Posted on December 9, 2013
If there’s one thing guaranteed to rile up our largely unflappable tea-drinking nation, it is a flagrant breach of fair play. We might rail at, rebel against or surreptitiously mock those in authority, but, on the whole, we are comforted by the thought of an established system with comprehensible rules and a general sense that we’ll get what we deserve if we abide by them.
This week’s otherwise bland quarter-final (no one’s best dance, nor their worst; no really juicy dramas, just the background hum of a Jack Dee-esque furiously misanthropic Len) was salvaged by an event guaranteed to provoke widespread consternation and set the already terrifying Digital Spy forums alight: the oh-so-contentious swingathon.
Not since accusations of Eastern Bloc Eurovision Song Contest voting has there been such resolute belief in a vast, complex, deeply significant conspiracy. This is our JFK. With sequins.
Part of the problem was the narrow timeslot into which Saturday’s show was unceremoniously squished. Even with the brilliantly efficient double act of Tess and Claudia, the last third was a horrible rush, with the judges gabbling comments at breakneck speed as though hollering them from the window of a departing train.
The swingathon didn’t stand a chance. Chucked in at the end of a jam-packed show, it was afforded just two minutes of confused competition and seemingly random rankings accompanied by the frenetically shaky camerawork of a Bourne rooftop chase sequence. This resulted in a leaderboard upturned and viewers left unable to grasp:
a ) Who danced well
b) What the exact criteria for judgement was, and whether said criteria was indeed used, and if not, whether that was part of a Machiavellian plot or a result of the general chaos, and
c) Whether we would have judged differently or not, thus whether we should abide by the judges’ opinions or attempt to repair the damage with strategic voting, and also, most important,
d) Whether this confusion necessitated merely an irritated comment or an organised march on Parliament with devastatingly satirical protest banners. (“Strictly Come FIXING, more like!”) (It’s a work in progress.)
Arguably, this debate is academic. Ashley, the nice-but-dull requisite “soap hunk”, but was looking an unlikely finalist even before his convenient early swingathon eviction shoved him down the leaderboard, while it may even have helped Susanna – viewers are more inclined to vote when they sense their favourite is the victim of terrible injustice than when they’ve just given a slightly disappointing performance.
However, along with the dance-off, it’s a worrying example of the judges taking away decision-making power from the audience, and if this is a malicious fix, it’s both hilariously ham-fisted and certain to backfire (see: making Patrick more unpopular by perhaps elevating him unjustly). We may not be a nation of revolutionaries, but mess with our ballroom-related teatime entertainment and you will experience the full force of our wrath. By which I mean: some furious tutting, an arch Twitter hashtag and the removal of “certain people” from the Christmas card list.
Best in Show
Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?
Navy prom dress with disturbing sheen. Claudia nicked a red lace tent from an am dram production of Blithe Spirit.
Ashley and Ola – Hips don’t lie
The fact that Ashley’s salsa hip action was less seduction, more aggressive spasm was understandable once we glimpsed their training method: Ola setting up pineapples, maracas and inflatable parrots for him to physically assault. It’s possible she confused “salsa” with “tropical hands-free self-defence”. They might have been better off working on, ooh, I don’t know, FOOTWORK, given that his is still flat as a pancake, or maybe timing, or leading, or projecting some sense of fun rather than grim determination. Breakneck speed, bubblegum-pink fringe flying and hair-raising tricks, but technical plateau.
Song: “Conga”, Gloria Estefan (COPYCAT KLAXON: Kara Tointon and Artem)
Judges’ comments: Len liked the full-on routine, but steps too big to create hip action and a few mistakes. Bruno was surprised Ola survived it. Loved the intent, but hips need lubrication. Craig agreed there was no rotation and it lacked ease, but ambitious lifts. Darcey wants more compact, cleaner footwork, but praised the armography.
Judges’ scores: 8, 9, 9, 9 – 35. Again.
