The new series of Strictly Come Dancing launched last weekend. As a viewer, I think it’s an incredibly enjoyable reality competition that remains at the top of its game. But as a punter, it has always proved less attractive to me than X Factor.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the smaller sums traded on Betfair make it a less liquid environment. Secondly, you can’t play the elimination market after the Saturday show because the result is recorded soon afterwards to be shown nearly 24 hours later on Sunday.
Finally, it’s not as shamelessly manipulative as X Factor. That’s not to say there isn’t an attempt to boost some competitors at the expense of others, and this year’s show does see the return of the weekly dance-off which gives the judges greater control over who stays and goes. But Strictly doesn’t assassinate its contestants in the myriad ways that its ITV rival is capable of.
Nonetheless, finding some early value before the series begins in earnest is always an interesting challenge. And as I watched and endlessly re-watched the opening celebrity group dance last weekend, it provided a few clues about where it might come from. Before we come to that, a brief overview of the contestants.
At the head of the market is Olympic medalist, gymnast Louis Smith at 5-2. He is a young, handsome sportsman, which is a fine profile for a Strictly contestant. It doesn’t guarantee ballroom ability though. Just consider 2009 ante-post favourite Joe Calzaghe.
TV presenter and West End actress Denise van Outen is next at 4-1. She should be market leader based on experience alone. A product of the Sylvia Young stage school, her stint in ‘Chicago’ involved considerable dexterity night after night with the Bob Fosse dance moves. Her disingenuous attempts to play this down during the launch show (“I mainly sat in a chair”) reflected the concern that viewers will feel this has given her an unfair advantage.
Girls Aloud star Kimberley Walsh is third in bookmakers’ lists at 5-1. She also has West End experience, in Shrek, though this required just one tapdance number. She explained that ballroom dancing would be very different from the street dance steps she put in during her girlband days. This is known as the Rachel Stevens Defence, and is summoned by just about every female popstar entering the contest.
Victoria Pendleton is 13-2. The cycling gold medalist in the last two Olympics is certainly an intriguing character for the series. She’s fiercely driven but also very open with her emotions. She’s the first to admit that she sobs when she wins and she sobs when she loses. Quite how her openly competitive spirit will translate onto the show will be fascinating. The public like a trier but not someone who tries too hard, as Jason Donovan indicated last year.
Westlife alumnus Nicky Byrne is at 8-1. He used the same ‘all I did was sit’ alibi as Denise van Outen. At least there was a ring of truth to this, as his boyband crooned most of their hits from stools. Nicky is one of surprisingly few young heartthrobs competing for the support of Middle England housewives, otherwise known as the Crucial Strictly Demographic. It remains to be seen if he can get their juices flowing as much as last year’s winner Harry Judd.
Dani Harmer is next up at 16-1. She has long been a star on BBC children’s television, so will be known to a younger demographic but not elsewhere. We’ve seen her put in a few moves for the Let’s Dance Sports Relief special, in which she was runner-up. Michael Vaughan (20-1), former England cricket captain, bids to follow in the footsteps of teammates Darren Gough and Mark Ramprakash, both former winners of this event.
The rags, at 50-1 or more, are former soap stars Sid Owen and larger-than-life Lisa Riley, cuddly TV presenters Fern Britton and Richard Arnold, actor Colin Salmon, and the elder statesmen, model Jerry Hall and science-bod Johnny Ball. Fern Britton does have form, having taken part in the show’s Christmas special a few years back.
All the celebrities were paired off with their professional dancers at the launch show. There were no major surprises here, and it doesn’t look like anyone got stuck in a duff partnership. Chemistry between each pair can be important, as Kara and Artem’s 2010 victory in the midst of a burgeoning romance showed. But the 2011 final duel, featuring one of the more maligned professionals (Aliona) and a newcomer (Pasha), showed that speculating too much at this early stage on how well each partnership will work isn’t necessarily helpful.
I’m always wary of speculation because of its ability to accommodate either side of an argument. This is why I sat eagle-eyed during the group dance featuring all the contestants that took place last Saturday. It’s worth prefacing the following commentary with some words of caution: we only got a brief glimpse of the celebrities; they have only just started practising; and they largely weren’t with their prospective professional partners.
Nonetheless, given the paucity of what we have to go on regarding their abilities (with the exception of Denise and to a far lesser extent, Dani and Fern), it’s all we’ve got. It’s also on YouTube, so you can make some notes for yourself. Here are mine, chronologically put:
1:05 – From left to right Kimberley, Louis, Colin and Denise perform some rather quick steps. Colin is all at sea. The rest are reasonable enough.
1:22 – By contrast, Sid, Fern and Richard are given a much gentler introduction.
1:37 – At the start of the boy/girl face-off segment, we see Sid and Colin doing their best impression of the poorly-coordinated cousin at the family wedding.
1:40 – Denise and Victoria wriggle and nod. Not surprisingly, Denise looks more comfortable.
1:45 – Louis and Nicky do a few side kicks from the knee and a Michael Jackson-style pelvic thrust. Nicky is more fluid and less wooden than Louis.
1:50 – Kimberley and Dani jiggle to good effect.
The rest are not asked to do anything that might be an indication of their ability during this segment.
2:10 – Michael looks clueless for the step out in formation.
2:27 – Dani, Denise, Kimberley and Lisa all show a sexy strut forward. Victoria looks rather stiff in comparison. All the men except Louis do the same, though none show Ricky Whittle hips.
2:30 – Louis does an impressive somersault.
It was hard to take anything from the final moments as the direction cut between different cameras so quickly. What did I learn in the previous few minutes?
I already knew that Denise could dance and Louis could tumble. Denise apart, Kimberley and Dani looked the most comfortable on the dancefloor. In general, the men didn’t look like naturals. Neither did Victoria. This doesn’t preclude any of them going on a ‘journey’ of improvement during the show. But you are acting on faith if you back them now.
Put this evidence alongside current prices on offer. Louis Smith looks terribly short at present. Matt Baker and Harry Judd were similar odds at this stage, but both had dance pedigrees (Judd had already won a Children In Need Strictly special; less illustriously, Baker trod the boards in a disco show on Cleethorpes pier) and both looked more comfortable in front of the camera.
I think Denise van Outen and Kimberley Walsh look set for a long run in the competition. Nicky Byrne should do well too, as he’s one of a few who fit the male, youngish, good-looking template of most Strictly winners. But of those who showed promise last Saturday, Dani Harmer stands out as the best value. Based on these admittedly small shreds of evidence, she looked far more of a natural than Victoria or Nicky and yet is twice the price. In fact, she looked at least the equal of Kimberley and yet is over three times her price.
Her double-figure odds may partly be down to the fact that she is less well known than those rivals. I’m not unduly worried about this. Given the amount of slack in the field, her and partner Vincent Simone should make it towards the later stages of the competition, by which point her profile won’t be a problem. I also think producers will be looking kindly on her, as a BBC stalwart who may help keep a younger demographic interested in the show.
At 16-1 with Coral, I decided it was worth some small change to give me an investment in the series.
What are your thoughts at this early stage? Have you had any bets yet or are you holding fire until we get to see them each perform a full routine? Do let us know in the comments section below.