The Times, 1 October 2010

Last year, Strictly Come Dancing hit the sequinned buffers with accusations of ageism and dumbing down, when the young, beautiful Alesha Dixon replaced the older, better-qualified Arlene Phillips as a judge. This year, the BBC seems absolutely determined to ensure that such criticisms can’t be repeated. Not only have they retained as the host Bruce Forsyth, whose entire shtick is now focussed on his own Methuselah-like age, but five of the series’ fourteen contestants are over 60. One, Paul Daniels, is over 70.

But the question dance fans will be asking themselves, as they dial a pizza, open a bottle of pink fizz and put their feet up tonight, is: do old contestants in a dance competition make good telly? Dancing is usually a young person’s game, after all, and the winner of the show has never been over 40. So what’s the point in loading up the competition with people who could use a free bus pass to go to their dance rehearsals?

Still, Strictly isn’t simply a dance contest, it’s an entertainment programme. It isn’t about who the best dancer is, it’s about who we most like to watch. Chris Hollins’ series victory last year illustrated this very point: he wasn’t the best dancer in the series, he wasn’t even the best dancer in the final. But he was incredibly sweet – never once losing patience over weeks of rehearsals.

And by casting Pamela Stephenson, 60, Felicity Kendal, 64, Ann Widdecombe, 62, and Peter Shilton, 61, are the producers simply catering to an audience who wants to see actual celebrities they have heard of on the show? Surely this is preferable to casting endless interchangeably pretty actors from Hollyoaks, whom no-one over the age of 25 could pick out of a line-up? After all, John Sergeant must have generated more column inches on the programme than every other Strictly contestant put together, and he was hardly a whippersnapper.

The problem is that while one ageing man reading the paper through his rehearsals and then performing ‘like a dancing pig in Cuban heels’ (as Arlene memorably described him), is funny, several dancing pigs might start to get boring. Ann Widdecombe has already bagged the comic relief tag for herself, so where does that leave Paul Daniels? Doing a killer Argentine tango? Really?

Surely the only route for the oldsters to take is the one we aren’t expecting. The worst contestants in Strictly history haven’t been the oldest, they’ve been the ones who let self-consciousness or laziness get the better of them. But Felicity Kendal already looks like she’s aiming for the final.

And that’s what will make this series succeed or fail: we need contestants we can root for. Even if they are wearing glitter and spray tan, and are old enough to be our parents.