'Sir Dancealot' returns – ancient puns to the fore

'Strictly' is back, so get ready for Saturday nights of sequins, smut – and insults

"Sir Lancelot?" quipped the host in reference to his own venerable age. He paused here, poised with a pun. "More like Sir Dancealot!"

When a programme sticks to its guns and manages to reach a ninth series, all previously irksome foibles somehow ascend into the realms of helpless charm. It rankled, certainly, throughout the first series – and, in truth, the second, the fourth, the sixth – that the pairing of a limelight-hogging septuagenarian and his comely female sidekick several decades his junior was the biggest mismatch this side of Italian TV. And it rankled, too, that the septuagenarian (now octogenarian) over-relied on those puns of his as if convinced light entertainment hadn't moved on a bit since 1976.

But these days Strictly Come Dancing is BBC1's Saturday-night highlight, and the nation has allowed it into its camp heart. When it started out seven years ago, Bruce Forsyth was a mere stripling of 76, and was still being stealthily ignored by the Queen. He is 83 now, and a Sir at last, while his co-host, Tess Daly, still blinks her Bambi lashes and attempts to get a word in edgeways.

Last night's launch show lasted an hour but felt like more, introducing 14 celebrities who had long since slipped from the A list. It wasn't entirely clear who Dan Lobb was, and it was difficult to care how Chelsee Healey made her name, when her name remains so irritatingly misspelled. But Rory Bremner was fair enough, Audley Harrison and Anita Dobson, too, and Jason Donovan, who once idolised James Dean, is a past master at TV cheese by now. When his professional dancing partner was announced, the svelte Kristina Rihanoff, she mounted him frontally and they all but simulated full-on sex.

This is a subtext so bluntly referenced on Strictly these days that there is little "sub" about it: that the celebs and their partners will gel, or, in ghastly judge Bruno Tonioli's words, "go all the way". Former Neighbours actress Holly Valance, happily married, made it clear she liked sweaty men, while ex-"bad boy" footballer Robbie Savage, all twit hair and teeth, happily boasted that his wife would seethe with jealousy over his clinches with partner Ola Jordan.

Though the dancing looks set to be of a high standard this year – the former pop stars, among them McFly's Harry Judd, should take to it easily, likewise The One Show's nimble Alex Jones – Strictly hasn't forgotten that what we ultimately tune in for is cruel comedy.        

If Ann Widdecombe was the kind of gift that comes but once in a lifetime, then Edwina Currie, who recently claimed "I've been a hot babe all my life", fulfilled the role of erstwhile MP with no reputation left to scotch, and Nancy Dell'Olio, a remarkable woman for all the wrong reasons, had the choicest pairing, with Anton du Beke, a man every bit as vainglorious as she. Lulu was landed with Brendan Cole, to her evident distress, and astrologer Russell ("I've lost 10 stone!") Grant stepped into John Sergeant's shoes as the tubby one, whose mere presence facilitated endless opportunity for insults that, this year, didn't even bother to come veiled. Bruce had a pop, judge Len Goodman chortled, and Tonioli suggested, "this could be a new dimension in dance – or dementia!"

Poor Russell. He kept grinning, though – what else could he do?

"It's almost like having a really weird dream," said Harry Judd at one point.

Only almost, Harry?