With weeks of live shows, dancers getting up close and personal and, ahem, the spectre of its infamous ‘curse’ looming large, a socially-distanced Strictly Come Dancing feels a little like a contradiction in terms.
Just a few months ago, the BBC favourite’s immediate future seemed shaky. As Kate Phillips, entertainment controller at the BBC, put it back in August, Strictly is “probably the hardest show to do in the current circumstances: a live weekly show that relies on body contact quite a lot.”
But the show must go on, and the series’ producers have worked tirelessly to come up with Covid safety protocols and format tweaks that will allow Strictly to (hopefully) look just as dazzling as usual without posing a health risk to those involved.
From support bubbles to a new look set, this is how the BBC is bringing its sparkliest show to our screens while keeping contestants and crew safe.
A tighter time frame
This year’s competition is a pared-back affair. It’ll last just 10 weeks (that’s three less than the traditional run) with just 12 contestants compared to the usual 15. Proceedings usually kick off in late September and this season’s delayed start date has shaken up the Strictly schedule.
Halloween week, a series milestone requiring our celebs to swap their regulation tans for a deathly pallor, prosthetics and gallons of fake blood, is off the agenda. Executive producer Sarah James has explained that it felt “too soon” in the show’s run to introduce a theme — although she has promised a spooky routine from the professionals as a consolation prize. The annual jaunt to Blackpool, a reliably OTT highlight that marks the contest’s midpoint, has also been cancelled, though musical and film-themed episodes are still going ahead.
The judging panel
To follow social distancing guidelines in the most fabulous way possible, the usual judges’ bench has been split up into sparkling mini-podiums that look like very glamorous Daleks. There’ll be just three judges — Shirley Ballas, Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse — presiding over the ballroom this time around. Bruno Tonioli usually spends the autumn shuttling back and forth between London and Los Angeles, where he films Dancing With The Stars, but the pandemic — and Trump’s flight ban — has made transatlantic travel unfeasible, meaning that the panel will be missing its most exuberant presence. Saturday nights might be a little quieter than usual, then, though Tonioli has promised to join in with the Sunday results shows over Zoom.
On the night
One of the biggest Covid-era changes to the classic Strictly set-up will be the drastically reduced live audience. BBC bosses revealed last month that they’d been planning for three audience scenarios: business as usual, socially distanced seating for small family groups or no guests at all. It seems likely that they’re sticking with the second option for now, with masked-up fans sitting around small tables, though things could of course change later in the competition.
With far fewer fans in the audience, hosts Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman might have a tough job drumming up the usual party atmosphere. There’ll be a few changes to their presenting duties, too. While Winkleman is usually flanked by a jostling group of celebrities and dancers in her ‘Clauditorium’ at the top of the stairs, she’ll now chat to the couples, who’ll also be seated at tables, at a distance.
Sets and staging will be simpler than previous years, reflecting a much smaller production crew, but fans will be pleased to learn that Dave Arch and his band will be back in the orchestra pit — albeit in a reduced capacity. Some of the musicians will pre-record their parts ahead of the show, as there wouldn’t be enough space for the full group to perform safely.
Signing up for Strictly is a bigger commitment than ever in the time of Covid: show bosses have asked each dance duo to form “an exclusive support bubble” for the duration of the competition, meaning that one half of the pair has to live alone. Some celebrities and pros, then, will have to leave their partners and families behind — surely this will only fan the flames of the inevitable ‘Strictly curse’ rumours? As Revel Horwood puts it, “It’s like being stuck in the Big Brother house, people might do things completely out of character [...] It gives it a whole new edge.”
Each bubble will be tested twice a week, but what if there’s a positive result during production? The contestant would immediately be ruled out of the competition, as they’d be unable to rehearse and perform during the two week isolation period. YouTube star HRVY almost missed out on his shot at Strictly when he contracted Covid-19 just a few weeks before filming the launch episode. He’s since tested negative, so can still take part safely.
The group numbers
Show-stopping group dances are a Strictly staple, but this year they’ve been recorded in advance: the professionals spent weeks in isolation in a hotel near Elstree to allow them to rehearse together safely and filmed a series-worth of group routines in one go.
Neil Jones, Graziano Di Prima, Nadiya Bychkova and Nancy Xu won’t be paired with celebrities this year. Instead, they’ll team up in two close contact cohorts — the technical term for a small bubble of people who need to break social distancing in order to do their jobs — so they can dance together and accompany guest musical performances.
Behind the scenes
Strictly wouldn’t be Strictly without its larger-than-life beauty pageant aesthetic, and luckily our celebrities won’t be expected to administer their own spray tans or apply their own fake eyelashes. The hair and make-up team will be on hand as usual, but this time artists will be assigned to specific couples to limit mixing between the dance bubbles. They’ll also be decked out in full PPE as they work miracles with Elnett and body glitter.
Will it work?
The latest edition of the Great British Bake Off is proof that with format tweaks and careful planning, it’s certainly possible to pull off a reality show that looks almost identical to its pre-Covid self. But Strictly is a trickier proposition — while Bake Off episodes were filmed back to back in a biosecure bubble, the BBC favourite will go out live every weekend throughout the autumn. Call us cynical, but the longer production period (coinciding with a second wave of coronavirus) will be a difficult one to ride out without disruption, even with stringent social distancing in place.
In spite of these challenges, though, we’ve arguably never needed Strictly and all its ridiculous shiny distractions more (for one thing, lockdown has starved us of the sort of mildly scandalous celebrity gossip that the series tends to accidentally generate). At its best, the BBC’s sequinned juggernaut is perfect winter comfort viewing. Here’s hoping that the show can keep dancing all the way through to December.
Strictly Come Dancing begins on October 17 at 7.50pm on BBC One. The live shows will begin on October 24.