Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Strictly: The pain begins

I think we can look upon this season of Strictly as similar to being laid up in hospital with gastrointestinal illness: things are going to get better but we're going to have to suffer through a lot of painful shit first.

For those of you new to the blog, I have an unhealthy obsession with "Strictly Come Dancing," the BBC 1 programme featuring low-level celebrities dressing up like something from a Rudy Galindo mindfuck and dancing competitively. There are localised versions of this programme in seemingly every country on the planet. Indeed, the fact that there is no Welsh-language version is in and of itself a sign that S4C is failing in its responsibilities as a broadcaster.

This week marked the beginning of the long and sparkly Strictly road. On Saturday we were introduced to the celebrities and they to their dance partners in a one-hour harbinger (a) special. The couples have since retreated to their Dick Cheney-style bunkers for training, only to occasionally emerge for BBC Breakfast interviews. In three weeks, the actual programme will begin. That's three weeks of hoping Ann Widdecombe will be hit by a bus before any of us have to watch her jiggling about.

In the meantime, here are the dancing couples we have to look forward to:

Ann Widdecombe & Anton du Beke:
Ann Widdecombe makes me hurt. She makes Britain hurt. She is a strange, squawking little troll of a woman. Shockingly, she is only 63 years old, but waddles about like someone twice that age. I thoroughly dislike her.
I have long seen similarities between certain aspects of Strictly and professional wrestling. To me, the inclusion of Widdecombe in this year's series is akin to handing the title belt to a heel. The "heel" is the bad guy, for those of you with social lives. Often he will be made champion simply for the sake of drawing "heat," or crowd reaction. Even though fans hate the heel, they will tune in or show up at the arena in droves because they want to see him fail. Strictly has brought in Widdecombe because they know people will tune in to watch a strange, squawking little troll hobble around in dresses that make her look like the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
Bibbidi bobbidi boo, Ann Widdecombe.
The bastard child of Bruce Forsyth, Anton Du Beke, has a long history of being matched with dud partners. Perhaps it is because he possesses that old-school British affability that we attribute to World War II RAF pilots -- the sort who would refer to being shot down and taken prisoner as "a spot of bother." Our Anton knows how to handle a spot of bother, how to go down in flames with a smile on his face, how to turn Dunkirk into a pleasure cruise. These are almost certainly requisite attributes for dancing with Ann Widdecombe. And perhaps that is the sole reason he is now doomed to go out early: he has the strength of character to suffer such a fate. But I can't help feeling that there is at least a tiny bit of punishment involved, as well. Anton drew a good deal of negative press last year with that "paki" comment. Perhaps this is justice according to Strictly law.
One could support that theory by looking at the pairing itself. Anton and Ann are considerably different in height, His Royal Cheekiness towering above the virginal troll. It would have made more sense to pair Ann with wee Vincent Simone.

Felicity Kendal & Vincent Simone:
And, indeed, it would have made more sense to pair Felicity Kendal with Anton. Felicity is apparently famous for being in one of those awful 70s sitcoms so beloved by British media. For those of you playing along at home, the 1970s were a very bad time for mainstream comedy in Britain, and countless programmes possessing all the hilarity of a dining room table were churned out and forced upon a hapless viewing public. Ask anyone who lived through these awful times and they will wince and frown at you for having brought up memory of something they had worked so hard to repress. Bafflingly, however, British media types will speak of these programmes with the same tone of voice and faraway look usually reserved for soft wool blankets and hot cocoa in front of a fireplace.
The only thing I know of Felicity Kendal, however, is that she played Agatha Christie in that "Doctor Who" episode in which a giant wasp went around killing everyone. And that Felicity Kendall, at least, would have made a very good match for Anton. But instead, she has been paired with Vincent, who will refer to her as "picolina" and eventually do what he always does: accidentally sabotaging his partner with overly difficult choreography. I suspect they will be gone by week 5.

