The last time we saw Lord Len he was standing regally accepting the plaudits, a tear in his eye, a man waving goodbye to a surprising yet glittering career as the Head Juddge on the most popular TV show of its era. The band played, the ticker tape rained, smiles beamed, the noise of gratitude deafened. A worthy exit.
And that was that. Or so we thought. Then, this summer, on August 19th, something else hit the Saturday night schedule on BBC1, ‘Partners in Rhyme’, Auntie’s version of ITV’s Catchphrase, celebs enjoying wordplay, daft graphics making it so bad it was good. And who was the host? None other than Lord Len. Could have knocked me down with a pickled walnut. Not exactly the golf course or the expected quiet retirement, more a jolly, chilled half hour, a show filmed in small batches, easy on the body and the mind. Coincidentally it closed its six week run the week before this year’s Strictly launch, the amuse bouche to the grand plat.
There was much pontificating about who would fill Lord Len’s shoes. Would it be Anthony Smith of Bristol or the Kiwi Gob, Brendan Cole, the only two pro dance survivors from the very first series of Strictly in 2004, both careering towards certain ages, the former with new twins to contend with along with the purchase of Grecian 2000, the latter a dad again in the summer. Or maybe one of the other Juddgies would take the helm, all three to be re-instated, their caricatures strong, the bouncy baby Tigger (Bruno Tonioli), the purring princess (Darcy Bussell), the grumpy curmudgeon so tight he wouldn’t give a door a bang (Craig Revel Horwood). Perhaps Gareth Edwards was the favourite, fresh from his glittering career as the greatest rugby player of them all and the long-time producer of the ‘A Question of Sport’? Sorry, I meant Gary Edwards, the Ballroom Giant, mixing me Gareths there.
As is, The Queen of Latin sashayed into the seat, Shirley Ballas, Dame Shirley of Wallasey, Merseyside, a smidgen over the half century in garnered years, a magnificent dancer, a martinet of a coach, a technician, a lady with more medals, titles and experience than most dance troops, undefeated in eight years in Latin competitions in the US, a British Open Champion, a finalist seventeen times, the coach to Julianne and Derek Hough, Mark Ballas (her son) and one time Strictly winner Camilla Dallerup, a regular on the USA’s Dancing with the Stars giving masterclasses and expert guidance. After two appearances on our screens it is clear that she will go well.
The show too is well placed; there is something welcoming about Strictly, a beacon to balance autumn, the early nights and the falling leaves. You know what it will deliver. There will be gaffs, laffs, Bruno out of his seat, inappropriate music and props, dances taking an age to get started (one was 52 seconds this week – a record – an unwelcome record), the pros hiding the flaws of their charges, under-marking, over-marking, hyperbole and overreaction, a demented and raucous crowd high on adrenaline and distorted appreciation, costume failures, gushes and tears, nerves and slips, ringers and beginners, the magnificent band, glitz and tits . . . and that is just the blokes. And let’s not forget the journeys . . . and what the show brings to its cast. In one word you could say ‘opportunity’. In two you might change that to ‘gravy train’.
Not only does the show open hitherto barred doors to the celebs but also to the pros. Where are Glebby Glebby Glebby, Kristina Rihanoff and Natalie Lowe? All appearing on other stages around the world. Joanne Clifton has hit the boards in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ and ‘Flashdance the Musical’. Aljaz Skorjanec and Janette Skorjanec (née Manrara – married in the summer) host five star weekends, P & O cruises and they toured a tribute to Fred Astaire this year. Kevin Clifton from Grimsby is hitting the circuit with Hottie Hauer next spring, so too the Kiwi Gob, on his own, not with Hottie. Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace-Mistry dance the night away in ‘Tango Moderna’, when he’s fit and his back holds out. There really is no hiding place.
There is no finer shop window for the celebs, those already in the public eye, those who used to be, those who like a challenge with a pot of gold at the end of this dance rainbow. And you don’t have to win.
Mark Ramprakash (2006), a winner with Karen Hardy now teaches England’s Test cricket team how to bat; wild child Phil Tufnell (2009) is part of the BBC establishment; Darren Gough (2004), his onetime team mate, broadcasts on TalkSport and he also sells hair products.
Austin Healey (2008) is one of the voices and faces of BT Sport, another hair product expert; Chris Hollins (2009) is reaping his rewards as a compere in the corporate sporting world.
Juddge Alice (2007) has got more beautiful and more exposure since her victory. It is hard to remember what a washout state her career was in before Strictly. Try and name a song she did with her old band? Now she lords it on Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor, the latter fast becoming a feeder show for Strictly. Two previous contestants are amongst this year’s cast.
Kara Tointon (2010) starred in this spring’s great WW2 drama The Halcyon; Louis Smith (2012) went on to further Olympic glory and now treads the boards with Jay McGuinness (2015) and Natalie Lowe, not a gig I’d actually pay to see.
Tom Chambers (2008) has appeared on TV in Holby, Waterloo Road and Father Brown and in ‘Top Hat’ in the West End. Soon he stars in ‘Crazy for You’ (Bristol Hippodrome) with Caroline Flack (2014), a not so shy publicist of a Strictly winner.
And then there’s Ore Oduba (2016). Who I can hear you ask? Last year’s winner? ‘Singin’ in the Rain?’ Yup, that bloke. Since then he has been on so many things I’m surprised he doesn’t have his own stamp. He’s done high end TV, low end TV, game shows, he has hosted The One Show, he’s been the link at the World Athletics championships, the go-to expert, and now he hosts his own national radio show on the BBC. There are over five hundred radio stations in the UK and I’m sure that some of their real DJs had a cheeky chunder when they realised he had that gig after a minute in the industry when they have striven for decades with no return. You’re right, life isn’t fair, though the off button works. Thankfully.
Strictly, a veritable land of opportunity.
In a change to protocol, next week rather than this, I will introduce the celeb dancers and the new pros; they have already danced once. But don’t panic, you won’t miss anything.
Until then I save the last words of this year’s intro for tribute. 2017 has claimed many of the influential and famous, staples of our lives. Here are just a few: Chuck Berry, John Noakes, Brian Cant, Robert Hardy, the great Glen Campbell, ‘Adios’, Jerry Lewis and Sir Colin Meads. There are too many to list them all. And sadly we need to add one of the all-time greats of British TV and Entertainment, a man the like of we may never see again; a dancer, singer, raconteur, musician, a one-man entertainment show from the world of the West End, TV and film.
In the summer of 2014, as some of you may remember, I saw Sir Bruce Forsyth, CBE, in concert. Before the curtain rose the crowd waited with expectation, nervous, and then the star turn was announced and onto the stage he walked, beautifully turned out, shoes gleaming, suit pristine, the glitter on the waistcoat sparkling from the lights. To a man, woman and child, everyone rose and welcomed this legend of entertainment to the stage. A standing ovation for turning up.
The couple of hours that followed passed in a bath of warmth, love and affection, music and mirth, old-fashioned fun and frolics, bad language, bad behaviour and bad taste banished to the land of elsewhere. It was an honour to be there.
Brucie has been an ever present in my lifetime, performing, game shows on either channel or hosting the number one show on British TV for eleven series. Now, at the age of 89, he has gone to play the big Palladium in the sky. A sad day. A very sad day indeed.
September 29th 2017