Socially Come Distancing: Is A Corona-Era Edition Of Our Beloved Strictly Something We Really Want To Watch?

It's one of the most joyful shows on telly – but is the thought of a series that now reflects our grim new reality just too bleak?
Getty Images/iStockphoto/BBC/HuffPost

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For millions of people in the UK, Strictly Come Dancing is the TV highlight of the year.

Whether you’re watching for the glamour, the escapism or a throwback to a bygone era, it’s hard to find a show that sparks more joy. However, like numerous other TV series, Strictly is currently dealing with the impact of the coronavirus crisis, which has thrown the entertainment industry into chaos.

Dramas and soaps have ceased production, and live daytime shows are operating on reduced crews and relying heavily on video conferencing technology. The planned summer series of Love Island has been pulled altogether.

Australian soap Neighbours has paved the way forward for its UK counterparts after implementing industry-leading measures in order to resume filming, but shiny-floor entertainment formats that rely on a large number of participants, huge crews and live studio audiences face a much more uncertain future.

With social distancing restrictions likely to continue for much of the year, Strictly bosses are currently grappling with how to get the show on air in the autumn. While many different possibilities are being discussed, one thing is for sure – it won’t look like any series of Strictly that has come before it.

As the BBC’s entertainment boss Kate Phillips recently put it at the virtual Edinburgh TV Festival: “That is absolutely one of our big priorities, making sure we can bring you a great Strictly. But I think inevitably things are going to change.”

But would a series of a show that’s usually so joyful suddenly reflecting our grim “new normal” be something we really want to watch – or should bosses follow suit of other productions and postpone it for the time being?

It’s something many fans are thinking a lot about, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the first big change will see the live audience shut out of the studio.

Strictly fan Claire Hill, 42, from London, admits this would be a real blow, as not only does she think the presence of an audience “adds to the atmosphere”, but they also give encouragement and support to the pros and celebs.

“It’s part of the journey for them to perform to a live audience, and having met many of them in previous years, they always mention the audience and the fan interaction during their time on the show.

“It would be like a West End musical being performed to an empty theatre. It’s just so very wrong.”

Ellie Chalkley, 36, from Glasgow, is a co-host of the fan podcast Keep Dancing, and agrees going ahead without an audience would feel strange.

“The biggest obstacle I’ve seen with a lot of remote shows during lockdown is that it feels really awkward to end a performance without live applause,” she says.

While the likes of The Graham Norton Show and Have I Got News For You have been praised for pivoting to filming remotely to keep them on air, many viewers have lamented how the lack of audience participation lessens the viewing experience.

Michael Hepher, a 28-year-old fan from Epsom, sees potential similarities to the episode of Ant And Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway that was filmed in March without a live audience.

Ant and Dec hosted an episode of Saturday Night Takeaway without an audience
Ant and Dec hosted an episode of Saturday Night Takeaway without an audience

“I think of how Ant and Dec were trying to create energy just with the cameramen and how strange it was,” he says, adding that an entire series of Strictly conducted in the same way would be “odd” but not insurmountable.

It’s something Britain’s Got Talent – which postponed its live semi-finals earlier this year – is keen to avoid. Judge Amanda Holden recently revealed that the team “would never do it without an audience”, telling HuffPost UK “it would be no fun” without them.

However, it’s not a feeling shared by BBC entertainment boss Kate Phillips, who argued live audiences are not always necessary.

“When you look at something like Drag Race, which is a big shiny floor talent competition with all sorts of catwalks, singing, dancing, impressions – it never has an audience,” she said during her Edinburgh TV Festival talk.

“The audience is the four judges and I don’t think it suffers from that at all. I think it is a brilliant show.”

International editions of Strictly have already experimented with eliminating live audiences as they’ve responded to the pandemic.

Australia aired three episodes of its most recent series of Dancing With The Stars without one (although it did end its run a week earlier than originally planned), while Germany’s Let’s Dance is currently underway with no audience.

“We cut in applauses and change the stage,” Motsi Mabuse – a judge on both the UK and German versions of Strictly – recently told ITV’s This Morning of how Let’s Dance has adapted.