Gavin Henson & Katya Virshilas (aka Team Gatya):
Oh, Gavin. For those of you playing along at home, or anywhere beyond the borders of the Unhappy Country, Gavin Henson is a huge celebrity. He plays rugby -- the most popular sport in Wales, despite the grumpy efforts of some North Walians to turn their country into a Liverpudlian suburb. I have seen giant murals of Gavin making a rugby tackle on an England player. An enormous poster of him covers the height of Millennium Stadium here in Caerdydd. There is no denying his celebrity in these parts.
His celebrity extends well beyond our borders thanks to the fact that he's had sex with Charlotte Church, the chavy operatic singer turned chavy mum and occasional chat show host, who will almost always show up in a Welsh person's list of top five greatest Welsh people ever: e.g., Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dylan Thomas and Charlotte Church. Gavin has two children by her. The couple were supposed to have married but split because of their renown ability to have spectacular fights with one another.
Just about everyone in Wales claims to have met Gavin at some point or another. My favourite story is that told by Garmon Ceiro, who had fallen down drunk one evening in Caerdydd's city centre. As a girl knelt to help Garmon to his feet, a passing Gavin Henson commented: "Just leave him there, love. He's not worth it."
Garmon Ceiro looked up, squinted his eyes, somehow managed to recognise the rugby star despite booze-drubbed thought process, and shouted: "You deserve all your injuries, you twat!"
Gavin is also famous for getting injured. He will perform outstandingly, then get banged up and spend the rest of the season on the bench.
All these factors, and the Welsh penchant for attacking those who rise above their station, result in Gavin being the target for a fair amount of derision in his home country. Those stories of meeting him usually paint the man in a negative light. I wonder how many of the stories are true. I suspect some people create them simply to connect themselves to place, to Wales. Or, perhaps the stories are true. Perhaps he really is an insufferable prick. That would make us all feel better about ourselves, wouldn't it? If the good-looking and talented guy were a dickweed it would make us feel so much better about being bumbling and homely. By "us," of course, I mean "me." Nonetheless, I can't help but feel Gavin carries a certain amount of pathos.
The heated arguments with Charlotte, his documented erratic behaviour, his injuries to joints and tendons and the fact that he has lost 3 stone (42 pounds) of mostly muscle mass since last playing rugby all suggest to me that Gavin has used steroids. Almost certainly he did this because of pressure to be better, to be the best. I admittedly know absolutely nothing about him personally, but I sense he is a man who has reached a serious burnout point. He suffers the weight of both the derision and expectations of his notoriously difficult-to-please countrymen. And he probably lives with a frustration of feeling his body has let him down time and time again. Everything he has worked to be, that he knows how to be, that he is expected to be, is wrapped in physical pain, frustration and the quiet knowledge that even if healthy he'll likely only be able to keep going for six or seven more years.
"I've got a lot of stressful things going on in my life at the moment," Gavin said on Saturday's show. "So, I just thought maybe learning a new skill would take my mind off things."
It will also earn him a few hundred thousand pounds in appearance fees. But, less cynically, I find myself very much hoping for him the positive and transformative effects of Strictly. Remember Jade Johnson? I do, I still softly whisper her name while kissing my pillow each night. When the Olympic athlete first started Strictly she was laddish and awkward. Over the weeks, you saw her discover a greater sense of femininity (b).
In Saturday's launch show, Gavin seemed surprisingly shy and uncomfortable. I fear he will suffer the same problems as Joe Calzaghe last year, who could never fully allow himself to play the role of dancer. With every step, it was always as if he were turning to a friend and saying: "Don't worry, mate. I'm just taking the piss, see? I'm not gay or anything; I'm not in to what's going on here; I'm not really a part of it."
Past rugby players have found the ability to throw themselves into the campness of the show, and I'd hope that Gavin can, too. And I'd hope that in the process he is able to develop a greater sense of self worth, not as dependent on whatever those negatives are that seem to run much of his life.
Worst case scenario, however, he gets to rub up against Katya. You might remember my describing her last year as looking like the girl next door who ends up in low-budget porn. She's not the kind of gal who gets soft lighting and a bear skin rug to work on, but the one who ends up on a tile floor covered in lubricant, sweat, saliva and male produce. A vote for Gavin and Katya is a vote to keep the poor girl out of that world.
It is also a vote for another happy week in Gavin's life. In Saturday's show he said: "All these dancers are beautiful. They're there in your face and looking at your eyes (c) and they're touching you and stuff. Wuh. It's blowing my mind, to be honest. I just don't know how I'm going to cope with it all."
If you remember Katya dancing last year, you know Gavin's got a wonderful challenge ahead of him. Like all the other men of Wales, I hate him because I am jealous of him.

