Strictly Come Dancing 2021, grand final recap: Rose Ayling-Ellis crowned champion after beating John Whaite

·13-min read
Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice on ‘Strictly' (BBC/Guy Levy)
Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice on ‘Strictly' (BBC/Guy Levy)

Sicknote Come Dancing, more like. It had been another tumultuous week for the BBC hoofathon’s 19th series, with finalist AJ Odudu forced to withdraw through injury. After a Covid-affected, medically cursed contest, what had originally been planned to be a four-way final was now a two-horse race.

But the ballroom show must go on and there was still the coveted glitterball trophy at stake. Which pro-celebrity pair would take the bauble home for Christmas? Who’d come so near yet so far? Here are the nine top talking points from this year’s emotional last live show…

Rose Ayling-Ellis broke down barriers with inspiring win

Actor Rose Ayling-Ellis came into this final as bookies’ hot favourite. In fact, the charmingly cheeky 27-year-old from Kent was the shortest-priced finalist since Alesha Dixon in 2007. She already had one hand on the glitterball. Now she grabbed it with both.

Rose has become a natural in hold, never scoring fewer than 36 points for ballroom, and demonstrated why with her opening number – an encore of her Musical Week quickstep to “Love Is An Open Door” from Frozen. Donning a flame-haired wig to play Anna, she flew around the floor with princely partner Giovanni Pernice in a charmingly romantic routine. The judges wanted them to correct a fluffed fleckerl and they duly did so, boosting its score from 37 points to 39.

She wisely reprised her contemporary Couple’s Choice routine and once again, it created a spine-tingling moment when she placed her hands over Gio’s ears and the music stopped. A stunning 15-second silent interlude whisked viewers into Rose’s world. First time around, tearful judge Anton du Beke said it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen on Strictly. Its potency only increased upon second viewing, as did its score from 39 to 40. Anton admitted he was “a wreck” again.

Finally came her razzle-dazzle, no-rules showdance, set to Bette Midler’s “The Rose” (see what they did there?). The dreamily elegant routine exploited Rose’s ballroom strength with expressive storytelling. It also featured fearless flying lifts and the biggest prop in Strictly history – a rose-adorned balcony staircase which enhanced the Romeo & Juliet mood. Tony Beak once again dissolved into a puddle of tears.

Rose might not have scored as many cumulative points as the more consistent John Whaite but she’s hit the heights more frequently and notched the most perfect 10s, with 30 maximums in all. Tonight they were neck-and-neck on 119 points out of 120. She’s also improved steadily over the past 13 weeks. Hard to believe now that head judge Shirley Ballas gave her just a four in week one.

Strictly’s first ever deaf contestant was keen to challenge misconceptions and encourage accessibility. She’s certainly fulfilled her mission. Accompanied by her signing interpreter throughout the series and often incorporating British Sign Language into her routines, Rose has hugely raised awareness. Online searches spiked. She’s sparked a surge in enrolments on BSL courses.

Rose succeeds reigning champion Bill Bailey, becoming the first female winner since Stacey Dooley in 2018. She’s also the third EastEnders actress, after Jill Halfpenny and Kara Tointon, to take the glitterball back to Albert Square E20. There must be something in the Walford water. Dot Cotton or Big Mo next year, maybe? Screen dad Danny Dyer would doubtless say this result was a right touch. She did both the shouty Cockney and deaf communities proud.

Rose said she wanted to prove that “being different can be the thing which makes you win”. Her cockle-warming, lump-in-throat victory will have made a generation of hearing-impaired people children believe anything is possible. In a dark year, she’s helped spread love and light. How’s that for a Christmas gift?

Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice on ‘Strictly Come Dancing' (BBC/Guy Levy)
Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice on ‘Strictly Come Dancing' (BBC/Guy Levy)

History-maker John Whaite fell just short

Twinkle-toed chef John Whaite can count himself unlucky. He would’ve won in almost any other year but found himself in a remarkably high-standard field and ultimately, up against a rival with a story as inspiring as his own. On ability alone, he deserved to win. However, the public-voted final is a popularity contest and Rose Ayling-Ellis shaded it. John being consigned to his first dance-off last week suggested he didn’t have a fanbase quite as big as Rose’s. So it proved.

The 32-year-old baker was the most nervous celebrity as the series began, wary of letting go and expressing himself, but he flourished thanks to gentle pro partner Johannes Radebe. “Team John-hannes” formed a tight bond, perfectly in-sync and became consistent standouts, clocking up the highest total points and only once dipping below 30. Two-time South African Latin champion Johannes was already a firm fan favourite. He’s become a truly beloved treasure this year.

