Who’d receive rave reviews? Who’d be a box office flop? And who could find the curtain coming down on their Strictly story? Here are the top 10 talking points from this year’s ninth live show…
Tilly Ramsay was overmarked but still terrific
Social media starlet Tilly Ramsay has survived two dance-offs in a row, managing to defeat an Olympic champion (swimmer Adam Peaty) and slay a Dragon (entrepreneur Sara Davies). Desperate to avoid a hat-trick, she now tackled a Couple’s Choice to “Revolting Children” from Matilda – Tilly’s favourite song from her favourite musical. She didn’t so much break her dance-off curse as shatter it into tiny pieces.
Dressed in school uniform, she and pro partner Nikita Kuzmin began a ram-packed routine sitting at classroom desks before leaping into action. Their high-energy choreography was fast, feisty and bags of fun. They threw everything in there: hip-hop moves, Charleston flourishes, lifts, drops, cartwheels and streetdance details. Tilly has become adept at bringing a different character to each dance and here she was full of cheeky, challenging attitude.
A clean sweep of 10s was too much, however. She was flat-footed at times and the judges seemed to be scoring her rollercoaster ride, rather than pure dance quality. However, nobody would resent Ramsay topping the standings and staying another week or two. A Michelin-starred performance, albeit not a flawless one. Yes, chef?
Guest judge Cynthia Erivo was a smash hit
Strictly has a chequered history with guest judges. Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey was unrecognisable. Alfonso Ribeiro was better received, while Donny Osmond’s scoring was so widely derided, it’s now accepted that a 10 from Donny “didn’t count”.
Well, actor and singer Cynthia Erivo became the most successful stand-in yet. With Craig Revel Horwood missing his first show in 19 series after a positive Covid test (we hope he’s feeling fab-ew-lous again soon) Erivo kept his seat warm, picked up his scoring paddles and filled in for one night only.
The 34-year-old certainly had the requisite credentials. The Rada-trained south Londoner has an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony on her mantelpiece, as well two Oscar nominations. She made her name on Broadway before moving into movies. She’s soon to star in the eagerly awaited film adaptation of Wicked, alongside Ariana Grande. A perfect fit for Musicals Week all-round.
The hugely likeable Erivo was utterly unphased by live TV. She kept her comments concise, sage and supportive. Tabloids reported that she’d been given an in-depth “cheat sheet” because she didn’t know any of the contestants’ names. She’d clearly studied it hard because she didn’t skip a beat.
Her presence was also a landmark moment for TV diversity. With Erivo sitting next to Motsi Mabuse, it’s surely the first time we’ve ever seen two Black women on the judging panel of a primetime talent contest. Yes, we missed Craig’s waspish comments, deadpan faces and the way he adds some sanity to the scoring. However, Cynthia’s fresh approach and admirably anti-Donny marking style meant the loss was minimal. Thanks for coming and good luck with the green-faced witchcraft.
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AJ Odudu bounced back with ballroom beauty
Strictly’s AJ and Kai prepare for their performance to The Sound Of Music
TV presenter AJ Odudu had been one of the early pace-setters but got a shock last week. She plummeted from top to bottom due to her wobbly paso doble. Saved by viewer votes, AJ wanted to prove the public she was worth it. She certainly succeeded.
Alongside pro partner Kai Widdrington, she opened the show with a wondrous waltz to “Edelweiss” from The Sound Of Music. The elegant ballroom number boasted beautiful lines, seamless transitions and understated storytelling. It was stripped-back, swirling, sweetly romantic and full of feeling. Snow fell. AJ’s lip wobbled. The pair teased the tabloids once again by nearly kissing twice.
“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” said Cynthia Eviro. “You cast AJ.” High praise indeed. A score of 38 points took her to second on the leaderboard. If Tilly Ramsay hadn’t been overmarked, AJ would’ve been top. She’s back on track for the final.
Rose Ayling-Ellis kept her cool with Frozen quickstep
Silence spoke volumes for Rose Ayling-Ellis last week when her emotive Couple’s Choice routine – complete with music-free interlude – moved the judges to tears and notched a near-perfect score. Now she was back to ballroom, donning a Scandi-style frock for a Frozen quickstep to “Love Is An Open Door”. Following her ice queen tango on Halloween, she’s clearly partial to playing it cool. An endorsement deal with Iceland supermarket beckons.
Ballroom has been Rose’s strength throughout the contest and this was no exception. In a routine packed with steps, smooth elegance and jazzy style, Rose managed to maintain synchronisation at high speed. The storytelling was adorable, the mood was joyous. Only a late mistake let her down but pro partner Giovanni Pernice gallantly took the blame for that.
It was the EastEnders actor’s 27th birthday this week. She celebrated in style by getting a 10 from guest judge Cynthia Erivo, who communicated her praise in sign language – a classy touch. Rose was left in third place, still the strong favourite to lift the glitterball. Or should that be snowball?
