After the death of Princess Diana, newspapers and magazines invented new celebrities to fill their pages. Jordan’s breasts duelled with Posh’s pout. Jennifer lost a husband. Angelina gained a father for a family that makes the racial diversity of the United Nations resemble a meeting of the British National Party.
Suddenly, sportsmen and women became celebrities. Models became celebrities. Presenters became celebrities. Weather girls became celebrities. And yes, even journalists became celebrities. It is from this last category that our strange tale begins.
The highlight of my television year is startlingly clear: the moment John Sergeant dragged Kristina Rihanoff across a floor while dancing the paso doble on Strictly Come Dancing. In their path followed a remarkable and important transformation of both reality television and celebrity culture.
When Sergeant opened his mouth to utter witty, brilliant, outrageous and devious quips to a room of celebrities and judges, viewers were witnessing an attack on pomposity and ambition that belonged in a play by Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward. Like Wilde, Sergeant became his own best creation. He showed the ludicrousness of a journalist being termed a celebrity, particularly considering he was – and is – better known than the other younger, tauter, smoother and duller fellow dancers.
A truth that dare not speak its name is that television producers are so desperate to find “famous” participants that few of the celebrities are actually known by anyone beyond their birth mother, the editor of Heat and a boyfriend who told all to the News of the World. Retired sportsmen, ex-soap stars, former models and presenters are not the foundation for an informed night of viewing. Currently, the banter is so far below the requirements of even light entertainment that a trip to Tesco offers a higher level of enlightenment.
David Joselit realised in his recent book Feedback: Television against Democracy, that “typically, celebrity is wielded conservatively to consolidate and promote the normative spectrum of character”. Sergeant pricked this normative balloon of light entertainment and drew attention to the much darker turn taken by reality television. The 2008 celebrities featured on these programmes were so washed up that they should have already been returned to the cupboard. Ruthless, edgy and nasty ambition was evident as they clung to a last chance at fame.
The celebrities chosen for these programmes are so minor that their professional dancing partners are much more famous than they are. Anton Du Beke appears on most BBC programmes, except the news. Indeed, he has a regular slot on BBC Breakfast. Karen Hardy and Matthew Cutler hosted a dancing/dieting show. Erin Boag and Hardy released a dance-based exercise video. These professionals have a profile, talent and loquaciousness not shared by their supposedly famous partners.
Sergeant became the fall guy for a group of celebrities who were managing a dangerous gap between aspirations and lived experience. He was labelled a poor dancer. But to term Strictly Come Dancing a dance programme is like pretending that the Eurovision Song Contest judges the calibre of singing.
A furore was always going to erupt when a smart, wise and experienced older man or woman was able to laugh at the emperor’s nudity and ridicule the context and rules of contemporary television. Sergeant had nothing left to prove, was not desperate for fame and wanted to add a strong dose of the absurd to the British media. In response, journalists were in a flurry, agitated at the speed of the controversy, along with the slightly uncomfortable sensation that media professionals were being played like chequers on a board.
Mark Lawson in The Guardian suggested that “In ten years’ – or possibly even ten days’ – time, professors of journalism may look in astonishment at the evidence that such a trivial event was given so much media space.” While I cannot write on behalf of scholars of journalism, for most media academics there is no bewilderment, confusion or misunderstanding.
Baudrillard predicted such a media moment in a 1978 book. Later published in English by Semiotext(e) as In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, it is an almost documentary explanation of the fame that exploded when Sergeant dragged Rihanoff across the floor like a sack of potatoes. Baudrillard realised that “the masses scandalously resist this imperative of rational communication. They are given meaning: they want spectacle. No effort has been able to convert them to the seriousness of the content, nor even to the seriousness of the code. Messages are given to them… they idolise the play of signs and stereotypes, they idolise any content so long as it resolves itself into a spectacular sequence.”
