Last week: Tess tells us that some couples sailed to "dizzying new heights", and this is illustrated with Abbey & Alja even though the only couple who actually shook up their usual leaderboard position last week was Patrick & Anya. There was a bit more of a shift at the lower-end of the leaderboard though, as Fiona tumbled down to the bottom when Anton tried to choreograph a rumba to possibly the only uptempo Westlife song in existence. However, it was Rachel who saw her public support collapse and she ended up in the dance-off after a skippy, busy, frantic quickstep - but of course she was up against Julien, whose luck finally ran out and he was dispatched to go and tell more aspiring fashion designers that they are basic bitches who should just give up now.
Tonight: eh, there's not really a theme of any sort, so we just get a generic Rocky-style sports training montage (including Iveta whacking Mark around the face with a boxing glove, because there is never a single moment on this show when Iveta is not being thoroughly amazing) as Tess mumbles something about everyone having to fight even harder this week. Blimey, I never thought I'd say this, but I wish Hallowe'en week would hurry up just so these bits could be a bit more focused.
Titles! Natalie's eyebrow-pop gives me life every single time.
I've just noticed that we are "live from the Strictly Ballroom" this year rather than "live from London". Is this because they're technically in Hertfordshire these days? (Also, isn't the phrase "Strictly Ballroom" kind of copyrighted by someone else already?) Anyway, wherever we are, it is somewhere with a Bruce and a Tess. Daly Dresswatch: heavens to Betsy, she actually looks rather good tonight in a midnight blue full-length sleeveless gown. I'd prefer the skirt to have fewer ruffles, but the colour and the cut are both flattering, and her hair looks good as well. Well played, Tess Daly. (I apologise to the Fug Girls for stealing their bit.) Anneka Rice is in the audience tonight. It's rice to see Anneka, to see Anneka, RICE! There are also some Strictly alumni present, including Gloria Hunniford and Ricky Groves. All the stars, darling, all the stars.
Speaking of stars, here are the 12 remaining stars of Strictly 2013: Sophie and Brendan, Mark and Iveta, Susanna and Kevin, Ben and Kristina, Natalie and Artem, Abbey and Alja, Ashley and Ola, Deborah and Robin, Patrick (complete with a large white plaster cast on his wrist. Couldn't they have Strictlified it a little bit? They must have a few crystals going spare now Julien's gone) and Anya, Rachel and Pasha, Dave and a drag tribute to Carmen Miranda, and finally Fiona and Anton. Bruce goes a bit off-script saying that people don't believe the amount of hours the couples put into training. This is not a phenomenon I've witnessed personally, but if it does exist, I'm just going to blame Natalie for last week's "oh, I have been so badly injured that I may have to leave the competition, we've only had about two hours of rehearsals, LOL J/K CHECK OUT MY FLAWLESS QUICKSTEP". Tess reminds us that nobody wants to face the Dread Dance-Off. Least of all the audience, but the producers still insisted on bringing it back.
Up first this week are Natalie and Artem. Bruce describes Natalie as "young, current and very with-it", which is regrettably the segue into a joke about twerking - specifically the one about how "twerk" is where people from Yorkshire go between the hours of nine and five. Except Bruce says that they "go to twerk", and unless people in Yorkshire actually do say that they're going to the work, then Brucie's got the joke wrong. Still, at least he doesn't ask Tess to pretend to be the Miley Cyrus to his Robin Thicke, which was a brief concern of mine. (Actually, a bigger concern would've been the possibility that he might have wanted them to do the opposite roles. Shudder.) Bruce demonstrates the joke on Tess, asking "what do you come here for?", as though he's suddenly the voice of the audience. Also, Tess is from Derbyshire. I guess anywhere north of Milton Keynes might as well be Antarctica if you're Bruce.
Natalie's VT, understandably, is all about her just being happy to still be upright: she informs us that her back is "now on the mend" and she's looking forward to putting it behind her. I feel one of the reasons I can't fully engage with Natalie as a contestant is that she failed to truly embrace the comedy of that sentence. "I'm looking forward to putting it behind me. BECAUSE IT'S MY BACK, GEDDIT? BADUMTISH!" See, I know funny. This week, they're dancing the samba - Artem's first samba ever on this show, apparently. As usual, the editors search with fevered brows for any signs of Natalie struggling with the dance in rehearsals just so they can structure some sort of journey out of this week, and as luck would have it, apparently she can't quite shake her ta-tas to the required effect. (My hopes for SPECIAL GUEST COACH SUSANNA REID here sadly come to nothing.) Artem tells her she needs to feel the character of the dance, and Natalie replies that she's "never been to mainland Spain". First of all, god bless her for qualifying it with the word "mainland". [OMG SPANISH RINGAH ALERT etc - Rad] Second of all, I appreciate that they're trying to put a flamenco flavour on it, but the fact remains that SAMBA IS BRAZILIAN. Saints alive, I'm terrible at geography and even I know that. Natalie says that they're determined to make it "authentic", and then Artem turns up in a sombrero and carrying some maracas. They are literally all over the place at this point. Artem announces that he did not have fun (of course not!) but it helped the routine. Sure, why not?
They're dancing to 'Bamboleo' by the Gipsy Kings, and as always with Natalie, her grasp of the rhythm is impeccable and her body-shaping is excellent. There's maybe a slight touch of sluggishness in her legs, but that's pretty much the only thing I can find to fault about it. Well, that and the giant ruffle in the back of her skirt that makes it look like it's tucked into her underwear, but somehow I don't think that's Natalie's fault.
