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Strictly Speaking – The Final

Posted on December 18, 2017

Strictly contestants BBC Guy Levy e1513596645505

And then we came to the end. All in all, it’s been a cracker of a series, and the final really was the, er, brandy cream on the pudding. We had a great run of dances from all four couples, and I found my allegiance switching regularly between them – the sign of an excitingly close-fought and satisfying finish.

It did feel, however, as though actor Joe McFadden won the trophy in spite of the final, rather than because of it, with staunch fans perhaps making up their minds ahead of time. He benefitted from escaping the (seemingly gendered) ringer tag applied to others, despite musical theatre experience, and mistakes were more kindly overlooked. Nevertheless, he and Katya have been a hard-working, creative pair all series, and are likeable winners of Series 15.

Yet his wasn’t the revelatory performance of the final. Gemma Atkinson went in the clear underdog, and perhaps it was this lack of expectation that freed her to nail three numbers, including a startling sex kitten burlesque showdance (/audition for that there Chicago revival). In fact, hers was the showdance I enjoyed most.

Meanwhile, Alexandra and Debbie both made strong cases for why they deserved the title: the former rising above tabloid bullying to deliver powerhouse performances, as she has all year, the latter genuinely moving as she discussed her discovery of a second act following her husband’s passing – and then demonstrated it with passionate vigour.

But, ultimately, the trophy seemed less of a prize than the experience itself, with all four celebs (and many others in this series) proving wonderful ambassadors for the benefits of dancing, and the final itself a beautiful celebration of partnership. In a frequently bleak year, Strictly has once more proved the kind, silly, fun escape we all need. Long may it reign.

The eliminated contestants and professional dancers – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

Other hits and misses:

  • Judges’ scores for our guidance, eh? When those scores are basically all 9 and 10, it does feel a bit pointless. Why not just have judges’ comments in the final? MISS
  • But nice to see the panel praising our pros. Showcasing an inexperienced partner takes real skill, sensitivity and selflessness – those who do it well absolutely deserve recognition. HIT
  • Ed Sheeran Sheeran-ed. Pasha and Karen (sigh) contempowafted. MISS
  • What’s with all the glitter throwing this year? Someone has to clean that up, you know. MISS
  • Montages, montages everywhere. I’m expecting BAFTA to introduce a montage category any day now. (Naturally, award preceded with montage of nominated montages.) MISS
  • But it was lovely to see all our celebs back for the greatest hits group dance. A reminder that, external horridness aside, it really has been a wonderful sunshine-y series. HIT


Best in Show

  • Best performance: Alexandra’s jive Hands up who’s still mentally doing “Proud Mary” arms?
  • Best costume: Shirley on her way to a New Zealand state visit And a general shout-out to Shirley’s fantastic series contribution – both sartorial and judging.
  • Best move: Gemma giving us Debbie McGee Leg In a startling showdance.
  • Best line: Bruno’s “This is not a judge – this is Bruno talking.” And the rest of the time?!



Tess’s dress: impressed or depressed?

Claudia Winkleman, Tess Daly – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

Fire engine-red, overlong peplum and trousers. Claud in a lacy shroud.


Judges’ Pick

 Alexandra and Gorka – Practically perfect

Gorka Marquez, Alexandra Burke – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

The judges’ chose their Musicals Week My Fair Lady American smooth (otherwise known as That One Where Alexandra Was Accidentally Dressed As Mary Poppins). Needless to say, it was much better without costume distractions, and definitely showed her ballroom progress: filled the space much better, stronger drive, more controlled free arms, and a clear, well-maintained frame. All credit to Gorka for developing those technical details. On the downside, perhaps not the most memorable number when it comes to voting, and played into the “Too experienced cos West End” narrative. Also: no celery.

Song: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady

Judges’ comments: Shirley praised her use of space, gorgeous extension and showing a softer side. Bruno said her greatest quality is giving heart and soul. Craig couldn’t find a single thing wrong with it. Darcey noted she expresses feeling through every movement and creates a narrative.

