Now that's what I call dancing

A heady cocktail of sex and celebrity has made 'Strictly Come Dancing' one of the great light entertainment hits of our time. But what about the show that inspired it? Christopher Hirst looks back
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The Independent Online

The prodigious and, for some of us, utterly perplexing success of Strictly Come Dancing has eclipsed the long-running predecessor that endowed this tatty glorification of celebrity with two thirds of its name. For anyone who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties, Come Dancing was part of the furniture. Though the effect of the thousands of sequins "all sewn on by hand" was vitiated by monochrome, the regimented couples swirling in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, or the Lyceum "in London's West End" held the nation in thrall.

Decades later, when the dresses, particularly for the Latin-American section, had shrunk to a few strategically placed fragments, Come Dancing provided a singularly bizarre late-night entertainment, particularly if the viewer's sensibility had been enhanced by a mild intoxicant.

The dancing element in Come Dancing was merely the canvas for a demotic art form that exulted in the British profound fondness for high camp. The lavish primping answered our deep-felt desire for dressing up, while the stylised coupling provided a steamy release for passions pent up in suburban homes from Lancastrian back-to-backs to south coast bungalows.

We may not have viewed these flamboyant displays of male hauteur and female fluttering surely one of the weirdest mating rituals in the entire animal kingdom with a wholly unironic eye, but it was undoubtedly an art of the people. Strictly Come Dancing is theatre of embarrassment for celebs. Watching a middle-order batsman essay the Cha Cha Cha is akin to Dr Johnson's view of a woman preaching: "It is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well but one is surprised to see it done at all."

It will be interesting to see if the Strictly spin-off manages the longevity of Come Dancing. The show started in 1949 and continued, despite one or two breaks and makeovers, until 1998. As the name implies, it began as a TV tutorial aimed at "teaching the public all about the joy of dancing".

The idea that lessons in the Quickstep and Foxtrot could offer release from the grim deprivations of Austerity Britain came from Eric Morley, who was head of publicity at the Mecca organisation at the time. Recognising that there was further lucrative potential in the rigidly fixed smile and gravity-defying hair-do, he launched Miss World in 1951.

With the quiffed compere MacDonald Hobley at the helm, the nation was urged to essay the exotic delights of the Samba and Rumba. Though some viewers may have been driven to frenzied imitation of the professional dancers Syd Perkins and Edna Duffield, the tutorial aspect of Come Dancing was steadily diminished. From 1953, its competitive aspect came to the fore. Couples battled on the dance floor for "the coveted Come Dancing trophy". Frank and Peggy Spencer from Penge, south-east London, were presiding deities of the formation dancing competition.

For 30 years, musical accompaniment was provided by the Andy Ross Big Band, with Ross McManus, possibly better known as the father of Elvis Costello, providing the vocals.

A pantheon of broadcasting talent introduced the programme. Early comperes, their names redolent of the monochrome era, included Peter Dimmock, Sylvia Peters, Peter Haigh and Brian Johnston. The longest-lasting was Peter West, who presented the show from 1957 to 1972, despite admitting that he was "the worst dancer in the world". In later years, such heroes of middle Britain as Terry Wogan, David Jacobs, Michael Aspel, Judith Chalmers and Angela Rippon added polish to the dance floor. It was during West's long reign that the programme began to moderate the sedate traditions of the ballroom man with hand on hip, woman with outer layer of skirt weirdly attached to a finger with more raunchy routines from the world of pop. During the freeform section, dancers would pretend to be gangsters and molls in a routine accompanied by the Godfather theme or jiving teddy boys to "Rock Around the Clock". I even have vague memories of a highly modified form of hippie dancing to "Aquarius" or, possibly, Stevie Wonder's "Sunshine of My Life".

The diversion from the norm that attracted the most comment was in the Latin-American section. When sultry Latino styles infiltrated the ballroom, viewers began a war dance. "Can nothing be done to stop this filth?" one outraged spectator wrote to West. "It's embarrassing with teenagers in the house." A Scottish viewer appeared to blame the presenter personally for an eruption of depravity during the Pasa Doble. "Stop this tomfoolery at once," he frothed. "If you don't, then show your face in certain parts of Scotland and you'll be hung, drawn and quartered." But Come Dancing's place in the nation's heart was assured. It earned the accolade of parodies by shows ranging from The Goodies to Morecambe & Wise. In a dire premonition of what was to come, participants in Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game tried to imitate the smooth moves displayed by Come Dancing regulars.

Why did Come Dancing retain its popularity, while empty Locarnos and Meccas throughout the land were obliged to allow in the dread beat of pop? Even after the Beatles' first LP, knowledge of ballroom dancing was widely regarded as an essential acquisition in the path to social advancement and finding a partner. In 1967, when I was in the sixth form of a Midlands grammar school, we were trained in the dark arts of the Waltz and Cha Cha Cha. A scratchy Joe Loss record provided the accompaniment. "Two steps to the left, one to the right and spin your partner in a three-quarter turn," announced the bird-like instructor to her unreceptive pupils. Ever since my miserable efforts in the school gym during the Summer of Love I have never felt the remotest desire to engage in formal dancing.

Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered a taste for watching Come Dancing during its final years, when a valiant attempt was made to introduce more pizzazz into the contest. This was exemplified in 1992 by the BBC dropping the long-time signature tune "Keep on Dancing" for a ditty called "Feel the Heat".

It was the odd details of this very odd show that appealed. The extraordinary youth of the contestants was one element. Often, a whirling couple, dressed as if they might be in their mid-thirties, with the woman's hair pinned up and the man looking coolly into the distance with chin aloft, turned out to be 15 and 16.

Dance routines became ever more fervent, wildly active and erotic in order to sway the votes of observing judges. The slits in skirts grew even higher, while the hairspray expended in the creation of ever more unfeasible coiffures must have wrought havoc on the ozone layer. At the end of a dance, the camera would cut between the panting couples, still trying to maintain their uncanny rictus, and the panel of judges, customarily headed by the perma-tanned "World Professional Latin Champion" Donny Burns. "So it's London 6 and the North close behind with 5." In the mysterious way of sport, you would find your ironic detachment evaporating as you began rooting for the North, even though, presumably due to lack of entrants, the North's formation dance team happened to come from Leicester.

In 1998, the spangled ball stopped turning. Some might say that it is rotating faster than ever now the old formula has been revivified by an infusion of celebrities. But I for one find it impossible to get excited. The strained efforts of Mark Ramprakash or Gabby Logan cannot compare with the terpsichorean genius of the Peggy Spencer Latin Formation Team.