LONDON // One of Britain's most respected political journalists has split the country in an increasingly acrimonious row that has dominated newspaper headlines for more than a fortnight. And all because he can't dance. John Sergeant spent years as a BBC correspondent before becoming political editor of ITN, and was once famously pushed aside during an outside broadcast in Paris by Margaret Thatcher in her final days as prime minister.
In the summer, though, the chubby, avuncular 64-year-old became a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC's most popular TV show, with audiences for its Saturday evening programme regularly exceeding 10 million. The show involves celebrities teaming up with professional dancers. Each week, the couples perform routines ranging from the waltz to the cha-cha-cha, with a panel of four professional dance judges each awarding them marks.
Those marks count for 50 per cent of the total. The snag is that the public phones in to cast the other half of the votes. The celebrity and his or her partner who finish last in any particular week are eliminated from the show. Sergeant, who freely admits to having two left feet and is "arguably the least talented person ever to feature in a talent contest", according to The Times this week, should have been voted off weeks ago as the programme heads for its finale at Christmas.
But despite receiving appalling marks week after week from the professional judges, the public loves him. And week after week, they save him from elimination with their phone-in votes. This has appalled the judges and is now causing some embarrassment to the BBC, which regards the matter as having gone beyond a joke. Len Goodman, the chairman of the judging panel, said the public's insistence on voting to save Sergeant made "a nonsense of the show" and was leading to much more proficient dancers among the celebrities being kicked off.
Meanwhile, BBC executives are concerned that, although Sergeant's fans are having great fun watching him stumble around the dance floor each week, it is making a fiasco of one of the most popular formats they have come up with in years. But the great British public does not seem to care. The Sergeant cause has become a cause célèbre. More than two dozen Facebook sites are devoted to urging people to phone in to save him.
Sergeant told the Daily Mirror newspaper: "I wish they [the judges] would stop saying it is a travesty and unfair for me to still be in the show. "If not, then they should resign. If they are so upset they should never have agreed to the contract. Everyone knows that the public vote for half of it, so there's nothing I can do about it. But I'm still enjoying it very much." Bookmakers yesterday slashed the odds of Sergeant's actually winning the competition from 66-1 to 16-1. Arlene Phillips, a member of the judging panel, admitted that, given the level of the public's support for Sergeant, it was possible he could be victorious. "I would be desolate if he won," she said. "I personally would like to see him off the show."
Ms Phillips claimed that Sergeant was not taking the competition as seriously as the other celebrities. "The dancers are constantly working, but John just sits there and reads the paper. A lot of time he and his dance partner spend fooling around. I hope this does not go on to the final." In his defence, Sergeant said he lost "two stone" (about 14 kilograms) so he could not be "just reading the paper".
He is also enjoying support among top politicians. Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of the New Labour and the government's business secretary, said: "I was cheering for John Sergeant on Saturday and, I have to say, watching with a degree of envy." Aside from the fact that Sergeant has an engaging personality and puckish sense of humour, it seems that the British love of the underdog has once more come to the fore.
As one viewer commented to the BBC: "The producers put him on so that they could benefit from a laugh at his expense. But, with truly sweet irony, the joke's on them." Others, however, are getting surprisingly hot under the collar because they feel Sergeant's continuing survival is making a mockery of what is meant to be a dance competition. But at least the row is providing a harmless diversion from the economic misery that is daily costing hundreds of ordinary people their jobs.
And Sergeant is safe in his for another week. email@example.com