Let's Dance has aired without an audience in Germany
Let's Dance has aired without an audience in Germany

However, there’s likely to be more changes to the upcoming series of Strictly than just not having a studio audience.

One or more judges appearing from home could be an option. This was trialled by UK and Australian judge Craig Revel Horwood, who appeared on the panel of the live Aussie final from his London home in March.

Subsequently, both American Idol and The Voice US have also been pre-recording their “live” shows, with the judges – and even the contestants and hosts – dialling in from their respective homes.

But with the judges’ comments and scoring often being where the show is at its most lively, Strictly fan Michael fears how this would translate over a Zoom call if it were something that’s adopted here.

“Starting to include any virtual aspects begins to hinder the enjoyability of a show,” he says. “It’s so much nicer to watch people bounce off each other naturally when they’re actually with each other. Just seeing a head on webcam isn’t the same – imagine Bruno getting passionate and standing up just as his Wi-Fi drops!”

Craig Revel Horwood judged the final of Dancing With The Stars Australia from home
Craig Revel Horwood judged the final of Dancing With The Stars Australia from home
Network 10

As well as just “not being the same” for viewers, Katie Wilson, 25, from Loughborough, suggests virtual judging could have implications for how fairly the routines are judged.

“We often get zoomed-in parts of a dance at home, and don’t always get the full picture like you would in the studio,” she says.

Craig recently claimed the challenges of making Australia’s Dancing With The Stars during the coronavirus crisis had actually made producers more creative.

Speaking on Channel 4’s The Steph Show earlier this month, he said: “When people needed to be isolated, one couple, for instance, stayed in a hotel for two weeks and they performed live from the hotel rooftop.

“They set remote cameras up and it was absolutely amazing. There was a summer breeze wafting through their costumes and it was amazing. So there is a way around it, and it could be even more spectacular.”

Professional dancer Karen Hauer also said in an interview on Fubar Radio this week that celebrities and their partners could dance “side by side” rather than in hold.

“We can always make it work. It doesn’t always have to be in contact. We can get creative,” she said.

The prospect of creative renewal is exciting to Myra Ali, 32, from London, who says it would also send an important message to the public about the need for social distancing.

“It would be very different, but it will be good for the public to see that a popular show like Strictly is also keeping to social distancing,” she says.

“Everyone is in this strange time together, so why would Strictly be any different? Plus we all know how creative the show can be, so I’m sure they’ll do a fantastic job.”

We could see a lot more performances where couples are not in hold
We could see a lot more performances where couples are not in hold
BBC/Guy Levy

There are still ways of getting round social distancing rules while still adhering to government guidelines, though – Motsi revealed that competing couples on Germany’s Let’s Dance “go home together” and are “quarantined together”, and it was reported in the tabloid press that BBC bosses were considering a similar option.

However, a Strictly source dismissed the suggestion to HuffPost UK, explaining that was too much to ask of its contestants and cast of professional dancers, who would have to potentially spend up to 13 weeks away from family and friends.

Strictly podcaster Ellie suggests quarantining could actually be incorporated into the show though, with all the pros and contestants moving into a big house, like on The Apprentice or Fame Academy.

She says: “They can have their health monitored and everyone in that group can interact. Dance training is just like sports training, so perhaps you could treat the Strictly dance team like a football squad and follow the same protocol that they’re developing to keep sportspeople safe and able to work.”

One fan suggested the cast could isolate in a big house together
One fan suggested the cast could isolate in a big house together
Empics Entertainment

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s director of content, did confirm to The Times (£) that bosses were considering various other safeguarding measures, including testing participants’ temperatures and installing glass divides inside the studio “so that people feel even more protected”.

While some may think that such changes to the studio would jolt us out of the magical world of the ballroom, Strictly lover Katie says: “Knowing Strictly, there would be a way to make these screens part of the set whilst also being there for protection.”

But any distancing measures enforced between the dancers could also spell the end of large group numbers from the professionals, which would be a suckerpunch for fans who love the spectacles of the Blackpool special and the themed Movies and Halloween weeks.

“This is something that would definitely disappoint me, especially Blackpool,” Michael admits. “That’s the biggest part of the series and taking the big, glitzy spectacles away would definitely dampen the magic.”

