Máire Messenger Davies (Ulster University)
In a piece for The Conversation, ‘Inside the bizarre logic of the BBC Review’ (July 2015) Des Freedman asks: “Who would have expected that one of the central debates about the future of the BBC would not be about its pro-business news coverage, its financial mismanagement or its alleged cover-up of the Jimmy Savile scandal, but about whether it should show Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night?”
I, too, had noticed this phenomenon, and having found Freedman’s article through a link on Facebook, I posted a response on Facebook, of which more below. As a television scholar, I am obviously interested in why BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing has become the totemic discussion point about what the BBC ‘should’, or should not, be doing as a public service broadcaster. I am also interested in the fact that this is so among all sorts of people who clearly have never watched the show, which indicates just how thoroughly the programme has entered the culture. Ironically, this is partly due to the BBC’s commercial competitors’ obsession with Strictly’s participants as a way of boosting the showbiz columns in their tabloid newspapers.
The new secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, interviewed by Charlotte Higgins for the Guardian before his appointment, demanded: ‘Is there a public-service argument for Strictly? Debatable. Is there a public-service argument for putting out Strictly at roughly the same time as ITV is running X Factor? No.’ But, apparently having realized the cultural centrality of the show, not just to its extensive audience, but perhaps also to some of his government’s media friends, there was a change of heart. He told Andrew Marr in July 2015: ‘The BBC took a risk. It paid off well and it has achieved a mass audience. And that seems to me admirable if you can do all those things.’
In welcoming Mr. Whittingdale’s conversion, I have to declare my own interest: I am a ‘Strictly’ fan and we fans always refer to the programme as ‘Strictly.’ ‘Come Dancing’, is never used. The ‘Strictly’ label originates in the 1992 film, Strictly Ballroom, a stylistically innovative movie about ballroom dancing, which made the name of Australian director Baz Lurhman. According to former BBC entertainment boss, Wayne Garvie, quoted in Private Eye, the ‘Strictly’ name was arrived at out of desperation and according to the Eye, the term is ‘meaningless’ to the 50 countries to which the format has been sold by the BBC.(1)
Despite the Eye’s view, moments of desperation can sometimes be unwittingly inspired. To understand the ‘Strictly’ appeal, it helps to appreciate the primary lessons of the movie, and how the TV show has channeled them. The film asserts that anyone, no matter how old, or young, ugly, or heavy, unstylish, or apparently unlovable, can learn to dance. Wanting to dance your own steps, not those imposed by others, is a major motif, an obviously attractive one to the young. Significantly, in its Australian suburban setting, the unique steps that the young protagonists end up dancing are drawn from an immigrant culture: the Hispanic family of the heroine. I defy anyone who cares about cultural inclusivity to watch the last scene of Strictly Ballroom without a lump in their throat.(2) It is these underlying themes from the movie that help to explain the massive, cross-generational and decade-long appeal of ‘Strictly,’ which is, in its own uniquely televisual way, as clever, colourful and inspirational as the original film.
Being clever, colourful and inspirational ought to be enough to justify the label of public service television, but apparently it is not. The question is being asked: how is this the terrain of the BBC, which, in neo-liberal, ‘market failure’ discourse, is only supposed to be informing and educating us, while commercial competitors – never specified – do the entertaining? I will not dwell here on the importance of ‘mere’ entertainment as a core ingredient of enlightened cultural provision: see Richard Dyer’s (1992, 2nd edition 2002) Only Entertainment for this, and if you want the same argument with added dancing, watch Vincente Minelli’s 1953 film The Band Wagon, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as the clinching evidence.
Entertainment is seen as valuable here, not just as a way of drawing us towards more ‘worthy’ educational programming, but for its own sake, a view I have always held. So, in response to Freedman’s post, I posted: “I’m so bored of the totemic use of Strictly Come Dancing as an example of what the BBC should not be doing… Where is the commercial competitor who would be willing to pour so much technical, preparatory research, design, craft, production, musical and outreach skills (never mind the actual dancing skills of the professional trainers) into one programme?… Exactly who ARE these commercial competitors whose nose is being put out of joint by Strictly?”
