When Strictly Come Dancing returns for its 13th series on Saturday night, it does so not just as one of Britain’s most watched and loved TV shows.
Since the Conservatives gained sole control of the levers of government in May, Strictly’s sequin-strewn dancefloor has come to represent the battleground in the fight between ministers and the BBC over the corporation’s future.
At least one of the 15 celebrities preparing to foxtrot into the nation’s living rooms is aware of the occasion’s political significance. The Radio 2 presenter and election night polling guru Jeremy Vine, in an interview before Saturday’s launch show, insisted that Strictly was exactly the sort of programme the BBC should be making.
“Strictly is vital to the BBC, and I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument that it should be shut down because it’s a ticket that brings in so many people to other stuff we do,” said Vine. “There is something about the BBC ecology that allows it to come up with crazy ideas and put them on.
“Maybe the risk in not having adverts is lower so we are able to take some bigger risks and occasionally they pay off and Strictly has.”
Vine said a commercial broadcaster would not be able to make Strictly the communal viewing experience it has become. He said: “I’m not sure you would get the same power of what TV types call the 3G audience, where you have a proper shared experience where you have grandchildren, children, mums and dads and grandparents, all on the sofa together. I think the BBC does communal broadcast better than anyone and I celebrate that.”
On Saturday night, Vine’s mind will turn from what Strictly means for the BBC to what being on Strictly means for him. He says the prospect of being so far from his comfort zone left him a little scared.
“We had this this two-day rehearsal ... They just said, ‘do a waltz’, and I thought ‘I don’t even know what a bloody waltz is’,” he says. “So I did become scared during that two days. I suddenly thought ‘I am going to go on a show unprepared’ which is not something I’ve really done before.”
Many of Vine’s co-stars on the show have more experience in showbusiness, but that has not left them immune to the nerves.
The personalities, including athletes, soap stars and presenters – with some perhaps more recognisable than others – have started rehearsing for their upcoming group dance. They, however, have yet to learn which professional dancer they will be paired with throughout the series.
“It’s the first day in the studio today so it will all become very real very quickly”, said EastEnders’ actor Kellie Bright..
“I am so excited. We’re all a bit giddy today,” Georgia May Foote, the Coronation Street star, added.
Peter Andre, the singer, said that he had not been paying attention to bookies tipping him to be favourite. “I get all scared with favourites and things like that – it’s so kind in one way but in another way you think you can’t even muck up once,” he said. “You are a bit lazy on stage because even if it’s choreographed you can join in when you want and get out when you want, you can’t do that here.”
Fellow singer Jamelia added: “The experience I have is working with a choreographer for my pop videos, but as any other pop artist will tell you, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
After injuring his arm this summer, boxer Anthony Ogogo is to start the Strictly process with his arm in a sling. He said he was embracing the shimmer and sparkles of the show, and added: “Outside the ring I’m the most backseat guy.”
Iwan Thomas, the Olympic 400m runner, said he was looking forward to the risqué tops he will be donning in the weeks to come. “I keep saying more glitter, more tighter,” he, “Week one it’s tight. Week two the zip will be coming down, and by week three hopefully it will be off.”
Joining the athletes are Call the Midwife actor Helen George, Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell and Jay McGuiness from boy band the Wanted. It also features television presenters Anita Rani, Kirsty Gallacher and Katie Derham, TV chef Ainsley Harriott and weather presenter Carol Kirkwood.
The stars will not be subjected to the public’s voting until a few weeks in and are yet to experience the number boards and criticism of judges Craig Revel-Horwood, Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Darcey Bussell.
Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman will host the show, once the classic theme tune rolls out and camera pans to the stage, with Bruce Forsyth, the veteran Saturday night presenter, to return for two shows this season.
The series has traditionally battled against ITV’s X Factor, with the broadcaster taking the step this year to announce start times of its episodes, citing frustration among the audience over top programmes overlapping.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale is on the record questioning whether the BBC should be pitting Strictly against the ITV talent show in a battle for ratings. Recent evidence suggests it’s a battle the BBC has a good chance of winning.
Though the audience for last Christmas’ Strictly finals was down 1 million on the previous year, its 10 million viewers pipped X Factor to the top spot. Last weekend’s X Factor launch attracted the lowest audience for a launch show in a decade.