The problem for broadcasters is not only that the silent majority is not silent, but that labels like “the masses” or “viewers” fail to control, limit and pacify the volatile and unpredictable relationship between popular culture and its audience. It took a dancing Yoda to laugh – and loudly – at the changes to British television through telephone voting and popularity contests. It was riveting to watch Sergeant explain to judges the rules of their own competition, while injecting a vote for his dancing with affirmations of democracy.
There are many reasons for his exit from the programme. Perhaps he was bullied. More likely, he was ignored by fellow dancers, celebrities and judges because they did not know much, but at least they knew he was smarter than them. Resentment builds on the cracked pathway of ambition. Anger emerges when confronted by personal mediocrity.
In Sergeant and Rihanoff’s final performance on the programme, the whiff of a Stalinist show trial permeated the dance floor when Bruce Forsyth gripped Sergeant’s shoulders with menacing tightness at the end of their performance, leading the witness with thudding questions like, “Did you quit – were you pushed – all this nonsense? But you enjoyed yourself, didn’t you? You had a wonderful time?” This was the only sinister moment of the saga, where a man even older than Sergeant was trying to wrestle back not only control, but humour and popularity from an experienced media man and a dancing blonde woman who had outfoxed the foxtrotters.
It felt good to see a smart man on television again. With financial institutions melting and the economy freezing, John Sergeant was like our generation’s Groucho Marx. Somehow, Groucho acted in a scene with Marilyn Monroe. Sergeant danced with the even more beautiful Marilyn simulacrum in Rihanoff. Both Marx and Sergeant meandered through the beautiful people with bemused satisfaction knowing that what they were lacking in attractiveness was compensated by wit. While beauty may fade and celebrity may slip, humour in hard times is a temporary but welcome tonic.
There was also sentiment and emotion through the humour. Rihanoff told her former dance partner: “I admire you, I respect you, and I adore you.” Indeed, the component of the saga rarely discussed is the role of Rihanoff. She not only used her fine choreographical skills, but displayed her ability with user-generated content. She worked a Web 2.0 campaign. Baudrillard’s simulation of emotion, community and intimacy came to life.
The web glows with comments for the pair. YouTube threads are peppered with statements like “Join the revolution. Vote J. S.” The “John Sergeant and Kristina Rihanoff appreciation thread” is a powerful source to understand this moment in television history. The real emotion and pain felt by the pair’s removal from the show is obvious: “The show has lost it’s [sic] heart now, and doubt I’ll bother watching the remaining handful of ego driven show offs.”
This fan was nearly right. Not only had the heart been removed from the programme but so had the brain. The judges wanted a dancing contest. All they had left were a few ruthlessly ambitious bodies moving with rhythm, but no sentiment or satire. Arlene Phillips told BBC Breakfast, “When [other celebrities] put hours in the practice studio they are constantly working. They do not sit down, and I know with John, he sits and reads The Guardian.” She continues the anti-intellectualism of the reality-television genre. Reading a newspaper is a crime to be punished with a response witnessed in the first few pages of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. A dancercide replaced a regicide.
Entertainment and celebrity, after Diana’s death, has become a ruthless game. With little education, and little embarrassment at a lack of education, a generation of women and men have been satisfied to transform body dysmorphia, cosmetic surgery, weddings, divorce and children (in any particular order) into the foundation for fame. The hostility towards Sergeant was not caused because he could not dance. It was created because of his intelligence, wit and charm. When combined with Rihanoff’s savvy techniques in connecting with supporters, British reality television changed.
Confronted by bullying, humiliation and ageism, the political journalist showed how an intelligent person can win, even as he loses. When the studio audience greeted Sergeant’s last waltz with a standing ovation, they were not cheering a dancer or a dancing competition. They recognised that there can be a space in popular culture for people and programmes that offer voices and views beyond the dim and the nimble.
At the final press conference, Sergeant released a final quip: “The time to leave the party is before the fights start.” The smartest man in the room walked off the dance floor. Reality television shook with the realisation that brilliance – ever so occasionally – will triumph over desperate dexterity. The fight for intelligent popular culture begins.
Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.