Goldie & Kristina Rihanoff:
As best I can tell, Goldie is most famous for being difficult to look at. He's not really an example of God's best work. He was in a forgettably bad Bond film and presumably he's done some other things. Apparently he was or is a DJ. I am generally unimpressed by people who become famous for playing other people's songs. Effectively you are lauding them for having good taste in music. I have good taste in music, as well: pay me to press "play" on my iPod.
To add a special challenge to those of us who perv out whilst watching Strictly, Goldie has been paired with Kristina Rihanoff, one fifth of my fantasy Strictly lady blanket. I like to dream of having Strictly female stars keep me warm at night by lying on top of me: Kristina, Katya, Ola Jordan, Natalie Lowe and Tess Daly. Claudia Winkleman would be my pillow. Although, I have to admit that Kristina would be at the foot of my lady blanket; close-up shots of her often disappoint.

Jimi Mistry & Flavia Cacace:
Strictly would have you believe that Jimi is a huge Hollywood star. Nevermind that you don't know who he is, he's big-time! He was in that one film as that one guy. It was big. Not necessarily because of him, mind you, but he was in it. In the same way that John Carroll Lynch was in Fargo, Jimi was in that one film that some people said was good. He was also in "Eastenders" at one point, which is a well-established route to Strictly.
Similar to Anton's regularly getting stuck with women who struggle to stay balanced whilst standing, Flavia has the misfortune of frequently being paired with cartoonish goofballs. Just the look of Jimi screams: "It will take a major shift in the space-time continuum before I can rhumba."
What always happens with these guys is that they basically fall in love with Flavia, forgetting that she is getting paid to press up against them. They go on "It Takes Two" and gush about how lovely she is and it all gets a bit uncomfortable until Flavia does the same thing as her professional partner, Vincent, and sabotages the celebrity with tricky choreography. I'm not so sure Flavia does it by accident.

Kara Tointon & Artem Chigvintsev:
Who and who? Oh, right, Dawn Swan off "Eastenders" and the creepy Russian dude. Great. I fear Kara's getting the short end of the stick here. She is my second-favourite piece of celebrity eye candy in this year's series and she's been paired with a guy whose biggest accomplishments include being a contestant on the first U.S. season of "So You Think You Can Dance." Oh, and he used to shag one of the judges from the U.S. version of Strictly, "Dancing with the Stars." That's a hell of a pedigree, son. Although, perhaps it works in this format -- the kid understands dancing on television for a popular audience. I only hope that equates to a considerable amount of writhing on Kara's part. Writhing Kara = votes from Chris. I want to see that girl in tight outfits, crawling across the floor, drinking milk from a bowl like a cat.
Artem certainly seemed pleased with his luck. When he was teamed with Kara, it was as if he was in a comedy Soviet Russia of 1980s American imagination, on some kind of game show where he was being introduced to his state-sponsored breeding partner: "Comrade Chigvinstev your love lady will be... stupid, pretty one from popular soap opera! Celebrate now."
And as they walked off, you could see in Artem's grin something that said: "See? This is why I reported Father to the KGB. This is my reward."

Matt Baker & Aliona Vilani:
Last year Aliona shot her partner, Rav, in the foot by failing to recognise that a guy who can't dance can't be choreographed like a guy who can dance. She was really grumpy when voted off and struck me as the sort of person who would displace blame rather than accepting she was largely responsible for her and Rav's farewell. There is something about her I dislike on the whole. When she's in professional dances she tends to throw herself about a little too much, trying too hard to make sure you see her and her dyed red hair.
Pairing her with "Countryfile" presenter Matt Baker is a good idea because it increases the possibility of Aliona at some point finding herself elbow deep in a cow's ass. That's the sort of thing they always do on television when introducing a person to "country life." It gives us city folk the impression that all farmers ever do is fist cattle. Maybe that is all they do. Regardless, it's what I feel Aliona deserves. You just sit there, young lady, with your arm anchored in that cow's ass and think about what you've done. When you're ready to choreograph realistically, in a style that highlights your celebrity rather than yourself, then you can come out and join the rest of us.

