What will happen in the launch show?
Strictly’s 18th series opens with this year’s dancefloor dozen being paired up with their professional partners. This will be via VT rather than in the studio like a normal year, with some "incredible locations” promised by producers. There will then be a group routine to give viewers an early indication of their potential. Each celebrity will only dance with their new pro partner for that number, rather than mixing with the group, before they disappear to the training rooms together. The first live show follows a week later, when the hoofing starts in earnest.
How will the Covid-secure Strictly work?
It’s Strictly, Tess, but not as we know it. Health measures in place to keep the show on-air amid the pandemic mean the major difference will be the look of the Elstree ballroom. There is a reduced studio audience, with fans in bubbles of four, social distancing being practised and plain black face masks mandatory. The judges will sit at separate socially distanced desks. Couples will no longer crowd around co-presenter Claudia Winkleman for interviews but instead perch at cabaret-style tables. Dave Arch’s live band will be slimmed down. Set dressing will be drastically reduced, replaced by “augmented reality” projections.
As for the small matter of the actual dancing? The professional troupe isolated together, enabling them to practice and pre-record group numbers. Celebrities and their pros will now form support bubbles, so close contact is allowed. No dance style will be off-limits. In terms of themed weeks, the Halloween and Blackpool specials won’t happen this year but Movies and Musicals will.
What happens if a Strictly star tests positive for coronavirus?
All the cast face twice-weekly tests. If anyone tests positive once the series begins, they will hang up their dancing shoes and leave the competition immediately. It’s unconfirmed whether a celebrity drop-out would be replaced by a reserve. That call would be made depending on how far into the contest it was, plus other health and safety circumstances.
How will the judging panel cope without Bruno Tonioli?
Well, there’ll be less wild gesticulation and falling off chairs for a start. Strictly fixture Bruno Tonioli will be absent from the live panel because he currently resides in Los Angeles (where he appears on US version Dancing With The Stars). Travel restrictions mean he can’t commute to the UK each week. However, he’ll be watching each Saturday’s action closely and appearing remotely on the Sunday results show via videolink. Let’s hope the 64-year-old remembers to un-mute himself, unlike many Zoom-users of a certain age.
The remaining three judges – Motsi Mabuse, Craig Revel Horwood and Shirley Ballas – will still score routines out of 10. It’s a shame for Strictly statisticians that the total will be out of 30, rather than 40 for direct comparison with previous series, but getting them to score out of 13.33333 was too fiddly. The current plan is for Bruno to return full-time for the semi-final and grand final.
Will the departure of two popular pros be a loss?
Male professionals Kevin Clifton and AJ Pritchard have both departed for pastures new. This will leave a hole, not least because it leaves Anton du Beke as the contest’s only home-grown male pro. (Neil Jones is part of the ensemble but won’t have a celebrity partner this year.)
How good (or bad) will Jacqui Smith be?
Smithy Come Dancing, anyone? Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is this year’s prancing politician. The jury is still out on whether she’ll be an Ann Widdecombe (can’t dance but goes far due to comedy value), an Ed Balls (can dance a bit, does well with novelty routines) or an Edwina Currie (voted off in the first week). She fears being first out, admitting: “I’d be gutted. But I’ve lost votes before. As a politician, you know what it’s like to be on the wrong end of democracy.”
Smith, 57, has certainly had a glamorous makeover with a new look that’s a far cry from her Westminster years. This year’s other mature contestants are actress Caroline Quentin, 60, and comedian Bill Bailey, 55. This trio will be in a mini-contest of themselves. Quentin has the most dance experience, albeit decades ago, but Bailey will add entertainment value.
How will Strictly’s first same-sex couple work?
Former Olympic boxer Nicola Adams will be the first ever contestant to have a same-sex dance partner – although it hasn't yet been revealed who that will be. It’s now a case of looking forward to who she's paired with, whether their chemistry fizzes, and how they’re styled and choreographed together. A Rocky routine in Movie Week feels inevitable.
Are HRVY and Max George OK?
Who? They’re two of the “celebrity” males and both are concerns in different ways. Vowel-averse YouTuber and pop singer HRVY (real name Harvey Cantwell) tested positive for Covid-19 a fortnight ago but is now virus-free, fully recovered and able to take part.
Meanwhile, Max George from boyband The Wanted was last week rocked by the tragic news that his former bandmate Tom Parker, 32, has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Max posted a lengthy tribute to his “brother, friend and bandmate”, vowing to support Tom all the way. Expect poignant VTs and emotional routines.
Who will win the glitterball trophy?
The youngsters, as is often the case, are the hot bookies’ tips. EastEnders actress Maisie Smith, 19, won the Strictly Children In Need Special last year and has dance training (so expect the traditional cries of “Ringer!”). She’s been installed as favourite, followed by 21-year-old HRVY. Max George, retired American footballer Jason Bell and Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo could also enter contention.
Will the dancing be of a lower standard this year?
The field is smaller and the series shorter than we’re used to. There are 12 hopefuls instead of 15, while the contest runs for nine weeks rather than 13. This does mean less time for celebrities to improve and go on a “journey™”.
However, the fact that couples will be isolating together with fewer distractions and other commitments should mean they train even harder to compensate. Hopes are high that standards will be maintained. Forget the world outside. Test negative, stay positive and let’s dance.