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Strictly Speaking 2020: The Launch Show

Posted on October 19, 2020

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Marianka Swain introduces the Class of 2020.
Photographs by Guy Levy, courtesy of the BBC

I must begin on an earnest note: what a minor miracle it is to have this sliver of sequinned normality back on our screens. Thank you, thank you to everyone on Team Strictly whose tireless work allowed us to forget all the ongoing nightmares of this year, and instead focus on important matters such as whether Karen Hauer and Jamie Laing were matched by hairstyle alone, and whether Bill Bailey is in fact a stealth Fred Astaire. Welcome back, Strictly, and all who sail in her! Please never leave us again.

Admittedly, this was still a Covid-era enterprise, which meant social distancing (it looked like the usually super-tactile Tess Daly was bound by restraining order – and not before time), plus strict safety measures, all painstakingly outlined. Arguably, there was too much of this when what we wanted was pure escapism, but after another week of horrendous muddling from those in charge, what bliss to have a responsible and comprehensible public health message. Test and Trace Week on Strictly? I’m not saying it would solve everything… but I’m not not saying that either.

Anyhow, on with the show – our lovely, sparkly, happy place of a show – and a rather promising cast for Series 18, hurrah. If the group dance is anything to go by, we could see an impressive standard this year, added to which there are surely fewer work and social pressures than in past series, meaning more concentrated time in the training room. Well, a girl can dream.

Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

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101 Dalmatians bed sheet. Ah, welcome back Tess. Claud in sparkly pyjamas – very lockdown chic.

Other highs and lows:

  • It’s…the scent of Strictly. Hairspray, fake tan, and just a hint of Blackpool rock. Yes, we began in full contempowaft, perfume ad mode, but in the great outdoors – AKA footage we’ll all be studying from our bunkers in Tier 5. But the opening number really kicked into high gear when we got back in our studio, with fringe, sparkle and people touching, gasp! HIT
  • So the famously, er, affectionate Strictly pros were sequestered together, and NO ONE thought to make a spin-off show? Honestly! Strictly Pro Hotel: After Dark. Ratings gold. MISS
  • It’s all change in the Clauditorium, since the cast can’t crowd together. Yes, that loses some of the camaraderie, but the interview segments are pithier, and Claud gets a nice sit-down. Bonus: sequinned skirting boards. HIT
  • The family prop points, they’re out in force already. Ranvir Singh was first to strategically wield a small child, followed swiftly by Mr American Football and JJ Chalmers. Pace yourselves, guys. MISS
  • Much more interesting to have a range of locations for the couple reveals, rather than the studio Blind Date format. Wonderful/poignant to glimpse Shakespeare’s Globe, but the winner has to be Bill Bailey’s Guide to the London Wetland Centre. HIT
  • Another group number, all Roaring Twenties cosplay and (god, no) Anton singing. The depleted studio audience didn’t really impact this one – if anything, there was more room to let loose. We’ll have to see if it has a bigger effect on the competitive celeb dances. HIT
  • Musical act Joel Corry and MNEK were accompanied by our benched pros in bewilderingly mixed attire. Nancy Xu proved, once again, that she IS the party. Hopefully her time will come. HIT
  • I rather liked the judges’ separate pods. They looked like they were competing on Tipping Point, or about to launch into dodgems. Plus: only three means more time for them to give (hopefully) considered feedback. HIT
  • Kelvin Fletcher visited us from a more innocent time, back when we only had to worry about Trump, Brexit, climate change, the meltdown of global democracy etc – not Covid too. Happy days! His socially distanced encore with Oti was rather dubious, but still a good reminder of the standard this year’s lot need to meet. HIT
  • Shoutout to Queen Motsi and her fab-u-lous Quality Street meets 1980s power dressing attire, complete with HBIC bob. What a woman. HIT

So, without further ado, let’s meet our Class of 2020… 

Caroline Quentin

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Vital stats: The actress is looking to belatedly live out her childhood dancing dreams – and could well be a surprise contender, if that VT high kick and elegant showing in the group dance are any indication. Also: has formed the loveliest, luvviest pair imaginable with Johannes, so already among my faves. Bring on the musical theatre emoting!

Partner: Johannes Radebe

Most likely to… make a late-series exit on a fast Latin dance.

Clara Amfo

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Vital stats: The Radio 1 DJ and social justice advocate is this year’s Strictly superfan – and arguably had the best response among the new cast upon finding out who her partner was going to be. Yes, that is the reaction that gorgeous Aljaž deserves. Definitely has great musicality, so should be one to watch.

Partner: Aljaž Skorjanec

Most likely to… make a decent run at the final.

