The Times, 13 November 2010

I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, which means it must be Saturday. Another Saturday, another Strictly Come Dancing with Ann Widdecombe still in it, the living definition of a joke which has run its course, then put on a new pair of dancing shoes and started up again.

As poor broken-hearted Jimi Mistry left last week, he and his glorious partner, Flavia Cacace, were lost for words. The Sunday night results show ended as it had the previous week, when Tina and Jared stood in tearful silence, unable to offer the customary platitudes about having had a lovely time. It’s surely not the shock that they’re leaving which robs them of speech: that, after all, is the structure of the show. Rather, it’s the certain knowledge that they’re leaving because the audience, or at least the voters, prefer to watch Ann Widdecombe being slung round the floor like a bag of potatoes.

The appeal of Widdecombe’s dancing can be summarised in one word: Anton. The man choreographs comedy routines which accentuate Widdecombe’s size , age and modesty. In doing so, he seems to have performed something more impressive than his foxtrot: a collective mind-wipe, which leaves us believing that he is dancing with a sweet old granny, and not a woman who once suggested pregnant women in jail should be chained to their beds while giving birth.

Widdecombe, meanwhile, trots out her leaden one-liners, about Craig giving her a score of 1 because he can’t give her a zero (this kind of thing passes for wit in parliament, where the competition is scarce). And the internet goes into meltdown as fans of the show realise there is a very real possibility that she might win the whole thing.

And she might, too, since the BBC have consistently struggled with the maths of Strictly. In 2008, they had to give all three semi-finalists a bye into the final after it became clear that when two couples tied with their judges’ scores, the third couldn’t be saved from the dance-off by the audience, as the rules required.

In this series, the dance-off has been removed from the equation – the judges no longer get to choose which of the bottom two contenders they would like to save. So Ann and Anton don’t have to dodge the bottom two places, only the bottom one. Doubters point out that she hasn’t even been in the bottom two so far. But as the number of contestants dwindles, she might well be: the non-Ann vote will be focussed on fewer alternatives. Even John Sergeant walked when there were still six dancers left – who knows how the voting might have panned out if he’d stayed?

We love an underdog, but surely we love a plucky trier even more. That’s why Chris Hollins won last series – he may not have been the best dancer, but he was trying to be. And he was also incredibly charming, cheerfully admitting he wasn’t as good as some of the others.

But if you’re the worst dancer in the competition, there is no incentive to try and do better. Ann will get 1 point from the judges whatever marks she gets, because she will always be less good than the others. Why can’t the points be based on actual scores rather than merely relative position? Then she might try actually dancing, rather than flying in on a wire, before stomping her way through the routine as though the floor owes her money.

Proportional scoring happens in the American version of the show, Dancing With The Stars, which has featured Florence Henderson, Buzz Aldrin, and Cloris Leachman in recent series. America has saluted its second-favourite astronaut (and second-favourite Buzz), swooned at Mrs Brady and laughed at Frankenstein’s housekeeper, but only for a few weeks. However much they loved Buzz’s moon-inspired routines, they soon preferred to see Nicole Scherzinger dance like an angel.

The debate raged has before: is Strictly a dancing competition or an entertainment show? The answer is surely that it should be both. But good dancing is more entertaining than bad dancing.