Has there ever been a higher standard series-opener of Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One)? Four near-perfect nines and a blizzard of eights suggests not. Creative director Jason Gilkison says this might just be the best batch of celebrities the contest has ever had. The cynic in me assumed this was merely promotional hype but he might just be right.
Hot on the high heels of Friday night’s launch show, postponed for a week due to the royal mourning period, it was straight down to ballroom business. The first live show saw 15 newly formed pro-celebrity couples take to the floor for their first full routines. The level of raw talent on display indicated that this could be a vintage year.
Where there’s a Will, there’s a wa-hey. Actor Will Mellor raised the ballroom roof with a power-packed jive that left the judges speechless and his partner sobbing with pride. Pro dancer Nancy Xu became a firm fan favourite last year, steering Rhys Stephenson all the way to the semi-final. With Mellor to work with, she could well go even further.
Even more of a pleasant surprise was the man tied with Mellor at the top of the leaderboard. Wildlife expert Hamza Yassin’s gentle foxtrot was joyously light-footed. “Who knew, darling?” drawled Craig Revel Horwood. “Wow!” Yassin’s dreadlocks almost hit the floor and so did his jaw when the judges reached for their highest scoring paddles.
The boys didn’t have it all their own way, with female celebrities filling out the top half of the scoreboard. CBBC’s Molly Rainford was dubbed a “shooting star” after her spicy samba. All big hair and booming hips, Fleur East’s cha cha cha sizzled as much as her hot pink frock. Former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton said “here’s one I danced earlier” with an elegantly jazzy American smooth.
The two Ellies also excelled. Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds delivered a sassy cha cha cha, while comedian Ellie Taylor’s quickstep had Hollywood glamour. Her astonished reaction to her high scores was hilarious.
In a typically Strictly collision of sporting grit and high camp, former footballer Tony Adams donned a red-and-white suit to arrive astride a gold cannon - a clangingly literal reference to his illustrious playing career for the Gunners. Big Tone tackled his tango with trademark aggression but left his footwork back in the dressing room.
This year’s oldest contestant, 59-year-old Kaye Adams from Loose Women, let mistakes mar her tango while Bros frontman Matt Goss divided the judges with his Las Vegas quickstep, which was full of style but with a frame “like an unmade bed”, according to Anton du Beke.
Proceedings began with a group routine from the professional troupe, whose ranks have swelled to an all-time high of 20. Their samba party featured feathered head-dresses, bare chests and all four judges joining in, proving they can still cut a rug. Hosts Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman descended in a fairy-lit carnival float. An unashamedly sparkly way to start the series in earnest.
This was a glittery grab bag of entertainment, as bright as judge Motsi Mabuse’s blue braids. We saw seven different dance styles, while the cross-generational playlist ranged from parent-pleasing classics (Dolly Parton, Abba, Stevie Wonder, Wham!) to teen-friendly contemporary pop (Harry Styles, Anne-Marie, Little Mix).
The sole snag was the running time - a stamina-sapping two-and-half-hours. Strictly episodes tend to sprawl greedily across the schedules until the field is slimmed down. Expect another epic next up, since nobody gets sent home this time. Scores are carried over to next weekend, when viewers get their first chance to vote and somebody will receive the sparkly-handled wooden spoon. On this evidence, it doesn’t look good for people called Adams.
With this much hoofing potential, however, the 20th series looks set fair. Clear Saturday nights in your diary. Strictly season - or autumn, as it used to be known - has truly begun.