Ranvir Singh

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Vital stats: Political Editor of Good Morning Britain, AKA that Piers Morgan hellscape. Will Ranvir be the next Susanna Reid or Kate Garraway? Truly, there is no middle ground for dancing GMB-ers. Up first is a paso doble to Beyoncé, so… she’ll have that at least.

Partner: Giovanni Pernice

Most likely to… manage a respectable, but brief, stint.


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Vital stats: Can I have a vowel please, Carol? So, when not raising hackles with his spllng, this social media-boosted singer is apparently wowing stadiums (Wembley was only his “first”, per the VT). I’m trying, I really am, it just gets worse when he… you know, speaks. Fair to say he and Jntte will be A Lot.

Partner: Janette Manrara

Most likely to… be this year’s “shock” exit.

Jason Bell

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Vital stats: Look, I struggle enough with British footballers. Now we’re meant to know US ones too? STOP TRYING TO MAKE THE NFL HAPPEN. Lots of “Ameri-CAN!” earnestness and annoying finger points, which, er, may not translate into votes.

Partner: Luba Mushtuk

Most likely to… last a couple of weeks.

Jamie Laing

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Vital stats: Jamie Biscuits is back! Yes, the reality TV posho whose withdrawal last year heralded the arrival of muscled dance god Kelvin Fletcher. (I mean, I’m not wishing injury on anyone, but…) Should be a fun match with blonde twin Karen.

Partner: Karen Hauer

Most likely to… have an entertaining mid-series run.

Nicola Adams

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Vital stats: By far the most intriguing in 2020 is our first-ever same-sex partnership – FINALLY. Everything bodes well for this one: a hard-working and hugely liked Olympic champ paired with one of Strictly’s most creative choreographers. What a knockout.

Partner: Katya Jones

Most likely to… become an audience favourite.

Jacqui Smith

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Vital stats: This year’s requisite “You can still learn new skills and have fun experiences later in life” candidate – which, yes, absolutely, and the former Home Secretary definitely seems game, but also: cannot move, not even a little bit.

Partner: Anton du Beke

Most likely to… be an early casualty.

Maisie Smith

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Vital stats: Ring ring ring ring ringer alert. Yes, the teen EastEnders star has stage school training and won the Strictly Children in Need special – so not much of a “J word”. Proclaims she’s a Latin girl (and starts with samba), but will almost certainly be astonished by her inevitable love for ballroom.

Partner Gorka Márquez (welcome back, Gorka!)

Most likely to… be this year’s leader of the pack.

JJ Chalmers

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Vital stats: The former Royal Marine commando, who was wounded in Afghanistan, is hugely admired for his performance in the Invictus Games and subsequent TV presenting. Expect an inspiring character – but also a hard-working competitor.

Partner: Amy Dowden

Most likely to… be a likeable pair, bow out mid-series.

Bill Bailey

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Vital stats: The delightfully offbeat comedian has already won my heart by completely short-circuiting Tessbot – she’s just not programmed to handle surrealism. Also: his cha cha pose, already iconic. This accomplished musician may actually prove a nimble mover.

Partner: Oti Mabuse

Most likely to… be our dark horse contestant.

Max George

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Vital stats: The one from The Wanted who is not Jay McGuiness – a point of comparison which will probably do more harm than good, if we’re honest. God help him if he gets the jive any time soon…

Partner: Dianne Buswell

Most likely to… camp out mid-table until the competition heats up.

Group dance

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Not so much of a car crash this year, given the need for careful distancing – which actually gave us a better chance to scrutinise each couple. A few early impressions:

  • Maisie is the ringeriest of ringers
  • Clara makes everything look fun and organic
  • Jacqui… does not
  • Bill has great timing and partnering skills
  • Caroline is an elegant goddess
  • HRVY is light on his feet, but wild
  • Mr NFL is just doing squats
  • Jamie is keen, but rushes through everything
  • Ranvir is loving the wedding disco
  • JJ has clunky moments, but still charms
  • Max is low-key to the point of invisibility
  • Nicola and Katya already have a great connection

What do you think? Are you happy with the pairings? Who’s your new favourite? Plus, what are you hoping for in this year’s socially distanced series? Leave your thoughts below or contact me on Twitter: @mkmswain

I’m back next week when the competition begins in earnest. In the meantime… keep dancing!

Read Marianka’s piece on Socially Distanced Strictly and our interview with Kevin and Joanne Clifton as they return to the stage in the October issue of Dancing Times. 

Marianka Swain is a freelance writer and social dancer at several London venues. You can find more of her work at

Marianka Swain is a freelance writer and social dancer at several London venues. You can find more of her work at

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