Michelle Williams & Brendan Cole:
Perhaps best known as "the one from Destiny's Child that no one remembers," I think Michelle has the best chance of making it to the final. Assuming Brendan doesn't fuck it up. One of the facets of Strictly that makes it good is that celebrities actually try. Famously, the reason for that boils down to Brendan's ego. In the first series he decided to be competitive, which then sparked competition amongst the other dancers. Had he not done that, it would be more of an exhibition of dance. But his competitiveness means he will cheat if he thinks it will earn him votes with the viewing audience, putting in lifts where he shouldn't and so on. It's a tactic that has worked -- if you can get enough public vote, the scores given by judges are made irrelevant -- but a tricky one because it relies on the British viewing public. Few things are stranger, more duplicitous and faster changing than British public opinion.
But, as I say, if Brendan can keep his shit together Michelle has confidence of playing to big audiences, past experience in moving to music (pop group choreography isn't really dancing), and a likeable personality that will play in her favour. Or, at least, I find her to be likeable. Michelle has that sassy, quick-witted, confident black woman thing going on. It's the sort of thing goes over really well in the United States. It goes over really, really well in Chris Cope World; I want her to tell me what to do. I want her to cuddle up next to me under my Strictly lady blanket.
However, I think perhaps British viewers have a problem with strong women, especially strong women of colour. I often think that whatever negativity is aimed at Alesha Dixon's role on the show comes greatly from the fact that she is black. Perhaps, though, British viewers will make that weird mental disconnect of somehow viewing a person differently simply because they have an American accent. If that's the case, then all Michelle need do is avoid proselytising before or after a dance. Americans do that all the time; but it makes British people really uncomfortable. Michelle has released two gospel albums, so it certainly wouldn't be out of her character to make a comment like: "Well, I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ my saviour for giving me the strength to go out there and do my best."
That would be fine on U.S. television. In my home country -- so filled with people who fear Islam and its way of existing in all facets of a person's life -- it is not at all odd to hear someone reference Jesus on a light-entertainment programme. Here, though, it makes people look away nervously and vote for someone else.

Pamela Stephenson & James Jordan
Perhaps best known as "the one from 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' that no one remembers," Pamela has large, fake breasts and a scary, wide face bought on discount. That's apparently the sort of thing Billy Connolly is into; the Scottish comic icon has been married to her for roughly 20 years. Billy was there in the audience Saturday, supporting his wife. I doubt we'll ever hear a word from him, though. No television producer in his/her right mind would stick a microphone on Billy Connolly for a live family-oriented programme.
Apart from being Billy Connolly's wife and the least-memorable cast member of a programme I never saw, I'm not really sure who Pamela Stephenson is. She's a psychiatrist, apparently. Or psychologist. I can never remember the difference between the two. One is legitimately trained, the other is basically just someone who sits and listens to you for $100 an hour. Actually, that's what it cost when I would be sent to one in my teenage years. They probably cost more now. For all the good they did me, I am certain we could have given that money to some random person at a bus stop: "Excuse me, sir, would you be willing to listen to this kid complain for an hour? There's $100 in it for you."
Perhaps if my psychiatrist/psychologist had big fake breasts I would have gotten more out of the experience.
Nonetheless, I am looking forward to this pairing because it involves an older woman and James Jordan. James has a magical power to get older women to be NAUGHTY. Somehow he is able to find the whorish cougar that lies in the soul of every older woman and set it lose. It is almost always a beautiful thing to watch.

Patsy Kensit & Robin Windsor:
Speaking of whores, Patsy Kensit is on the show. Meh.
She has a dance partner who looks like Zane Lowe. Meh to him, too.

Paul Daniels & Ola Jordan:
Magician Paul Daniels is 72 years old, but, like Bruce Forsyth, appears to be at least 50 years younger than Ann Widdecombe. I had never actually seen Paul Daniels on television before Saturday. In looking at a picture of him on the Strictly website some days before the launch show, he struck me as looking a bit like Paul Whitehouse and I decided I hated him. Paul Whitehouse is supposedly a comic, but he is funny like stepping on a jagged beer can at the beach. Paul Daniels, then, turned out to be a far more likeable fellow than I expected. He's one of those people from the old guard of British entertainment, so Brucie will dote over him. And as a member of the old guard, he has a catchphrase: "You'll like this. Not a lot. But you'll like it."
Expect to hear that, or a variation of it, at least twice a week.
Ola's claim to fame is wearing as little of an outfit as she can get away with. So, no matter what happens, we know Paul will be happy. I dream that my retirement years would go so well.

Peter Shilton & Erin Boag:
Céline Dion lookalike Erin has again been paired with a soccer goalie named Peter. Remember Peter Schmeichel? He danced like Frankenstein's monster. Every time I saw him, I thought: "Grrr. Fire bad!"
That's not necessarily what will happen with this goalie named Peter, but you kind of suspect that it is. Peter Shilton holds the record for the most-capped player for England. For those of you playing along at home, being "capped" means he was selected to play for his national team. It refers to the old days when players were given silly little caps to wear in photos. So, England managers decided to put him at goal 125 times. One of those times was when he famously got beat by Maradona's "hand of God" move. That's right, Peter Shilton's greatest claim to fame is getting beat on a (dubious) header by a midget. Sometimes a player's being capped shitloads of times is less a sign of ability and moreso an indication his team didn't have a lot of options.
Strangely, soccer players have a bad history on Strictly. You would think that people who made a living doing things with their feet would have an advantage on a programme that involves doing things with one's feet. Apparently not. Perhaps because thinking is involved, and falling down will accomplish nothing.
If you've ever seen a close-up of Erin, you'll have noticed she has the wiry hair of a woman with an eating disorder. I hope she realises, then, that if Peter does poorly it is all down to the fact that she's not thin enough.

