Cometh the hour, cometh the tango danced to Metallica’s Enter Sandman by comedian Bill Bailey and his partner Oti Mabuse. Other highlights of Strictly Come Dancing in 2020 have included the touching chemistry between TV presenter Ranvir Singh and her partner Giovanni Pernice, and the deadpan verdict “G-O-A-T” delivered by judge Craig Revel Horwood (“It normally stands for greatest of all time,” he explained to a bemused audience). Strictly has long occupied a prized spot in the nation’s home entertainment schedule. But with this series, its 18th, the show has surpassed itself. With viewing figures topping 10m, and cinemas, parties and theatres all out of reach, the show has been an oasis of glitter in a desert of a season.
The physicality of Strictly has always been part of its appeal, and this has been strengthened under pandemic conditions. To an audience confined at home, prohibited from touching anyone outside our bubbles and unlikely to have formed new bonds of friendship or love, the spectacle of 12 celebrities – now whittled down to four for Saturday’s final – twirling, lifting and clutching each other has held a particular enchantment. The whoops and cheers from fellow contestants that the couples have had to rely on, in the absence of the usual studio audience, have heightened the impression of warmth.
The contrast between the preposterously over-the-top performance values encapsulated by its razzle-dazzle costumes and makeup, and the sometimes raw emotions on display, has long been among Strictly’s attractions. On-camera talk of “journeys” and “friends for ever” can sound hackneyed, and sometimes is; but there is sincerity too in contestants’ descriptions of the intensity of their experience of learning to dance on live TV.
As the writer and teacher Kate Clanchy has pointed out, Strictly is a show about teaching – and unlike other talent shows in this regard. Programmes such as The Great British Bake Off feature people who are already good at something. Some Strictly stars are total novices, and observing the teacher-pupil relationship is part of what holds viewers’ interest. Sometimes, romance is the result: previous winners Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton are among Strictly couples; Gorka Márquez, one of this year’s finalists, met his partner Gemma Atkinson on 2017’s series.
Like any reality show, this one has its cruelties. The least favourite couples, as decided by the public vote, are not always the worst dancers. Being seen to be less well-liked than others is hurtful, and there have been series when female or minority-ethnic contestants seemed to many to have been prematurely ejected (a view that is supported by data). It was a shame that Strictly’s first same-sex couple, Nicola Adams and Katya Jones, had to withdraw early due to Covid.
But although it is a glitzy and, at times, bruising popularity contest – with confident personalities enjoying an undoubted advantage – Strictly is also a show that takes dance, and dance criticism, seriously. Over time, as well as the different steps and styles, the audience comes to know the judges’ tastes – the varying weights they accord to technique, choreography, emotion, originality and style. It surely could not have been predicted that this reinvention of ballroom for television would prove such an enduring hit; but so it is. The BBC’s light entertainment flagship goes up as it goes on.