Never has a spangle and sequin-loving British audience been so in need of both. On Saturday night television viewers were reunited with their lavishly staged, primetime love: Strictly Come Dancing. It is the dance competition that changed the face of popular entertainment 16 years ago by apparently turning back the clock. And, along the way, it has picked up viewing figures that also frequently resemble something from the BBC’s glorious past.
Yet these days the ringmasters of this retro-circus are a very modern and slightly unexpected duo: Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly. Winkleman, 48, is an arch-metropolitan, self-deprecatingly witty, while Daly, 51, glossily professional and warm, is the salt of the earth.
Since the departure of Bruce Forsyth as host six years ago, their on-screen chemistry has sparked. “I love her,” said Daly of her partner as they prepared for a charity dance marathon together last year. “I can just look over at that little face for support.” Daly’s husband, presenter Vernon Kay, has even been known to joke that he doesn’t want them sharing a dressing room in case things go too far.
By design or chance, the pairing has made the show sexier, although Brucie may have set a fairly low bar on that front.
In Britain’s darkest winter since the last war, they are now required to light a path to hope: two women trusted with a precious ratings hit that is to guest star a champion boxer and a former home secretary, both also women. Step forward Nicola Adams and Jacqui Smith.
The season launch on Saturday night came at a moment of voluble laments about the slow progress of women at the BBC. Writing in Radio Times, Harriet Harman, the longest serving woman MP, has complained of a widespread “cull” of women over the age of 50 in broadcasting, and called for the regulator, Ofcom, to release the data.
Last month, Libby Purves, a Radio 4 veteran who dropped out of a regular slot on the airwaves in 2017, accused the corporation’s bosses of “lookism” and of discarding the “grey and stout” when they are female. Purves, 70, argued that while men such as Melvyn Bragg, 81, or David Attenborough, 94, are treasured, a woman such as former Question of Sport host Sue Barker is sidelined at 64.
Neither Winkleman nor Daly are grey or stout, but media consultant Liam Hamilton, who analyses ratings for Broadcast magazine, sees the moment in 2014 when the show was handed over to them as a key leap of faith.
“Trust in women has been a long time coming, but with Strictly it has been a pretty smooth transition in terms of viewing statistics,” he said. “There must have been a certain nervousness about not having that avuncular presence once Bruce stopped. In the context of those times, people will have canvassed for the formula to stay the same. Having an older male host alongside a good-looking female sidekick was not seen as a broken notion, so why fix it?”
Strictly, Hamilton says, is that desirable thing, an enduring “tentpole show” and cannot be taken for granted. Every channel wants one, to the extent of nicking them in the cases of the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off or Dave’s Taskmaster, both of which went to Channel 4.
For Lorraine Heggessey, who ran BBC One between 2000 and 2005 as the first woman in the job, the joy of Daly and Winkleman’s success is precisely that it is “not particularly notable now”.
“Things have improved hugely, especially in news and sport, where you have specialist editors such as Katya Adler or presenters like Gabby Logan and Clare Balding. The tide has turned,” she said.
“The great primetime exception was Cilla Black, who managed to have a long career. But how great a female double-act can be! Tess and Claudia have got something special that’s not the same as Ant and Dec.”
Heggessey agrees that life after Forsyth was risky because when Strictly was initially commissioned it had been regarded as a big gamble. “It was certainly not a no-brainer to put on a dance show, and Bruce gave reassurance. He even knew about dancing. That is less important now. Tess is not a dancer but she has been immersed in it.”
Looking back, Daly has downplayed those stakes. “For us, it did not feel all that different. It was not that big of a deal,” she said. And the astute will point out, of course, that the original programme, Come Dancing, was presented by former newsreader Angela Rippon from the late 1980s. So is Purves wrong to detect a problem? Not as far as agent Sue Ayton of Knight Ayton Management is concerned.
“It is still an issue, but it is about valuing these experienced women and seeing them as ‘box office’,” said Ayton, who represents Rippon and Julia Somerville. Together with Gloria Hunniford, they present the highly successful Rip Off Britain series.
“These are shows with incredibly high ratings, and Angela and Julia are happy making them, but they are not as celebrated as they should be. It is about being the right person for the job and having credibility,” she said.
Ayton recalls an industry forum in which a BBC executive boasted about having two Marys, Berry and Beard: “I said, ‘That’s two. Is that it?’ When a woman reaches 50, they put her in the ‘old’ bracket. They should shout from the rooftops about these talents as Sky Arts does about Joan Bakewell, who is in her 80s and presents the portrait and landscape painting shows. They adore her.”
In 2009, Strictly had to handle a self-inflicted sexism and ageism row when producers replaced the 66-year-old judge Arlene Phillips with Alesha Dixon, 30, a previous winner. The issue was picked up in parliament, drawing the ire of the then equalities minister, Harman. The trust shown in Daly five years later was perhaps offered in recompense.
“Tess was originally regarded as Bruce’s assistant, because the woman was always the sidekick,” said Heggessey. “Now it is a more of a double-act, and it works because of their contrasting personalities. Claudia is much more mischievous than Tess.”
Certainly Daly often reins Claudia in when she threatens to step outside the charmed “light entertainment” circle of glitter. But glitter aside, these otherwise contrasting hosts also share a knowledge of how to handle tough times with grace.
Cambridge graduate Winkleman, owner of the most famous television haircut since Jennifer Aniston’s “shag”, was born to a life in the media, as the daughter of national newspaper editor Eve Pollard. She is now one of the BBC’s highest paid presenters, earning more than £350,000 last year, is married to the film producer Kris Thykier, and she lives in a grand London square. She ascended to the role of presenter after hosting the BBC Two Strictly spin-off show, It Takes Two, from 2004 to 2010. A movie lover who replaced Jonathan Ross as the BBC’s resident film-show host, Winkleman has also presented The Great British Sewing Bee, Britain’s Best Home Cook, and has a regular gig on Radio 2.
So far, so magical, but shortly after her elevation to the main Strictly show, one of her children was seriously injured when a Halloween costume caught fire. Dipping out of the show for three weeks to care for eight-year-old Matilda during her recovery, Winkleman dealt valiantly with unwarranted accusations of guilt and her own sadness. The incident ultimately led to the tightening of safety standards for the materials used in children’s costumes.
Stockport-born Daly is the older of two girls whose father worked in a wallpaper factory and whose mother did shifts in a paper mill. A talent scout swooped on the teenage Tess outside a McDonald’s, and her career in modelling and television began. Always well-groomed, Daly was described as “extremely shimmery” in a 2010 Observer interview. “She is so clean and shiny it is as though she has been freshly dipped in varnish,” noted Elizabeth Day.
But the Strictly host’s true USP is probably her obvious affection for the contestants. “Without sounding twee,” she has said, “I do care about them because I see them petrified in the morning, sitting in makeup and waiting to get it over with.”
A hard worker who says she believes in “buckling down” to prove your worth, Daly has also earned plaudits for coping with press intrusion into the ups and downs of her 17-year marriage to Kay.
Her steady nerve means that her other prominent partner, Winkleman, can now rely on her to steer a safe path with apparent ease during the live shows that started this weekend. As Heggessey puts it: “Tess and Claudia are a great combo because, while they are both very glamorous, they are people that two different kinds of women viewers might aspire to be.”