Claudia Winkleman on Rose Ayling-Ellis, representation, and the role of TV
She’s the co-host of the nation’s favourite dance contest, and an advocate for inclusivity. Here she explains how she sees the show as not just light entertainment, but a gently progressive public-service broadcast
Photo: Camera Press / Matthew Shave
Strictly Come Dancing is seriously good Saturday night television. A mainstream light entertainment show that is currently doing some heavy lifting.
The show, hosted by Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman is raising the mood of the country. Viewing figures have risen from a relatively low (for Strictly) 8.5 million for the launch show in September to a rollicking 10.5 million – with a higher percentage of the total Saturday night audience than even last year.
Strictly offers a vital window of joy during the dark days of another pandemic winter. Talk about public service broadcasting – the way the show kept our spirits up last year, despite strict social distancing rules and the lack of audience making it challenging to bring the Saturday night sizzle and sparkle, was truly heroic. When we couldn’t dance or go out, we could at least watch. But Strictly and its audience has, like so many of the celebrities that have graced its dancefloor over the years, been on quite a journey since it launched in 2004.
“Strictly decided a while ago to try and widen who was doing it,” says Winkleman, whose post-dance interviews combine a quick wit with real care for the dancers who have just put their dignity on the line on live television. “Because representation is everything.”
Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 definition of camp – yes, we like to intellectualise our television, what of it? – was “expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love.” Isherwood would dig this year’s Strictly.
There is, naturally, fun and artifice and elegance in abundance. But it is serious about representation. It is serious about inclusivity. And it is serious about offering a gently progressive vision of this country to the widest possible audience at peak viewing times. This is also public service broadcasting. And Strictly is doing it so well right now.
There is EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis, at the time of writing the favourite to win this year’s Glitterball trophy, challenging misconceptions about how deaf people connect with music. She’s not only participating, she is winning. She is not only dancing, she is dancing beautifully.
The sequence when the sound was cut during her couple’s choice dance was captivating, the impact tangible. It gave the hearing audience a sense, for a moment, of what it’s like to be deaf. But Rose is not only representing, she is also inspiring thousands to learn sign language – with a 3,000 per cent increase in people signing up on the British Sign Language website.
“Rose is fantastic. You would have to ask her, but I think that is why she wanted to take part. But that’s an extraordinary statistic. What I love about Rose is that she’s properly funny. I hope that comes across,” says Claudia. It does.
“And she’s also a fabulous dancer. The fact that she’s deaf comes way down the list of the extraordinariness or the charm of Rose.
“We have all done awareness courses, I’m trying to learn as much sign language as possible – not necessarily to do on screen, but for when I’m communicating with her off air. The first thing I wanted to learn – although I haven’t needed to use it yet – was how to say ‘The judges are horrid.’
“But it’s really interesting to find out – for example, she finds it difficult to train when it’s really raining because it messes with the vibrations in her chest. I said, ‘What do they do in schools? What do people do at work?’ I had no idea. But the way that in the beginning she would always have to see Gio’s face but now she can dance without seeing his face? She’s incredible.”
It could also be John Whaite and Johannes Radebe as the first all-male partnership – as the show continues to bring LGBTQ+ representation to the masses, following Nicola Adams and Katya Jones as the first all-female pairing last year. Of course, the judging panel has always done this magnificently.
Radebe had previously paved the way by dancing with fellow professional Graziano di Prima on the show in 2019, sparking 300 complaints (none of which were upheld), which seems bizarre now. But Strictly has been gently nudging towards featuring same-sex couples as standard.
It must continue to provide an answer to the question a young gay viewer might previously have pondered, in silence or fear, while watching the show: ‘Who will I get to dance with?’ The answer being, whoever you want. “I would like to think that the booking of Nicola and Katya and John and Johannes – and also Rose and [Paralympian] Will Bayley, maybe I live in a really tiny bubble, but I’d like to think that it wasn’t controversial,” says Winkleman.
“I think it’s important, but I would also say – and maybe I just have a positive outlook – that I think most of the UK just go [shrugs]. It seems like it, because they are still there. Everyone is fine with it. So let’s focus on that, do you know what I mean? You can skew over one complaint – and I don’t even think we’ve had one.
“John and Johannes are phenomenal. And he is mesmerised by dance, that boy. He will continue to dance. Strictly has been the beginning of the journey but this is not where it ends.
“So, do I think it’s important that it happened? Yes. Am I proud to work on such a show? Absolutely. Do I hope representation will continue in every area of telly, or radio, or whatever we do? Yes. It just feels now that’s just how it is. And how it has to be.”
Progress can be slow, but it is being made. Once upon a time, even the idea of Winkleman joining Daly as co-presenter after Bruce Forsyth’s retirement was deemed controversial. Two women presenting a prime time show together? Whatever next…
“I mean, we never even knew how to answer that question,” says Winkleman. “They were like, ‘Two women!?’ We were like, erm, OK, all right, well, we’ll give it our best shot.”
Another reason for the show’s success is the sense of solidarity that we see among the contestants.
“They’re deeply uncompetitive,” she says. “I will miss many things about Adam Peaty since he went out – but one of them is that he used to scream and shout and give everyone a standing ovation. They really look after each other. That camaraderie is so important.
“Last year it felt like the lights had been turned out. There was me and Tess and the crew, no audience. It was eerie. You couldn’t hug people, if they got a four from Craig [Revel Horwood, judge], we couldn’t have a big pile-on.
“This year, we’re lucky that we can have a few people in the audience. But I really miss standing next to Tess. I really miss touching or being able to console a contestant or professional or be up close with them. I missed them all in my area. But we’re incredibly lucky to be on air. So we will continue.”
Winkleman is not sure whether Strictly is camp. She prefers to use a different description.
“It’s amplified,” she says. “So in real life, if me and three mates were coming around to your house tonight and we all had to dance, you wouldn’t fall off your chair and shout 10. I mean, you might, although it might depend if you’d had red wine.
“But I think all of Strictly is amplified. The hair and makeup or outfits. The level of sound from that most amazing band and singers. So it’s amplified rather than camp, I think. It’s quite hypnotic watching people try – which is why I also love Bake Off. You can’t style it out and not give it a go. Everyone falls in love with dancing, which is a vomit-inducing thing to say, but it’s true. They are trying something new. I am about 50 and haven’t tried anything new since the 1970s – I eat the same things, sleep in the same bed, chat to the same people – I’m really dull.”
Camp is debatable, but the advent of Strictly does mark the countdown to Christmas for many of us, Winkleman included. For all of this plays out in front of a vast and diverse audience every week as multiple generations watch together – and if we cannot be together in person, we watch together-apart, connected by technology and tango.
“Strictly is the start of Christmas, even though we launch in September. And Strictly is like Christmas. I just love Christmas so maybe I’m a weird person to judge.
“But I don’t just mean in terms of the bright colours and the sparkle. I mean in terms of different generations coming together,” she says.
“Strictly is for all ages. We get so many letters from nine-year-olds who have drawn Tess and I, but also from people in their 80s going, ‘Now hold on, I’ve got a quick question about the rumba’. Families like watching things together.”
The Winkleman family Christmas plans include joining together to help out at the local foodbank “either on Christmas Eve or in the run up” and they are also fans of the reverse advent calendar.
“We’ve been doing that in my house forever,” she says. “Where you get a box, and every day in December we take turns to put something in it. It could be fancy biscuits, perfume, one excellent idea was to get cinema vouchers. It’s a really clever idea. Then you deliver it to the foodbank towards the end of December. My kids really go to town.”
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