Wednesday, 19 November 2008

John Sergeant and the Death of Democracy

There's no doubt what today's most significant news story has been. Not Prime Minister's Questions, not piracy on the high seas, not Jacqui Smith's incoherent policy on prostitution, but John Sergeant's unexpected exit from Strictly Come Dancing. You think I'm being facetious? Yes, it's only a game show. Yet his continued attempts to dance not only delighted audiences (which was, after all, the point) at a time when we could all do with some innocent delight, his survival also represented a rare (if entirely fictitious) example of public opinion prevailing over the wishes of a powerful elite, in this case the judges. Week after week they impotently implored the audience to "vote for the dancing". Week after week the viewers cocked them a snook. It was glorious: almost, but not quite, enough to banish memories of the Ross/Brand debacle. A parody of democracy it may have been - or even a substitute for democracy - but the premature end of Sergeant's dance ambition is a sad day nonetheless.

By pulling out now, John Sergeant may not have let himself down, but he has let the country down; his exit has been, as he predicted on one episode of the show, a "defeat for democracy". He has shown contempt for the people who supported him. He has preferred to listen to the whinging of his fellow competitors, and to the judges. Like them, he has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the competition. Of course it's not a dance competition; it's no more about dancing than the Eurovision song contest is about songs. It's an entertainment show: and Sergeant was the primary entertainment.

In fact, he provided at least two levels of entertainment. First was the sight of him trying, but failing, to outdo Fred Astaire. Some people had cattily suggested that Sergeant had not tried quite so hard as some of the other competitors. But as Tommy Cooper knew, and Boris Johnson still does, it takes real talent to bumble with style. It isn't even fair to suggest that the public was voting for Sergeant because he was bad; because he wasn't bad at what he was doing, he was very good indeed. It's just that what he was doing was not dancing; no, what he was doing brilliantly was Strictly Come Dancing.

The best entertainment, however, came later, on the faces of the judges as they delivered their verdicts and suggested, begged and ultimately demanded that John be dismissed. And the more they protested that the public should vote for the best dancer, the more the public enjoyed winding them up. Indeed, a survey earlier this week revealed that more than half of the 40% of the audience voting for the former political correspondent were doing so to annoy the judges.

This may in fact be what prompted Sergeant to "resign": as he himself explained, there was a "serious danger" that he might win, rather than some more deserving, but infinitely more forgettable, contestant. It may have been embarrassment, or a desire to reclaim the moral high ground. Or perhaps he was simply bored, or had other commitments. But for a man of his fundamentally benign disposition it must have been distressing to be an object of resentment and disapproval. Sergeant denied he was the victim of bullying. But he must have been hurt if it is true that - as the Times reported at the weekend - he was shunned by fellow competitors: "none of the performers milling on the dance floor to commiserate with and embrace [Cherie] Lunghi would make eye-contact with Sergeant, who wandered aimlessly among them."

In the judges' despair and Sergeant's popularity can be detected the elitist's fear and mistrust of the mob. In public life today, politicians are keen to give away power, to palm off responsibility onto unelected quangoes and committees or upwards to Brussels or the IMF, to appeal to supposedly objective science. For to decide questions in a manner that is politically accountable is to allow the public to have a voice. And except in questions of "law and order", where public prejudices may to a limited extent be indulged, this is to go against the grain of a governing class that assumes it knows what is right and that public opinion is there primarily to be manipulated. A fear that is always expressed whenever a referendum is proposed - on the Lisbon treaty, for example - is that the people will not vote on the right basis. Their votes will be swayed by the unpopularity of the government rather than the obvious benefits of greater European integration, perhaps. So too with Strictly Come Dancing, where Sergeant's popularity (think the judges) should count for less than the nimbleness of his footwork. "If someone really deserving gets knocked out because they like you it makes a nonsense of the show", said one of the judges, Len Goodman.

Strictly come off it. The public's alleged wrong-headedness was scarcely objectionable, or indeed perverse. Quite the contrary. The "expert" judges may believe that the best dancers should win; but the viewers, by voting for John Sergeant, were exercising their preference for being entertained: and what is light entertainment for other than entertaining? I don't normally watch shows like Strictly Come Dancing. I didn't watch any of the previous series, any more than I watch X Factor or I'm a Celebrity... I did, however, tune in to watch George Galloway doing his cat impression and losing what shreds (if any) of political credibility he still enjoyed on that peerless series of Celebrity Big Brother; and, alerted by the coverage of his gormlessness, I have been sitting down in recent weeks to watch Sergeant pretending to dance. I will not be watching again, not in protest at Sergeant's unexpected departure, but simply because without his good-natured clowning there will be nothing worthwhile to watch.

The public understood the nature of the programme even if the contestants didn't - or claimed not to. Celebrities enter these shows, of course, not to "win" but in the hope of boosting flagging careers or assuring themselves that they remain terribly important and/or loved. In Sergeant's case, I suspect that a desire to live out the dream he once cherished of being a comedian was high up there. It was once famously said (a quote sometimes attributed to Jay Leno) that politics is show business for ugly people; the same presumably goes for political journalism, in which looks have generally been a disadvantage. It is, perhaps, a comment on the decadence of our age and the crisis in our politics that a man who has spent a distinguished career reporting on great public events should become far more famous, in retirement, for his dancing inability. But since it was widely reported at the time of the last general election that more people had voted for the winner of Big Brother than for the Labour Party it can scarcely be regarded as surprising.