Musicals theme was milked for all its worth
We were certainly in no danger of forgetting this was Musicals Week. The theatrical theme was flogged to within an inch of its life, with costumes and props a-go-go. The show opened with a West End montage and tweaked title sequence. Every training room VT had a musicals angle. Even the voting terms and conditions were read out by the Phantom Of The Opera.
However, there were considerable upsides. As well as the seven couples’ routines, we were also treated to a razzle-dazzle group dance from the professional troupe. The high-kicking Cabaret number updated Bob Fosse’s choreography with sharp contemporary swagger. It was clean, crisp, chic and darkly dramatic, led by two of the best pros – Oti Mabuse as Sally Bowles and Giovanni Pernice as Master of Ceremonies. We’ll tip a sparkly black bowler hat to that.
Details let down Rhys Stephenson’s jive
CBBC presenter Rhys Stephenson topped the leaderboard for the first time last week after notching a perfect score for his brilliantly bouncy boating-themed Charleston. He kept up the hectic pace and high energy for his Footloose jive with pro partner Nancy Xu. Unfortunately, his feet were a tad too loose.
He’d had a tough week in training, wearing knee supports, suffering with leg pain and calling it “a bootcamp of a dance”. Rhys lost his timing mid-routine, his technique was flawed and his upper body was messy at times. However, his performance levels were high and it was a joyous 90 seconds of jitterbugging, lindy hopping action.
They came down from Cloud 10 and scored a clean sweep of eights. Rhys was left third from bottom of the leaderboard. He’s been in the dance-off before. He might not be safe this time.
John Whaite’s waltz didn’t quite work
John Whaite went from baker to chimney sweep for a Mary Poppins-themed Viennese Waltz. Back to ballroom after two weeks of Latin, he and partner Johannes Radebe were waistcoated, flat-capped and floaty as they channelled Bert – thankfully without Dick Van Dyke’s hate crime of a Cockney accent.
The contrast with last week’s hip-shaking, shimmying samba couldn’t have been much starker but they had glide, connection and harmony. They even swapped the lead mid-fleckerl. John had been taking motion-sickness pills in training this week for dizziness from the endless rotation. It was worth the queasiness as they spun and twirled around the dancefloor.
His “broom-ography” was good, some of his footwork and quality less so. John was left joint third from bottom – his lowest leaderboard position yet. As the joint highest scorer in the series, he doesn’t deserve to be in danger. Get voting, viewers.
Dan Walker continued his upward curve
BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker delivered his best dance last week and duly got a generous nine from judge Anton Du Beke. He improved on it tonight and broke the magical 30-point barrier for the first time.
Alongside pro partner Nadiya Bychkova, he danced a cheeky, cheery Charleston to “Good Morning” from Singin’ In The Rain. It had period style, smiley character and plenty of that all-important swivel. Stepping into Gene Kelly’s spats, Dan raised his performance levels, pushed himself and was infectiously fun to watch. In a nod to his day job on BBC Breakfast, there was even a spot of sofa-ography.
Anton Du Beke said steadily progressing Dan was “on the best journey in the competition”, yet he was arguably under-marked and left joint bottom on 31 points, level with Tom Fletcher. He might be the lowest-scoring surviving celebrity but public support means Dan The Man has so far dodged the dance-off. He’s been bookies’ favourite for elimination for the past four weeks. Can he keep on defying the odds?
Tom Fletcher deserves to be in trouble
McFly frontman Tom Fletcher had always targeted Musicals Week as the mark he wanted to reach. He’s stage school-trained and started out in musical theatre. It’s in Tom’s blood, with his sister Carrie currently starring in the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. Well, he might end up bowing out at this milestone.
Performing a contemporary Couple’s Choice to “On My Own” from Les Misérables, Fletcher and Welsh pro Amy Dowden didn’t nail it. He was weepy with emotion before and after the dance but the movement itself lacked feeling and flow. The judges kept telling him to let his emotions go. “I’ve spent many evenings on the Strictly floor internally sobbing,” quipped judge Anton du Beke. Which of his celebrity partners could Tony Beak possibly have been referring to?
Tom got a rather random, rambling video message from Russell Crowe after the dance. This somehow became a metaphor for his performance – seemingly impressive but ultimately anti-climactic. His bandmate Harry Judd – who lifted the glitterball trophy 10 years ago, of course – was watching from the studio audience. No pressure. Couple’s Choice wasn’t a category in Judd’s day. Two of them tonight, and on a themed week as well, felt like too much. Another Latin number would have been better.
All four male celebs in dance-off danger
A score of 31 points left Tom Fletcher joint bottom with Dan Walker. If justice is done, those two will dance for survival tomorrow. And as an ever-improving novice versus someone who should by-rights be much better than he is, Dan would deserve to stay.
However, don’t rule out another shock. At this stage of the competition, the middle of the leaderboard becomes a dangerous place and upsets can happen. John Whaite and Rhys Stephenson will also be chewing their nails tonight.
The results show airs at 7.15pm on Sunday, when one couple will take their final bow. The remaining half-dozen hoofers take to the floor again at 6.55pm next Saturday. Join me back here afterwards for another dance debrief. Until then, the usual applies: keeeeeeep dancing.