Strictly Come Dancing – one feminist’s perspective

If you have come here for a feminist critique of sequins and fake tan, you’ve come to the wrong place (or possibly the wrong time – there may need to be another post on the SCD phenomenon more generally in the future). I want to have a little chat about the news that Bruce Forsyth’s replacement as presenter for autumn 2014 (still some way away, yet) will be Claudia Winkleman.

I am overjoyed. She was my first choice when I heard that Bruce was retiring (if I’m being honest, quite some time before that, as Bruce has been showing signs of impending retirement for some time – and I wasn’t that keen on him anyway – but let’s be gracious in victory). But I was concerned that the BBC would disagree. It is for this reason that I think Claudia’s appointment represents a turning point – it is, arguably, the first genuinely gender-blind appointment of a presenter in the BBC’s history. Puzzled? Let me explain.

Back in the distant mists of time, presenter roles were given to the best man for the job. And, with the very rare exception, it was always a man. The only way to demonstrate you are qualified is by doing similar things well. So, in the past, all jobs were awarded on merit. Unfortunately, the only people given the opportunity to demonstrate their ability were white, (seemingly) straight, (seemingly) middle class men. And so, all the jobs went to the best men.

Of course, those of you who remember those days will be saying “Cath, hang on a minute, surely the role “presenter” is a newfangled phenomenon”. And you would be correct. But the role’s precursors – newsreaders and light entertainment hosts – still fit this pattern. Newsreaders were drawn from journalists, and light entertainment was peopled by comedians. Neither profession – even if you’ve watched His Girl Friday – was teaming with women.

All the surveys said that the general public were happy this way. Women could not deliver serious news authoritatively, and could not deliver a punchline at all. No one queried how the public knew this when they had never seen it tried. Strangely, women were allowed to be funny in television and film comedy, but presumably that is because men had written all the words. No one asked if the same could be true of female newsreaders, but you shouldn’t expect sweeping generalisations to be logical.

Then came Angela Rippon. Reading her Wikipedia entry is a bit of an eye-opener; she presented the first two series of Top Gear (for non-British readers, a programme about cars generally perceived by British viewers as the archetype of lad television). She also presented Come Dancing (again, for non-Brits or those under 30, ballroom dancing competitions before the celebrities and irony), which we may come back to. But my point is that, in being the first woman to regularly read the news on television, she was groundbreaking. It is important to remember how worried about this decision the BBC were; they so downplayed the fact she was female (and human), that she appeared on a Morecambe and Wise Christmas special and apparently shocked the nation by demonstrating she had legs (and a sense of humour). I can’t find the right clip on YouTube, but here’s a similar one – let me know if you have a link to the right one, “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”.

If there had been any doubt that women could read the news authoritatively and professionally, I suspect Sue Lawley’s approach to a studio invasion scotched it once and for all (the invasion was by lesbian activists protesting against Section 28, but that is – as they say – another story). Nicholas Witchell (the other presenter) allegedly sat on one of the activists and was rewarded by becoming the BBC’s royal correspondent in perpetuity, regardless of how much Prince Charles dislikes him.

So it was amply demonstrated that women could read the news without the public laughing at them. And the self-styled alternative comedy (heralding the likes of French & Saunders, Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, Linda Smith and Ruby Wax to name a few, with a variety of approaches) was swiftly proving that women could be funny without reading words written for them by men.

This left institutions like the BBC with a problem, although it took them a while to notice it. This was, if the women have proved they can do it (and they clearly have), why do all the plum jobs still go to men? They got round it for a while, by arguing seniority. But this was not going to convince forever.

Then someone came up with a fab idea; get rid of solo presenters everywhere you can, in favour of duos. That way, a man-woman team redresses the embarrassing statistics, doesn’t humiliate the men who’ve served their time and gives the audience some eye candy. Because this is where it went a little wrong; the teams were almost always senior man, junior woman (if anyone can think of an exception, please let me know). At first this was pure demographics, but somewhere along the line, it became the orthodoxy. So much so that Michael Buerk was able to sound forth recently that female presenters should not complain when… do you know what, I’m incapable of fairly representing his view without thinking about it for longer than I’m prepared to spend, here’s the link:

So, within a very short amount of time, we went from “women can’t do it”, via “let’s give women a leg up by pairing them with a man” and “the man is getting on, so let’s have some balance with a young woman”, through “only pretty women can do it”, to “formerly pretty women can’t do it any more” (I’m not even going to explore why purely the act of ageing makes you less “pretty”, because there are about 100 premises to explode before we get there, and I will get led even further from my tangent).

And then Bruce resigned.

