It isn't often we call for direct political action in this column. But we call for it today. Boycott Strictly Come Dancing. Keep your televisions off when the new season of the programme starts. Do something else with your Saturday nights. Don't buy tickets for the show. Don't vote for your favourite celebrity dancer. Just say "No!".
Drastic measures, I know. But if we can express our dissatisfaction with New Labour by staying away from the polls or voting in comic book Nazis, we can do something similar with the BBC's flagship Saturday night light entertainment show. And since more people watch Strictly Come Dancing than Prime Minister's Questions, since Bruce Forsyth is better loved than Gordon Brown, and since the judges enjoy greater fame than the Cabinet, you could say that this is an infinitely more significant political action we'll be taking.
I mention the judges of Strictly Come Dancing because it is the new composition of the judging panel that has aroused my ire. It has been rumoured for weeks that Arlene Phillips, the one woman judge on the programme, is to be axed for someone younger. Two days ago that decision was confirmed. Alesha Dixon, who is half Arlene Phillips's age, whose only qualification as an estimator and interpreter of dance is that she won Strictly Come Dancing a couple of years ago, and who just happens to be exceedingly pretty, is her replacement. None of the remaining three male judges, aged 65, 53 and 44 respectively, is being replaced. Nor is Bruce Forsyth, aged 81. What does that tell you?
Allow me to digress. There has been a great deal of idle speculation this last week about the unnecessity of men. I have not felt hurt by it. If it turns out that sperm can indeed be manufactured without a man in sight, and that women will be able to help themselves from a bottomless supply of the stuff, whenever the hankering for a baby, anybody's baby, grabs them – say after they've been thrown off Strictly Come Dancing – then that's all right by me. I never did see my function as supplier of the wherewithal to feed maternal neuroses. At a stroke – if the science is correct – I am released into carefree, free-as-a-bird functionlessness. I can throw my creativity around simply for the joy of it, without responsibility or consequence. Bring it on, I say. Who needs men? No one.
That's the fantasy. The dull truth is that women like men too much to forgo them, and men themselves will not seize this opportunity for release. Together, in what we call society, we will go on as before, with men calling the shots and women encouraging them. It has long seemed to me that without the connivance of women in the patriarchal society, the patriarchal society would have bitten the dust. Woman's greatest enemy is woman.
It is a woman, Jay Hunt, whom we must blame for the sacking of Arlene Phillips. Of course the culture of the BBC will have got at her, but she is called Controller of BBC1 so we must charge her with the responsibility of controlling it. She should have said we will keep Arlene Phillips because she is good at the job, because she is a distinguished choreographer, because viewers learn (and like to learn) from her expertise even as they enjoy the televisual equivalent of a bubble bath, because the exercise of seasoned judgement is part of the programme's success, and because a woman does not become uninteresting when she turns, or threatens to turn, 65. In fact she becomes more interesting – at least to everyone but sperm-filled teenage rugby players whom science is about to make otiose anyway. I will not, Jay Hunt should have added, kowtow to the crude and false assumption – ageist, sexist and brainist in this instance – that youthfulness is all, not least as Strictly Come Dancing has been doing very well, thank you, with audiences of all ages.
Instead, Jay Hunt – may her name be a byword for perfidy among women – answered the charge of ageism by saying it wasn't ageism (you don't have to be subtle to be a BBC controller) and went on to say that "Strictly is not the Olympics for ballroom dancing, it's an entertainment show". Figure that. It's not the Olympics, Arlene, so you have to go.
In fact, Arlene Phillips has no more failed the entertainment test than any of the judges. This being BBC1, a smattering of inanity is considered essential. Bruce Forsyth tells bad jokes and engages in lumpen banter with the contestants and the judges. With Arlene Phillips, this banter was always lowered a notch to take account of her being a woman and therefore having the hots for male dancers with firm bodies. I found this unseemly myself, and would have liked it had Arlene Phillips punched Brucie or his scriptwriter in the mouth. That I would have called "entertainment". But she handled it with grace, giving as good as she got, and mingling – as the brief required – finesse with fun.
Jay Hunt's Olympic jibe answers none of the objections. Arlene Phillips has been given the boot because she is a woman of a certain age, period. Nothing to do with the Olympics. Nothing to do with entertainment. To do with years. It's as brutal as that. In the eyes of the BBC a woman ages at twice the speed of men, and once she is past the time of ogling (and they are wrong about that too), she's had it.
On other grounds than ageism, too, I find Jay Hunt's "entertainment" point offensive. "Entertainment" comprises more than foolishness. People who love opera are entertained by it. Little Dorrit is an entertaining novel. The Singing Detective was entertainment of a high order. There is no unbridgeable cultural divide between entertainment and seriousness, or between having a good time and making critical distinctions. Strictly Come Dancing was the proof of that. I say "was" because I trust we won't be watching it any more. But what it did was show how people knowing what they're talking about can be as entertaining as people falling over their feet.
To sack a woman for not being young is criminal. Too sack a judge for judging is philistine. Both are deeply insulting to the audience. Jay Hunt should hide her head in shame. Or better still relinquish her position to someone younger. I nominate Alesha Dixon. She has the legs to be BBC1 Controller.Reuse content