The Mighty Atom
Jan 3rd 2008
From The Economist print edition
The meaning of Britain's favourite television programme
IT IS hard to explain the enduring appeal of Bruce Forsyth—especially, perhaps, to anyone who isn't British. Mr Forsyth, who turns 80 next month, sports a silly toupee and an elongated chin. The jokes he makes in his high-camp nasal voice are too naff for reproduction in an upmarket newspaper. Yet Mr Forsyth is the improbable face of Britain's favourite television programme.
Twelve million viewers saw him compere the finale of “Strictly Come Dancing” on December 22nd. The programme has water-cooler status in Britain, but is also a runaway hit abroad: the format has been licensed to 27 countries (and counting), from Chile to China, Russia to Australia, mostly under the name “Dancing with the Stars”. Scandinavians and east Europeans are especially fanatical about it, but Americans are keen too. All that makes it and Mr Forsyth telling indicators of global entertainment trends and, by comparison, Britain's peculiarities.
Not all the indications are happy ones. Though few are as contagious as this programme, Britain is the world's biggest exporter of television formats. Many of the top ones combine the same game show/reality TV elements, in increasingly baroque combinations: participants who jostle for viewers' affection by singing, cooking, having sex, eating grubs, etc; presenters and pantomime judges to oversee their humiliation; and premium-rate voting by the audience to determine the winners. All these hybrids and spin-offs can make it seem that viewers' choices are contracting, even as the number of channels multiplies.
The latter-day gladiators in many of these shows are “celebrities”: in “Strictly”, as Mr Forsyth's programme is known among its British devotees, they are paired with professional dancers to compete against each other. Different sorts of people, it seems, count as celebrities in different places. In America, for example, one of them was an entrepreneur (not very likely in Britain). The last British series featured a balding ex-snooker player (not very likely in America). Many of the British contestants previously appeared in the sort of miserabilist soap operas, set in launderettes and fish-and-chip shops, which mystify American visitors. But some are has-beens and never-beens who gain celebrity status by appearing in programmes like this one. This model of celebrity—a shabby, evanescent thing, confected and disposable, harmless maybe but a bit depressing—has also been developed in Britain, and seems to be spreading too.
For all that, there is something heartening about the way the programme has galvanised the international public. Heartening and—for others in the marketing business who fail to generate quite the same excitement, such as politicians—instructive.
To see you, nice
During his recent spell as acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable made some famously witty attacks on Gordon Brown. But the highlight of his stint, Mr Cable said when it ended, was dancing with the eventual winner of Strictly, even if it was “infinitely more nerve-wracking than standing up in the House of Commons”. Politicians, he added, could learn a lot from such TV shows, which motivate millions of viewers to vote for their favourite performers, and pay for the privilege (Mr Brown, meanwhile, says he prefers watching sport).
Part of the lesson may be that, whereas politics is remote and political parties confusingly similar, here the choice is clear, each vote counts equally, and the impact of voting is tangible and immediate. Like the renegade Victorian juries who compassionately acquitted pickpockets, British audiences tend to reward sweet if patently unco-ordinated underdogs while disposing of contestants who are too obviously trying to win. Mr Cable's victorious dance partner was an ex-pop star, who in one episode was brought tea and cake by her grannies.
A facile conclusion might be that real elections should be conducted by phone, text message and other new media, like television voting. Yet Strictly's success probably rests less on its modernity than on its old-fashionedness. It is, at bottom, a cheesy variety show camouflaged as reality-TV. Beneath the razzmatazz and interactive paraphernalia, its central ingredient—as improbable as Mr Forsyth—is the dancing itself. Because of the programme's contagious spread, tens of millions of people around the world are newly fluent in the arcane vocabulary of samba, paso doble, cha-cha-cha and one-handed lifts (rather as obscure sports such as diving and curling suddenly become mainstream interests during the Olympics).
Dancing, of course, is in part a proxy for sex—and in the case of some of the contestants, apparently a prologue to it as well. The sequinned costumes—said by some carpers to be much less snazzy in Britain than in America—are long on fake-tanned flesh and short everywhere else. But the programme also offers something almost equally primal that, in Britain at least, may help to explain its draw: a sense of community, of being part of a national event—a feeling that television used to provide routinely before viewers' attention was fragmented. In Britain, where social atomisation is perhaps more keenly felt than elsewhere, it also offers Mr Forsyth.
He started on the stage during the second world war, tap-dancing and playing the accordion as “Boy Bruce, the mighty Atom”, and still sings and tap-dances in the amateurish, have-a-go way that British audiences love. He has made a couple of forays to America, where his innocent innuendoes and music-hall style rather flopped. But on his home turf, Mr Forsyth and the meaningless catchphrases he has developed during his 50 years as a television host (sample: “Nice to see you—to see you, nice!”), are cherished precisely because they are throwbacks. He and “Strictly” captivate the millions of Britons who long for some things, at least, to stay the same, and whose secret idea of heaven is still dancing the Viennese waltz in a seaside hotel.