It all started so well. After the dazzling glory of Strictly 2020, Dancing on Ice was supposed to build on Bill Bailey’s success, continuing to lift the nation’s spirits via joyous, uncynical, escapist entertainment.
With a genuinely impressive line-up, a strong judging panel (why have Jason Gardiner’s negativity when you can have John Barrowman’s jazz hands?) and a generous sprinkling of razzle dazzle, the show was well placed to sparkle. Lots of viewers who would usually swerve the skating competition approached it with an open mind, and, well, nobody had anywhere else to go on a Sunday night.
Then the early exits began.
Fan favourite Rufus Hound was the first – the judges gave him a golden ticket, but he never got to cash it in, as he tested positive for coronavirus. Then frontrunner Denise Van Outen was forced to withdraw with a dislocated shoulder and Billie Shepherd suffered a head injury after missing a week due to bereavement. Now promising skater Joe-Warren Plant has left the competition following a positive coronavirus test.
Of course one or two unscheduled exits are par for the course on such shows, especially on a high-risk series like Dancing on Ice. Strictly easily survived the unfortunate exit of Nicola Adams and Katya Jones, after they tested positive for coronavirus. These days competitions usually plan for four couples to be in the grand final, when they can easily cope with only two or three, providing necessary leeway for unexpected departures.
But this year’s Dancing on Ice has suffered a frustratingly swift string of exits leading some to suggest the series is “cursed”. Not even Holly Willoughby’s never-ending 40th birthday celebrations can distract from the chaos. And much as we are all rooting for the show to succeed in hard times, it begs the question of how many more exits the series can take.
It already feels like the gulf is widening between the original contestants and the substitutes, much like on I’m A Celebrity…, when late arrivals to camp rarely stand a chance of winning. And sub-consciously it becomes difficult for viewers to truly invest in their favourite couples when there’s an increasing risk they won’t make it through to next weekend. Meanwhile, there’s an odd sense that remaining couples have earned their place through staying fit and well, rather than stunning the judges with their skating.
The show will push on for now, of course. But with no more reserves waiting in the wings, they can’t afford to lose many more couples. And with the public paying to vote, they can’t throw in a surprise week when nobody is eliminated either – they’d have to suspend voting for a week and the episode would become pointless.
Ultimately some entertainment shows have fared better during the pandemic than others. Saturday Night Takeaway enjoyed bumper ratings last year, even without an audience, and Strictly lucked out with the health of its contestants. But the Britain’s Got Talent live shows got lost in a scheduling nightmare and while Dancing on Ice has made huge efforts to put on a COVID-safe production it has become a comedy of unforced errors. Behind the scenes, the execs must be rubbing their temples with sanitised fingers, stressing about the possibility of more departures.
Audiences have been patient and very forgiving during the pandemic, and we’ll keep watching every Sunday night. But the excitement of competition fizzles out with every departure. Instead, we’re just willing the show to push through to its final without any more injuries. Winning no longer matters – it really is the ability to take part that counts now.
Dancing on Ice airs on Sunday nights at 6pm on ITV. If you’re looking for something to watch tonight, check out our TV Guide.