Bruce tells them they were so good that he wishes they could've seen themselves. He introduces the judges, and by far the most important thing to note here is that post-operation Craig gets to set in a bedazzled high-backed chair, like he's the boss looking to give a big endowment in The Gay Apprentice. Bruce congratulates Craig on his bravery for still making it to the show after his operation, and it certainly sounds sincere, but you can never quite tell with Bruce. Len says that he was "palpitating, perspirating and flatulating" during that performance. Poor Len; perhaps all that Latin American spice just doesn't agree with him. The good news is that he loved the choreography and thought it was danced well, though it could have had a tad more bounce "here and there". Bruno agrees that it was "hypnotic, exotic, with a touch of the erotic". Is that a lyric from the new Katy Perry album? He says that Natalie extends her lines "right to the last beat of the bar and retrieve it suddenly without missing a beat, with your legs and with your arms". She really does, as well. Craig tells her that her double-bounce action escaped her and her elbow on her free arm was a bit too close to her body, but admits that he's being picky because she's so good, and her hips and timing were amazing. Darcey thinks "the flamenco style really suits you, I think Spain is your place." I never really know what to do with a comment like that, other than to sigh "OH DARCEY" and move right along. Darcey wants to see more flamenco from Natalie, so I look forward to her flamenco-themed charleston and Viennese waltz in upcoming weeks. Darcey warns Natalie not to bend her supporting leg when she's going for height, but that's all the criticism she has.
An elated Natalie and Artem head up to the Tess Circle, confident at least in this particular piece of navigation, and Tess asks Natalie how much she's enjoying the experience? "It's just magic, I want to eat it!" says Natalie, before roaring with laughter. She's a strange fish sometimes, isn't she? I like that about her, though. If she has to be a ringer, she can at least be a Ringerbot Who Does Not Understand Our Human Comedy Or Emotion. Natalie assures us that her back is much better: although she's still on painkillers, she's not on as many as she was last week. "I'm much more present today," she promises. Speaking of painkillers, ARTEM'S BROKEN AGAIN. Natalie fractured his nose during the dress rehearsal, and Artem does his spacey grinning "everything's fine" face, so I assume he is hopped up on goofballs just to get through the show. Either that, or making any other expression requires him to move his nose too much. Poor broken woobie Artem. (*goes to check AO3 for all of that Kartem hurt/comfort fanfics that this will inspire*) Scores are in: Craig 8, Darcey 9, Len 9, Bruno 9 for a total of 35. Still no tens for Natalie (or indeed anyone, but I find it hard to believe she won't get the first one), but they can't be far off, can they?
Our second couple for this evening is Abbey and Alja. Bruce has now given up entirely on trying to say "Skorjanec", by the way. (Fun fact about Steve: I found myself wandering around in my lunch break this week just saying "Skorjanec" and "Lukosiute" over and over again, trying to get the pronunciation absolutely perfect just in case I ever actually needed to say either of those names out loud in some sort of official capacity, because I am weird and sad like that.) Bruce does a joke for Abbey's two-and-a-half year old daughter Sophia, which is far more successful than any of Bruce's attempts to make jokes for anyone outside the target demographic of CBeebies. Abbey was very happy with how her tango last week, but she admits she was nervous and shaking throughout, and how this feeling persists throughout the competition. Alja tells Abbey to stay focused, but not allow her nerves to get the better of her. Abbey talks about how much her family means to her, and then goes for Maximum Ovary Impact by showing a home video of Sophia with yoghurt (I assume-slash-hope) all around her chops stroking their cat. (Bonus observation points: in the background, their Tivo is showing a recording of Strictly ready to play back.) Sophia says, ADORABLY, that she wants "to be a dancer like mummy". I have to hand it to this year's contestants, they really know how to deploy their children very effectively.
Abbey's foxtrot is to 'Dear Darlin'' by Olly Murs ("deer darlin, pleez exkuse mi spelin", etc) - Alja is sitting at a large, antiquey-looking desk while Abbey reads a letter a few feet away, and the lyrics of the song are projected all over the floor. It's a little on-the-nose for me, as staging goes, if I'm honest. Still, it's our second surprisingly enjoyable foxtrot in the space of two weeks, thanks to some strong choreography, although I still want more of an emotional connection from these two. I can see that Abbey's an incredibly skilled dancer, but there's just something about her that feels cold to me when she performs, which is making it hard for me to really get on board with her as a contender yet.
Bruce welcomes Dave Arch and his wonderful orchestra, shouting "get the pork pie in!". I guess he gets cranky at snack time. Bruno thinks the dance had the feel of a love letter set to music. ("Yes, chemistry, that's what I said!" mumbles Bruce in the background, because he's having one of those days where he thinks he's the fifth judge.) Bruno thinks the chemistry is tangible and that the dance was graceful and elegant, and that Abbey pulled off three underarm spins, despite that not being her forte. Craig loved the storytelling throughout, and Abbey's control in the underarm spins, but he says she needs to control her topline, but that's just being picky. Again. Darcey says that Abbey brings a wonderful understanding to the role, and she's clearly thinking about who she's playing. She disagrees with Craig, saying that Abbey has a perfect line in her upper body, but she wants to see even more stretch in those back leg extensions. Darcey's hair is really huge tonight, incidentally. Maybe that's where they're storing that pork pie for Bruce for later. Len makes a crack about how Abbey shouldn't listen to "Ironside down there", and says that it was an ocean of effortless movement around the floor. He thinks that both Natalie's and Abbey's dances were equally beautiful. (Spoiler: this feeling is not going to last much longer.)
