Leadership behind the headlines: Strictly come dancing

November 23, 2008
”]Strictly come dancing [wikipedia]

Some headlines conceal hidden leadership stories. Leaders we deserve takes a look at strictly come dancing and The John Sergeant drama

A fair proportion of Britain (or maybe England) paused from its recessionary gloom and became preoccupied this week [Nov 17-18 2008 particularly] with the televised drama of John Sergeant, a former News reporter, and participant in a hugely popular entertainment show, strictly come dancing.

This is one of a genre in which viewers vote to keep or kick-off the wannabe celebrities, who then go on to the celebrity circuit with differing degrees of success. The show has a panel of judges, and is hosted by Bruce Forsyth, a doyen of British television light entertainment, still high-kicking his way around the set. The contestants deliver their various dances with professional partners, who are in a way the jockeys, putting the nags through their paces. The judges are the pantomime baddies, whose interventions are greeted with boos and hisses from the audience.

The series has been growing in popularity, as the programmers worked out the best scripts to engage the audience. The judges became increasingly aggressive; the format more ritualised and more popular.

I have no clear memory of earlier shows, but this series seems to have triggered a particular response.

The more the baddies tried to dish Sergeant, the louder the boos. And the more the public mobilised votes to see their favourite (Boots, Cinderella, Goldilocks, Peter Pan …) survive against their dastardly plans of the Ugly sisters, Captain Hook, or Cruella Vilejudge.

Then as the pantomime advanced to the inevitable happy ending, Seargent produces a bombshell. Says he is quitting the show, as he had come to realise there was a distinct chance he could win despite turning in by far the worse technical performances. Cries of dismay from millions of viewers. BBC offers to pay back costs of phone-calls by distraught viewers. Seargent is hauled before the grand inquisitor Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight to explain himself.

Why was Sergeant so popular? Partly because of a brilliant piece of casting as the downtrodden pantomime hero or heroine. Partly because of the interesting dynamics of the programme which we discussed in an earlier blog.

Why did an audience of eleven million people and more watch in the weeks building up to an unexpected and dramatic end to the story? Why did it become a brief national obsession? During the peak of the story [19th Nov 2008] I found nearly 2000 news stories about it. Roughly twice as many stories as the medical breakthrough to produce the first organ transplant (a windpipe) using stem-cell technology.

The popular view seems to be that the programmes’s success is something about the Great British Public not wanting to be bullied by those nasty judges. Which is puzzling in that a core feature of the program is all audience participation in an exercise in mock bullying.