Scott Maslen & Natalie Lowe:
True fact: the protagonist's brother in 'Sgidiau Caerdydd, the novel I'm working on at the moment, is named Jack because Scott Maslen's "Eastenders" character, Jack Branning, seemed really cool to me when I was plotting out the novel. I don't watch that programme, though, so I have no idea whether he is as cool as he looks. He probably isn't. All the Brannings, save Jim, have been a disappointment. Still, that's not necessarily a reflection on Scott, nor his ability to move around. Before joining "Eastenders" Scott was apparently a model, which means he's good at holding poses. If he can do that in time to music, he may stand a chance. Especially considering he is with a dancer who made it to last year's final. His weak point appears to be a certain lack of personality.
For Natalie's sake, though, I hope he does well. I am in love with Natalie. I wish I had terminal cancer just so I could meet Natalie as my dying wish.

Tina O'Brien & Jared Murillo:
In Strictly promotional material, Tina O'Brien looks a teency-weency bit like Paloma Faith. The fact that she is nothing like Paloma Faith is a crushing disappointment. Similar to fellow soap actor Scott Maslen, the "Coronation Street" actress seems to lack a personality. So much so that I remember nothing about her.
I remember young Jared Murillo doing a heel slide across the floor when he was introduced to her. Expect to see that move again. Like Michael Weiss and his fucking Freedom Blades (d), he'll be dropping it into every possible routine. Additionally, expect to hear him reference over and over that he is American. This is something all the Yanks do: when we first come to this country we think our nationality somehow makes us special, as if people will want to be our friends simply because we sound like all the guys on CSI. After more than four years of living on the Island of Rain, Jared, I can tell you that people aren't all that impressed. Least of all your fellow Americans. Please try not to embarrass me.

Elsewhere in the show:
- Obviously a highlight of the programme was having Flavia and Vincent descend, Blue Blazer-style, from the ceiling as they danced the Argentine tango in a professional dance routine. The production team should keep that wire gear handy in case there comes a point when Anton needs to lift Ann Widdecombe.
- On the whole, though, I didn't like the basic concept behind the launch show -- pairing the couples before a studio audience. It felt uncomfortable.
- The special show dancers led by Ian Waite and Darren Bennett seemed particularly rough, didn't they? Thy were out of time and sometimes seemed a bit lost. My hope is that they had been scheduled into the show at the very last minute, because the routine looked as if it had been put together that morning. I have been watching Strictly long enough to spot that the choreography had some classic Ian Waite touches (e.g., mouthing along to the words of a song). I am so pathetic.

Who's going to win:
This week I'm supporting Michelle and Brendon to win, in a final with Team Gatya.


(a) Yeah, that's right: I just used the word "harbinger," a thing that signals the approach of another. Hooray me.

(b) I mean that as a positive. Often women are tricked into feeling that in order to be on a level playing field as men in terms of respect and opportunity they must effectively imitate masculine behaviour. Inevitably this line of thinking actually favours the male, because he is already masculine.

(c) Ah, bless. Gavin crumbles when a girl looks him in the eyes.

(d) Yes, I just referenced men's figure skating. Help me.


Jenny said...

Tragically, I did not see Strictly, but you should totally watch Pamela Connolly's Shrink Rap, it's great!


Wierdo said...

I like what Dylan Moran said about Ann Widdecombe: (Something along the lines of) "Ann Widdecombe is a woman whose looks are remarked upon, which is unfair. But her voice! Her voice sounds like a stegosaurus with its arse on fire. I mean, how do you get that many fingernails on one blackboard?"

Anonymous said...

"the most popular sport in Wales, despite the grumpy efforts of some North Walians to turn their country into a Liverpudlian suburb."

Hahaha, that's brilliant! Never a truer word spoken.

Anonymous said...

I have also had a fight with Simon Jones the Cricketer. I'm the scourge of injured Welsh athletes!!