They head to the Tess Circle, and Tess says that after getting their highest score last week, is Abbey really feeling the pressure to deliver every week now? Abbey says she's just thrilled with the praise and she's coping with the nerves, just about, adding that she thinks everyone's just as terrified as she is. She and Tess coo over Sophia's cuteness for a few seconds, and then the scores are in: Craig 8, Darcey 9, Len 9, Bruno 9 for a total of 35, exactly the same as Natalie.
Bringing that opening one-two punch of superb dances to a crashing halt will be Dave and Karen. Last week, Dave felt like he was starting to dance properly, but Darcey was still commenting on his posture, so COMEDY VT AHOY: Karen's booked him in for anti-gravity yoga. I imagine that this is probably quite strenuous when you do it properly, but as performed by Dave and Karen, it looks a bit like a nice lie-down in a brightly coloured hammock. Still, Dave seems to think it's done wonders for his back.
Let's see how that works out for them on the dancefloor: they're dancing a salsa to 'Cuban Pete', and they clearly got the same "dress for flamenco" memo that Natalie and Artem received. This is another one of those routines where Karen has lobbed not just the kitchen sink, but the garbage disposal and the entire plumbing system at the choreography in the hope that it works. There's flamenco (of sorts) in there, there's a conga breakdown, there's probably some actual salsa somewhere. Lamentably, Dave can neither shake maracas in time, nor he can he actually do the conga the way that every other human being does it, so I'm beginning to realise the true scale of what Karen's been up against this whole time. He's trying, and he's still counting out loud, but the whole thing is a mess. Also, the part where he just yells something loudly at the end of the routine is apparently A Thing now, and I wish it wasn't.
They strut over to the judges, and Karen removes a banana from her headpiece and eats it dismissively. It's clearly not a spontaneous move in the slightest, but she rolls her eyes enough to sell it. "Why does it always have to be Craig first?" wonders Bruce. Craig suggests that Dave should've explored "the possibility of remaining on the fruit trolley" that he was wheeled in on. I can't believe that Craig says "on the fruit trolley" and nobody makes an off-colour gay joke. Bruce tells Craig that he can see he's laughing, and Karen's all "HE IS! HE IS!", brandishing her banana at him, and Craig finally cracks. Darcey tells Dave that he "didn't have fun with the maracas" (Dr Pamela would have a field day with that comment) and Dave replies that "Jim Carrey doesn't do that". Ay yay yay. Darcey says he was out of sync all the way through, but at least he never gives a boring performance. Len tells Dave that he has a unique ability of "never letting your left leg know what your right leg's going to do". He says it's not top-quality dancing, but it is top-quality fun and entertainment. Is it? Bruno calls it "Strictly Come Dancing Presents: Crackers With Maracas 2". I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to know precisely what happened in Crackers With Maracas 1 (which was presumably just called Crackers With Maracas, unless everyone involved knew that it was a surefire hit that it demanded a sequel). He tells Dave that he was off-time all the way through, which is "an achievement".
They march fruitily up to the Tess Circle, where Karen hands her banana skin to Pasha (another bit that Dr Pamela would surely deduce a lot from). Dave tells Tess that he's "always had a bit of La Vida Loca about me". He thinks that this less-formal approach to dancing is likely not to go down well with the judges. Tess asks Karen if Dave is a serious contender. Karen lies. Scores are in: Craig 3, Darcey 5, Len 5, Bruno 4 for a total of 17. "Been worse, Tess," shrugs Dave. Yes Dave, she certainly has.
Couple number four is Deborah and Robin. Deborah admits that she struggled with her jive last week, and vows to make sure she is technically better this week. And what is she doing this week, you might ask? A Viennese waltz to 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World'. Robin's choreographed it to have the feel of the boardroom, so he and Deborah go "back to the boardroom" (/an empty office somewhere that they rented for an afternoon) to help her to get her mojo back. Deborah draws up a "business plan" for her Viennese waltz, and then they dance on the table. This is like the weirdest porn ever. [is Robin auditioning for Christian Grey? I'm not entirely sure that's going to work for him... - Rad]
Their routine begins, and Robin is sitting behind a table that, like all of the best boardroom tables, is on casters. Deborah runs up and slides all of the papers onto the floor while Robin slides underneath the table (or at least attempts to; he bumps into it and knocks it out of place in the process) and then he and Deborah circle around it before taking opposite sides and dancing a Viennese waltz WITH THE TABLE BETWEEN THEM. Oh, Robin. I really have tried not to criticise your choreography too much, but seriously: what the fuck is this? This sort of shit might fly on Dancing On Ice (actually, on that show it probably would literally fly) but not here, chum. I feel a bit bad for Deborah, whose footwork does actually seem pretty good, being lumbered with such a ridiculously high-concept routine that doesn't actually allow her to properly show the progress she's been making. I mean, how can you demonstrate you've worked on your ballroom posture when you're hunched over a table? Eventually the table is discarded and they take hold properly, where it really does seem like she's improved a lot, but Robin has put in a few too many "just stand there and waft your skirt" moments for my liking. [I never thought I'd live in a world where LEN GOODMAN is right, but this episode? Far too much mahckin abaht - Rad]
They get a partial standing ovation, which Bruce points out is not something you get on Dragons' Den (to be fair, I'd imagine they could summon enough sycophants between them on that show to get a proper standing ovation if they wanted one, not this half-and-half nonsense). Darcey says it was "an interesting twist" (oof), but she liked it. She liked the elegance when they were in hold, and pulls out the "imagine you're wearing a jewelled necklace" line for the eighty-ninth time. Len says that the Viennese waltz is a romantic dance, and he did see touch of Mills & Boon when they were in hold, "but the beginning was more like Meals On Wheels." (That's one of those jokes that you need to hear in Len's accent for it to work properly.) He thought she did well once she was doing some actual dancing, and it was an improvement on last week. Bruno liked that it was a bitter take on romance, but he wanted her to spend less time on the table and more time dancing, because the dancing that she actually did was much improved. Craig says that she proved she can "push a table in waltz time, so there is some sort of gift there, darling, if you're into that." Hee. However, the topline was a disaster as her left arm was lagging, but he liked the paso doble-style centrepiece of the dance.
