Strictly was so much more than just a dancing show this year.
I love Strictly Come Dancing. I haven’t always loved it – we’ve had what a tabloid might call an ‘on-again, off-again’ relationship – but for the last few autumns, it’s been a comforting highlight in the twilight of the year. In 2020, a year when absolutely nothing has been ‘normal’, Strictly became a shining beacon on our Saturday and Sunday evenings, bringing sparkle, theatrics, dance, hope and joy into homes and lives which – on the grandest scale – were in dire need of them.
It became apparent from very early on that this year’s Strictly Come Dancing was essentially a public good. As soon as the credits rolled on the launch show, the tweets were pouring onto my timeline: Strictly was what would get us through. In last Saturday’s grand final, on a day when a press conference once again delivered the gloomiest news, 13 million people tuned in to watch Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse take home the glitterball trophy – one in five people in the UK.
Watching all the highlight reels during the final episode, featuring scenes from the last two months of dancing, was the strangest feeling. In the time that Strictly was airing, almost nothing happened in my life. I was working from home, eating, sleeping, sitting, going for walks. Despite that, seeing scenes from the first weeks felt like some unearthed footage of Edwardians waving their hats at a ship leaving harbour. Was Jacqui Smith on this series?
When Nicola Adams and Katya Jones made their triumphant return to the dancefloor after having to withdraw following a positive COVID-19 test in week four, dancing a fiery routine to ‘Feeling Good’, I was instantly transported to late summer. Nicola’s choice to dance with a woman was announced into a totally different world. Virus case numbers were in decline and many children were about to return to school for the first time in months. It felt like a more hopeful world was being built and Strictly was coming back! We’d seen stalwarts like EastEnders fall off the telly as filming became impossible; it felt magical that they were making Strictly happen.
With very little live theatre to review and not a lot else going on, I decided to write a recap of Strictly each week for this website. I’d never done anything like that before so it was a learning curve for me, and one that didn’t quite work out how I’d imagined. For five weeks, I sat down and diligently made notes throughout the episodes. We started on a high with the launch show and meeting all the couples, then powered on to a fortnight later when we saw them dance together for the first time. By the time we got to The Halloween Week That Wasn’t, Strictly had the unenviable task of following immediately on from a horrifically-delayed press conference where a new lockdown was announced, meaning many just-recovered theatrical productions getting shut down with almost no notice. The direct line from a governmental briefing into Bill Bailey doing a jaunty quickstep with an oversized CGI elephant was exactly the balm we needed.
That was by no means the only occasion where it felt like Strictly Come Dancing was in tune with the mood of the nation: just one week later was Movies Week. Movies Week is always fantastic fun, and the madcap routines and bombastic performances we were given this year were the perfect accompaniment to the euphoric national mood as we dragged our eyes away from jubilant Americans celebrating Joe Biden’s victory in the US election to tune into Max from The Wanted performing in uncanny Simpsons cosplay and a former NFL player doing a paso doble to the Star Wars theme.
The next week, we lost poor Nicola and Katya to the positive coronavirus test. We had only just begun to see what that pairing was capable of – proven in abundance by their return in the final, where they at last danced a sexy, romantic routine – and their sudden absence left a gaping rainbow-shaped hole. We also lost a judge, Motsi Mabuse, to a two-week quarantine: week four felt like a production on a knife edge. There was no way of knowing how many more couples might meet the same fate as Nicola and Katya, and with the country back under a tight lockdown it really felt like we might not make it to the final.
One immediately noticeable change to accommodate the increased lockdown was the reduced audience. At first there had been a small number of bemasked family and friends allowed in to watch and create an atmosphere. Once guidelines were tightened, it was solely down to the cast and crew to cheer and clap for each other. The scattered but effusive applause created an intimate, amateur vibe – as if we were watching a tight-knit group of friends make a show happen out of sheer love and determination. Which, I suppose, we were.
By week five, I wasn’t sure I could keep writing about Strictly. Work, life and everything had got on top of me and I needed to sit on my sofa, laptop-free and absorb the glitter, passion and production values. This website is a project we do for fun but fun was in short supply that week so I took the pressure off myself and simply let Strictly work its magic. Once I’d fallen off the wagon it was tough to climb back on: weeks six, seven and eight also went unrecapped. Siren-like, Strictly persuaded me to put down the pen and pull up a chair. It turned out I needed Strictly just as much as everyone else. Watching the last few weeks as a viewer and nothing else was the perfect antidote to Christmas uncertainty and end of year work stress bubbling away Monday to Friday. The delineation between work and play – normally made obvious by quaint concepts like commutes, offices, plans with friends, going to the cinema, dining at a restaurant, whatever – had been ground paper-thin. Having an appointment, somewhere to be at a certain time each week, where entertainment and joy was guaranteed, was invaluable.
We have needed Strictly more than ever before, and the people who make it were acutely aware of that fact. They wore their responsibility lightly, but took it very seriously. Tess and Claudia reminded us each week that the show was being produced in line with the strictest coronavirus protocols, but no matter how many logistical nightmares were happening behind the scenes, it remained an uplifting piece of light entertainment, never passing its stress onto us. The loss of Nicola and Katya does not undermine how remarkable it was that the series happened at all. Countless people isolated from their families for months, making untold sacrifices to make it all happen. Gorka Marquez, who made it to the final with his partner Maisie Smith, shared a photograph of his emotional reunion with his one-year-old daughter last weekend after three months apart.
During the grand final it seemed like the cast were finally able to exhale, with presenters, judges and competitors alike frequently getting choked up when talking about how much putting on the show has meant to them. When Bill and Oti scored a perfect 30 for their dramatic showdance to Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ – a song inextricably linked to another deadly and devastating virus – it was about more than just dance. Bill said, “This is not just a song about the arts. This is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope. Getting through this. The show must go on.”
From this week, the days will start getting longer again. 2020 is winding down. With the first vaccines beginning to be rolled out and the tiny possibility of some kind of end now on the horizon, it is starting to feel like there is a chance we might be able to look forward to some semblance of normality in the next twelve months. When I started reviewing Strictly, I knew it would be nice to have one of my favourite programmes back on telly giving us some glamour and fun. I didn’t know how much I would come to depend on the weekly infusion of hope. This Christmas, many of us will be separated from the ones we love. It’s not going to look anything like we imagined – even filming the annual Strictly Christmas special couldn’t go ahead. Instead, there will be a special edition entitled Strictly: The Christmas Countdown, running through the 25 most memorable routines from the history of the show. There will surely never be a more appropriate time to air a tribute to this British institution. After the year we’ve had, as we try to celebrate in isolation, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be watching than the show that, more than any other, embodied the showbiz motto.
The show had to go on. And it did. I am so grateful.