Outside a cold wind is blowing; the rain batters my window pane, and the shades of night are falling fast. All of which can mean but one thing: autumn has arrived, and with it the Saturday tea-time schedule. Yes, I’m aware that weekend programming is not exactly suspended for the rest of the year, but I always feel there’s something rather special about the run-up to Christmas; despite the drawing in of evenings and fending off of chesty coughs, there’s consolation to be had in the regular opportunity for total immersion, ‘flow’ TV, Raymond Williams-style.
I have no idea what’s on in the afternoons (presumably some form of sports programming?), but my Saturday evening typically kicks off with Pointless Celebrities, which I usually tune into during the latter half. For the unfamiliar, this is a special edition of the weekday quiz in which contestants must provide the least known (or likely) answer to various questions which have previously been posed to a representative cross-section of one hundred members of the public. For example, when asked to name ‘Regular cast members in Are You Being Served?’, the best response would be that which is most obscure, the ultimate goal being an entirely pointless answer: i.e. one that none of those canvassed provided. While naming Trevor Bannister (Mr Lucas) would achieve an impressive score of three (meaning only three in one hundred were able to name him), Nicholas Smith (Mr Rumbold) would be better still, his name being totally pointless (i.e. not recalled by any of the great unwashed).
It’s not as complicated as I’ve made it sound, and is great fun because it functions on two levels: the age-old binary of knowledge and ignorance. Contestants are being tested not only with regard to their ability to correctly name examples of the proposed themes and subjects, but also on their estimation of the general public’s lack of awareness. Having attended an early recording of the non-celebrity version, I can attest that the humour of host Alexander Armstrong referring to his pointless friend (keeper of the scrolls Richard Osman) and the pointless prizes on offer does eventually pall. However, I approve wholeheartedly of the celebrity edition because: a) any money won goes to charity and b) the title Pointless Celebrities offers as pleasing a pleonasm as I’ve heard in many a long day. This week the guest theme must have been comedy, as when I tuned in Meera Syal and Phil Cornwell were trouncing Vicki Michelle and Ian Lavender in a round on Fawlty Towers. As all good quizzes should, the questions (posed in a pre-recorded link by John Cleese himself) soon had me bellowing advice, unheeded, at the screen. Although each pair gave the correct answer for their respective choices (from whence did Manuel hail, and where was the series set; I ask you…), neither scored particularly highly. My chosen question (who was the real life hotel proprietor on whom Cleese based Basil?) was answered correctly by only three out of a hundred (plus myself) – a fact which impressed my girlfriend no end. Answers on a postcard, please.
It was then on to Strictly Come Dancing. I am a comparatively recent convert to this behemoth, as I was living abroad during the earliest years of its run. My parents’ description (‘It’s a lot of celebrities learning to ballroom dance; it’s really quite good’) did little to enthuse me, but a couple of years ago I saw a full episode for the first time while visiting them for the weekend. I’d been left alone with my father (my mother had important duties to perform for the local panto group), and he had control of the remote (’twas ever thus). I suggested a cultural exchange: I would watch Strictly (and prepare his tea) if he sat through Merlin with me. The deal was struck, and neither of us has ever looked back; his shelving unit now heaves with Merlin DVDs, and though my knowledge of ballroom could still be comfortably accommodated on the back of a postage stamp, I have become a (passive) devotee of Terpsichore.
For me, the programme’s appeal lies in the fact that it operates on so many levels – especially in terms of performance. It is comprised of a variety of professionals: professional entertainers (Sir Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly); professional dancers (Anton du Beke, Ola Jordan, Brendan Cole, et al); professional judges (Len Goodman, Craig Revel Horwood, Bruno Tonioli and Darcey Bussell), and a selection of contestants, each of whom is a professional in their own field (actors, presenters, sportspeople). Yet each of these is obliged, as part of the format, to step outside their performative comfort zone – albeit to differing extents. The most immediate example of this is the contestants, who are, in effect, learning an entirely new trade. Yet, if Strictly simply featured competitors striving to achieve a goal, it would be little more than the balletic equivalent of Driving School; instead, the rival hoofers are obliged to perform in various distinct arenas. In addition to their dance floor sessions, we also see them in rehearsal footage (which often incorporates their family or professional backgrounds, or specially filmed ‘comic’ vignettes) and then, post-performance, interacting with Sir Bruce (who can be either sympathetic – ‘Don’t worry; you’re my favourite’ – complimentary, or gently damning), the judges, and finally Tess and their fellow performers in the gallery above. As the series has progressed, the ‘casting’ of contestants has evolved to such an extent that they now fulfil a perceptible need for distinct ‘types’. We have the born naturals (Natalie Gumede, Sophie Ellis-Bextor); the lumbering sportsman who finds his muse (Ben Cohen); the lumbering sportsman who doesn’t (Tony Jacklin); the news presenter with hidden depths (Susanna Reid, channelling Angela Rippon); the celebrity who is so bad he’s good (Hairy Biker Dave Myers); the celebrity who is just plain bad (Julien Macdonald, who at time of writing has somehow survived two dance-offs)… and so the list goes on. Through their interactions over the course of the series, the contestants present various new inflections on the established personae with which the audience will previously be most familiar, offering an alternate ‘take’ on who and what they are – doting parents (Ashley Taylor Dawson), tearful hopefuls (Vanessa Feltz), embarrassingly loud extroverts (Macdonald again) – the result being that viewers can find themselves suddenly taking against the famous names they might have thought they would support without question, or discovering hidden and unexpected reserves of sympathy for others they would otherwise have despised.
