I’m off then

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by Patrick O’Connor

“HOW far they can progress is anybody’s guess but they are establishing a great public following which is vital in a competition determined by telephone votes.”

Prophetic words in an article I wrote for the English Magazine a couple of months ago about the former BBC political correspondent John Sergeant and his Siberian professional dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff who were taking part in the hit BBC TV show Strictly Come Dancing.

At that time I was commenting on the fact that Sergeant, a plump 64 year old granddad, who couldn’t dance to save his life, had not been eliminated in the first hurdle of the ballroom dancing competition.   Well, as we now know, Sergeant and his blonde bombshell partner, danced on and on and on.

The rules of the show meant that the panel of four judges had 50 per cent of the votes and the public the other 50 per cent.  The bottom two couples take part in a dance-off each week with the judges voting off one pair and if Sergeant had been in a dance-off he would have undoubtedly gone but the general public had taken instantly to this unlikely couple.

They warmed to his cuddly personality and dry humour and despite her slightly brassy appearance Rihanoff came across as a gentle, almost shy person who had genuine affection for her partner.   In spite of his almost total lack of dancing ability, Sergeant approached the routines set him by Rihanoff with the sort of committed attitude you would expect from someone educated at Millfield, one of English’s most prestigious boarding schools and later Magdalen College, Oxford.

The net result was that Sergeant never faced the dance-off and as he stayed in the competition week after week his street-cred headed towards the stratosphere.   But with the weaker elements amongst the celebrities being slowly and predictably eliminated, leaving only the better dancers, Sergeant’s presence became an issue.   An issue which found its way into the headlines of both tabloid and even the ‘posher’ papers, an issue clogging up the blogs, a talking point in pubs and supermarkets.   And when Sergeant avoided a dance-off too far, and led the judges to vote off actress Cherie Lunghi who had performed exceptionally well in the series, a turning point was reached.

The judges were miffed, they wanted the ‘real’ dancers to stay in, they wanted the man they perceived as just an ‘entertainer’ out.   It was at this point that Sergeant, who had experienced a lifetime of political manoeuvring in his career, took the initiative and he quit the show last week saying that if he won Strictly Come Dancing “that would be a joke too far.”

But if the jovial and extremely likeable Sergeant thought that would be the end of the matter, he was very much mistaken.

His resignation – at a press conference frantically called by the BBC – was attended by hordes of media and even led to a leader comment in The Times.  Did he walk or was he pushed by the BBC was the speculation sweeping through the media hordes.

Sergeant and Rihanoff decided to perform one final dance in last Saturday’s show and the programme drew 11.1 million viewers, some 300,000 up on the previous week.   Now the BBC is waiting to find out if his departure and the controversy which surrounded it will weaken or strengthen Strictly Come Dancing.

There has been speculation that around 1.7 million people voted for the couple in their last competitive dance, almost a third of the 4.9 million votes.   Following his withdrawal, the BBC has declined to say whether the number of phone voters has gone down or up and they are still waiting to see how many of the people who voted for John Sergeant last time out will take up the Corporation’s offer of a refund.

So it remains to be seen how long the whole affair will stay in the public domain.

Perhaps the last word should be with Rihanoff whose restrained but very clever choreography was a major factor in elevating Sergeant to cult status.   She demonstrated superb intuition to tune in to his ‘cute’ image right to the very end.

Their farewell dance was a pleasing waltz set to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me.

And as they left the stage for the final time, you were left with the conclusion – fabulous television entertainment.

The rest is balderdash!