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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Michael Hogan

Strictly’s biggest stars this year are 50 plus – it’s refreshing to see


Sure, it’s still 20 degrees-plus outside but Christmas is just around the corner. How do we know this? Because a new series of Strictly Come Dancing is upon us. The BBC’s ballroom blockbuster will bestride the schedules like a sequin-spangled colossus, starting this Saturday and counting down the weekends until the festive season. You can almost smell the mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and arguments about Die Hard already. 

Running an eye over this year’s choreographic contenders, most of the usual boxes are ticked. There are soap actors and sportspeople, radio DJs and reality “stars” of whom you’ve never heard. What also stands out, though, is how many mid-life celebrities will be donning Spanx and getting double-dipped in fake tan.

The mature half-dozen of Angela Rippon, Annabel Croft, Les Dennis, Nigel Harman, Amanda Abbington and Krishnan Guru-Murthy are arguably Strictly‘s biggest-name signings this year – and they’re all aged 50-plus. With six out of 15 contestants having clocked up a half-century, it’s the most mature field in years.

Why does it matter? Ain’t age nothing but a number? Well, yes, but senior citizens cutting some rug are still refreshing to see. They don’t just bring more variety to an already diverse cast, but they also have different stories to tell. The dreaded J-word is overused in such competitions but older contestants often go on even more of a journey – getting in shape, feeling rejuvenated, rediscovering their confidence and relishing a newfound love of dance. 

An older field also reflects the audience at home. One of Strictly’s strengths is its inter-generational appeal. It’s a rare show that entire extended families can enjoy together, from grannies who love waltzes and dapper Anton Du Beke, right down to grandkids tuning in for the TikTok pop soundtrack and to root for EastEnders cherub Bobby Brazier. The bigger the age spread of contestants, the more viewers who will see themselves reflected on-screen. With this year’s roster spanning from 20 to 78, it’s Strictly’s broadest appeal series ever. 

Expect much talk of former newsreader Rippon, who will turn 79 in October, being the oldest-ever entrant. Her famed high-kicking skit with Morecambe and Wise may have been 47 years ago but she can still do the splits. She once chaired the English National Ballet and doubtless learnt some steps while hosting Strictly’s mothership show, Come Dancing. Hopes are high for the sprightly Devon dynamo.

Much-loved entertainer Dennis – clutched to the public’s hearts after losing his comedy partner Dustin Gee and being publicly cuckolded by ex-wife Amanda Holden – will celebrate his 70th next month and should get huge support. Tennis pundit Croft, 57, was recently widowed and will be dancing through her grief. Harman, Abbington and Guru-Murthy are all in their early fifties, so will doubtless refer self-deprecatingly to mid-life crises. 

Relative youngsters have dominated in recent years, with the glitterball trophy lifted by the likes of Rose Ayling-Ellis, Hamza Yassin, Kelvin Fletcher and Stacey Dooley. Worthy winners but all clustered between 28 and 35 at the time. For the past two series, every finalist has been in their twenties or thirties. The year before that, two were 21 or under. It was starting to look like a CBBC production, not primetime BBC One.

A more seasoned Class of 2023 is a canny move. This could be an inspiring contest in the tradition of Debbie McGee, who reached the 2017 final while nudging 60 only to be robbed, and Bill Bailey, whose surprise 2020 triumph was just the tonic the nation needed during a truncated lockdown series. Many of the all-time most memorable contestants – think John Sergeant, Ann Widdecombe, Tony Adams or Ed Balls – have had miles on the clock.

Angela Rippon is about to become the oldest person to compete on ‘Strictly'
— (BBC)

Sure, creaky contestants can become cannon fodder for the judges and depart early. They tend to be better at ballroom than Latin and often run out of stamina mid-series. They’re also less likely to have sizzling chemistry with their professional partner or, indeed, a rumoured “showmance”. Long-time fans might roll their eyes at the tabloid obsession with “the Strictly curse”, but it’s good for column inches and ratings.

At 55, twinkle-toed comedian Bailey is the oldest-ever winner. He and McGee aside, the only other finalist over 50 was Pamela Stephenson in 2010. Three in 20 series is a grim stat. As former Strictly pro Ian Waite told GB News last week: “It’s about time somebody older went the distance and reached the final.”

On Saturday’s launch show, we’ll see them paired up with their pros before making their dancefloor debuts in a razzle-dazzle, rather chaotic group routine. After that, it’s off to the training rooms and down to serious ballroom business. The golden oldies might need to soldier through some aches and pains, but I’ll be backing their quest for the magical glitterball. Staaaaart dancing…

‘Strictly Come Dancing’ 2023 begins on BBC One on 16 September

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