STRICTLY COME DANCING JUDGE
Strictly The Tour20th Jan 2018
Strictly Come Dancing The Live Tour proved why Strictly is the happiest show in the world - Birmingham Arena, review
"I want everyone to know that if I can be Wonder Woman, anyone can," said Scottish comedian and dance novice Susan Calman after performing a Samba in bright red calf-length boots and a satin cape to a sold-out Birmingham Arena. Embodying the egalitarian spirit of Strictly Come Dancing, Calman’s proclamation reinforced why the public continues to take the BBC talent contest to their hearts.
Strictly is a programme around which Saturday-night viewing has revolved for over a decade. Its selling point, unlike much reality TV, is its wholesomeness. Where ratings for its main rival The X Factor have fallen away amid accusations of exploiting its contestants, Strictly has only got bigger and bigger: last year’s series was it’s most popular yet with 13.1 million viewers tuning into December’s grand finale.
Inevitably, its producers have looked to make the most of the Strictly brand, and so here we are on the opening night of the 11th live arena tour, where a selection of the show’s brightest stars travel the country and gently compete for the glitterball each night.
Last year’s series wasn’t all roses, however. Indeed, the programme’s showrunners had cause to worry that its fun, family friendly image may have been irrevocably tarnished. That was through no fault of their own, it must be said, but rather because of the bullying from outside the show directed at one of the favourites, Alexandra Burke.
Burke and fellow finalist Debbie McGee, twice her senior, were lambasted in the tabloid press and on social media for having previous dance experience. But it was Burke in particular – a contestant who scored the most perfect 10s in Strictly history – who was met with derision unlike anything directed towards her fellow celebrities. She was judged a “diva” thanks to gossipy reports of backstage meltdowns, and branded “fake” and “insincere” for her emotional reactions.
Burke stood her ground, however, and made it through to the final. She didn't win, that accolade went to the immensely appealing but less naturally talented Holby City actor Joe McFadden who gradually crept his way up the leaderboard with his gravity-defying routines. But was he the right winner? This year’s live tour is particularly interesting in that respect, as fans of all ages will get to have their say as to whether injustice was done, voting a new glitterball winner every night.
Host Ore Oduba, still brimming with the same excitement as when he lifted the glitterball trophy himself back in 2016, wasted no time in introducing the red-carpet arrivals in an Oscars-themed opening medley. Gold palm trees flanked the (much bigger) dancefloor as Oduba interviewed the professional dancers, now all stars in their own right due to the enormity of the show, as they sashayed into full view.
Gemma Atkinson and Alijaz Skorjanec
There was also a new recruit on the judging team. Step forward Dame Darcey Bussell, who has joined the live tour for the first time after serving six years on the main show's panel. Her inclusion, along with tour director Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli, back after a break in 2017, has brought a gravitas to the live event that bolsters its credentials as more than just a cash-in spin-off. There was no sign of new head judge Shirley Ballas, though, which fuels speculation that she may not return for the 2018 TV run.
After 10 years, the tour is a well-oiled machine. Noticeable differences this time round are slightly higher production values, a brighter spotlight on the singers and band, and a welcome dose of audience participation in the form of a dance lesson from the judges. In my immediate troupe was a five-year-old wearing an "Everything is better in glitter" slogan t-shirt and a 91-year-old lady with a smile bigger than her years. We nailed it.
When it came to the dancing on stage, it was a nostalgic treat, as the couples reprised their favourite routines. McFadden and his partner, choreographer extraordinaire Katya Jones, delivered a brooding modern Argentine Tango: so brilliant was their seesaw lift that it even inspired Oduba and Revel Horwood to have a go themselves. They succeeded in part, no doubt thankful that neither of them put their back out. Burke blasted through her scintillating Jive to Tina Turner’s Proud Mary – now "a Strictly classic," said Tonioli – while McGee stunned with her sensational flying lifts, age-defying flexibility and subtle flecks of emotion in her Cats-themed American Smooth. It was enough to remind the audience just how brilliant the 59-year-old was. Cries of "Shoulda won!" and "You're my winner, Debbie!" rang out from the crowd. And so, she was, the public vote going in her favour and leaving the McFadden-Burke contest by the wayside.
Meanwhile, the comedic light relief was provided by Calman and her popular pro partner Kevin Clifton with their playful Morecambe and Wise-inspired Quickstep. Their schtick hasn't tired and was even more infectiously entertaining in a huge live arena than it was through the more intimate lens of the TV camera.
"It's the happiest song in the world and Strictly is the happiest show in the world," Calman declared after their grin-inducing turn. The nation, it seems, still vehemently agrees with her.
Strictly Come Dancing The Live Tour continues until Feb 11; tickets strictlycomedancinglive.com