First up was their romantic rumba to “Shape of My Heart” by Sting, which scored 35 points in week seven. It was intimate, understated, sensuous and full of feeling, with John leading well and getting lost in the music. Anton Du Beke declared it the best rumba he’d ever seen on Strictly, which was a little strong. Craig Revel Horwood originally said he might steal it for his wedding dance but his fiancé is apparently less keen. Ah well. They still improved their score to 39.

They then dug out their hair weaves and eyeliner again for their piratical paso doble, which got the highest week three score in Strictly history with a near-perfect 39 points. Now the maritime matadors went one better, tempting out Craig’s lesser-spotted “10” paddle to notch John’s first perfect 40.

John’s showdance to “You’ve Got The Love” by Florence + the Machine was a cathartic way to finish, celebrating their friendship with a mash-up of Argentine tango, Charleston, disco, streetdance and spicy salsa. John sold the pick ’n’ mix choreography hard. It was an explosion of fabulousness. Rainbow confetti fell. Judge Motsi Mabuse sobbed that this show was changing lives. John and Jojo paid tearful tribute to one another on a show that should have been sponsored by Kleenex Ultra-Absorbent.

Theirs has been a joyous journey. As the first same-sex couple to reach the final, the landmark pair represent overdue progress for primetime TV. Either finalist winning would have been a Strictly first, striking a blow for diversity, visibility and inclusivity. As it was, John just missed out. Yet he and Johannes can be hugely proud of their history-making few months. You almost wished there could be joint winners. At least he can console himself with his Bake Off trophy *proffers Paul Hollywood handshake*.

John Whaite and Johannes Radebe on ‘Strictly Come Dancing' (BBC/Guy Levy)
John Whaite and Johannes Radebe on ‘Strictly Come Dancing' (BBC/Guy Levy)

Giovanni put crown on Italy’s golden year

He cried. She cried. We all cried. He’s been a three-time runner-up, having partnered Georgia May Foote, Debbie McGee and Faye Tozer to the final but always narrowly lost out on the glitterball. Now popular pro Giovanni Pernice went from bridesmaid to groom at last.

His pairing with Rose Ayling-Ellis has brought the best out of the 31-year-old Sicilian, displaying his sweet, sensitive side. Yet unlike former pro Kevin Clifton, who made it all about him when he won at the fifth time of asking, Gio gallantly put Rose centre-stage throughout.

He’s had to adapt his teaching methods and it’s paid off handsomely. “Team Rio” had undeniable chemistry and symbiotic connection, partly because Rose watches Gio so closely to stay in time to the music. Her trust in her partner could be seen with that dangerous diving lift during the quarter-final. Gio happily admits that he’s learned as much from Rose as she has from him. Ahead of what could be a tricky Christmas, this entire show came as a reminder of the power of human connection.

The Italian stallion has become one of the show’s most creative choreographers and arguably the best pro never to win the glitterball. His castmates were clearly delighted when he succeeded at his seventh attempt. It also puts a big glittery cherry on top of Italy’s vintage year, after his home nation won the Eurovision Song Contest, the men’s football Euros, a record Olympic medal haul and even The Great British Bake Off. Bellissimo!

AJ Odudu’s sad absence cast a shadow

Amid all the fireworks and fake tan, there was hoofing heartbreak for TV presenter AJ Odudu. She’d deservedly stormed into the final with 79 points out of 80 in the semi-final. However, she tore her right ankle ligaments in training earlier this week – an injury so acutely painful, poor AJ reportedly projectile-vomited. Not very glitzy.

She was left on crutches but desperately hoped BBC medics could patch her up in time for tonight. Pro partner Kai Widdrington was working out slower, more sedate routines, rather than the Charleston, jive and full-on showdance they’d planned. Yesterday, though, AJ was forced to admit defeat and reluctantly withdraw.

It was a huge shame, since she’d been one of the breakout stars of the series. AJ was a terrific all-round dance talent who topped the leaderboard four times – more than any of her rivals. The likeable Lancashire lass had a tough upbringing in Blackburn as one of eight children to Nigerian immigrants and was thrilled to be living out the childhood dancing dream her family couldn’t afford.

At least AJ was watching from the studio audience, wearing a sparkly support boot, and got a rousing reception. It was also a great shame for Kai, who’s proved an excellent addition to the professional ranks and was bidding to be only the third pro (after Darren Bennett, Artem Chigvintsev and Aljaž Škorjanec) to lift the glitterball in his debut series.

However, all is not lost. AJ is signed up for the Strictly live tour. Ankle and pandemic permitting, she’ll dance again in arenas nationwide from late January. BBC bigwigs should also consider making her co-host of spin-off show It Takes Two. After all, AJ has good chemistry with former Big Brother colleague Rylan and this year’s casting of Janette Manrara hasn’t been an unqualified success. In the meantime, we wish AJ a speedy recovery.