Up in the Tess Circle, Deborah says that it's amazing to have a standing ovation. Tess asks her if she's feeling fitter five weeks in, and Deborah says that yes, ten hours of dancing a day will do that for you. I feel like they're running out of things to ask Deborah, which doesn't bode well. Scores: Craig 6, Darcey 7, Len 7, Bruno 7 for a total of 27. Tess tells Deborah she's "starting to feel as at home in the ballroom as you are in the boardroom". Deborah's all "yes, congratulations on making the same pun that everyone else has been making all series."
Patrick and Anya are next. Looking back at last week, Patrick is chuffed that he didn't go wrong at all in his cha cha cha, and getting an "absolutely brilliant" from Craig was a bonus. This week they've got the salsa, which is apparently a FUN DANCE, so Anya "spontaneously" asks Patrick what he does for fun. He goes roller-skating, of course! So Patrick gets out some rollerblades (not skates) and they skate around the rehearsal room, and everything's fun and jolly until Patrick falls over backwards and lands rather heavily on his wrist. Cut to Anya the next morning, sitting on a chair in the middle of the rehearsal room waiting for news of Patrick's arm (which immediately makes me think of this). Patrick says that when he went into work the next day, he saw the medical advisor (I'm just going to go right ahead and assume it was Charlie Fairhead), who told him he would need an x-ray. Luckily, once he gets his scans back it turns out his wrist isn't fractured, so it's just a case of him proceeding cautiously and using it "as pain allows". Still, it's a bit of a blow for their salsa, and Anya has to drastically rechoreograph the whole thing to accommodate Patrick's arm.
They're dancing to 'Wings' by BixMix (ugh) and this is a hard one to critique because it's hard to ignore Patrick's right arm dangling limply at his side for a lot of the dance, and the way it makes his movements feel rather zombie-like, at the same time it's clearly not something we should hold against him. Indeed, it's impressive that they still manage to incorporate a lift into the routine and that Patrick uses it as much as he does. I guess I'm just a little sad for both of them, because while this is an impressive routine all things considered, I can't help wondering how much better the intended routine could have been.
Len tells Patrick he should feel right at home: "with your wrist and Craig's hip, it's like Casualty." I can't imagine what sort of storyline would lead to someone coming into the A&E department for a scheduled hip operation, but okay. Len tells Anya that she did a wonderful job of changing the routine so that Patrick could do it with one hand. (SO much material for Dr Pamela this week.) Bruno says that Patrick was a bit like a switch going on and off - sometimes he got it right, and sometimes it was very stiff. He thinks it felt slightly unfinished, and he understands why, so he hopes they get to come back and show what they can do without injury restrictions. Craig agrees - it felt stoppy-and-starty (technical term), and the isolation in the shimmies wasn't always there, but he liked the naturally good hips and rhythm (drink!). Darcey loves to see a man in control of the dance (calm DOWN, Dr Pamela) and Patrick gave her that tonight. She would like him to be conscious of mirroring Anya and finishing off the arms, but it was an impressive display considering everything that happened.
Patrick and Anya manage to make it up to the Tess Circle without any further injuries, and Tess says that she can tell Patrick loves the latin dances, but it must have been nerve-wracking to re-do the routine in the space of two days. Patrick says it's all down to Anya's brilliance. Anya thanks Patrick for working so well with the last minute changes. Scores: Craig 6, Darcey 8, Len 7, Bruno 7 for a total of 28.
Fiona and Anton are here to lead us into the halfway point. Last week's rumba was a disaster, and Fiona thinks that her problem might be a little voice in her head telling her that she can't do it. Well, since Aliona's not got a competitive role to play any more, the poor girl has to amuse herself somehow, right? This week they're rehearsing the quickstep, and Anton thinks that Fiona keeps second-guessing herself and needs to stop assuming that she's gone wrong when she hasn't. It all starts to fall into place for Fiona, who declares herself much happier. Oh, and then she gets a message from "a very special friend": Sir Roger Moore, who wants to wish her luck for Saturday. Not pictured: the gun pointing at his head or the personal assistant going "FIONA. Fiona FULLERTON. You know, the one from the JACUZZI..." [My reaction? They made him a SIR? Does being Bond automatically get you that title eventually? - Rad]
Back in the ballroom, Fiona and Anton are dancing to 'If My Friends Could See Me Now', and the routine begins with them sitting at a table preparing for champagne and cakes. BECAUSE THEY'RE EATING FANCY CHOW AND DRINKING FANCY WINE, DO YOU SEE? Anyway, just in case her friends can see her now, Fiona is inspired to do a rather hammy quickstep. She's better and clearly more confident this week, but she still has a couple of balance issues here and there and there are parts of the routine that do feel rather stuttery.
Bruno says that Fiona is finally "putting on the glitz" - he thinks she moved better. "There were a couple of mistakes in the footwork, but you covered it so well we didn't notice." There's a barley sugar up for grabs for anyone who spots the problem with that sentence*. Craig drawls that he noticed the charleston section that went COMPLETELY awry, darling, but he thought she flew around the floor and was definitely back on form. Darcey thinks it was Fiona's best dance and pronounces it "fabulous". Len: "more confident plus more focus plus more content equals more points". I feel like that's a line he had pre-planned for Rachel, but then Rachel...well, you saw last week. Maybe Len just figured he'd best deploy it elsewhere before he forgets it.
