Well bugger me, it’s just over three weeks since my last post. And for that my sincerest apologies. I think I went into some sort of post-exam slump or other, I dunno – that and Wimbledon (the only sporting event this otherwise un-sporty individual follows religiously every year) – so that not even the death of Michael Jackson could inspire me to blog. Or maybe that was something to do with being put off by the Blanket coverage.
Anyhoo, before I become one of the 100,000-a-day casualties of swine flu, I’d better start this blog up again. Last night I was at the world premiere of the Rufus Wainwright opera Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival. It was at the Palace Theatre, a very grand setting with very vertiginous seating (one felt perched like a puffin on a cliff), with Neil Hannon spotted randomly outside before the performance began. The opera itself is a playful, meta treatise on the conventions of opera itself, with a legendary diva recalling the fateful night when her singing career went on an indefinite pause. Sumptuously staged and beautifully sung, as well as cheekily inviting the audience to applaud a performance of the opera-within-an-opera and having characters who have been singing their hearts out suddenly start talking about not singing. Oh, and Rufus himself turned up at the curtain call at the end – in top hat, tails and a big white scarf. Naturellement. It’s running until 17 July, and if you haven’t got tickets then best of luck in getting them.
The night before, I was in Nottingham for more musical theatre, this time a local amateur production of Sweet Charity. Sweet Charity is not exactly the most loved of musicals – the 1969 film with Shirley Maclaine tanked at the box office, the plot is thinner than a crepe suzette and the songs (aside from Hey Big Spender, Rhythm of Life and If My Friends Could See Me Now) unmemorable. It’s odd that something that involved, variously, the creative input of Neil Simon, Federico Fellini and Bob Fosse should have turned out to be such a misfire. Maybe too many chefs spoiled the veloute. Anyway, despite some major teething troubles in rehearsal (as I’ve been regularly informed), this production turned out pretty darn well. The singer leading a big number forget his mike, so was drowned out by the music (that said, a curtain got caught and didn’t descend properly in Prima Donna last night, so it happens on all levels) and there was the odd fluffed line, but otherwise it was pretty slick. The choreography was to have included the now seminal putting-out-the-rubbish dance move so powerfully showcased by John Sergeant in Strictly Come Dancing, but sadly this had to be dropped for safety reasons.
Talk of Strictly Come Dancing and things being dropped brings us neatly to the subject of Arlene Phillips. Arlene has been relieved of her judging duties on Strictly and is replaced in the next series by former winner Alesha Dixon (with Darcy Bussell contributing choreography and also joining the panel for later shows). Now, I like Alesha – she was a superb competitor and winner and clearly an extremely talented dancer. But I don’t think she’ll really work as a judge. The whole point of the judging panel on Strictly is that it’s made up of four people who have worked in the world of dance – as dancers and/or choreographers – for many years, so they know what they’re talking about and are able to give lots of detailed technical advice. And the latter in particular has always been Arlene’s forte. Perhaps the makers of Strictly are trying for the Cheryl Cole factor here – put a much-loved younger woman on the panel who’ll shake things up a bit whilst proving very popular with the public because she can empathise with the contestants, having been through all this herself. It’s true that Cheryl works on X-Factor, but then the judges in that tend not to trade in technical matters. Personal insults, yes, but not technical matters.
Getting rid of Arlene and replacing her with Alesha will also potentially unbalance the panel, so that effectively Craig will become the only one likely to be brutally honest with the celebrities (when Len tries brutal honesty he just ends up sounding a bit grumpy, and when Bruno tries brutal honesty he just ends up sounding even more demented than usual). It’s hard to see Alesha giving them any tough love. Arlene’s involvement with Strictly isn’t over, but instead she’s been farmed out to the One Show to be their resident Strictly expert, something BBC1 controller Jay Hunt (not to be confused with the woman who used to appear on TV a few years ago rubbishing the content of people’s wardrobes whilst dressed in a pair of curtains) described as a “fantastic opportunity”. Hmm. A fantastic opportunity maybe if you’re a young presenter on your way up, or if you’re Phil Tuffnell. But for a woman with many years’ experience as a choreographer, and five years judging celebrities on one of the BBC’s biggest hit shows? Can’t see it myself.
Of course, Arlene’s dismissal from the Strictly panel could simply be yet another example of how older women tend to be regarded as eminently replaceable on television. It comes just a few weeks after the divine Margaret Mountford announced her decision to quit the Apprentice to concentrate on her PhD. Her departure was admittedly voluntary, but you can’t imagine the TV execs being too heartbroken at the thought of being handed the opportunity to replace her with a younger model to advise Sralan (obviously they should go for the Badger, but they probably won’t). Once women reach a certain age, the TV presenting market tends to dry up, or they get stuck with insulting tripe like Loose Women. Men on the other hand seem to experience no such difficulties – Bruce Forsyth being a case in point. It’s the same for actresses – Dame Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Julie Walters are the exception proving the rule that, once you’re too old to be the heroine, you’ll probably go through a fallow period of being cast as downtrodden middle-aged housewives, before enjoying a career twilight playing eccentric old biddies.
And you can’t help feeling that Arlene is being cast in the presenter equivalent of that role. She’ll be wheeled on for the duration of Strictly to make a few comments about the celebrities, maybe a few suggestive ones about the more attractive men, and then get wheeled off again until next time. There’ll probably be talk of how this means fans of Strictly get extra content. But it already has extra content – It Takes Two, with Arlene very much part of that show as she is the main one. If they wanted to give Strictly a bit of a “refresh”, they should have looked at cutting down the number of competitors (16 last year was way too many, making the series drag on too long even for this superfan), not cut out one of the best judges. It’d be more “refreshing” to keep the older woman for a change. Perhaps with an attractive young man on her arm…