By Michelene Wandor.
I AM HOOKED ON Strictly Come Dancing. It’s not that I like ‘reality’ TV. I don’t put my life on hold in order to watch. I even dislike some aspects of it, to the point of regular yelling at the TV. More on that later.
I love the series because it is inherently dramatic and erotic, in the best possible taste, as Kenny Everett might have said. Structurally, it is (like all other celebrity reality TV shows) carefully, and dramatically prepared and structured. The three-month series, which concluded ten days ago, runs from September to December.
The selected cast broadly represents different ages, sizes, degrees of celebrity and dancing potential. Some celebrities are already much in the public eye (Ann Widdecombe, Scott Maslam), and some perhaps springboarding faded or former showbiz careers (Paul Daniels, Pamela Stephenson). Over the weeks, heroes and heroines emerge, and ‘villains’ (those who can’t dance, but will dance). There are presenters/narrators: Bruce Forsyth (accomplished showbiz and Variety veteran, and Tess, the requisite blonde bimbo, useful for little more than dresses, hairdos and the ability to read autocue. More on that later.
The four judges mediate between the programme’s athletic and aesthetic expertises, theoretically preparing the viewing public for their telephone voting. This spurious democratic process removes one couple each week. In previous years, each week the two couples with the lowest votes did a ‘dance-off’, after which the judges made the final decisions. But no more.
So why am I hooked? As far as the ‘dramatic’ elements go, it is unfailingly exciting to watch contestants, coached, bullied and cajoled by their partners, developing truly impressive performance skills. Even Ann W. ended up learning some steps, finding a sort of sense of rhythm. It’s the thrill of watching rehearsal come to fruition (they have only ninety seconds in which to perform). Memory, athletic training and the conditions of performance are gripping. The surface message might suggest that we can achieve anything we want, if we really want (an empty mantra). Underlying this is the demonstration that given the right conditions, the massive support of the television machinery (including costumes, makeup and acres of fake tan for the women), we can each learn, continue to learn and even achieve the unexpected.
Full frontal, though, is the sheer, highly biased cultural eroticism which keeps me watching. The professional women dancers are utterly amazing. Their bodies, often graced by minimal costume cover, are sleek, lithe, flexible, sexy, expressive. However, while the women expose legs, midriffs and décolletage, the men do not dance in tights. The male professionals are equally amazing, but there’s no skin to tease; the bumps and grinds which occasionally figure in the dances are tasteful, tightly clad. You get the point.
THIS IS A WILLFULLY teasing, resolutely heterosexual eroticism. There is constant body contact between couples, and not just in the dances. Some producer has dictated/encouraged the couples to be touchy-feely at all times. They hug, kiss on the cheeks, stand with their arms round each other, hug and stroke and embrace, all encouraging us to imagine and/or expect greater sexual intimacies off screen. There’s usually at least one actual heterosexual ‘romance’ each series, and this year’s winner, Kara Tointon, and her partner, the Russian Artem Chigvintsev, have been conducting the longest foreplay imaginable – he announced to camera that they wouldn’t ‘date’, or ‘go out’ (euphemisms, of course), until after the programme. Judging from the intimate twining of limbs on the dance floor, I suspect they might not have been able to wait – but hey, it doesn’t matter. They are so sexy.
It’s a sexiness which plays into the centre of our culture’s body imagery. It’s framed by the Tess/Brucie partnership. Programmes with two presenters often have dumpy, ‘plain’ men, and younger, highly produced women. The woman needs mainly to operate as eye-candy, and read autocue – the TV equivalent of not bumping into the furniture. On early morning news magazine programmes, the women do evince intelligence and actively participate. Not here, however.
In Strictly, Tess just doesn’t cut it. In earlier series, they tried to get her to dance a bit with Brucie. She displayed a woeful lack of rhythm, her discomfort palpable. Despite her efficient reading of autocue, she clutches cue cards, dogged by constant small twitches. She paws contestants in a phoney intimacy, asking (as instructed, I am sure) dumb-ass questions, which are supposed to ratchet up the tension: How much do you want to win? How much don’t you want to go home? What will it be like lifting the glitter ball? Derrrrr. Someone should give her a proper job. This year, the final, half-hour results programme has given us Claudia Winckelmann, made up like a Goth throwback to Cathy McGowan.
The twin attractions of Strictly are an uneasy couple. The drama is reassuringly there, the eroticism divisive. If any gay relationships develop, we don’t know about them. Two of the judges are (probably?) gay, and some of the male dancers. Possibly even some of the female dancers, but no-one is going to allow us to know about that. Heterosexuality rules, even when grown men cry with emotion at scores, wins, expulsions.
Well, it’s all over for another year. Kara and Artem should be ‘dating’. And despite everyone flagging their regret at the end of training and dancing with their new ‘friend for life’, we all know that there is a tour, and that Ann Widdecombe will dance another day. Even, she let slip one evening, perhaps with Craig, the most vituperative of the judges. That will be dramatic. But will it be erotic?
Michelene Wandor, who reviewed Dominic Sandbrook’s State of Emergency for the Fortnightly here, is a poet, playwright, musician and broadcaster. Her two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets.