Sunday, September 21, 2008

"THEY SAY HIPS DON'T LIE, AND YOUR HIPS CERTAINLY WEREN'T LYING!": Strictly Come Dancing, Week 1



In the end, I guess the right feller went. Though Gary Rhodes' routine was the one that I found most gruelling to sit through, poor old Phil Daniels just didn't look like he was enjoying himself out there. His face was strained, and he was seemingly trying to avoid looking at anything, never mind his partner. His movements seemed to require a great deal of struggle; at one point he had to drape his partner, Flavia Cacace, over his arm, and it looked like he was trying to paddle a Canadian canoe. Of all the contestants, Phil seemed like the one who would mind losing the least, and to that extent, yes, the right man went.

Had it been a choice between Phil and Gary rather than Phil and Don Warrington, however, then I might be feeling rather less gracious about the matter. The way the voting system on SCD works is as follows:

- Each couple performs in one of the two dance styles selected for that week (this week, the cha-cha and the waltz).
- The four judges (Craig Revel Horwood, Arlene Phillips, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli) each award the couple a mark out of ten based on an arcane system of laws and commandments, then adjust it based on how petty they're feeling at that precise moment in time. These scores are added up to give each couple a mark out of 40.
- Once all the couples have performed, they are ranked in order of score. The highest-scoring couple receives 8 points, the lowest-scoring receives one.
- And then, the phone-lines are opened and the general public votes for the one they liked the most. The couples are then ranked according to how many votes they've received - 8 points for most, 1 point for least.
- The two rankings are combined, and the bottom two couples perform again on the Sunday results programme. The judges then decide which couple stays, and which couple goes.

And so it was that, despite receiving the lowest marks from the judges, Gary Rhodes was spared from the dance-off. Because, somewhere out there in telly-land, there are people who reckon that watching a man bend a woman over in the middle of their cha-cha-cha routine and mime "making pasta" (apparently) on her back is in some way entertaining. It is not. It is rubbish. Watching Gary Rhodes trying to prove he has a sense of humour is an experience roughly akin to when The Saturday Night Armistice attempted to put together stand-up routines composed solely of jokes from speeches made at political party conferences (sample: "The only Tory you should bet on these days is Frankie Det-Tori").

However, what one must not forget is that SCD is a reality television show involving judges, and where there are reality television show judges, there is always a Mr Nasty. Step forward Craig, an Australian with a face like a depressed guppy and a haircut like the sort of white-boot-wearing League Two "free-kick specialist" who never scores more than three goals a season. His comments tend to focus on the technical flaws of the performances, and (in this episode at least) seemed fairly accurate; however, he does seem rather too keen to live up to his "reputation for being our harshest judge", and so gets to make the cattier comments about the competitors and mark them at least a good couple of points lower than all the other judges. Craig awarded Gary and his partner, Karen Hardy, a score of 1 out of 10. This prompted much outrage and "Oh, Craig!"-ing from his fellow judges, who then proceeded to give Gary and Karen a mix of 5s and 6s. It also firmly swung the sympathy vote towards the apparently hard-done-by pair, presumably with the intention of sticking it to the pantomime villain.

This, unfortunately, wound up dumping Don Warrington in the bottom two. To be fair, his performance was also rather technically lacking: as one of the older, portlier contestants, Don rather struggled with the pace of the cha-cha-cha, but this led to a peculiar chemistry between him and his partner, self-proclaimed "Russian minx" Lilia Kopylova. It was as though Lilia was leading him into strange, unfamiliar territories - he wasn't sure where he was going, or what he was doing, but he seemed to be rather enjoying it. The clips from their rehearsals, with Lilia constantly nagging Don to think less, and Don seeming genuinely surprised when they got through a routine correctly, suggest a partnership that could well blossom over the coming weeks.

Similarly, Andrew Castle had the look of a man who wasn't completely sure of himself, and seemed to be kind of in awe of his partner, Ola Jordan. Both he and Don seemed to be gazing intently at their partners, trying to remember what comes next, trying desperately to keep up. There's a certain steely determination about Castle, though; a man hell-bent on getting it right, on pulling himself through and mastering the medium. There's a fire about him on the dancefloor that doesn't come through in his other television roles, where he often seems smug and irritating. When placed in this kind of situation, when forced into the unfamiliar, he becomes compelling, as he does his damnedest to prove himself. This can be considered the first miracle of the programme - it's kind of got me rooting for Andrew Castle. That, I did not see coming.

