Strictly a parody, but we love it

Back for its 10th season, the BBC dance show has all the surprise of a Christmas panto, says Nick Duerden
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The Independent Culture

Much like its ITV rival The X Factor, BBC1's big Saturday night draw Strictly Come Dancing is beginning to show its age.

Now into its 10th series, such is its back-of-the-hand familiarity that you watch it with a headachey groan of déjà vu throughout. Who couldn't? After all, the gene pool from which its latest celebrities have been hoisted is the same pool as last time, likewise the dance steps which echo those of former cloven-hoofed hopefuls. And the exaggerated campery whipped up by its judges remains as predictable and, whenever Bruno Tonioni opens his mouth, as clunkingly horrific as Christmas panto. In Wincanton.

Given his national treasure status – something that wasn't so much bestowed kindly upon him as demanded by the man himself over the years – it's simply not cricket to criticise presiding host Sir Bruce Forsyth. So, yes, he may revel in his myriad anachronisms with the entitlement that only comes with great age, but his links grow more painful with each passing year. Contestant Kimberley Walsh greeted his pun on her band Girls Aloud with his winking claim that, in his dressing room, there were girls allowed, with the kind of expression one adopts when the vet, glancing up from the ailing dog on the operating table, gravely shakes his head.

Though by now a heartless parody of itself, Strictly nevertheless continues to typify, if never exceed, what we have come to expect of Saturday night television. Last night's curtain raiser – carefully scheduled not to clash with The X Factor lest it red-facedly loses the ratings war – even managed a particularly 2012 kind of USP. In amid the predictable cast list of familiar TV types (Emmerdale's Lisa Riley), fading pop stars (Westlife's Nicky Byrne), and chat show lovelies (Fern Britton), were a couple of newly-minted, and bone fide, heroes: Olympians Louis Smith (he of the sculpted facial hair and pommel horse mastery) and cycling's Victoria Pendleton. "I do get emotional," Pendleton promised, receiving the biggest cheer of the night.

Its only other major adjustment comes in the judging panel. Out has gone Alesha Dixon – interesting how the women are expendable while the men are not – and in comes former the ballet star Darcey Bussell. Bussell always did seem a preternaturally delicate creature, so her claim that she will "crack the whip" if her exacting standards are not matched may take some proving.

The series opener spent its hour pairing up celebrity with dancer (Pendleton got Brendan Cole, Jerry Hall was saddled with Anton du Beke), while their first collective dance together revealed several things: that Denise van Outen perhaps has an unfair advantage over everybody else, having a) already danced professionally on the West End stage (in Chicago), and b) being rather good; and that 56-year-old Jerry Hall's pins – as impossibly tanned as they are impossibly long – might just have been made for workouts like this.

This, however, was not the occasion to ruminate over early favourites, but rather to enjoy the sight of Sid Owen, from EastEnders, wrapped tight as clingfilm in a silk shirt the colour of, one imagines, his sex-face, stumbling across the dancefloor as if in pursuit of a dropped 20p coin, and of Johnny Ball stealing every scene he managed to shoehorn himself into.

Ball, totemic kids TV legend and father of Zoe, has spent half a century on our television screens, and yet every time the 74-year-old sensed the camera upon him, he transformed himself into a human exclamation mark, waving and gurning with an excitement so genuine as to be genuinely touching.

He won't win, of course, but if anyone needs reasons to keep watching, Ball's tireless enthusiasm may just provide it.