Blackpool could be cancelled, and ambitious group numbers shelved
Blackpool could be cancelled, and ambitious group numbers shelved
BBC/Guy Levy

But while Michael says he could dispense with other standard group numbers for the sake of the series still airing, it would be a disappointing development for Claire, who says she “looks forward to watching them sometimes more than the celeb dances in the main competition”.

Meanwhile, podcaster Ellie says she is “already at peace” with not having Blackpool this year, and has also come up with a way to replace the group numbers.

“You could have masterclass dances between existing pro couples,” she suggests. “A lot of the Strictly cast, crew and alumni have also been doing really inspiring things during lockdown, and it might be nice to include mini-features about that in the series.

“Oti, Dianne and Karen have all been doing free video dance lessons, Dr Ranj has been doing great work explaining the virus to kids and parents, and Theresa Hewlett, who makes the dance costumes, has been making scrubs and masks.”

One possible solution to the whole problem of this year’s Strictly is to push it back completely, which is favoured by 41-year-old Sarah Blundred from London.

“It should be all or nothing,” she says. “I think [a socially-distanced series] would be a huge let down, and those fans who think it’s better than nothing would change their opinion if it were to go ahead with all of these restrictions.

″[It’s] trying to make something work for the sake of it, and it just won’t work at all. Come back next year, bigger and better.”

As a fan from the beginning, Claire says she also feels “very strongly” that the show should be postponed.

“I think it would actually be quite sad and upsetting that it’s so different,” she says. “Either Strictly goes ahead as it always has done, or not at all.”

The Strictly judges during last year's series
The Strictly judges during last year's series
BBC/Guy Levy

Michael disagrees and says he would still be watching each weekend, adding: “This whole year has been completely joyless with all the cancellations and some form of normality has got to resume sometime.”

“Strictly sparkle of any description would bring joy,” Katie adds.

Myra also notes that keeping the show on the road also means that the crew, dancers and judges don’t lose out on their incomes, pointing out: “This is not just entertainment for the public.”

Frances Taylor, commissioning editor for entertainment and comedy at Radio Times, says bosses postponing the series is unlikely, however, given how important Strictly is to the BBC.

She explains: “Not only does it deliver incredibly high and consistent ratings, but it’s one of the – if not the – most talked-about entertainment shows on television that commands hundreds of column inches and discussion online. It helps keep the BBC relevant in a fractured media landscape and also draws viewers from that key 16-34 demographic.”

She continues: “Every year, Strictly occupies three months’ worth of programming, both on BBC One Saturday nights and also with It Takes Two every weeknight on BBC Two, filling up hundreds of hours in the schedules. If it were to disappear, that’s a hell of a big gap to plug.

“To make matters worse, much of the TV that would’ve been airing in autumn would be getting made now – and the majority of that is on hold. And after unexpectedly losing the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics, the last thing they’ll want is to try and find something else to put on in place of Strictly.”

Strictly hosts Claudia Winklemann and Tess Daly won't be stood as close as this
Strictly hosts Claudia Winklemann and Tess Daly won't be stood as close as this

Frances also points out that Strictly is made by BBC Studios – the commercial arm of the BBC – and is one of their most successful entertainment formats, which has been sold internationally to over 40 territories since it launched in 2004.

“Alongside the show itself, there are commercial prospects such as the Strictly tour, DVDs and annuals that are sold each year tied to the show,” she says.

The BBC had no additional comment to make about their plans for Strictly when contacted by HuffPost UK – but whatever the broadcaster does decide, it will have to come to a conclusion soon.

While Strictly doesn’t start until September, by now, the casting team are normally busy signing celebrities to officially unveil to the public in early August.

The professional dancers are also on standby to start rehearsals in late July, while members of the wider crew usually start work on pre-production around this time of year. Staff will need to know exactly what kind of series they’re planning, while bookers will also need to know what conditions to write into stars’ contracts.

In the meantime, the BBC has announced that three specials reliving some of Strictly’s most magical moments will air over the summer, in a dual bid to bring joy to audiences and to help fill the empty schedules.

And while fans are split over whether a new series that reflects the era of social distancing is something that will work – or indeed, something they want – only time will tell if the stars of Strictly can keeeeeeeeep dancing.


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