I’m not comparing SCD with presenting breakfast news (even though it’s obvious a number of people in BBC management believe the two require similar skills). But, during the journey set out above, the number of programmes requiring presenters to front light entertainment grew like topsy. The source for light entertainment host stopped necessarily being time spent at the end of the pier and became more nebulous. However, the key skills for presenting television (particularly live, which can be notoriously terrifying/hilarious, depending on which side of the camera you are) are quite specific; the ability to read an autocue without looking or sounding like you are reading a script, an ability to engage with both the other people on camera and the television audience on a human level and (in the case of live TV) being good under pressure and able to improvise. It helps in getting hired for the gig if you are easy on the eye, but if you cannot do the above, your looks won’t save you. This, by the way, is true for the boys as well as the girls – the benchmark and the level of perfection sought may be different, but Ant & Dec haven’t exactly crawled out from under the nearest stone.

If the job was to be awarded on merit, Claudia was the only candidate, the right candidate. She was hosting SCD’s weekday sister programmes It Takes Two until Zoe Ball took over, to enable her to spread her wings in other areas. It also freed her up to co-host the SCD Results programme with Tess, where they developed a “responsible older sister tickled pink by younger sister’s infectious spontaneity” dynamic. She has also taken the “Tess in the tower” role on the occasions where Bruce has been unable to do the Saturday programme. In other words, Claudia has proved herself, earned her stripes, insert other military analogies unless you find them totally inappropriate as war is not Saturday night entertainment.

But we had this terribly awkward pattern to deal with. Light entertainment has been the preserve of older man – younger woman for so long, it looked like it was going to be impossible to do anything else. Even I thought the BBC would be too timid to take the obvious step, and had begun to think of “not too terrible” alternatives. By which I mean, they would have been fine, but they wouldn’t have been Claudia.

Worst case scenario, an attempt to replace Brucie with a wannabe. The only good things about Brucie were that he had earned his place by a) being a Come Dancing presenting veteran, and b) having had a long, light entertainment career of his own, he had catchphrases galore and a persona the audience was comfortable with. But he was a man from another age. An early name bandied about was Anton du Beke, one of the regular professional dancers on the programme. For me, this was Brucie wannabe. The one failing Brucie had, and that was increasingly showing him up, was his pre-camp persona left him quite awkward with the increasingly accepting tone of the show. Brucie could cope with Craig as a pantomime villain and Bruno as the Liberace de nos jours, but this is not all they are (not even Liberace was actually just Liberace) and, more importantly, the public knows this. The audience theatrically boos Craig’s poor scores and smart-ass comments, but both the audience and the dancer judge the performances with his comments as a weather vane, and his 9’s and 10’s are considered “real” in a way that the nicer judges’ scores are not. I’ve gone a little off tangent again, but I was getting more and more uncomfortable with Bruce’s unscripted comments. I also get quite uncomfortable with Anton’s throwaways. I feel Anton would have been an attempt to recreate a history that has long passed.

My preference, if under sufferance, would have been to go for the anti-Bruce. For me, the obvious choices were Graham Norton or John Barrowman. Both are practised presenters and have established personae. No idea about his motives, but I like that Graham ruled himself out of the running relatively early. I have no idea what John thought, but I also have no idea if I was the only one who thought of him.

Both of these gents could have done the job. My problem is that we would have been back at the older man-younger woman dynamic again. Having put up/worked with Bruce all this time, doesn’t Tess deserve the promotion to primary role? Not sure either of these guys would have been prepared to take the gig if it was the “Tess in the tower” role, although both of them would have delivered it with aplomb.

One option I did not hear, and to be honest it only occurred to me when I started thinking about this post, was that of an older woman to replace Bruce. This is where Angela Rippon reappears in my narrative. She has the skills, Morecambe & Wise demonstrates in spades her ability to deliver both humour and camp, and it would help dissolve the unpleasant Michael Buerk rhetoric referred to above. I have no idea if it’s something she would fancy doing; as with the boys, she’d do a fab job. But we just aren’t getting away from the fact that, based on merit, there is only one candidate.

Which brings us back to Claudia. I could be wrong, but it feels like somewhere in the BBC, they went on this journey. I love that they went for the right candidate rather than the “balanced” team, and I am going to explode with anticip-ation (little Rocky Horror reference for you there, my loves) long before we get to the first episode. I hope it doesn’t mean her Winklemanness has to stop doing Film 2014; I can’t see how it would, given how they torture its scheduling (I haven’t seen a single episode live in the last twelve months, despite my best efforts – my brain just does not retain the information).


One thought on “Strictly Come Dancing – one feminist’s perspective

  1. Pingback: Catcalling – but cats would never be so rude | rubydecade

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