Tess asks Fiona if she feels like she's staged a good recovery from all of last week's horror, and a rather out-of-breath Fiona says that she thinks she turned a corner this week. Anton says she did him proud, but more than that, she did herself proud. Scores are in: Craig 7, Darcey 7, Len 8, Bruno 8 for a total of 30. Hmm, maybe a tad overscored for what it was, but hardly the most egregious example of that this series (I think Ben's salsa from last week probably holds that honour). Still, it gives Poor Anton the chance to crack the not-at-all-tired-at-this-point joke that he hasn't had an eight since 1972. My feelings here are broadly the same as always: learn to dance latin to an acceptable standard and maybe you won't get paired with so many talentless duffers, dude.
After the obligatory halfway-point filler VT reminding us which six couples have yet to perform, we move on to...one of those six couples actually performing. Seems logical enough, doesn't it? The couple in question is Rachel and Pasha, hoping for a comeback after last week's unwelcome visit to the bottom two. Rachel's hair has been entirely slicked back like this and between this haircut and the bizarre yellow trousers/leopardprint waistcoat/red beret ensemble last week, I'm beginning to wonder who she upset in the hair and costume teams in the last couple of weeks, because why else would they be making her look like this? In her VT, Rachel says that she was unhappy with her performance, and once she'd missed one step, it was really hard to catch up, and she just blew it. She's grateful to have survived, though, and she's determined to come back fighting. Sadly, Rachel's dance draw continues to be incredibly unfortunate, and she's been landed with the paso doble this week. Pasha brings in an acting coach, who tries to get Rachel to connect with her inner rage. (For some inexplicable reason, he does not just ask her to try to get from Tooting Bec to Charing Cross on the Northern Line at 8:30am on a Monday - that usually works for most people.) Rachel then faces a test of her ability to hold a stern expression: Pasha stands directly opposite and does animal impressions at her, trying to break her with cute. I think the Secret Service should look into this as an alternative to waterboarding; I'm sure terrorists have cracked under less. Rachel thinks the acting class helped, and she hopes she's done enough to avoid the Dread Dance-Off this time.
Pasha is IN A CAGE (let's just be glad Dr Pamela cannot see into my mind at this point, because she would sign me up for a lifetime's worth of sessions there and then) and they're dancing to 'Maneater' by Nelly Furtado (obligatory). I wish I could say this was a triumphant comeback, but so much of it is just wrong: Rachel's on her own too much and struggling to stay in shape out of hold; then even when she gets into hold she veers between too stiff and too limp. Also, her paso face quickly turns into an "eating umeboshi" face. She's clearly trying so hard, and I don't know if being in the bottom two just broke her or whether this particular dance would always have been a struggle for her (possibly a combination of both), but it's just painfully awkward and actually quite difficult to watch. I know I go on about her having had a fairly rotten draw of dances since they've shown up all of her limitations fairly quickly, and perhaps it's hard to think of any dances that would've been a good draw for her, but salsa/cha-cha-cha/quickstep/paso is a real bastard of a run for someone who's clearly not a natural dancer, and I can't help thinking that if she'd even had one dance like a foxtrot or an American smooth in the middle, something with a bit more form to focus on while she's still getting the hang of this dancing lark, she might have fared better. Maybe I'm just making excuses for Rachel because I like her (also, PASHA), but I do feel sorry for her, and I fear this might actually be it for her. Maybe she'll get a bottom two bounce, but this feels like the sort of performance that doesn't so much inspire a pity vote as it does a mercy kill. [She is lovely as a person (also PASHA), but in the immortal words of Judy Geller: It. did. not. taste. good. - Rad]
They head over to Bruce, who says he felt the story of the dance: "Why didn't you get him a ladder and a little bell?" Pasha and Rachel both make absolutely exquisite "...no, seriously, what the hell?" faces in response to this. Rachel does really the only thing a person can do in this situation and promises that they'll do that "next week". Hee. Craig says that there was so much tension in the dance that it "felt like a whole heap of trees being felled" - it was too stiff, and the drama wasn't compelling because Rachel doesn't dance well enough alone. There were shaping issues, balance issues, and general DISASTUH issues. Darcey tries to sugarcoat it by saying she can see how hard Rachel has worked, and then breaks out the old standard: "it's so much harder for the girl, it's easier for a boy to be a matador." I beg to differ. She thinks that Rachel is too lovely to be hard, and she needs to learn to focus with her eyes, and that'll solve all her problems, apparently. Oh Darcey. Len says he feels bad because he knows Rachel has worked hard and is trying her best, but this isn't a dance that suits her personality because she's "Smiley Riley". Bruno says that it's hard being a maneater, adding that Rachel had all the content there but it was the vegetarian option - it needed more blood and guts. Bruce tells a rather crushed Rachel that she's wonderful, and she and Pasha head up to...
...the Tess Circle, where Rachel says that she's been trying to channel mean and moody, and everyone surrounding her applauds and shouts encouragement. Aww. They do seem like a nice lot this year, by and large. Rachel says she's been scowling all day, and she just hopes she can avoid the Dread Dance-Off because she's enjoying being on the show so much. Tess asks Pasha if Rachel is improving each week, and Pasha says that they try for something more difficult each week and in his opinion she always delivers - he was right there in the dance with her, and she "almost ate me alive". Everyone giggles while trying not to think about certain scenarios involving Pasha and eating that might be quite pleasant. Scores: Craig 4, Darcey 6, Len 6, Brno 6 for a total of 22. James starts shouting "undermarked!", and Brendan, Abbey and Susanna quickly join in.
