Strictly turns 20
Can you believe it? The ballroom contest doesn’t look a day over 15. And yet this is the 20th series of Strictly Come Dancing, which sent its first celebrities nervously shimmying onto the dance floor back in May 2004. That debut year actually saw two series, with a second swiftly following in October, and the show has heralded the start of autumn every year since.
Delayed by a week out of respect for the mourning period following the death of the Queen, the (pre-recorded) 2022 launch show now airs just a day before the start of the actual competition, which kicks off tomorrow night at 6:45pm on BBC One. And, befitting a 20th edition, it’s a blockbuster Strictly: the biggest troupe ever, with 20 professional dancers in all, 15 of whom will be paired up with celebrities on tonight's introductory episode.
Anton Du Beke returns – and so does Blackpool
The pro-turned-judge has retained his seat on the panel for a second year (in place of Bruno Tonioli). Once again, he’s joining Craig Revel Horwood, Motsi Mabuse and head judge Shirley Ballas to dispense ballroom wisdom and occasionally unfathomable scores. Also back are presenting duo Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman, while Janette Manrara and Rylan Clark continue to host Strictly’s weekday sister show, It Takes Two, which begins on BBC Two at 6:30pm on September 26.
The theme weeks are back – Movie Week, Musicals Week, Halloween Week – and so is the school trip up to Blackpool, the latter for the first time since Covid, as is the full studio audience, merrily clapping out of time. We will also see a special BBC 100 theme week this series, with contestants dancing to a theme tune from a BBC programme or paying tribute to one of its most-loved services. A Shipping Forecast foxtrot, anyone?
But first up was the launch show – and the all-important reveal of this year's pairings...
It’s Ellie versus Ellie
That is: Simmonds versus Taylor. The former, a five-time Paralympic swimming gold medallist, told presenter Tess Daly that it meant everything to her to “represent not just dwarfism but disability in general” on the show. Athletes often fare well (through sheer competitive grit if nothing else), but how will she and partner Nikita Kuzmin handle the almost-two-foot height difference – while maintaining a ballroom hold? We’ll find out soon.
Comedian Ellie Taylor, meanwhile, quipped that she likes showing off, but at things she can do – ie not dancing. “This is awful!” she yelped at Daly. At least she lucked out with her dream partner: the charismatic Johannes Radebe, last year’s finalist with John Whaite. Expect plenty of fun with these two.
We’ve also got East versus West this year. Singer Fleur East, a standout in the disco-flavoured group dance, is surely a contender; she's partnered by hunky new Italian pro Vito Coppola. Meanwhile DJ Tyler West, who is dancing with chirpy Aussie redhead Dianne Buswell, was first to play the mum card: his is apparently a Strictly superfan, and came to see Dianne rather than him. His level of excitement over a sparkly torch (don’t ask) suggests he could be good value.
Not one but two same-sex pairs
We’ve had a series with an all-female couple, Nicola Adams and Katya Jones, and one with an all-male couple, John Whaite and Johannes Radebe – both warmly received, and with the boys coming close to lifting the trophy. Now, Strictly is inching a step further and giving us one of each: comedian Jayde Adams will dance with Karen Hauer, and Radio 2 host Richie Anderson with Giovanni Pernice.
Adams, another professed superfan, seemed delighted with her pairing, stating that “Karen is Strictly.” She could well be a stealth contender: when she was young, Adams did 13 years of disco dancing. We only saw a few weeks of Nicola Adams and Jones before they sadly had to withdraw because of a positive Covid test, so there’s plenty of scope yet for an all-female pair to shake up Strictly. Not least since Adams seems very keen to lift Hauer.
Anderson seems less competitive so far, but Pernice is the defending champion, remember: he won last year with the wonderful deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis, who popped back to charm us all again. The 2021 champs reprised their gorgeous Viennese waltz, which – of course – opens with a passionate exchange in silent language. This year’s crop will have to go some way to match Ayling-Ellis’s extraordinary impact.
So, who looks like a winner?
Here’s one we made earlier: the bookies’ favourite is intrepid former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton. She’s run ultra marathons, kayaked the Amazon and cycled to the South Pole; surely she can handle a cha cha cha – and she’s in good hands with partner Gorka Márquez. Skelton says she’s doing it for her three young kids, so expect to see lots of them on a tricky dance week.
Another early favourite is Matt Goss of band Bros, who already seems like the most gloriously over-committed contestant we’ve ever had on Strictly. He’ll presumably have good musicality, but either way, this marvellously self-serious meme-machine is going to be incredible to watch. (What's he looking forward to most on Strictly? “A full body wax.”) Nadiya Bychkova is his partner, presumably as a reward for surviving Dan Walker last year.
We could also see some nifty moves – and dramatics – from Kym Marsh, of pop band Hear’say and various soaps. She’s going to be partnered by Graziano Di Prima, who was a hoot last year with Judi Love. But she’ll be rivalled in the OTT acting stakes, at least, by Will Mellor (Hollyoaks, Coronation Street), dancing with Nancy Xu, and James Bye (EastEnders), paired with Amy Dowden.
And keep an eye on Molly Rainford. The 21-year-old might not have much name recognition (unless you remember her brief stint on Britain’s Got Talent, or happened to catch her sci-fi series Nova Jones on CBBC; no, me neither), but she and partner Carlos Gu, an elegant new pro who enjoyably flummoxed Winkleman with his demo of rumba intensity, should make for a very engaging pair. She can’t count on family votes, though: as she admitted to Claudia Winkleman, her football mad dad is likely backing Tony Adams.
And who might be first out?
I rather fear for Hamza Yassin the wildlife presenter – not a skill that necessarily translates to dancing excellence. It’ll be down to his professional, newcomer Jowita Przystal, to work some animal magic. Former England and Arsenal footballer Tony Adams and his partner Katya Jones might get sent off early, unless Rainford’s dad (or really all the nation’s dads) can rally enough support.
Another Adams might also be in trouble early on: Loose Women’s Kaye Adams, who was already talking herself down on the launch show, telling sharp-tongued judge Craig Revel Horwood that she was his “early Christmas present”. But then she is paired with fan-favourite pro Kai Widdrington, who had an incredible run last year with AJ Odudu, so we can’t rule anything out just yet.
Meet the new pros
Four shiny new professional dancers have joined the show this year – Vito Coppola, Carlos Gu, Lauren Oakley, and Michelle Tsiakkas – and they’re an impressive lot. Coppola, who should have a strong debut run with Fleur East as his celebrity partner, is the 11-time Italian Latin American champion, and has already won the Italian version of Strictly. Gu, the Chinese national champion, also has a good shot of making it deep into the 2022 series: he’s paired with youngster Molly Rainsford.
Joining them are Birmingham’s Lauren Oakley, the under-21 British national champion. She’s already had a taste of Strictly, touring in Giovanni Pernice and Anton De Beke’s stage shows. And we’ve also got Michelle Tsiakkas, a Latin champ in her native Cyprus, and a performer in the dance stage show Burn the Floor, which has given us numerous Strictly pros (like Kevin Clifton, Karen Hauer, Janette Manrara and Kai Widdrington).
Those two will stay on the subs bench for now, only performing in the pro routines or supporting musical guests, like the launch show's smooth crooner John Legend, along with Neil Jones, Cameron Lombard and Luba Mushtuk. But it’s an upgrade this year for Polish professional Jowita Przystal, winner of the BBC’s The Greatest Dancer, who will partner her first celebrity, Hamza Yassin.