Natalie and Artem – Too hard to handle
BREAKING NEWS: Scientists have discovered Strictly Come Dancing professional Artem Chigvintsev is suffering from a rare condition known as Natalie-itis. This condition manifests as anxiety, nausea, fever and seemingly unrelated training injuries whenever he’s in hold with Coronation Street actress Natalie Gumede. Chigvintsev’s representatives had this comment to make: “Artem is committed to his craft and to snatching the glitterball out from under Brendan’s nose. Although being in contact with Natalie carries an extremely high risk factor, it’s a sacrifice he is prepared to make in the name of ballroom. Just don’t ask him to wear a shirt while he’s doing it – his doctor is VERY clear on that point.” Once again, strong, mirrored movement, lyrical and expressive, but passed up the real challenge of telling a story while in hold and taking Natalie out of her comfort zone. Other than the botched drag, which, in fairness, looked seriously uncomfortable.
Song: “El Gato Montes”, Ramon Cortez Pasodoble Orchestra (COPYCAT KLAXON: Dominic Littlewood and Lilia, Ali Bastian and Brian)
Judges’ comments: Bruno noted the slip-up, otherwise “classic Spain”. Craig thought it was almost too slick, lacking danger and surprise. Darcey loved the flamenco, but wanted more connection. Len praised the intensity, but “too much faffing abaht”. He declared them… dum dum dum… IN JEOPARDY.
Judges’ scores: 9, 9, 8, 9 – 35
Patrick and Anya – Tough love
One of the great joys of Series 11 is Anya’s VT line readings – her “casual” mention of Patrick’s children came in the toneless pitch of the heavily medicated. Family prop points: +1 for effort, but grown-ups are no match for camera-mugging cuties. This performance followed the familiar pattern of male-celeb rumbas, i.e. scantily clad pro girl hurling elaborate tricks at the camera while the guy gives the odd shepherding wave and apologetic grimace, like a resigned carer herding an eccentric relative down the aisle at Sainsbury’s. Some hip action and luvvie performance, but generally playing it safe.
Song: “When I Was Your Man”, Bruno Mars
Judges’ comments: Craig thought he was a strong frame for Anya, but it felt desperate and aggressive, “like an argument with your wife of 10 years”. Or, you know, a Len and Bruno snipe-fest. Darcey liked seeing a different side of Patrick. Len enjoyed the light and shade, but too raunchy – “this is a ballroom, not a bedroom!” (That sound you hear is Brendan banging his head against a wall.) Bruno disagreed, praising the immersive passion.
Judges’ scores: 8, 10, 9, 9 – 36
Susanna and Kevin – Off the wall
Michael Jackson and Argentine tango is one of those “It sounds mad, but it might just work!” combos (see also: Madonna and tango) that we’re all rooting for, while kind of fearing the worst. There were moments in this routine where we could glimpse the potential crazy-genius showstopper – sharp movement and dark seduction effectively matched by the music. But there was also Kevin doing a painfully earnest MJ lean while Susanna awkwardly vamped for what felt like weeks, plus the inescapable fact that this seemed unsure, whether because the style is new to Kevin or because Susanna is to lifts what Artem is to being in hold for longer than two seconds. A flawed experiment.
Song: “Smooth Criminal”, Michael Jackson (COPYCAT KLAXON: Matt Di Angelo and Flavia, who used it for a paso)
Judges’ comments: Darcey liked the intricate moves, but missed the steamy effect and wanted crisper lunges. Len agreed it lacked atmosphere. Bruno thought Susanna was left alone too much and it felt too mechanical. Craig said the adornments could be better, but they managed well with the music.
Judges’ scores: 8, 8, 8, 8 – 32
Abbey and Aljaz – The beautiful game
Winning this year’s Most tenuous name-dropping link, Abbey picked “Delilah” for their Viennese because it’s Stoke City’s anthem – you know, the team for which her (more famous) husband plays. NOT THAT SHE’S JUST A WAG. Aljaz left me completely cold by wearing tails – seriously, had NO effect whatsoever – while Abbey overcame a snow leopard-trimmed net curtain and the hair version of a serious wardrobe malfunction to produce a smouldering number with generally elegant movement, despite a glaring lack of heel leads. A hopping pirouette and a couple of fudged transitions, otherwise effective.
Song: “Delilah”, Tom Jones (COPYCAT KLAXON: Kelly Brook and Brendan)
Judges’ comments: Len spotted a few issues he can rectify in his dressing room. FYI, that’s not as charmingly roguish as you think it is, Len. Bruno: “You look like a movie star, you dance like a goddess.” Craig said she’s the biggest surprise of the competition. Darcey loved the topline and called it perfect. (But not, you know, random 10 perfect. In case you were wondering.)
