Saturday, February 16, 2008

Strictly go dancing

On a Saturday evening some years ago, my wife Angela mentioned that she really liked watching Strictly Come Dancing with me.

"Pardon?" I said, looking up from a book.

I felt beholden to at least try watching it instead of just being in the room and, as perhaps with most things bar football and Babylon 5, once you start watching, you do get into it. I now really like the show; I think its companion series It Takes Two is particularly well done; and I've a friend who's obsessed with it to a point that might even be frightening if she weren't also so funny about it. So that's grand; I'm sure you know the show, perhaps you like it, perhaps you don't. But just today, I've taken a Life Lesson from it.

Well, a Scriptwriting Life Lesson anyway.

If you're a writer, you'll understand me when I say that beginners think adaptation is easy. If you're not a writer, let me offer you my congratulations and say that, really, that's what they think. It's right up there with "I've got this great idea, this guy, right, he meets a woman, it's fantastic, and it really happened, I just need someone to write it up into a film".

I'm not exactly immune to this: I would like to adapt Margery Allingham's books for radio some day. But I know I'll never do that without some strong original material under my belt and on my CV first; nor do I remotely think it's easy. I never have, actually; it's like travel writing: everybody expects it to be a doddle but I've never tried it, never thought I could. I'm having a go right now pitching to write for a children's magazine and that's a tough market too. That's partly why I want to try it.

But still, Strictly, Scriptwriting Lessons, adaptation, today. I've just come back from the NEC Arena in Birmingham after seeing Strictly Come Dancing – the Live Tour. And it was fascinating to see how it was adapted for stage.

Follow. I'm sure you know the show but just in case and to point up the key elements I want to use, Strictly goes thisaway: celebrities pair up with professional ballroom dancers, over 12 weeks or more, they learn to dance, there's a phone vote, there are judges. It's a toss up whether the show is known best for its dances or for its judges: they veer from unbelievable to pretty unpleasant. And the judges are the same.

Now, all that is transferred to the live show along with the best dancers from all the years of Strictly Come Dancing.

Of course it is. What else would you expect? But while it's so inevitable as to be inconceivable that the stage show wouldn't be like the TV one and it's unimaginable that anyone would produce a stage version without the best dancers, those same factors are a huge problem. They're difficulties that whoever adapted this for stage had to fight against.

For instance, these celebrity dancers are the ones who've done really well: if they didn't win their year, they came close. So they are going to continue to do well, aren't they? When the first two couples came off and got great praise and the same near-perfect scores from the judges, I thought the entire show was going to be like that. It wasn't, though, primarily because the show was cast very well. You know that the TV series is cast in much the same way any drama is; BBC looks for people to fulfill certain types of roles such as the older-but-game sort (Jimmy Tarbuck, Gloria Hunniford), the young-hopeful type (Louisa Lytton). It's aiming to appeal across demographics, it's aiming to fashion the best potential for drama. Every reality show does precisely the same, you wouldn't do it any differently.

And while the stage show has a more limited range, it does allow for one single bad dancer: Christopher Parker from the first series of Strictly is in it. I didn't see that series, I was still doing silent reading in the corner, but everybody else in the auditorium had and they loved groaning at the sight of him. It seemed to me that everything he was apparently famous for getting wrong was repeated here quite deliberately and it was lapped up. He got a scalding from the judges: we got to see them give their famous torrent of insults.

You can argue that he's a very good sport for coming back to Strictly and reliving this torture each night, but I don't think that's it at all: I think he's playing his part exactly as he was hired to do. So are the judges.

And those judges... Len Goodman, Arlene Phillips and Craig Revel Horwood review every dance after its done. Is there any other musical stage show that criticises itself along the way? It feels so post-modern.

I'm sounding like I didn't enjoy the show and that's wrong, I did, but when the judges praised these top dancers I couldn't help but think that of course they would. And when dancers got mild criticism, I felt they had no reason to care: the performance I saw was the 34th live show they'd all done and each is its own whole competition. Where the show takes three months to build to a conclusion and you can lose your place at any week, here you're back for tomorrow's matinee no matter what.