Add to this the various interactions with Sir Bruce – the wrinkled emblem of catchphrase-ridden family entertainment, by way of Saturday Night at the Palladium and The Generation Game – and the judging panel, and the result is a potent performative potpourri. The judges’ role is nominally to provide feedback, criticism and (of course) scores, which are then combined with viewers’ votes to decide which couple will be removed from the competition in the Sunday results show ‘dance-off’, combining audience interactivity with the best traditions of serial TV. However, judges also perform a related but arguably far more significant role, providing alternative archetypes with which the audience can identify – or against whom they can rail. Senior judge Len Goodman is the (usually) amiable patriarch who wears his working class credentials on his sleeve, ever ready to provide a crowd-pleasing ‘Seven!’ and a one-line homily on the performance given. The latter can range from the pithy simile (‘That was like being waxed; painful while it happens, but lovely when it’s over’) to the downright bizarre (last year’s pronouncement of ‘Yum yum, pig’s bum’ was probably the nadir). Seated to Goodman’s right – yet at the opposite end of the social spectrum – is ex-ballerina Darcey Bussell (possibly the friendliest face on the current panel), whose cut-glass, constructive criticism offers a counterpoint to Goodman’s earthier blandishments. For a time last year I thought I detected a subtle class battle being played out between the two, Goodman seldom making eye contact with Bussell, and on occasion wrinkling his brow in consternation during her comments. However, few others I spoke to shared this view, and on reflection I was perhaps reading in too much; while body language between the pair remains minimal during voting, a degree of warmth does seem to exist when they appear together in the gallery for the results show.
Another divide is represented by the panel’s non-hetero components, Bruno Tonioli and Craig Revel Horwood. The former’s excitable approach, seldom remaining seated during feedback – and frequently pursing his lips at male competitors after offering them personal tuition – is the obverse of Revel Horwood’s tart appraisals (‘Dis-as-trous, darling.’) This has seen the latter cast as Strictly’s equivalent of the pantomime villain, to the extent that audiences now habitually boo even the mildest of his criticisms. While Revel Horwood undoubtedly plays up to this image, the points he makes are usually valid, and where possible he is careful to end on a positive note (essay markers, take note).
While the feedback provided by the judges is ostensibly aimed at the contestants – pointing out their deficiencies, and thus presumably aiding them to improved performances and a continuing role in the competition – the manner in which it is delivered occupies a different level entirely, and is clearly designed to stimulate conflict; between the judges themselves, with the dancers, their professional partners and even Sir Bruce – and so of course to stir viewers at home into employing their votes. And herein lies the real secret of the show’s appeal; anyone who reads Strictly as a dance competition is missing a web of performative inter-relations complex enough to make Erving Goffman’s head spin.
Does anyone know if he’s watching?
The dramas of Strictly concluded (at least until the dance-off), I turn to Atlantis; the new mythological adventure drama from the team who gave us the much-lamented Merlin. It’s still early days for this programme, but as the core cast is gradually fleshed out with additional players and storylines, it is slowly beginning to fill the Camelot-sized hole in my affections. Modern-day Jason (Jack Donnelly) ends up in the eponymous city (which is not yet immersed in water) after going in search of his father in the undersea depths, and quickly teams up with Hercules (Mark Addy) and Pythagoras (Robert Emms). You didn’t realise they knew each other? No matter. As with Merlin, what we think we know about the myths and legends is played with hard and fast; Hercules is a braggardly sloth, and Medusa doesn’t have a serpentine coiffure – at least, not yet. After a slow start, sub-plots are now starting to accrue, and the central characters are beginning (somewhat slowly) to distinguish themselves from the generic stereotypes established in the opening episode (rugged hero/comic relief/geeky sidekick). The programme’s combination of action, humour and faux-history will probably make it a worthy successor to Merlin and Robin Hood, and for one who grew up in the halcyon sci-fi/fantasy heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s, it’s reassuring to see such fare pulling in healthy figures during prime-time.
Post-Atlantis, all bets are off; it’s been decades since I could bring myself to sit through Casualty, and by 9.30pm a reasonable film can probably be found on another channel. However, what I enjoy about my Saturday evening session is that it represents a solid chunk of family-friendly (why not?) viewing. These are programmes I can enjoy equally with my partner, parents, friends and even colleagues, Strictlyhaving at last permitted me to indulge in the ‘water cooler moment’ phenomenon that was previously alien to me. In an age when we are increasingly being told that TV is a moribund form, fractured by time-shifting and multiple platforms (I still haven’t learnt how to watch these programmes on my Blackberry, and I’m not sure I want to), it’s reassuring to think that, come the weekend, there remains a small corner of my viewing that is – for the duration of the autumn schedules, at least – strictly tea-time.
Roll on winter.
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London, and the University of Arts. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2, and ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed.), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I.B. Tauris 2013).