Next we have Mark and Iveta. Mark says that last week's cha-cha-cha was his favourite dance so far, and the audience reaction was amazing - but that Craig's comments soon put a dampener on things. He vows to work on being graceful and elegant in his waltz to prove to Craig that he can do it, so Iveta turns up with an invitation for him to visit Lady Henrietta Rous at "finishing school". Is this something to do with loading a dishwasher? Mark turns up in his t-shirt and shorts (♥) to receive a lesson in elegance from a woman who is wearing tartan stockings. Frankly I'd have turned on my heel and walked straight back out again if I were him. Lady Henrietta gives Mark some lessons in elocution and posture, making him walk with a book balanced on his head and all the old tricks like that. Sadly, the VT does not end with Iveta declaring "by George, I think he's got it!"
They've got a slowed-down version of 'Apologize' by OneRepublic for their music, and Iveta has delivered once again on the choreography front. Mark could do with a bit more rise and fall, and maybe he needs to relax his face slightly more, but I've got to hand it to him - he really does look refined and elegant in this waltz, and he and Iveta continue to have really lovely chemistry when they perform together.
Darcey tells Mark that he's now a real elegant gentleman, and his topline is much better. She points out the slight problem with the rise-and-fall, but she loved the hold and the care he took of Iveta. Len says that Mark's left arm went a bit too far forward and he lifted his shoulders a bit too much, which affected his frame and posture, but he loves the natural way that Mark performs. Bruno says that everything Mark does when he dances is so deeply felt that he always believes it, but he agrees with Len that the topline and posture need a little work. Craig says it was so much better than "that ghastly dance you did last week" - he thought it was danced simply, effectively and with feeling and emotion. Wow, feeling AND emotion!
Mark and a clearly very proud Iveta head up to the Tess Circle, where Tess enquires if it's harder doing a serious routine than doing a "crowdpleaser". Mark says that it is, but they really wanted to do something different and not just be funny. Tess reminds him that he was hoping to prove Craig wrong, and Mark says that Craig was "lovely" this week. He's hoping he might get more than three this week. And he does: in fact, he gets 7s from everyone for a total of 28, Mark's highest score so far.
Up next are Ashley (who's now definitely wearing the über-caffeinated look of a man with a full-time job and a new baby who maybe slightly regrets signing up for a labour-intensive reality show in the middle of all this) and Ola. Ashley says that he was frustrated with how his Viennese waltz went - the nerves got to him and he stiffened up. (That's funny - when most men get nervous, they have entirely the opposite problem, arf arf arf.) He thinks the judges' comments and scores were fair, but he's cross with himself for not delivering. This week he's got the jive, which is about the worst dance you can give a VERY TIRED MAN at this point, I would think. Ola explains that because of Ashley's tight schedule, she has to fit 30 hours' worth of work into 10 hours. We follow a day in the life of Ashley, which as far as I can tell was last Monday: he gets up early, goes on Lorraine, does a couple of hours of phone interviews, does a photo shoot, goes on It Takes Two and then goes training. I happen to know for a fact that Ashley then went to the Inside Soap Awards because I was there and chatted to him and maybe stalked Mark and Iveta a little bit and I can confirm that for a man as tired as Ashley ought to be, he manages to be impressively lucid and fresh-faced in person. Ashley vows to give his jive some "oomph" if he survives this week.
They're dancing to 'Johnny B. Goode', and Ashley starts out in the orchestra pit strumming on an (unplugged) electric guitar. I always knew he was the serious musician in allSTARS. He really does his best with the jive, but it's just a little bit too obvious at this point that he's knackered. Ola's done some impressively showy choreography and Ashley's clearly up to the challenge, but his kicks and flick just don't quite take flight, possibly because he's reached the stage where he actually thinks he's dancing with a giant pillow. (This is obviously where a lesser blog might make a joke about Ola's boobs. I will refrain, of course.)
Len declares that "it had speed, it had energy, it had plenty of gurtcha". I think I've got some of that at the back of the spice cupboard, although it's probably out of date by now. He says that Ashley lost technique in places, but it was a terrific effort. Bruno isn't sure whether it was "Elvis or Shakin' Stevens" - he thinks the foot was on the accelerator at all times, but warns that the kicks and flicks need to be sharper and cleaner. Craig: "I'm glad no one at home saw you recovering from your knee-slide, darling, that was a little ungainly, wasn't it?" Ashley and Ola both do a "yup, guilty as charged" laugh in response to this, which Craig wonders out loud if that might have been caught on camera for It Takes Two. (Len's Lens, surely? They'd better not be trying to tell me after everything we've been through that Len's Lens does not actually see all, or I'm complaining to Ofcom.) Craig goes on to tell Ashley that "you've got to be aware that you do have feet, darling, at the end of those legs" (BEST. CRITIQUE. EVER) but he loved it. Darcey thinks it wasn't safe or placed, it was brilliant. She loved the energy, but the feed needed to point. Ashley pulls a derp face and blames his shoes. Bruce, bless him, takes this comment entirely seriously.
Can we just build Ashley a bed in the Tess Circle? Seriously, GET THAT MAN SOME SHUT-EYE. Ashley says that was the first time that he enjoyed dancing. Tess says that she's loving Ashley's weave that the hair and make-up team gave him to allow him to get a rock 'n' roll quiff. Scores are in: Craig 7, Darcey 8, Len 8, Bruno 8 for a total of 31. I mean, if we can't get Ashley a bed in the studio, can we at least get him a chair? Tess says that in the dances still to come, Ben will need to demonstrate if he can be "light in his loafers". I guess she wasn't listening when they were both on Chatty Man and he said he'd requested to dance with Robin.
