x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fat and bald with two left feet - but what a dance he's led

The entry, and sudden exit, of a British politician on Strictly Come Dancing gives even Parliament pause.

There's only been one story in my neck of the enchanted forest this past week, and what a story it is too. No, I'm not referring to developments in tracheotomy transplant techniques that have left even seasoned medical experts gasping (which, thankfully, is something that the lucky patient will no longer have to endure), nor the acts of brazen piracy on the high seas by Somalian bandits, nor even the world's biggest firework display in Dubai.

I am, of course, referring to the latest corkscrew gyrations in the UK's most popular reality television show, the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. And I'm not here describing the routines themselves. The show, a must-see on Saturday nights, has a laughably simple formula. Take a load of dogged-eared celebrities, pair them with professional dancers, ask them each week to dance a variety of routines, have a bunch of sneering experts give pointed critiques, then charge the nation's viewers to call in and vote for their favourite duo, hence recouping in phone charges the cost of making the show.

So successful is the recipe that it has spawned spin-off series in 38 countries, including America, India and Japan. But the programme has been turned into a farce by the presence of a corpulent former political correspondent. Until his invitation to partake in this autumn's dance-fest, John Sergeant's portly frame was best known for once being famously shoved out of the way by Mrs Thatcher in the latter days of her reign as Britain's Prime Minister.

But donning a spangly jacket and tight trousers has propelled him to levels of public adoration even Mrs T could only have dreamt of, and in doing so has nearly derailed the BBC's most prized possession. Not that he's any good at dancing. On the contrary, Sergeant is execrable. Fat, bald, and truly awful on the dance floor, his efforts have been the subject of weekly ridicule and derision by the entire panel. One described his attempts to bring off the rumba as watching "a dancing pig in Cuban heels", while others have complained that he moves through the waltz like someone suffering from constipation. With friends like them, who needs enemas?

But the problem for his grim-faced, straining rivals, is that he's also loveable, self-deprecating, and has borne the slings and arrows of his detractors with fortitude and humour. Consequently, the public - 9.5 million of them - have taken this portly underdog to their hearts. As one by one his more proficient rivals were voted off, both his star and his waistline have increased. Perhaps his greatest triumph was in the brooding paso doble. Although his handling of his svelte, Siberian-born dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff during the routine resembled somebody dragging a sack of potatoes across a warehouse, he did it with such a sense of mischief that once again he wiped the floor with his competitors (as well as his partner).

But then last week came Sergeant's sudden resignation from the show. "Enough is enough," he said dryly at a press conference. "There was a real danger of us winning. For me, that would be a joke too far." His withdrawal has driven everything else off the front pages. Questions have been asked in Parliament, news programmes have been awash with commentators pondering the morality of his actions, and there has been uproar in the shires.

Even the opposition party leader, David Cameron, described the news of Sergeant's departure as "devastating". Quite what adjectives he'll use if ever there is a truly devastating event in Britain will be interesting to see. But I suppose there's something in the show's formula that appeals to politicians of all complexions. Dramas, resignations, tantrums and tap dancing - it's all in a day's work in the Houses of Parliament.

Yet underneath all this froth, there is a lesson that politicians would do well to heed, and that is not to take yourself too seriously. By showing unfamiliar virtues of grace, forbearance and a willingness to make a complete ass of yourself without looking around for scapegoats, Sergeant has shown just how potent these unfashionable sensibilities can be. In addition, he's had the good sense to quit while still ahead. Food for thought, world leaders?

Finally, in the bleak monochrome landscape of a post-Sergeant Saturday, spare a thought for the poor old BBC. With the people's favourite having jumped rather than be pushed, they're offering to refund all the millions of pounds spent by viewers phoning in their votes for him, even though the cost of organising this nightmare compensation scheme will be far more than the sums involved. It was the humorist and philosopher HL Mencken who famously said: "Nobody ever went broke by under-estimating public taste." After the affair of the flying pig, the BBC may now beg to differ.

Michael Simkins is a London based actor and author