Technically, there were hiccups, but sweet Jesus did they ever smoulder. It felt almost as though they were competing with each other; Heather looked to have a similar resolve to Andrew Castle last week, but where Castle was just trying to keep up with his partner, Heather seemed to be intent on matching hers, almost demanding Brian to show her what he can do, to push her further and take her on. Where Lisa Snowdon's nerves seemed to capsize her, Heather's simply spurred her on. Heather also looks to know how to work an audience rather better than most of her competition, too, as evidenced by her starting her routine stood right up in front of the judges' bench. She's been perfectly paired with Brian, who is calm and cheerful enough to help her work through her mistakes but also fiery enough to keep pushing her on; relationships were established, and their story was told on the dancefloor. Given that Rachel and Vincent couldn't seem to get beyond "You iz fit"-"Tihihi", I'm kinda hoping Heather and Brian's more charismatic showings win the public round.

But the overwhelming impression I took away is that this series is gonna make a star out of Christine Bleakley. There have been a wide variety of smiles in this series - nervous, performative, relieved, serene, smug, gurned - but when Christine Bleakley's smile took to the floor on Saturday night, it was radiant, luminous, illuminating. Her poise, her weighting, her balance all seemed totally immaculate. Her charms did verily overflow. Reader, it made me wanna stick my hand in a plug socket and see if the 18th century came out. Her presence was like nothing that had come before or after. When Matthew Cutler rested his hand on her back to start the foxtrot, it just seemed to fit, and they floated across the floor with complete regality. Christine seemed transported from the bundle of inexperience her preview video suggested - nothing matters when she's dancing. It felt like dancing had unlocked something inside her soul, a kind of natural calm and light, and it was incredible to watch. Various technical glitches meant she only carded 27, putting her third on the night, but everything seems like it will line up. With time on her side to hone and finesse the intricacies of performance, I don't see anything stopping her.

So overall, the dancing was better; the programme itself, however, felt slightly more strained. Last week filled up its two-and-a-quarter hours of airtime with little difficulty; this week, we got stuck with innumerable interviews (I think I might actually have yelled "FOR GOD'S SAKES, NO-ONE NEEDS DERMOT MURNAGHAN'S OPINION" at one point), as well as seeing the men do a group merengue two nights running. Watching John Sergeant seemingly miss every single step, as well as trying-but-not-quite-managing to lift Kristina Rihanoff into the air, was faintly painful once, but twice... yeep. On the other hand, Don Warrington seemed right at home, and with the tango coming up next week, I'm sort of crossing my fingers that we'll see him leap out of the pack.

The 'banter' between the judges was also beginning to annoy me ever so slightly. It seemed that whenever Craig opened his mouth, the other three all started shaking their heads in the manner of John Redwood denying allegations of being a tosspot. Then there was Len's utterly oleaginous assertion that "These three seem to like focusing on the negative - I prefer to look at the positive." Dude - eww. Arlene's horribly telegraphed puns continued to hammer her into the second-rate Sharon Osbourne hole; goddammit, Bruno Tonioli just might be the most likeable one of these people. Yikes.

And then there was Brucie, once more badgering the crowd into response. Whenever the laughter wasn't to his liking, he hectored them into giving him the reaction he desired. Every now and then, and you could call it showmanship; when it's happening on every single bloody joke, it gets desperate, and irritating.

Worst of all, though, was the band. I've mentioned some of their efforts earlier, and glossed over their attempt at "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" during Lisa's routine (Arlene didn't feel that Lisa was taking her sufficiently onto the streets of Cuba, not thinking that perhaps the band making like Phil Fearon & Galaxy at one-quarter volume might not have helped this), but by a mile their worst offence came during a little set-piece number designed to showcase the three new professionals on display this series (Brian, Kristina and Hayley Holt). The band was asked to perform "Walk This Way" - the Girls Aloud/Sugababes version, naturally - but the singer appeared to be under the impression he was doing one of Homer's numbers from The Simpsons Sing The Blues. Tragically there's no embeddable video of this moment, but if you happen to have a copy of "Walk This Way" at home, why not pop it on, then hire a pneumatic drill and have a go at the pavement whenever the vocals start? It'll be roughly the same thing.

Anyhow - next week, the men get to dance either the jive or the tango. Jill Halfpenny, the winner of series two, was called upon to reprise her winning jive this week; judging by the pace and the number of steps it involved, the blokes may well find themselves in quite a pickle. See you then.

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