Susanna and Kevin are the next couple to hit the floor. Susanna's frilly lemon-yellow dress seems not to have been all that popular on The Twitters this week - personally I thought it was fine, even if it does look a bit like something Rachel Zoe might use to disguise her toilet brush. My concern is more with her austerity Britain hairdo and how it makes her bear an uncanny resemblance to Phoebe from Goodnight Sweetheart. Also, open letter to whoever is in charge of Susanna's tan: make sure she counts mississippilessly. In her VT, Susanna recalls last week's samba, and admits that she likes the idea of it being muddy, but promises to "clean it up" this week. Boo! Now, I'm not suggesting that this is one of those partnerships where the pro completely overshadows the celeb, but this entire VT is about Kevin's family of dancers and Susanna going off to Grimsby to meet them. (I bet Rad was ever so cross she didn't get to recap this one.) [Damn right. Not pictured in this VT: that really skeffy pub near the station that changes its name every time I visit; the really dodgy pub across the road from that one; the Yarborough Hotel, which is the Wetherspoons the other side of the station that is always packed even though it's not very nice, even by their standards, because the drinks are cheap. Basically, the station is just surrounded by pubs, because: you've just arrived in Grimsby, obviously. I also bet the Grimsby Evening Telegraph have spun this into a front page story for a whole week - TOURIST GUIDE TO GRIMSBY Rad] When Susanna arrives at Kevin's family's dance studio, they happen to be teaching a class of sweet little girls, so Susanna gets to give them all a big hug and score a few points without even having to wheel her own kids out. Efficient! Susanna dances with the kids, and then has a dance with Kevin's dad and jokes that maybe she's dancing with the wrong Mr Clifton. She hopes that seeing Kevin's family has strengthened their friendship and it'll add some magic to her performance this week. Sorry, who are you again?
They're dancing the American smooth to 'On The Sunny Side Of The Street' by Tony Bennett, hence the yellow dress. It's definitely a more controlled performance than last week (which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much you enjoyed Susanna shaking her boobs right down the camera lens) and Kevin's choreographed a great routine that Susanna executes wonderfully, with lots of fine little accents to the music. It's maybe a little cheesy for my taste, but they're another couple who just have such great chemistry together that I'm willing to overlook a lot of things.
There's a quick cut to the Tess Circle where you can see Sophie turn to Natalie and go "they were great, weren't they?" (Sophie always being right at the front of the balcony clapping everyone else on is one of my favourite memes of this series), and then we're back at ground level where Bruno tells Susanna that she exudes happiness, and it's joyful to watch her. He thinks she was nice in hold and in the side-by-side, but she could stretch her leg a little more in the extensions. Craig has just one word for them: "GAWJUSS." Susanna tells him it's lovely to have him back. Hee! Darcey loves the focus that Susanna gives to each dance and tells her that there's a film star in her, but tells her to have more confidence in the lifts. Len says that last week was all "bounce, bum and bongos", but this week was "smooth, suave, and sophisticated". It's like Arlene never left, isn't it?
Upon their return to the Tess Circle, Susanna reiterates that it's wonderful to have Craig back and in such a good mood. Tess asks her about being lifted by Kevin for the first time, and Susanna says she felt totally safe. Kevin shows off his guns, and Susanna says "he's not going to drop this sack of potatoes with a pair like that, is he?" Tess asks Kevin if he thinks Susanna's got what it takes to go the distance, and Kevin says that he'd vote for her. Susanna replies that he has her vote too. Bless. Scores: eights all round for a total of 32.
Our penultimate couple is Ben and Kristina. "It's Big Ben time, ladies!" Bruce declares. Careful Bruce - we've already established that he's a charity founder with adorable children who's loved by the gays - if you start rumours about the size of his penis as well, he might end up winning in The Year Of The Woman. Anyway, VT time: Ben giggles that he felt at home throwing Kristina around last week, and that he was pleased to get 31 and good comments from Craig last week. In training, Kristina tells Ben that he's a serious contender now, and Ben's all "eh, I'm retired now, I don't feel competitive". Kristina is having NONE OF THIS, so Ben is sent off to see his Uncle George, a member of the winning 1966 World Cup final squad. Ben tells Uncle George that nowadays he feels like his real battles are WITH HIMSELF (such a woobie), to which Uncle George responds (I'm paraphrasing): "fuck that, there's a trophy up for grabs, now go and win it and stop being such a wimp."
They're dancing the quickstep to 'I'll Be There For You' by The Rembrandts. Kristina has taken the Friends theme a little too literally, so they're starting the dance by...sitting on a sofa. (What, no glittery mugs of coffee? No Anton in the background dressed as Gunther? Nobody's thought about this at all, have they?) Between this routine, Fiona's and Deborah's, there's been a frankly unwelcome amount of sitting down this week. I half expect to see "Creative Director: Denise Van Outen" on the credits. Anyway, they spend far too long having a popcorn fight, then a pillow fight, and eventually they start a quickstep. Or rather, a slowstep. Seriously, it's deathly leaden and sluggish, making me that all this talk of Ben's ballroom journey may be just a touch premature. Still, at least he looks like he's enjoying himself out there now, which is half the battle, I suppose.
