The announcement that Shirley Ballas will be the new Strictly Come Dancing judge isn’t all that surprising.
Nicknamed the ‘Queen of Latin’, she is one of the most decorated professional dancers in the world, as well as a renowned adjudicator for Ballroom and Latin American competitions globally. She’s hugely qualified for the job, and is reported to have impressed producers in her screen test auditions.
But what does seem surprising about her appointment is that she’s also landed the role of Head Judge, especially given that Strictly audiences do not know her. Just because it was Len Goodman being replaced doesn’t mean that one of the others panellists couldn’t step up to the plate.
After almost 13 years offering their expertise on the BBC1 show, were Craig Revel-Horwood or Bruno Tonioli considered for the promotion? Or, if they were deemed by producers to be too settled in their roles (panto villain / comedy light relief), why wasn’t Darcey Bussell at least given the power of the paddle and the deciding vote?
Darcey is a voice of reason amongst the judges. With five years of experience on the panel, she’s also authoritative and calm – just what’s needed in a Head Judge.
It seems a strange decision not to promote the former ballet dancer, not just because Shirley hasn’t actually judged on a TV show before, but because we have no idea who she is. If she makes an unfavourable casting vote early on in the series that isn’t popular with viewers, she will have blotted her copybook before she’s had the chance to ease in and make a good impression.
Whereas well-known faces on a show can get away with all sorts (does Bruno last more than an hour without falling off a chair?), Shirley will have to go easy in early episodes to avoid a viewer backlash, especially when replacing that sizeable Len Goodman-shaped hole.
Having said that, it makes sense that she’s been appointed over the likes of Anton Du Beke and Brendan Cole. As well as choosing the candidate most qualified for the job, the BBC were no doubt also keen to even up the gender balance on the panel. Since the show began in 2004, there have always been three male judges and just one female. The Voice UK (previously a BBC show) has been criticised in the past for consistently employing three male singers as coaches and just one female act.
Besides, the BBC were left fighting a wave of more than 2,000 complaints in 2009 after Arlene Phillips was replaced by Alesha Dixon, with many citing ageism and sexism from the Beeb. Even Harriet Harman waded in on the debate at the time, saying it was a “shocking” decision, and that she was “suspicious” that age discrimination was at least part of the move.
By hiring a 56-year-old woman for the role, the BBC have avoided a similar PR nightmare. If they had selected another white, middle-aged, middle-class man, undoubtedly they would have come under a barrage of glitter balls and paddles hurled in their direction.
And, of course, no one’s going to argue with Shirley’s judging and dancing experience; whereas Len was undoubtedly King of the Ballroom, she has rightly been dubbed The Queen of Latin.
Before she retired in 1996, she was a three-time ‘British Open to the World’ Latin American Champion and by the age of 21, she had won nearly every major title that she competed in worldwide.
To this day, Shirley still remains the youngest ever woman to reach the British Open to the World championship finals and is a big name in Ballroom. In the US, audiences are familiar with her as she’s stepped in on Dancing with the Stars to give master classes to the contestants, and her son Mark Ballas was a professional on the show for nearly 10 years, winning twice. She also counts Derek and Julianne Hough (the Cliftons of the US series) as practically family.
There’s just one problem: Strictly viewers have no idea who she is.
It feels incredibly risky to bring in someone completely new. In the 14 series that have aired, the presenting and judging panel has changed as little as Craig’s face.
And whenever change has come about, viewers have been eased in. When Arlene P left the show, it was Strictly series five winner Alesha who took her spot. Claudia Winkleman was promoted to present the main show when Bruce Forsyth departed. Even Darcey, who replaced Alesha in series 10, had spent several weeks guest-judging the show in series severrrrrrn (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Occasionally the glitter has gone to the heads of producers, like that time Donny Osmond randomly popped up for Movies Week in 2014 to smile a lot and hand out 10s like they were going out of fashion. But largely, panel changes have been very carefully managed, with no alteration made that would scare off core Strictly viewers.
Because people, and more specifically viewers, don’t like change – and they especially don’t like it when it comes to their favourite, cuddly BBC shows that they welcome into their living rooms each week like a (far more well-liked) member of the family.
The announcement that Len was leaving sent shockwaves last year, as did that of Brucey. Even the news last week that professional Natalie Lowe was quitting the show upset many.
It’s a brave decision to bring an unknown into the Strictly fold, and although it’s unlikely to be a disaaaaster, let’s hope viewers score her highly, and she doesn’t end up with blisters from wearing Len’s Head Judge shoes come autumn.