As this year’s series of Strictly Come Dancing reaches its final stages, Matt Donnelly looks at what makes the show special and how it has stayed relevant where other shows have long since fallen out of favour with the British public.
September means many things to different people. For children, it means the holidays are over and it’s time to go back to school. It also represents the nights drawing in and the inevitable arrival of winter. However, for millions of us every year it signals the return of one of TV’s most joyous creations; Strictly Come Dancing. For nineteen series, BBC One’s sequin-soaked extravaganza has beamed its way into our homes throughout the autumn months, culminating just before Christmas. However, whilst around ten million people tune in religiously every year, there are many who are still baffled by the popularity of the show. Throughout this piece, I hope to explore why Strictly means so much to so many and why they keep coming back on a yearly basis.
Due to working on Saturday nights during the show’s infancy, I’d only ever caught snippets of Strictly and mainly saw it as a programme that my nan watched. The first Strictly series I remember watching in its entirety was the 2008 run, which is most memorable for John Sergeant‘s popularity with the public despite having minimal dancing prowess. However, I was less enticed with it than its Saturday night competitor at the time; The X-Factor; a programme that I had watched since its inception. At that point, Strictly would form the first part of the Saturday night double bill, but would often be the starter to the main course that ITV served up. But gradually, Simon Cowell’s singing competition started to feel stale while Strictly improved, making small tweaks each series which contributed to it regularly beating its competition in the ratings.
I think part of the reason the show succeeded where The X-Factor is that Cowell’s show seemed to enjoy humiliating the delusional awful auditionees. Strictly, on the other hand, was about it getting the best out of its contestants and helping them on their journey. The celebrity contestants genuinely seemed to like each other, cheering their competitors on from the sidelines. In an era of talent shows that had either Simon Cowell himself or a poor imitation of him on the panel, most of the criticism the dancers were given felt constructive rather than personal. Strictly’s rise in the ratings seemingly coincided with audiences wanting to watch people being kind to each rather than seeing Cowell and company throw insults at people who’d been put on TV purely to be laughed at. It’s the same reason The Great British Bake Off is so beloved.
In trying to explain the popularity of Strictly I asked the people of Twitter what kept them coming back on a yearly basis. The most common answer seemed to be that they enjoyed watching the celebrities learn a new skill and slowly fall in love with dance. Those who kindly contributed to this article described this process as ‘joyous’ and ‘magical’ which is something that I’d certainly concur with. Craig Revel-Horwood, who has presided as a judge on Strictly since series one, agreed with this statement during a segment on the 2019 series of spin-off show It Takes Two. Revel-Horwood said, ‘I think the reason why it turned around was because the confidence grew in the celebrities, you could see their improvement and that’s what people at home were following.’
I believe that one of the keys to the show’s continued success is the audience’s investment in the progress of the contestants and more so in deciding who you feel should stay in the competition. Crucially, the audience is always asked to vote for their favourites rather than who they necessarily believe to be the best dancer. Whilst this often leads to online dissent when contestants stay on longer than those viewed to be more deserving, I believe the audience loves to see those who thought they would be eliminated early on stay into the latter stages of the competition. I was backing Geordie comedian Chris Ramsey who made it to the semi-final in 2019. He had never danced a step in his life prior to signing up for the show. Whilst he was never the best dancer, you could see him growing in confidence weekly and understanding what he needed to do to succeed.
But it’s not just the celebrities who are learning about dance styles, as I feel that over the years that I’ve understood more what steps are required in each separate dance. I still think I’d be awful on Strictly as I’m an uncoordinated mess, years of watching the show have made me more vigilant and I can now spot a mistake a couple makes easier than I could in my early years as a viewer. The other rewarding element of coming back series after series is that you follow the stories of the professional dancers and will them to succeed just as much. When a pro finally wins after years of being on the show, you’re as happy for them as you are their celebrity partner.
I think another masterstroke of Strictly is it being on over the autumn and winter months. It’s crazy to think that the first series of Strictly was shown in April! The significance of the show’s scheduling is that, whilst it may be cold and dark outside the Strictly ballroom is always warm and inviting. For a light entertainment show, Strictly has a fantastic production budget with the wardrobe and make-up teams creating innovative creations each week. Unlike some international versions of the show, the original also benefits from having a band and live singers which lifts the performance much more than it would if the couples were dancing to a backing track. It’s all of these elements combined that make Strictly a joy to watch.
Another positive that was mentioned during my research was that Strictly is one of those shows that people can follow along with on Twitter. Given we’re in an era of every show being released as a boxset, it’s refreshing to see a programme that has an average of ten million viewers tuning in every week. I think that watching along with others online, adds into that communal spirit that we’re all members of the Strictly family as we applaud our favourites and implore others to vote to keep them in the competition.
With the benefit of one of the biggest weekly audiences on British TV, Strictly has shown itself to be a progressive show that thrives on representation. When I was at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2019, It’s a Sin screenwriter Russell T Davies spoke about how progressive the show was by being the only show on TV with two female hosts and, at the time, two openly gay judges. Oddly this was during a conversation on whether Strictly would ever have a same-sex couple, the panel not knowing that there would be one a year later. Sadly, boxer Nicola Adams had to drop out of the show early on due to her professional partner Katya Jones testing positive for Covid-19. However, during their brief time on the show, I felt that they stripped away the stigma of having a same-sex couple dancing together. That then led to the first all-male couple, with chef John Whaite and pro dancer Johannes Radebe still in the competition who the at time of writing. What has been refreshing about John and Johannes is that people have focused on their dancing rather than the fact that they’re two men. I also feel that it shows how far we’ve come as a society that I’ve heard little backlash to the couple and instead their inclusion has been met positively by most.
Since 2017, Strictly has also welcomed differently-abled celebrities, with Paralympian Jonnie Peacock being the first of these. The favourite to win this year’s series is Eastenders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis, who is the first deaf celebrity to compete on the show. Rose’s participation in Strictly has led to a mass increase in Google searches for British Sign Language and questions about why BSL isn’t taught in schools. It has also allowed a deaf person to show a mainstream audience what life is like for her, which was demonstrated during Rose’s beautiful Couple’s Choice routine in which she and her partner Giovanni danced a section in complete silence to put us in Roses’ shoes. This was hailed by judges and audience alike as one of Strictly’s best moments and I have to admit that I was one of many who had a tear in my eye during the performance.
Although there are elements of Strictly that could be changed, namely those time-filling skits that precede almost every dance, generally it is a positive show that does a brilliant job at promoting diversity and inclusivity to a big mainstream audience. It doesn’t ridicule its contestants and demonstrates the progress even a novice can make if they put in the hours. For me personally, it lights up my living room for three months of the year and recently has made me forget about all the awful things that are happening outside my window. Ultimately I feel that the Strictly ballroom is a joyous, safe place where nobody feels like an outsider and viewers can bond over their love of a bright, glorious, sequin-clad extravaganza.