I've realised that what I like about the TV show is the sense of learning, of progress. People who dance poorly or not at all at the start of a series, can become strong by the end. It's why I don't watch The X Factor: so you sing each week, so what?

Here on stage, the celebrity dancers were no different from the start when they walked onto the dancefloor to the end when one of them lifted today's trophy. It's not a competition, it's a story. It's a musical where the judges provide the dramatic dialogue scenes in between the numbers.

The judges are superb at appearing to adlib. Arlene always appears over-studied on TV but she's consistent and seems the same here. Len appears to be genial, Craig appears to be churlish. They're all what we expect them to be, in fact what we've paid to see them be. But I did look up a review of an earlier show in this run and the same adlibs were praised in Glasgow as were laughed at here in Birmingham today. Never believe an adlib is an adlib, not in any show.

As with the TV show, once the judges have done their judging, the audience gets to vote. Right there in the auditorium, you're encouraged to vote by phone. That feels a little sticky: this is not a BBC show but you forget that it isn't so a call to spend more money seems wrong. It's also much more expensive than on TV: in the television show the cost is 25p (or perhaps more depending on your service provider) of which 12.5p goes to Children in Need. Here Pudsey gets the same amount but the call charge is between 50p and 75p.

When that's all done, and we've had some show dances - Flavia Cacacea and Vincent Simone's Argentine tango stops the world turning - then the stage show recreates the Moment of Truth. On TV, that's where some dancers are saved to come back next week and two risk going home forever. There's no next week here, and there's no going home either, so this is inevitably tension-lite. Not tension free, but no breaths are held.

And then it's all over.

I am sure the winner is different each night - I really was sure but I checked anyway! - and I've no doubt that the judges are fair, I'm certain the phone vote is too. What I don't think is that this is Strictly Come Dancing: it's like it's really the Strictly Come Dancing Experience. See the Judges in their natural habitat. See the dancers, the dances, the frocks. Hear the very good live band.

Every thing you like about Strictly on TV is in Strictly on stage. It's like dramatising books for film: I believe it's precisely like that, that this isn't metaphor, it's straight description.

But adaptation, dramatisation, it's difficult. The recent Sally Lockhart dramatisations on BBC1 failed, I felt, because they hit all the plot points from the novel and didn't let the characters breath. And then when Alan Plater dramatised Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War, he created a new work of art. Recognisably Manning's, unmistakeably his own. It had to be. Television and novels, film and stage, they're all extremely different and it'd be boring if they weren't. Plus, I believe completely that if you want a perfect, faithful version of a novel, buy the paperback.

For anything else, any dramatisation, you have to keep the original's heartbeat but you can't forget that you're making something new. Strictly Come Dancing - The Live Tour is more like Sally Lockhart than Alan Plater so it's not satisfying. It isn't a show that stands on its own; if you didn't watch the TV show, you probably wouldn't enjoy the stage one.

Yet, if every single Strictly thing has become a box to be ticked or filled, the stage show does tick 'em and it does fill 'em. I am thinking about going to next year's tour, but it will depend on who's dancing.

How's this for proof that Strictly Live is adaptation by the numbers instead of a new animal, a new stage drama? The show's programme is a quite beautifully printed book - an expensive one, a tenner a copy - and it comes with large score numbers, 1 to 10, for you to vote with.

And you never get to.

They're just never used, not once.

I saw a matinee performance, by the way, and all the time I've been writing this to you, the 35th show has been underway. I know there's no question but that you think I'm critical of the stage show, but I'd like to see the dancing again. And maybe that's enough. The dancing would not carry a show on its own (no offense to dancers or dancing; I mean sixteen 90-second dances don't make a show) so the framework of the faux competition is crucial, it's a frame that both supports some gorgeous dancing and weakens the show. It's a necessary, contrived evil but the dancing does soar through. That's part of the heartbeat of Strictly Come Dancing, a huge part, and that has successfully transferred to stage.


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