Class of 2021 returned for gloriously chaotic group dance

It’s a highlight of every final and this year’s reunion routine didn’t disappoint. There were three celebrities missing – injured AJ Odudu, Robert Webb (who withdrew in October on health grounds) and Tilly Ramsay (who tested positive for Covid-19 this week) – but the other 10 eliminated hoofers visibly relished their return to the dancefloor.

Each busted out their most memorable moves. Swimmer Adam Peaty flew down on an Olympic ring. Actors Nina Wadia and Katie McGlynn reprised their Queen Bey and Cruella De Vil turns respectively. Rugby player Ugo Monye dug out his oar and demigod Maui wig. Actor Greg Wise, looking slightly feral (hopefully for a role), donned his flouncy samba sleeves and did disco dad moves.

McFly’s Tom Fletcher reprised his Watermelon Sugar salsa. Dragon’s Den diva Sara Davies floated her paper boat. Semi-finalist Rhys Stephenson – how he would’ve loved to come off the subs’ bench to replace AJ – showed off his Charleston swivel. Best of all, Judi Love twerked triumphantly and Dan Walker’s lobster shuffle made a crustacean comeback. Stop, Hammer time indeed.

This greatest hits package provided a grin-inducing recap of what a cracking series it’s been. Although come on, how many of them had you forgotten ever took part? At least two, I’d guess.

Three dances apiece plus plenty of padding

This is always a testing week for the last celebrities standing. They have to perform three full routines for the first time – the couple’s favourite, the judges’ pick and the anything-goes showdance – on top of increased media commitments. When the final field was suddenly reduced from three couples to two, their task got even tougher.

Producers hurriedly rejigged the running order but there was still less turnaround time between their three dances, as well as the pressure of extra scrutiny. The scheduled start of 7pm was bumped back to 7.10pm. However, there was still airtime to fill in the absence of AJ Odudu, hence the increased reliance on montages, vox pops and other filler fluff.

Co-presenters Tess Daly and especially wise, witty Claudia Winkleman did a terrific job in tricky circumstances but the pace inevitably sagged at times. Another 10 minutes should have been lopped off.

Rose and Giovanni on ‘Strictly' (BBC/Guy Levy)
Rose and Giovanni on ‘Strictly' (BBC/Guy Levy)

Indiscriminate 10s were over-generous

Perhaps they threw caution to the wind because the result was decided entirely by the public vote. Perhaps they just got carried away with pre-Christmas spirit. Whatever the reason, three of the judges might as well have glued their “10” scoring paddles to their hands.

Of tonight’s 24 paddle-raises, a whopping 22 were perfect 10s. This comes a week after the semi-final saw a record 22 maximums out of 32 and no scores lower than a nine. The sole voice of sanity was Craig Revel Horwood and he got roundly booed whenever he dared offer anything apart from gushing praise.

The scores only acted as a guide for viewers but still showed a lack of detail and discernment. Were the routines really that flawless? Of course not. The over-excited panel are employed for their expertise. Anton du Beke often settled for making noises rather than offering critiques. Sometimes they need to remember they’re judges, not cheerleaders.

Ed Sheeran and House Gospel Choir played their parts

A grand final deserves big-name guests and the BBC duly delivered. Tonight’s musical turn was no less than Edward Christopher Sheeran MBE. The carrot-topped troubadour performed summer’s synth-pop single “Bad Habits” with a sweet touch in his choreographic accompaniment. Former Strictly pro Janette Manrara was reunited with her husband Aljaž Škorjanec, after they’d been in separate bubbles for much of the series, for a passionately fiery routine.

Also a word for House Gospel Choir, who accompanied both showdances tonight. Their uplifting vocals added an anthemic feel to both “The Rose” and “You’ve Got The Love”. Suitably epic for one of the TV events of the year. Sometimes we feel like putting our hands up in the air too.

Janette Manrara and Aljaz Skorjanec dancing to Ed Sheeran (BBC/Guy Levy)
Janette Manrara and Aljaz Skorjanec dancing to Ed Sheeran (BBC/Guy Levy)

Christmas cracker will ease withdrawal symptoms

That’s it for an ultimately triumphant 19th series of the ballroom behemoth. Happily, our screens won’t be lacking glitter for long. There’s only a week to wait until the Christmas special, which sees ballroom novices Mel Giedroyc, Jay Blades, Adrian Chiles, Moira Stewart, Fred Sirieix and Anne-Marie battling it out for the Strictly Star trophy.

The shamelessly festive edition airs at 5.10pm on Christmas Day. We’ll see you on the sofa, Quality Street tins on laps. Until then, for the last time this year: keeeeeeep dancing.

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