No Ann Widdecombe this year, alas, being flung around the stage with all the grace of air-dropped food aid – nor anything close to it in the just-launched touring version of Strictly, series nine. Edwina Currie is otherwise engaged, and Russell Grant makes no surprise appearance from the mouth of a cannon.
Thank heavens, at least, for Nancy Dell’Olio – the glamour-puss with looks to kill, the ability to throttle into incomprehensibility any phrase in the English language, and a rare tendency to murder perfectly decent choreography at 20 paces.
Where Widdy showed that you’re never too old to give it a whirl, Nancy reminded the audience in Birmingham at the first matinee that you’re never too old to try less hard. More prima donna than prima ballerina, she had the arena following her every off-tempo move during the group routines and executed a frightful tango in the first half with her hapless hunk partner Artem Chigvintsev that had the judges (Craig Revel Horwood, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli but no Alesha Dixon) reaching for extravagant pejoratives. She capped it all with a salsa that somehow required her to make her entrance on a sedan chair rigged out like Queen Cleopatra, head-bobbing and hand-carving to the Bangles’ Walk Like an Egyptian. “You’ve taken minimal to a whole new level,” a tanned, characteristically hypercritical Revel Horwood drawled, issuing a reproving two points.
It was fun, though, and injections of irreverence – aside from the judges’s sometimes risqué repartee and Kate Thornton’s jovial commentary – are exactly what’s needed in a lavishly lit and expertly polished show that – even live – can take the winning rather than the taking part too seriously.
Young heart-throb Harry Judd, partnering lovely Aliona Vilani, pipped Chelsee Healey and the five other couples to the coveted glitter-ball prize once again with what to me looked like soullessly efficient if stirringly muscular stabs at the Argentinian tango and the foxtrot.
One hopes that for the sake of variety – and the judges’ sanity – there’ll be room for breakthroughs in the month ahead among what Goodman dubs “the bubblers” (Anita Dobson, Jason Donovan and even lanky ex-Olympian Mark Foster), although poor Robbie Savage, valiantly scoring the dance equivalent of own-goals at every turn, looks beyond redemption. If only he overdid it even more, he might finally match Widdy at her most show-stealing and take full possession of the ball.