Well, it’s back and Saturday nights from now until Christmas are pretty much spoken for. Of course, with all the furore over Arlenegate it kind of feels as though Strictly Come Dancing hasn’t been away for the last nine months, but now we can finally concentrate on the dancing. Or lack of, depending on who’s taking to the floor. This year, rather than all that tedious “boys one week, girls the next week” nonsense that made the last series feel as though it didn’t get going for about a month, the sixteen couples have this time been randomly drawn in two groups. Another improvement to the format is that all the couples will be doing one ballroom and one Latin dance – an unfortunate aspect of previous series was that couples who went out early on often never got the chance to prove themselves in one of the disciplines.
Friday night’s show (which I missed on account of being in Manchester to see an amazing concert by Elbow, so caught up on it yesterday) saw this week’s eight couples tackle either the waltz or the tango. Now the tango is a pretty tough dance to give celebs right at the start – it requires a lot of passion, attack and drama. Passion, attack and drama all being sadly lacking for the most part. Rav Wilding and his 27-inch thighs lurched and lowered over his partner Aliona Vilani; Chris Hollins had a decent stab at his tango, but unfortunately had a face like a constipated tortoise; Lynda Bellingham, chasing the Colleen Nolan vote, used her full range of facial expressions to compensate for the lack of drive in the performance; and Joe Calzaghe saved the worst for last, as he stomped and scowled for ninety very long seconds. Still, at least his routine had proper tango music; the other tangoes suffered from musical accompaniment that sounded all wrong for the dance.
The waltzes were generally better (mainly because it’s harder to do a really bad waltz, except if you’re Fiona Phillips). Ricky Groves looked a bit tentative and pained, Martina Hingis looked tentative but not quite so pained, Jade Johnson had a definite elegance about her; but it was Ali Bastian who did the best ballroom of the evening, with a very graceful, floating waltz that immediately marked her out as One To Watch. The first night was rounded off with a group mambo from the eight couples who’ll be performing in the second week. As with all the early group dances, this provided some priceless moments, in particular from Craig Kelly and Richard Dunwoody, who appeared to be doing a different routine from everyone else. Phil Tuffnell meanwhile has obviously decided already that he’ll need his bumbling, blokeish charm in order to get through the competition and was gurning and goofing all over the place. Ricky Whittle and Laila Rouass look as though they’ll be the Ones To Watch next week.
Last night was Latin night, with either the cha cha cha or the rumba. Like the tango, the rumba is a dance that I’ve always felt is a very big ask of the celebrities so early in the proceedings, given that it requires chemistry and intimacy in order to work. Male celebrities in particular get tripped up by the rumba, and Rav Wilding proved to be no exception, as his was clunky and awkward. I didn’t think Chris Hollins did a much better job, but the judges seemed to really like his rumba and awarded him joint top marks for the evening, along with Ali Bastian, who was good (and, which should ensure she’s in the competition for a while, doesn’t seem to realise or acknowledge that she is good – humility is always good for votes). Martina Hingis gave a decent account of her rumba, but flailed a bit at times (although she had better arm extensions than either of the men). On the cha cha cha front, there was no denying who was the most entertaining: Ricky Groves. Despite his lack of rhythm and hip movement, he threw himself into the dance after his overly tame waltz and looked like he’d arrived in the competition. Lynda Bellingham likewise made up for her technical shortcomings with an entertaining performance, whilst Jade Johnson delivered the best cha cha cha of the evening, hinting at possibly good things to come. Sadly, Joe Calzaghe proved to be equally as inept at Latin as he was at ballroom, and no amount of whirling and sashaying from his partner Kristina Rihanoff was going to distract from the hulking lump of concrete stood in the middle of the dancefloor.
So, with everyone having done two dances, the scores from the judges looked like this:
1 – Ali Bastian and Brian Fortuna – 60 (Waltz 30, Rumba 30)
2 – Chris Hollins and Ola Jordan – 56 (Tango 26, Rumba 30)
3 – Jade Johnson and Ian Waite – 52 (Waltz 25, Cha Cha Cha 27)
4 – Ricky Groves and Erin Boag – 47 (Waltz 21, Cha Cha Cha 26)
5 – Martina Hingis and Matthew Cutler – 46 (Waltz 22, Rumba 24)
6 – Lynda Bellingham and Darren Bennett – 44 (Tango 21, Cha Cha Cha 23)
7 – Rav Wilding and Aliona Vilani – 41 (Tango 19, Rumba 22)
8 – Joe Calzaghe and Kristina Rihanoff – 32 (Tango 16, Cha Cha Cha 16)
A word, then, on the judges, and particularly of course Alesha Dixon. I personally think that Alesha made a decent job of her Strictly judging debut. Clearly she’s not going to be able to give the same in-depth technical advice as Arlene Phillips, or indeed any of the judges, and so she kept it to vague tips about arm extensions, leg extensions and general performance. She also appears to have mastered the various euphemisms for “you were shit” (“You gave it a good go”; “it was a brave try” etc). Meanwhile, positioning her next to the ever-incomprehensible Bruno means the two of them sit there, giggling and gossiping and generally ignoring Craig and Len (“Se-VEN!”), sat next to each other like Statler and Waldorf, and who managed to have their contractually-obliged bust-up of the week. Craig, who has yet to achieve his usual shade of deep orange, appeared to be on commission for every time he said “Daaah-ling”, as I counted at least ten “Daaah-lings” in the first show alone.
Then to the important part – the results. Some unfathomable tweaking has been done to the overall scoring format following last year’s semi-final fiasco, but this wasn’t really discernible this week. The top four all got safely through, Lynda Bellingham got through on the Loose Women vote and Joe Calzaghe got through on the John Sergeant vote. This left Rav Wilding and Martina Hingis, guilty of not being very memorable or having a particularly huge public profile, to reprise their rumbas in the dance-off. Both did better than the first time, but Craig and Alesha both voted to save Martina. However, Bruno felt she had underperformed and went for Rav instead, leaving Len with the casting vote. He went for Rav and so Martina Hingis and partner Matthew Cutler became the first couple out of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing. Matthew is likely to be particularly peeved: he’s now the only professional to have exited twice in the first week (the first time was with Siobhan Hayes in Series Three) and the only male pro to have gone out first.
Not a bad opening weekend, then, but obviously there are better things to come. And given a choice between Strictly and the fatally botched rejig of the X-Factor, I think it’s a no-brainer as to which one will be on my TV on a Saturday night…