Judges’ scores: 10, 10, 10, 10 – 40 (up from 8, 8, 8, 9 – 33)





Debbie and Giovanni – Eyes on the prize

Debbie McGee, Giovanni Pernice – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

Another mixed blessing of a judges’ choice. Yes, this salsa showed a fun, engaging side of Debbie – and Giovanni’s pronunciation of her name, plus That Lift, have become iconic – but party Latin isn’t exactly her strong suit technique wise. Once again, some issues with foot pressure, hip action and balance, but she did correct the error on the spins, confident armography, and another chance to see her daredevil courage with tricks. Plus that optician shtick is the perfect camp opening to her inevitable one-woman cabaret show. And an irresistible celebration of their smoking-hot partnership.

Song: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, Boys Town Gang (COPYCAT KLAXON: Susanna Reid and Kevin, Jill Halfpenny and Darren)

Judges’ comments: Bruno said she danced like a 20-year-old. Brilliant. Craig praised her hips, underarm turns and spectacular lifts. Darcey loves their chemistry. Shirley said they made every single thing work.

Judges’ scores: 9, 10, 10, 10 – 39 (up from 9, 9, 8, 9 – 35)





Gemma and Aljaž – Rule the world

Gemma Atkinson, Aljaž Skorjanec – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

As before, this number had approximately 100% too much Coldplay, otherwise a commanding paso and one of my favourite Gemma routines – so hurrah for its encore. Who knew female paso would become a series highlight? I’d have happily revisited Debbie’s and Alexandra’s too. Anyhow, this was a powerful number last time, but really went up a gear performance wise – much bigger shapes and sharper lines, and, even better, fantastic outward projection. Gemma’s previously felt a little cautious of using her whole body and range of expression; here, she did both, to wonderful effect.

Song: “Viva La Vida”, Coldplay

Judges’ comments: Craig thought she had strong lines and fantastic intent. Darcey loved the drama, and she held onto the passion until the last beat of the music. Shirley praised her shaping and ability to take criticism and grow. Bruno called her fierce and powerful.

Judges’ scores: 9, 9, 10, 10 – 38 (up from 8, 9, 9, 9 – 35)





Joe and Katya – White Christmas

Katya Jones, Joe McFadden – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

This was one of the winners from the pair’s early inconsistent days, featuring Katya choreography that challenged but didn’t overwhelm, and – though kooky kitsch – made for a charming interpretation of the dance style. Also helpful to revisit, as Joe’s ballroom technique has hugely improved since this Russian Viennese, particularly his posture, though still a few niggles – his left arm kept creeping ahead in hold and he didn’t lower to drive the dance as effectively as he could. But much cleaner transitions, calmer topline, and lovely musicality. Bonus points for Christmas-y snow. Bonus points revoked for lack of moustache.

Song: “Somewhere, My Love” from Doctor Zhivago

Judges’ comments: Darcey said everything came together. Shirley found it big, bold and beautiful, with a particularly good fleckerl. Bruno thought they told the story, and effortless flow. Craig noted improved posture and superb drama.

Judges’ scores: 9, 10, 10, 10 – 39 (up from 8, 8, 8, 8 – 32)






 Alexandra and Gorka – I’m ready for my close-up

Gorka Marquez, Alexandra Burke – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

If a montage mated with a showdance, this is the high-kicking, jazz hands-waving love child the pair would produce. The ‘series greatest hits’ approach has definitely been taken before, though perhaps not with such frenzied resolve. In fact, Charleston registered most strongly, though I liked the nods to their Argentine tango and other past tricks as well – plus we had Old Hollywood framing, a costume change, a black-and-white section, and literal fireworks. Again, playing into the leading lady diva thing, because at this point why the hell not, but well delivered, combining nice details with inexhaustible energy. Manic but impressive.

Song: “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, Ethel Merman

Judges’ comments: Shirley said it was fun and bright, and she felt every step. Bruno called it pure showbiz. Craig loved the variety and little surprises. Darcey praised her versatility, flair and unfailing focus – she’s a real artist.