Craig thinks Ben was out of his comfort zone at the beginning with all the snaps. "It was a little bit too Joey, not quite right there." Well, at least we know this dance took place in the later seasons, I guess. He didn't feel that Ben was actually leading it, and that was his major problem with it, but he loved Ben's face because he was having fun. Darcey disagrees, because he was so light on his feet that he made it look like a walk in the park and he didn't even get tired. Presumably Darcey walks around some really big parks. She tells Kristina to make it harder next week (FNAR) because she thinks Ben can handle being pushed. Len agrees, and says that the way to make it harder - and he clarifies that this is not just a criticism of this particular couple, but of several couples this evening - stop doing so much MESSIN ABAHT. Next week is week six, and he wants to see fuller routines for everyone, but what Ben did was well done, because this is a tough dance for men. (Are there any dances that Len doesn't think are tough for men? I'm surprised he didn't scratch Darcey's eyes out over her paso doble comment earlier.) Bruno agrees with Len, in a round-about way, about the mise-en-scène - "if it carried on any longer, I'd have joined in, maybe bring a pizza, I might as well - we'll all join in together and have a great time." He thinks Ben's been teasing them with his ability for weeks, but now he wants the full monty. I'll send you some back issues of Gay Times, Bruno, don't worry. From my private collection. A couple of the pages are stuck together, but try to ignore that.
In the Tess Circle, Ben says that it's getting easier every week (alternative reading: they're just scoring him more leniently), he's not suffering with his nerves as much, and he's having fun. Scores: Craig 6, Darcey 7, Len 7, Bruno 7 for a total of 27.
The final couple of the night is, of course, Sophie and Brendan. Sophie admits to having been petrified before dancing last week, but it all went all right on the night, thankfully. However, she worries when something goes well in case the next one won't be as good - and this week she has the cha cha cha. She's finding it rather fast, and makes a lot of squealing noises in training as she tries to keep up, so Brendan takes her off to a running track, with the rather specious reasoning that if she can beat him in a race, she'll be able to keep up on the dancefloor. Sophie is unfamiliar with the athletics field (you can tell this because she decides to run a race with her outdoor coat on). Apparently Sophie wins, but Brendan blatantly slows down at the last minute to let her catch up, so I'm not sure this
Their cha cha cha is to 'P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)' by Michael Jackson, and begins with Sophie on the stage, standing behind various drapes in a game of hide-and-seek with Brendan. Eventually he catches her, but instead of swapping roles they go for a dance instead. Sophie looks a little unsure as she heads down onto the floor, and as the dance begins it's clear why - this just doesn't work for her. She's unsteady on her feet, overextends her arms and spins around too far, almost losing her balance in the process. She mentioned on It Takes Two during the week that she really struggled with moving on the second beat instead of the first, because it flies in the face of everything she was ever taught about music (♥), and she almost goes on the wrong beat a couple of times during this performance. It's not a terrible performance, but it's just a real step backwards from the standard of her recent dances, and you can see on her face that she knows she's fucking it up a bit. I don't think it's likely to dent her chances of taking home the glitterball in real terms (everyone's allowed an off week), but it was enough to make her slip back to second place with the bookies (behind Natalie, which: LOL).
Darcey is a little bit stuck for what to say, falling back on the whole "well, you gave the cheeky attitude" side of things, before saying that Sophie's knees were too soft. Len doesn't agree with Darcey - he thinks it was "competent", but he doesn't think Sophie got into it properly, and it was too brittle, lacking in cheek and interplay with Brendan. Bruno thought there were elements of a "saucy vixen sashaying with style" in there, calling it "a different approach". He thinks it's hard for tall people to stretch the back of the leg (unless you're like me and that's your natural state of being because you have a really wonky centre of gravity). Craig tells Sophie to keep dancing when she's walking and spot when she's turning, because that's why she almost fell over. He "didn't mind it", though, and thought it was "rather good". It's not exactly the most effusive compliment I've ever heard, but Sophie is happy to take "rather good", she decides.
In the Tess Circle, Sophie says she always agrees with everything the judges say that's negative, swooping in and stealing Fiona's entire storyline without so much as a by-your-leave. Tess asks if Sophie's too cool for Brendan, and Brendan says that she might be - but he thinks she's a fantastic dancer and partner. Scores: Craig 7, Darcey 8, Len 7, Bruno 8 for a total of 30. Sophie says "I'm very happy with that, actually, thank you very much." (Such lovely manners. Janet Ellis must be so proud.) Maybe she was a tad overscored, but a) the cha cha cha is a week-one dance anyway, so I don't think anyone really cares that much about technique; b) she got the same score as Fiona, and I refuse to believe in any universe where Sophie belongs below Fiona on the leaderboard; and c) I like Sophie, so I don't really object to her being overscored. Hey, I never said I was impartial.
Time for that leaderboard, and there are quite a lot of ties again:
Natalie & Artem - 35
Abbey & Alja - 35
Susanna & Kevin - 32
Ashley & Ola - 31
Fiona & Anton - 30
Sophie & Brendan - 30
Patrick & Anya - 28
Mark & Iveta - 28
Deborah & Robin - 27
Ben & Kristina - 27
Rachel & Pasha - 22
Dave & Karen - 17
Tess opens the lines (not personally, obviously), and it's time for that ever-so-handy recap: Natalie doing a samba in Spain, Abbey dancing all over a letter, Dave and Karen going bananas, Deborah tabling an amendment, Patrick doing better with one arm than Julien ever managed with two, Fiona keeping it together for once, Rachel trying to eat Pasha, Mark discovering that it is not in fact too late to apologise, Ashley NEEDING SOME SLEEP WHY WON'T YOU JUST LET HIM REST, Susanna being a ray of sunshine, Ben stepping not all that quickly, and Sophie not quite sorting the wheat from the cha-cha-chaff.
So that's it for this week's performances - two couples must face the Dread Dance-Off, and this is the first week that Julien isn't there to provide a buffer of sorts. I'd say that Rachel and Deborah should probably be the most worried, but anything could happen...
(* While stocks last)