Sorry Layton, but they should ban pros from Strictly

From a former contestant (and Angela Rippon fan) an impassioned plea to level the dancefloor… Sorry Layton, but they should ban pros from Strictly

  • Esther Rantzen is calling for a more level dancefloor on the show
  • READ MORE:  Strictly pro Luba Mushtuk becomes emotional in video with Adam Thomas after they were eliminated from the show

Last Sunday, while I was watching television, I suffered such a violent gust of rage I nearly fell off my sofa.

It came out of the blue. Sundays are normally my favourite night for television viewing, a welcome relief from the terrible news everywhere else.

The BBC provides us with an evening of antiques and Attenborough, and then its crowning glory, the Strictly results show, a perfect, soothing combination to send us to bed happy.

Not last Sunday.

In case you don’t share my rage, I’d better declare an interest. I am a Strictly addict, having lasted three perilous weeks as a contestant myself in series two, glued tightly to Anton Du Beke. That was in 2004. For nearly 20 years since then, I have watched every single episode.

Angela Rippon, 79, was declared bottom of the leaderboard and was forced to compete for survival in the dreaded dance-off last Sunday

I am also a friend of Angela Rippon, and admire her wholeheartedly, on screen and off. She’s clever, calm and competent. And great fun.

So for me, and for millions like me, Sunday’s results were, as Craig would say, ‘a disaaahster, darling’.

Angela Rippon CBE, aged 79, was declared bottom of the leaderboard and was forced to compete for survival in the dreaded dance-off.

It was week seven, and Angie had danced a waltz. The judges had scored her enough points to put her in the middle of the scoreboard. Then it was up to us viewers to add our votes to make up the final total.

What on earth went wrong?

Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the charming Channel 4 newscaster, a far less skilled dancer than Angie, got enough votes to sail through to next week. I had assumed she would, too.

And perhaps that was the problem. Too many of us thought she was safe and didn’t bother to vote. I admit that I have been tipping her to win the champion’s glitterball.

I know I am not alone. Angie is the contestant many viewers wait for. She fills us with awe. She celebrated her 79th birthday during the series, so with every high kick and graceful bend backwards she is shattering the stereotype of us oldies being frail and pathetic. She’s an inspiration for everyone over the age of 65.

Her interviews are charming and humble, she looks glorious, dances like a dream and the judges have clearly been impressed. So how did she end up a hair’s breadth away from being chucked off?

No, the waltz was not her best dance. With her years of ballet classes and her fantastic rhythm and musicality, she obviously enjoys the rumbustious ones — the Argentine tango or Charleston — more.

But for the waltz, her partner Kai had, I think mistakenly, decided to skip her usual fireworks, like the high kick in the first show that grazed her ear. And her dress was slightly boring, when all the others have been spectacular.

When the crucial dance-off verdict came, the judges unanimously chose to save her and, in so doing, in my eyes they saved the show. Otherwise, I might have had to boycott it.

But there is another flaw in the current series, and I say this reluctantly, because I love the show. It is not a level dancefloor.

In fact, it never really has been.

In my series, training in the slightly sordid studios where Anton and I toiled were Quentin Willson, the motoring correspondent, who had clearly never danced a step in his life, and Jill Halfpenny, the actress who eventually won the series.

When I first saw Jill, I could tell by the way she snapped into her legwarmers that she’d done it before. And when she came out of her first rehearsal, her partner Darren Bennett said they had been practising their jive kicks.

At the time, I wouldn’t have recognised a jive kick if it had caught me on the chin. It was their brilliant jive that won her Strictly’s first perfect score, 40 points.

I once asked Jill about her dancing talent and she explained that in her teens at drama school she’d had to choose between concentrating on acting or dance. 

She told me that, although she loved dance, the fact that she is little and curvy meant that in any audition the tall, leggy ones would get the job. So she chose acting.

Of course, many of the actors in the current series have, like Jill, learned to dance at theatre school. I’m not complaining about that, nor that Angie studied ballet for years. I just envy them their skill and talent.

However, I do think it’s time for Strictly to bring in a rule that anyone under 50 who has actually earned their living by dancing — in other words, they are already professional dancers — should be disqualified.

Contestant Layton Williams, 29, started his theatrical career, having studied jazz, tap and ballet, dancing the lead in Billy Elliot when he was 12

Which, of course, brings me to Layton Williams. Aged 29, he is an outstanding dancer, and an engaging personality. 

But, from week one, it has been clear that he is a professional dancer, and although ballroom and Latin are new to him, he has probably had more experience dancing before audiences than any other professional in the show.

He started his theatrical career, having studied jazz, tap and ballet, dancing the lead in Billy Elliot when he was 12. He has danced in Matthew Bourne’s company in the ballet The Car Man. And in the last Strictly his jive included a dazzling ‘aerial cartwheel’, which most professional dancers would not even attempt.

His partnership with Nikita Kuzmin is brilliant and he sparkles in every routine. But Layton lacks one thing: a journey.

Now I know the J-word has become a cliché, but it is at the heart of Strictly. Take past champions such as Bill Bailey and Hamza Yassin. Could either of them have predicted how far they could progress? 

The journey from stand-up comedian and wildlife photographer to lifting the winner’s trophy looked a totally impossible dream at the start. Watching them make it come true was unforgettable.

How much previous dance experience had they? Bill in his autobiography admitted that as a teenager he had ballroom dancing lessons. Bill, so did I, and I lasted three weeks in the show. What he had, and what I never had, was wonderful dancing talent.

And Hamza said that as a student he had taken part in an amateur dance show. So did I. Could I ever have achieved the salsa you dazzled us with? Don’t bother to ask. The point is that neither of them had ever been professional dancers; they would never have even considered it.

Why do I suggest that the disqualification for professionals should have an upper age limit of 50? Because of Debbie McGee. 

Before she was sawn in half on a regular basis by her late husband Paul Daniels, she had been a professional ballet dancer and ran her own ballet company. 

But when she joined Strictly, she was 59. Thirty years older than Layton. Twenty years younger than Angie. It would have been a far duller programme without her.

Will Strictly take my advice? Certainly not. They have created one of the most successful programmes in the world. 

They have assembled the most amazing team of choreographers, dancers, designers, make-up and costume artists, directors, crew and presenters, whose talents light up the screen. Why should they take any criticism at all?

But for many viewers, putting professionals in as contestants takes some of the sparkle off the glitterball. Layton was destined to be top of the leaderboard from the moment he set foot in the studio.

But no way can he engage us like Annabel Croft — so moving in the last show, I think everyone in the studio and on their sofas must have had tears in their eyes — whose journey from tennis star to emotional, expressive, graceful dancer is inspirational.

So, Layton, this is not intended to be a criticism of your talent. It’s just a plea for a more level dancefloor in the future. And to my fellow viewers, if you want to see Angie in the final — blooming well vote for her!

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