Judges’ scores: 9, 10, 10, 10 – 39





Debbie and Giovanni – Flying high

Debbie McGee, Giovanni Pernice – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

A bit of a risk here, reminding everyone that Debbie was once a professional ballet dancer by building an entire routine around it. I usually prefer seeing the celebs showing what they’ve learned on the show, rather than pre-Strictly skills – even though we had some series highlights here, the style was more balletic than Latin or ballroom. However, it was still a spine-tinglingly beautiful number, with amazing control (those solo splits!), stunning backbends, expressive arms, and jaw-dropping lifts. Debbie has been the most incredible inspiration this year, and Giovanni has showcased her magnificently. An enchanting farewell.

Song: “One Day I’ll Fly Away”, Vaults

Judges’ comments: Bruno said Debbie is the dream. Craig loved the story and technique. Darcey praised her control and quality of movement. Shirley said it was emotional and showed her growth.

Judges’ scores: 9, 9, 10, 10 – 38





Gemma and Aljaž – The name on everybody’s lips

Gemma Atkinson, Aljaz Skorjanec – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

Who thought the awkward Gemma of Week 1 would one day be vamping it up atop her name in lights? (Seriously – Chicago bid.) Or giving us major hairography. Or finally finding that extra performance level, commanding attention on her own, Zoolander-ing down the camera and hitting accents with real conviction. Underpinning it was slick quickstep and lindy hop, and a lift series that started well and gradually unravelled, resulting in end-of-term talent show scrappiness. But prior to that the most surprising and enjoyable showdance, demonstrating another side to the celeb and the confidence and skills gained.

Song: “Show Me How You Burlesque”, Christina Aguilera

Judges’ comments: Craig called it daring, and noted how she’s grown. Darcey loved her sassy side and the choreography. Shirley, speaking for us all: “Where did that come from?” Bruno labelled her blonde bombshell, and said the quickstep was perfect.

Judges’ scores: 8, 9, 10, 10 – 37





Joe and Katya – Shoe business

Katya Jones, Joe McFadden – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

I actually found myself wishing for The Ten Second Rule here. I KNOW. The cheesy interpretative dance fairy tale intro seemed to go on forever – Joe partnering a shoe even started to give me nightmarish Dollgate flashbacks. The focus then switched too much to Katya, with her Cinderella sparkly footwear, costume changes and fervent lip-synching. The quickstep was decent, if horribly frantic because of the speed of the music, and the lifts good but messy, particularly the end one – felt once more as though her ambition surpassed Joe’s ability to really master the routine, and theming overcame ballroom.

Song: “You Make My Dreams”, Hall & Oates

Judges’ comments: Darcey liked the mix of quickstep and jive. Shirley thought it was magical. Bruno found it entertaining. Craig said Joe is completely and absolutely showbiz.

Judges’ scores: 9, 10, 10, 10 – 39





Favourite Dance

Alexandra and Gorka – Simply the best

Alexandra Burke, Gorka Marquez – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

This jive-cum-Tina Turner love fest was even better than last time around – and more of a showstopper than all the showdances combined. Thrillingly high-voltage from beginning to end, with Alexandra embodying the music in every cell and projecting it back out to get every viewer clapping and boogieing along (including Shirley and Bruno). It’s deceptively difficult to hit a performance that big while maintaining details like crisp kicks and flicks, and spot-on sync and partner work, AND to find dynamics within the piece, but Alexandra – and Gorka’s super routine – made it look easy. Pure dance joy.

Song: “Proud Mary”, Tina Turner (COPYCAT KLAXON: Verona Joseph and Paul, Natalie Gumede and Artem)

Judges’ comments: Shirley praised the posture, leg action and amazing choreography. Bruno said it’s his favourite dance of the series. Craig gave it a standing ovation. Darcey loved the energy and performance.

