Strictly in retrospect: Origins of BBC’s best-loved show and how 2020 series can learn a lot from the early days

Strictly Come Dancing has changed significantly since it first aired in 2004, but there's a lot we can learn about the upcoming series from the show's debut, Lauren Morris says.

Strictly Come Dancing series 1 and 17

It’s May 2004 – Tony Blair is prime minister, the Summer Olympics are just around the corner, Shrek 2 has just landed in cinemas and the likes of McFly, Britney Spears and Busted are dominating the charts.

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A brand new TV format arrives on BBC One in which celebrities must learn a series of ballroom routines and perform them, live on air, alongside their designated professional dancer – it’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Sixteen years on, the long-running dance competition is still going strong, with its viewership almost doubling since series one graced our screens – an average of 10.36 million people tuned in to watch last year’s series which saw Emmerdale’s Kelvin Fletcher and fan-favourite pro Oti Mabuse take home the Glitterball trophy.

With series 18 fast approaching, I decided to cha-cha-cha back to the show’s beginnings and revisit Strictly’s very first episode, in which newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky (the eventual winner), Eastenders’ Christopher Parker, soprano Lesley Garrett, rugby pro Martin Offiah, Brookside’s Claire Sweeney, Holby City’s Verona Joseph, Bargain Hunt’s David Dickinson and comedian Jason Wood became the show’s sequin-wearing, paso doble-dancing guinea pigs.

The episode opens with the camera panning down the line-up of visibly nervous celebs as they pose next to their seasoned partners. With only eight big names taking part in series one, it feels much more intimate compared to recent years (15 couples competed last year), however the ballroom fashion clearly hasn’t changed since the early noughties – the ladies’ shimmering dresses appear to be 80 per cent glitter, while David Dickinson is seen sporting a bejewelled see-through shirt with an incredibly deep V-neck.

Not only was the famous line-up visibly smaller in Strictly’s first series, but so was the stage, audience and range of dances on offer. In the very first episode, the celebs had to choose either the Waltz or the Cha Cha Cha as their debut performance whilst throughout the series, they would only get to try out the Rumba, Quickstep, Tango, Jive, Foxtrot, Paso Doble, Samba and the Showdance (if they made it all the way to the final).

In more recent years, contestants have been tasked with learning a much wider variety of dances, with the Argentine Tango, the Charleston, the American Smooth and the Viennese Waltz being introduced later on in the show’s history, while Contemporary, Street and Jazz categories were added to the roster in 2018.

Strictly Come Dancing series one's final two – Natasha Kaplinsky and Christopher Parker
Strictly Come Dancing series one’s final two – Natasha Kaplinsky and Christopher Parker
BBC

The first episode also highlighted Strictly’s high turnover of pros, judges and even hosts throughout the years. 55 professional dancers have taken to the Strictly stage over the last 17 series, with the only remaining dancer from its first season being, of course, Anton du Beke, whose first words on-screen ironically were: “The reason I want to part on the show is because I want to win it.” Maybe this year will finally be your year, Anton!

The judging panel consisted of long-running experts Craig Revel Horwood (whose first ever critique was classically negative, telling Natasha Kaplinsky he thought she was “dull, dull, dull”) and Bruno Tonioli, who’ll sadly be absent from this year’s judging line-up. They were joined by queen of tough-love Arlene Phillips, who left the show in 2008, and Len Goodman, the ying to Revel Horwood’s yang who departed in 2016.

Over the years, various judges have picked up the paddle boards, including series eight winner Alesha Dixon, ballet extraordinaire Darcey Bussell, guest judges Jennifer Grey, Donny Osmond and Alfonso Ribeiro as well as current judges, Shirley Ballas and Motsi Mabuse.

However, one of the show’s key players from the very beginning, whose absence is still sorely felt to this day, is Bruce Forsyth – Strictly’s co-host from 2004 until 2013. The late comedian and presenter’s quick-witted repartee with the judges, charming conversations with contestants (“You’re my favourite”) and much-loved catchphrases (“Nice to see you, to see you nice”) were clearly embedded within the fabric of the show from day one, and re-watching Strictly’s first episode is a great reminder of how Forsyth’s charisma and energy established the series as a feel-good family favourite in the nation’s eyes.

Strictly presenter Bruce Forsyth
Strictly presenter Bruce Forsyth
BBC

Whilst comparing Strictly’s first episode to the most recent series, it became clear how far the show has come since 2004, however with the upcoming series making various production changes due to COVID-19, it’s possible that series 18 could look a lot like series one.

This year’s Strictly Come Dancing line-up, which features the likes of Caroline Quentin, Nicola Adams and Bill Bailey, has been reduced to just 12 celebs for a shorter run, not dissimilar to the first season’s eight-week duration, while it’s possible that Dave Arch and his orchestra may be absent for the 2020 series (Arch didn’t join Strictly until 2006 – until then pianist Laurie Holloway led the live band).

This year’s contestants will also be performing to a “reduced audience” in light of the pandemic, a sight which could mirror the sparse number of studio spectators seen cheering from the sidelines during series one.

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With Strictly giving its fans a stripped back version of the competition, there’s a lot that can be learnt from revisiting the show’s very first series – going back to basics won’t hinder the show in any way. Series one was very successful and despite the limited number of contestants, dances and audience members, it still drew in millions of viewers and embodied the spirit of the campy, glitter-filled, entertaining hour of family-fun that is the Strictly we know and love.

Strictly Come Dancing will return to BBC One later this year. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.