I didn't foresee the remarkable triumph of John Sergeant, either. Then again, I don't think many other people did; the man is quietly rather canny, and the stateliness of the waltz suited him down to the ground. Unlike the other couples we've mentioned thus far, he and Kristina Rihanoff seemed almost completely at peace. John floated serenely across the floor - at least, until they got to the bit of the waltz where the man is required to circle rapidly around the woman. Then, he started to seem a bit out of his depth, but he didn't really mind too much. The judges all praised the performance, and then decided to give it a mix of 5s and 6s, which seemed to contradict that a bit. John won't win - in the group dance on the Sunday show, his performance was more reminiscent of those scenes from sitcoms where a character is hopelessly out of sync with a thrusting young aerobics class - but he's by no means the dead duck that I had forecast.

His waltz got the same score as Mark Foster's. Mark was another to benefit from Craig's Cruella de Vil bullshit, with his performance being described as "D-U-L-L" by the former Lincoln City and Brentford ace. Bruno made the point rather better, pointing out that Mark has spent his life as a sportsman, not a performer, and that the two skills are not quite as close as one might think. The trouble is that Mark really isn't a very charismatic man - though his physique and stature were admired by more or less everyone, he just came across as being... dull. Determinedly dull, true, but dull all the same.

It initially seemed that Official Rocktimists Candidate Tom Chambers might be similarly uninteresting - his intro video featured some mad weak pseudo-flirting with partner Camilla Dallerup - but again, the dancefloor saw a different tale emerge: that of a man not exactly bereft of moves, but who was also in a state of disbelief that he was out on the floor and making a remarkably good job of things. As with Castle, Our Tom (as he shall henceforth be known) seemed to be emerging from his shell. His hyperactive hips and nervous energy made him greatly suited to the cha-cha-cha; how he will do on the slower numbers remains to be seen.

No such concerns for Austin Healey, however. His waltz was commanding and precise, but also surprisingly delicate and sensitive. He looked genuinely humbled when Len described his performance as "the best first dance I've ever seen from a man". Half his rehearsal clips suggested the pumped-up nobhead all previous form pointed to; but at the same time, he gave the impression that he was more than slightly appreciative of just how alien the world of ballroom dancing is to him, and how grateful he was to his partner, Erin Boag, for leading him through it. There was not a hint of the kind of shit-stirring we might have come to expect... except for when they brought up his rivalry with fellow former England rugby international and SCD competitor Matt Dawson. Given just how blackboard-scratchingly unfunny Dawson's appearances on any other television show invariably are, I can only hope this doesn't become a theme for the series.

One thing that will remain the case, however, is that we are almost entirely in Bruce Forsyth's domain. "Nice to see you, to see you -" "NICE!" and its new variant - "I am not doddery, doddery I am -" "NOT!" - got more than a couple of outings, and everyone joined in. He's quite the ringmaster, and even (or especially) at 80, it feels as though he just might be the best in the country. It's that experience that gives him his edge - he knows how to work an audience, and the audience loves him for it. He makes people feel at ease, and while his wit is sharp, it never seems cruel.

It's not quite perfect, though. I remember, back when I used to watch him hosting The Generation Game, he had this peculiar determination to always get the last laugh - if anyone other than him made a joke, he always had to make one on top of it. The kowtowing to Brucie can get a bit uncomfortable - he's not bullying as such, but his iconic status means the air of community about the programme can occasionally seem like a slightly forced united front, a little too cosy for comfort.

And yet it's that same positivity that's the most appealing aspect about the show. It almost seems inappropriate that couples get voted off - it feels like cutting things off, just as they're about to get good. Well, that and the house band started playing "The First Cut Is The Deepest" with wince-inducing sloth as Phil and Flavia took their last turn on the floor. But with SCD, the aim seems to be to inspire - unlike the audition shows of X Factor, there's no seeking amusement in the failings of others, no inviting people to be mocked for thinking they are capable of achieving something. It's rather inspiring, and rather beautiful. I think we're gonna enjoy this, you and I...

(and there's so damned much I've not talked about yet - Alesha's return, the various wee montages, the staging, the lights, the music - good thing there's still a fair few weeks to go, eh? Please drop us some comments so we can talk about it! If you've not seen the programmes yet, they're both currently available on iPlayer, and all the dances are available to watch on YouTube.)

1 comment:

Raw Patrick said...

I'm gonna avoid this show but happy y're gonna watch it for me. Someone should liveblog Hole in the Wall. That show's incredible.