And what of the undoubted desire on the part of the voting public to annoy the judges? Is it possible to detect in it the merest whiff of revolution - a revolt against the constant admonitions to which we are subjected by self-appointed or government-appointed experts? The well-meaning judges on Strictly Come Dancing thought they knew what was good for us: it was good for us to watch high-quality dance routines, it was morally correct to vote for the best performance, it was morally dubious to vote for the worst performance, it was unfair on the other contestants who were "trying their best". Being nannyishly instructed not to vote for John Sergeant, like being instructed to drink less, to exercise more or to consume an arbitrarily determined quota of five portions of vegetables each day must after a while become tiresome. And, let it not be forgotten, by picking up the phone and dialling a premium-rate number people were helping to fund the enterprise.

Which of course was the point. For if the judges and the other contestants were unimpressed with Sergeant's continued presence on the show, the same can hardly be said for those who, above them, had an eye on the ratings. They will be filled with gloom - especially if, as seems likely, ratings now begin to fall. Many were switching on the TV primarily to watch John Sergeant and may now stop watching in protest or sympathy. For my part, I do not know about, or care about, any of the other contestants: as to which of each pair is the "celebrity" and which the professional dancer I am happy to remain ignorant. Sergeant was, in any case, the only moderately famous person left in the show. In a few weeks' time one of the dance couples left on the show will "win" and will be swiftly forgotten. John Seargeant's Paso Doble, on the other hand, has already secured its place in televisual history.

Don't blame the judges and the contestants for not getting it. They, too, live in this society; they, too, are confronted at every turn by experts who are given authority to decide, on the basis of scientific evidence or, just as often, of fashion, what the rest of us shall be permitted to do. Or, increasingly, even to think. That the public should have the audacity to spurn the judges' expertise (although it scarcely required years of judging experience to notice that Sergeant was not the love-child of Krishna and Terpsichore) goes against the grain. Of course, the public shall have what the public want - so long as it is bread and circuses. Anything else is best left to the experts.

UPDATE: Someone else who doesn't get it (unsurprisingly, perhaps) is Hazel Blears, who is quoted in the Mail as follows:


John Sergeant jumped at just the right moment. Otherwise the joke would have turned sour quite quickly and there would have been a massive backlash against him.


No, Hazel, there wouldn't. But then Blears is precisely the type of nanny-knows-best politician the judges were subconsciously aping. She should be careful. As the Mail also reports (and I predicted) the BBC is now facing a public backlash and the show risks losing viewers. Worms can turn.

5 comments:

aboleth said...

Much of the huffing of the judges involved Sergeant unfairly causing people to leave the show. In fact all he's done is delayed the inevitable by a week. They're all going out apart from the eventual winner. Surely what pushed Sergeant to leave was the treatment of the other competitors; I'm sure he has enough self-esteem to handle beeing in the out-group of a bunch of fairly mediocre entertainers, but what's in it for him? He'll have looked at the longer-term impact of several courses of action on his status, and decided this is the best, and he's probably right. He gets to be gracious and dignified, and everyone else looks a bit silly.

valdemar said...

People who have time to be judges on such shows are clearly not at the top of their professions, otherwise they'd be doing something more worthwhile elsewhere. So to castigate the public for disagreeing with second- or third-rate 'experts' whose main talent lies in semi-articulate rudeness seems absurd. The audience - as you rightly observe - clocked it for what it is early on. And no, I don't watch the show, because it's cheap tat for aunties. (Please don't tell my various aunties I said this.)

cdavis said...

Not having (shudder) watched the show at all, the first I heard of this was the news of the delightful Mr. Sergeant actually quitting. It sounds entirely in character for John to step aside politely in this way. He's gained the love of the crowd, established his popularity and appeal, and everyone knows the show is already in his pocket.

I'm sure he's happy to allow lesser mortals - those who consider the spectacle of overripe women dressed as cakes being twirled around on a horizontal wooden plane something worth striving for excellence in - take the awards and bows. He has already claimed something far better.

Dave said...

Look- the show is about ballroom dancing. The competition is for celebs to learn to dance like a pro. The best one will win. It's simple.

There used to be a guy who appeared on the indoor tennis circuit where he did a knockabout tennis act. I saw him on TV a few times.
It was entertaining. It was skilfull. He was a very good professional.
But it was not tennis. Luckily the organisers kept him away from the main competition. Can you imagine the furore if he went up against Murray and lost? Can you imagine the result if the crowd were allowed to vote for the winner? Do you go for the guy who plays the best tennis or the guy who gets the most laughs?

Maybe Strictly would be a better show if the judges votes didn't count, as in X-factor? I think that's what people are comparing it with. I think it'd be a better show if the public couldn't vote.

Anonymous said...

Dave,

Did you even read the article? You miss the point completely!

The show is only nominally about ballroom dancing. Actually, it is about entertaining the public. If you want to watch a program purely about ballroom dancing, watch the Olympics.

That you imagine a 'comedy' tennis player losing to Andy Murray show how thouroughly you don't get it. The correct analogy is with a program whhere celebs learn to play tennis and demonstrate their skills with a partner - judges say how they think they are doing - and the public votes.

As for the last paragraph, you may well think that the public shouldn't vote. But then why have celebrities at all? Why not just watch the best dancers in the world? Oh right, back at the World Championships again.