13 December 2011

"Where better to do your best dance than the semi final?"

So we're approaching the Strictly Come Dancing final this weekend and even though the largely predicted trio of couples have come through, the show hasn't suffered for it.

Kicking out two couples from five would have been more interesting had there not been two obvious rank outsiders from the quintet of pairings that took to the floor at the weekend, but even so the fact that Jason Donovan found himself in the bottom two last week meant that nothing could be taken for granted. A hellraising display from Alex Jones coupled with Harry Judd turning an ankle slightly and the whole thing was up in the air.

As it turned out, however, the three market leaders barely put a toe wrong. Judd is brilliant but very clinical and I still wonder whether his personality is enough to make him a winner, as he hasn't got that extra bit of obvious chutzpah to hang on to. Donovan, with his intensity in performance and ability to act as a spokesman for them all, and Chelsea Heeley, whose bubbliness has become less irritating as the weeks have passed, both have something extra off the floor to endear them to the crowd.

The two that left at the weekend, Alex Jones and Holly Valance, were telegraphed as likely to depart prior to broadcast, and once Jones got the terribly patronising comments about "deserving" to be in the semi-finals and that she "should be proud" of herself, it was clear the judges didn't see her as a finalist in waiting. The marks proved it. That said, even though she finished fifth out of five, she didn't seem as obvious to exit as Valance, the icy Aussie who was forced to do the dance most deeply unsuited to her laid-back attitude, the Charleston. Wearing sequinned hotpants that were inexplicably pulled up to her navel, she surpassed anything Russell Grant and Audley Harrison had honourably achieved earlier in the series for the title of least suitable dance for any celebrity, and she looked just relieved when it was over, not caring a jot what others thought of it because it couldn't be any worse than how she viewed it herself.

That meant that it was something of an anti-climax when Jones was the first to be declared out of the competition, as an early ejection for Valance might have just prompted audible tension as Jones and Donovan lined up for the final announcement of who was staying and who wasn't. As soon as the two Aussies were pitted together, with Jones out and the other two safely through, the tension evaporated. The public were not going to oust Donovan, with his perfect 40 score for an extraordinarily hot Argentine tango that could have easily represented 90 seconds of pornographic pre-amble, against Valance and her hotpants.

Strictly... has done Jones the world of good. Cast generally as a bit lightweight and slow since joining The One Show, she has shown in the last three months without the restriction of autocue that she has wit, self-awareness and rather brilliantly, she becomes so much more Welsh when being herself, as if the BBC had asked her to tone it down and make her accent more generic when chatting each weeknight. She has become very likeable indeed and maybe she'll be trusted to do better stuff on telly as a consequence of it.

So, the final. My money is on Heeley to win, as her talent is the most natural and her personality the most warming. She has flowered as a celebrity too, being possibly the least well-known of all the amateurs that lined up at the start of the run but now being instantly recognisable by face, smile and those fabulous Eccles vowels, which were mocked ungentlemanly by Sir Bruce Forsyth several times at the weekend.

Heeley also has an advantage over Judd in that her partner, Pasha Kovalev, makes no concessions for her amateur status and throws her in at the deep end. Judd's partner, Aliona Vilani, is a magnificent performer but has incurred the wrath of judges and audience in the past by doing too much scene setting when choreographing a dance and not enough traditional steps. It probably cost Matt Baker the title last year.

Donovan is the outsider, which may suit him given his regular position at the top of the show's earliest leaderboards as other celebrities took longer to settle, but he is the only one with real A-list status and a CV of achievement behind him that will potentially prompt block-voting. Out-and-out popularity with the television audience will decide the final if nobody makes a mess of their dancing, and this is where Donovan's main hope should rest. There is goodwill also for his partner Kristina Rihanoff, whose history on the programme has been via clunking incompetents until this year - John Sergeant, Joe Calzaghe and Goldie all had their limitations, to put it charitably - and so her own long-awaited rise to the top has been noted by the viewers.

Of course, we get show dances in the final too, which ultimately can be the actual difference between first and second. Nobody thought Tom Chambers would win, for example, until he did this...

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