While my respondents are in no way a scientifically representative sample, I was surprised at the number and diversity of people who ‘liked’ my post – male, female, grandparents, young people, a few academics (unlikely ones, too from the heavier end of the field in journalism studies), football fans, a couple of people who’d worked for the BBC, one as an actress, the other as a producer, others just viewers from different parts of the country. They gave me some interestingly well-informed comments – another example of the way in which ‘Strictly’ escapes the label of being ‘only’ entertainment. A charity worker, who is not a particular fan, but who has seen the show, and understands the value of such high-profile, popular programming for a public service broadcaster, commented crossly:
Sadly, the unbridled jealousy of the BBC license fee (especially as advertising revenues for other platforms and PSB’s have fallen in past years), the rich galloping to invest in/grab all forms of digital distribution, and a worldwide market place, were always going to make the license-funded BBC a target. Mix in UK politics and economics of the last twenty years and light the blue touch paper.
A former neighbour, grandmother of a two year old, wrote: ‘Innovation will be stifled by politicians who have no idea on how to run a globally respected TV company – for God’s sake don’t let them interfere. The BBC is one of the very few channels I am prepared to watch live!!’ A trade union organizer, mother of a three year old, never misses the show: ‘You feel like you learn with it – I love teaching my daughter the steps and dancing along with her. I root for everyone to learn and improve.’ And an academic, Jeanette Steemers, drawing on her studies of the economics of the industry, pointed out:
The BBC has to do entertainment or it will become meaningless like PBS in the U.S. It has to be universal in its appeal, not just appeal to a small elite. Yes, the private sector can do and does reality, but X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are qualitatively different in the way they have been developed and in their appeal. My fear is that the independent sector don’t recognise the benefits of the BBC either. Once it’s weakened, the commercial sector will not fill the gap.
Her last sentence is the crucial point. But to come back to my primary argument: entertainment of the kind provided by ‘Strictly’, cannot be totally divorced from education and information and as such, it belongs squarely within the BBC’s Reithian remit. I, too, used to think that ‘Strictly’ was frivolous and not worth my attention, with chubby astrologers like Russell Grant looking ridiculous in glittery costumes (as in the illustration accompanying Des Freedman’s article). It was my daughter, an international diplomat working for the UN and an early fan, who first drew my attention to it and I became hooked. Initially puzzled at this, I asked a friend who had run the education department at the BFI for many years, and is another ‘Strictly’ regular: ‘Why am I so fascinated by this show?’ She said: ‘It’s because you’re interested in education’.
She was right. What we see in ‘Strictly’ is people of different ages, most of them untalented at dance, many physically unfit, being coached, persuaded and charmed into acquiring an extremely demanding and difficult skill, which cannot be faked. Dancing is not the only skill acquired; people have to learn to perform with confidence (often the most difficult aspect of the process, and one we can all relate to) and then project this to a live audience. The performances are televised live and another plus – as another of my commentators (a musician herself) pointed out – ‘it’s now almost the only television show where live big band music is still played.’ The music is provided ‘by Dave Arch and his wonderful orchestra’, to quote the show’s intro, and has live singers too. The live performances are interspersed with short films showing the training process. From these films – and also from the week-nightly supporting show on BBC2, It Takes Two – we see the evidence of the professional dancers’ pedagogic skills – skills which also cannot be faked. These people are beautiful, talented, tough, and fantastic teachers.
One of my FB respondents fumed: ‘All the people who work on ‘Strictly’, on screen and off, are accomplished clever experts. How dare these ignorant dolts denigrate it? My license fee is worth it for ‘Strictly’ alone.’ Another reminded me: ‘Marshall McLuhan once said, anyone who thinks there’s a difference between education and entertainment, doesn’t know the first thing about either.’ Dead right. For me, the BBC is ‘Strictly’.
1. Wayne Garvie, quoted in Private Eye, July 24 – August 6, p. 13
2. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=BAQWf1dJH3Y, approximately 1 hour 24 minutes in
Máire Messenger Davies is Emerita Professor of Media Studies and acting director of the Centre for Media Research at Ulster University. A former journalist, with a BA in English Literature and (as a mature student) a PhD in Psychology, she has taught in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. She is a lifelong television fan and is the author of several books including Television is Good for Your Kids (London: Hilary Shipman, 2001) and, with Roberta Pearson, Star Trek and American Television (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014).