Judges’ scores: 10, 10, 10, 10 – 40 (up from 9, 10, 10, 10 – 39)





Debbie and Giovanni – Golden age

Debbie McGee, Giovanni Pernice – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

Ah, Debbie McGee’s legs: unofficial national treasure, and quite possibly the basis of our post-Brexit economy. Put to spectacular use in this intimate Argentine tango from Vincent Simone, which also put the spotlight on the smouldering chemistry between Debbie and fellow Italian stallion Giovanni. (Still shipping it. Possibly forever.) A little slicker in the lifts this time around, and a clearer connection between Gio’s lead and Debbie’s movement – possibly helped by a sturdier frame – which added to the gorgeously textured physical storytelling of the piece. Each step, kick, gancho and lift spoke volumes. Exquisite work.

Song: “Por Una Cabeza”, Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera (COPYCAT KLAXON: Diarmuid Gavin and Nicole, Tom Chambers and Camilla, Holly Valance and Artem)

Judges’ comments: Bruno said she’s getting better with age and exceeded all expectations. Craig said it was stunning. Darcey praised her fearlessness, finesse and strength. Shirley thought her balance was outstanding, and Giovanni’s partnering sensitive and caring.

Judges’ scores: 10, 10, 10, 10 – 40 (up from 9, 9, 10, 10 – 38)





Gemma and Aljaž – Uptown girl

Aljaž Skorjanec, Gemma Atkinson – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

Well, we couldn’t get through the show without mentioning Blackpool, could we? And a pleasant second outing for one of the Tower Ballroom’s successes – now with no human props, hallelujah! Gemma certainly didn’t need them in this American smooth, a sweet charmer suffused with the boundless positivity of the new So Happy It Might Just Kill Him Aljaž. Lacked some heel leads, which limited its drive in places, but a beautiful frame, smooth transitions in and out of lifts, elegant lines and a really endearing performance. Not the most complex of the night, but delightfully delivered.

Song: “Downtown”, Petula Clark

Judges’ comments: Craig called it classy and elegant. Darcey praised her serene quality and grace. Shirley loved the frame and Gemma’s constant improvement. Bruno, possibly confusing Strictly with a tampon ad: “You’re still flowing, you’re still glowing!”

Judges’ scores: 9, 10, 10, 10 – 39 (up from 9, 9, 10, 10 – 38)





Joe and Katya – Knock on wood

Katya Jones, Joe McFadden – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

This Charleston, which stuck Joe with a rosy-cheeked little drummer boy look, was a slightly divisive choice, and hard to tell whether the odd stiff or underwhelming moment was intentional with the wooden soldier theming or Joe tiring at the end of the final. But he definitely excels with a big character to play (see: Cabaret samba), and we got a return of the Churchill the dog head waggles, plus some good sync work, confident lifts and great timing. Sidenote: rather festive throughout from these two – falling snow, panto Prince Charming, and finally Nutcracker-esque toy soldier.

Song: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, Ella Fitzgerald

Judges’ comments: Darcey called it the perfect end to a great final. Shirley thought they pushed the boundaries. Bruno said it was clever and exciting. Craig: “Fab-u-lous!”

Judges’ scores: 10, 10, 10, 10 – 40






Alexandra and Gorka – 40 + 39 ­­­­+ 40 = 119

Joe and Katya – 39 + 39 + 40 = 118

Debbie and Giovanni – 39 + 38 + 40 = 117

Gemma and Aljaž – 38 + 37 + 39 = 114


Same order as last week.



Katya Jones, Joe McFadden – (C) BBC – Photographer: Guy Levy

And finally, the result…with Joe McFadden and Katya Jones lifting the glitterball trophy for Series 15. No second-to-fourth place rankings – which is infuriating, and yet almost fitting for a final as close and warm-hearted as this one.

What did you think of the final? Was Joe your winner? And what are your highlights of the series? Get in touch on Twitter: @mkmswain

That’s it from me until the Strictly sparkle returns next year. See you all then, and in the meantime…keep dancing!


Don’t miss our January issue, available now, with cover stars Joe McFadden and Katya Jones, an interview with Ian Waite and Marianka’s look back over Strictly series 15.

Don’t miss Stepping Out, Marianka Swain’s regular Dancing Times column on same-sex dance. You can also see her interview with Shirley Ballas, Strictly‘s head judge, in our October issue

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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