Judges’ scores: 9, 9, 9, 10 – 37
Sophie and Brendan – Retail therapy
Brendan took the concept of “playing to your strengths” and dialled it up to 11. Sophie is naturally diffident? Well, fine – SHE’S A LITERAL MANNEQUIN. Brendan was at the height of his Swayze powers in the 1980s? No problem – BRING ON THE TIME WARP! This loony combo actually worked surprisingly well. Sophie embraced her styling (swathes of satin, Madge asymmetrical up-do), shop-window setting and camp characterisation, Brendan let his funky flag fly, and there was a decent tango beneath the quirk, albeit one with a loose frame and slightly lacking in dynamics.
Song: “Material Girl”, Madonna (COPYCAT KLAXON: Letitia Dean and Darren)
Judges’ comments: Bruno loved Sophie performing full steam and called it an “unexpected treat”, despite a few stumbles. Craig wanted more shaping, but loved the choreography. Darcey liked the attack, but her shoulders moved too much. Len praised the improved performance level, but agreed on her upper body.
Judges’ scores: 9, 8, 8, 9 – 34
The first rule of the swingathon is… there are no rules! Well, sort of – one hopes there are SOME rules. I mean, you can’t ride in on a donkey or pause halfway to take a cake out of the oven. Yes? Yes.
Our couples were styled as a box of crayons, another assault on our overworked senses. From what little I could glimpse after painstaking playback, Patrick reprised his jive, as did Natalie (hoping we get to see that in the final), Ashley had demonic energy and Sophie deployed her Charleston charm.
How on earth you judge that mishmash of styles and interpretations, live, in a few seconds, among four squabbling judges, is anyone’s guess. From the look of Darcey’s reactions, she disagreed with most of Len’s decisions, particularly Susanna’s elimination (after approximately five and a half seconds). Susanna and Ashley also “strongly disagreed” AKA “threw an entertaining strop”.
Patrick and Anya – 36 + 5 = 41
Natalie and Artem – 35 + 6 = 41
Abbey and Aljaz – 37 + 3 = 40
Sophie and Brendan – 34 + 4 = 38
Ashley and Ola – 35 + 2 = 37
Susanna and Kevin – 32 + 1 = 33
Before the swingathon, Abbey was on top and Susanna on the bottom. After, no change for Susanna, but Patrick and Natalie lifted above Abbey, and Ashley knocked down a couple of places.
Aliona’s inner monologue was translated into song and dance. In other words, she (and occasionally the other pros) flounced dramatically to “Titanium”, with accompanying diva wind machine.
Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?
STOP PRESS! Largely inoffensive red floor-length gown. Claudia in – you guessed it – Gothic black.
The Saturdays (The Sundays? Someone has to keep up the “live results show” pretence) proved it’s possible to construct an entire routine around half-hearted gyration and moody miming. Riveting telly it was not.
Len’s lens highlights:
In the dance-off: Ashley and Ola, and (gasp!) Patrick and Anya. Assumption of safety, compensation for overmarking, bland personality and/or abhorrence of Anya’s custard dress…? Whatever the reason, an all-girl final is looking increasingly likely.
Three judges saved Patrick. Disenfranchised Len had a furious rant about Patrick’s occasional heel leads, because Len is HILARIOUS and wanted us to appreciate the irony of him pointing this out while giving 10s to ballroom routines with no heel leads, Latin routines with all heel leads, and salsa routines with no salsa. Cheers, Len!
“Making me laugh how many of you calling it the #fixathon”
“Maybe instead of always looking to change the amazing pro dancers, I think it’s about time they have more judges from the ballroom world!”
“Strictly, it’s the best show on TV! However, get the leaderboard right and then let the public decide. Then u can accept it #enoughsaid”
Do you think the right celebs were in the bottom two? What did you make of the swingathon? And who’s your pick for the title? Leave your thoughts below or visit me on Twitter: @mkmswain
Join me next week for the semi-final and our couples attempting two routines. Eek. In the meantime… keep dancing!