Saturday 24 February 2018

Outside the Box

Paul Whitington

It might seem camp as Christmas and strangely old-fashioned, but, in recent years, 'Strictly Come Dancing' has been trouncing its rivals on the primetime ratings.

It returns tonight with a season-launching spectacular, and will doubtless be looking to top the impressive 13.5m viewers it attracted to a pre-Christmas episode last year.

The show has inspired copycat versions in more than 40 countries including the US, where it was renamed 'Dancing with the Stars' and goes down a bomb.

No one could have predicted that a show about ballroom dancing would be such a huge hit, and 'Strictly's' phenomenal success is all the more unlikely when you consider its fusty origins in the dark days of post-war Britain.

'Come Dancing' was launched by the BBC way back in 1949, and was originally a serious and deadly dull national dancing competition with regional heats and a grand final. It ran until 1998, but mainly consisted of long shots of po-faced couples sashaying around a crowded dancefloor in tails and ball-gowns with numbers stuck to their backs.

At one point in the 1970s, Terry Wogan took over the commentary and clearly struggled at times to take the whole thing seriously.

'Come Dancing' was cancelled in 1998, by which time it seemed a hopelessly defunct fossil. But, just six years later, it was brilliantly resurrected by producers Fenia Vardanis and Richard Hopkins in conjunction with the BBC. 'Strictly Come Dancing' was glitzy, glamorous, over the top and a deliberate throwback to the 1970s and the heyday of Saturday night television. After all, Mr Saturday night himself, Bruce Forsyth, was one of the presenters.

Why is 'Strictly' so popular? Because grannies and six-year-olds can sit down and watch it together. It has genuine charm, offends no one and is conducted in an atmosphere of comradely warmth that makes 'X Factor' look like a dog-fighting show by comparison. It's oddly irresistible, and season 11 gets underway at 6.50pm on BBC1 tonight.

The autumn TV drama battle will shortly begin on American television, and a number of shows are hotly tipped for big things.

'Reign' is a raunchy-looking period drama that clearly hopes to capitalise on the extraordinary success of hit shows such as 'Game of Thrones' and 'The Tudors'. Partly shot in Ireland, the series is set in the French court in 1557 and follows the fortunes of 15-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots as she struggles to survive intrigues, plots and an arranged marriage.

'Reign' stars Australian soap actress Adelaide Kane and Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald, and looks like a lot of fun.

A few weeks back we mentioned 'Masters of Sex', a drama about pioneering 1960s sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. It will air here on Channel 4 from early next month and critics who've seen the pilot are raving about it.

"James Spader is so good at being bad, I could watch him all day long," a US critic recently gushed, and, by all accounts, he's nothing short of excellent in the new NBC crime drama 'The Blacklist'. Spader plays a fugitive mastermind who becomes an FBI informant but continues to pursue his own blood-curdling agenda.

JH Wyman's new sci-fi show on Fox seems partly inspired by his own recent series 'Fringe', and partly by Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner'. 'Almost Human' stars Karl Urban, who plays Bones in JJ Abrams' 'Star Trek' films, and is set in Los Angeles 35 years hence.

No doubt as a cost-cutting exercise, human cops are paired with android partners, and Urban plays a detective with a passionate dislike of robots. He teams up with an android who gets emotional about everything.

Joss Whedon's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' will very probably be the most visually spectacular TV show anyone's seen in a long time. A kind of tangential spin-off from Whedon's massively successful 2012 movie 'The Avengers', it stars Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, the leader of a secret government unit that investigates possible superhero sightings and other unearthly phenomena.

Whedon and his producers have hinted that movie stars such as Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in the Marvel movies, and Chris Evans ('Captain America') will be making cameos, and 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' will also boast blockbuster production values.

No doubt it will be picked up over here.

The steamy political drama 'Scandal' has been a solid hit in these parts for Channel 4. Kerry Washington stars as a political fixer who dedicates herself to managing and burying scandals perpetrated by America's ruling elite. A third season will air next month in the US and after Christmas on Channel 4, and the new run will include an unlikely co-star – Lisa Kudrow, from 'Friends'.

Kudrow has always been quick to quash rumours of a 'Friends' reunion or a movie adaptation, and has done her best to move on from the long-running and hugely popular sitcom. She's done character parts in films, co-written and starred in the acclaimed but short-lived HBO comedy series 'The Comeback', and currently stars in Showtime's semi-improvised comedy 'Web Therapy'.

But for all her hard work, Kudrow has found it hard to shake free of Phoebe Buffay, the ditsy massage therapist she played so brilliantly in 'Friends'. Maybe playing a scheming politician in 'Scandal' will help – it will be an entirely straight role, and a big departure for Kudrow, who's focused almost exclusively on comedy since the mid-1990s.

Everyone was shocked by the death of Cory Monteith from a drug overdose almost two months ago, and the cast of 'Glee' has just finished filming a tribute episode to the Canadian actor.

Titled 'The Quarterback', the episode will deal with the death of Monteith's character, the dashing high-school athlete and star singer Finn, and his fellow actors have described the shoot as "gut-wrenching".

Monteith's on- and off-screen girlfriend Lea Michele recently tweeted a picture of herself wearing a necklace bearing the inscription 'Finn'.

And finally, on a truly bizarre note, the Wombles are about to make a TV comeback. Readers under the age of 40 or so will hardly remember these furry, bear-like burrowers, who starred in a BBC stop-motion children's animation from 1973 to 1975, and even enjoyed chart success with a series of ghastly novelty hits.

Musicians donned giant furry suits to embark on Womble tours, and one of the Wombles was kicked out of the band for smoking marijuana. Only in the 1970s.

For a couple of years the Wombles were huge, but then those fickle kids lost interest, as they always do. There was a half-hearted attempt to revive the TV show in the 1990s, but it failed miserably.

But now, British station Channel 5 and 1970s pop svengali Mike Batt are to pump upwards of £5m into creating a state-of-the-art CGI version of 'The Wombles' that will air in 2015.

It's a gamble, but the Wombles should fit right in these days because they were well ahead of their time. They were preachy do-gooders obsessed with picking up litter and recycling it into furniture and food. So we wish them well, provided they lay off the singing – believe me, those pop songs were truly awful.

Irish Independent

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