Christmas Special 2018 - 25 December 2018
Fun fact: this year I curated a Christmas playlist for my family for Christmas Day in the hope of ensuring a soundtrack that no one would want to complain about. Despite the difficulty in trying to please everyone, only three songs were outright vetoed: 'Fairytale Of New York' (because I don't want to spend my Christmas Day hearing anyone getting called a faggot, thank you very much), '2000 Miles' (because it makes my husband leave the room), and 'Wonderful Christmastime' (because it is arguably the worst Christmas song ever recorded, and yes I am including 'I'd Like To Give You One For Christmas' by Hotpantz in that). So our family's only brush with the hated McCartney ode to the season this Christmas Day was in hearing the samples of it in the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special theme tune, eliciting a collective groan like we'd all just lost our own personal Whamageddon. [Fucking Paul McCartney ruins EVERYTHING - Rad]
We open, of course, with a festive group routine that reminds us who's signed up for a one-off return to the ballroom this year, just in case we're all too full of sprouts at this point to remember the press release. Bafflingly, it stars Darcey Bussell as some kind of Hallmark Original Movie Distracted Modern Mother, too busy making phone calls and... writing in a book(?) to realise that her adorable daughter just wants to spend quality time with her mum at Christmas, dammit! So the daughter takes the only possible course of action: she imagines herself into a storybook world full of celebrity dancers. As the band erupts into the uptempo section of 'All I Want For Christmas Is You', the little girl suddenly finds herself in a beautiful party dress (and credit to both the costume team and the child actor/dancer in question here for the pretty perfect synchronisation of her dancing behind the big screen and the quick wardrobe change that occurs while we're watching the pre-recorded version of her), and her toy soldier comes to life in the form of blighted 2017 ringer Aston Merrygold. He runs off to join 2015 Gleb enabler Anita Rani and a dancing snowman (containing Neil Jones, according to the behind-the-scenes reports from It Takes Two), and they're soon ushered away by rhythmless Tory monster Ann Widdecombe (scenes from my family Christmas: my mum said "oh, not her" when Anita appeared, but there were no vocal objections to Widdy. Pretty sure I'm adopted). The little girl finds herself at a signpost directing her to "Lost Boys" and "Neverland", so it's best we don't think too much about the symbolism of jive axe-murderer Michael Vaughan appearing beneath it. Ann tries to steal the little girl's story book, which is clearly a comment on the devastation wreaked upon public libraries under the Conservative government (no, wait, come back), and the little girl defeats her by turning the page and crushing her. Hooray! Over the page is a toy factory, staffed by busy worker elves and also housing 2014 champion Caroline Flack as Sexy Pinocchio [this was so random but I kind of loved it because Flackers - Rad]. She picks up a toy frog and kisses it (presumably having mistaken it for Pasha), and it turns into our final contestant for the year: Jake Wood, the second of our one-time presumptive winners who had their victory trains derailed by the Janette Manrara express. Ann steals the storybook and runs off again, representing the resurgent Conservative government once again heartlessly defunding valuable public services, but it's okay! Because the little girl runs back home and finds that her mum has left her a snowglobe for Christmas, prompting the return of Darcey, who it turned out loved her all along, and also somehow managed to snatch the story book back from that nasty Tory. Hooray!
Tess and Claudia enter on the arms of Johannes and Graziano respectively, who are dressed as little soldier boys come to life. Wardrobe Watch: Tess is in a red jumpsuit with winged sleeve, and Claudia is in a gold sequinned dress with spaghetti straps. They wish the audience a merry Christmas, thereby continuing Strictly's habit of evilly lying about what day the show was recorded. For shame! Tess informs us that the six returning stars will be performing routines inspired by fairytales and Christmas stories, and Claudia adds that the Kingdom Choir will be performing (again) later. The judges make their festive entrance: Bruno as Prince Charming, Darcey as The Princess (no, not that one), Shirley as the Fairy Godmother, and Craig as the Genie (who appears to have gone slightly overboard on the tan). Then it's the turn of our Christmas stars to enter: TV presenter Caroline Flack and her partner Gorka Márquez, ex-England cricket captain Michael Vaughan and his partner Nadiya Bychkova, from EastEnders Jake Wood and his partner Luba Mushtuk, television presenter Anita Rani and her partner Neil Jones (I like how Caroline is a "TV presenter" and Anita is a "television presenter", I guess that's how they let us know that one does Love Island and the other one does Countryfile), former politician and ongoing irritant Ann Widdecombe and her partner Anton Du Beke, and pop star Aston Merrygold and his partner Janette Manrara. So that's just the last two reunited with their former partners, and everyone else in a new couple, for those of you keeping score. High Kick Watch: just Janette, although Gorka does do a little flourish with his bowler hat that I quite like.
Claudia reminds us that the phone lines won't be opening because this was all recorded over a month ago (and anyone with access to Digital Spy has known who the winner is since then), so the winner tonight will be decided by a combination of the judges and the studio audience. Oh, goodie. I mean if there's one thing wrong with the main format, it's that it's just not dependent enough on people giddy from the studio atmosphere, wouldn't you say?
Making the first bid to be Christmas champions of 2018 are Anita and Neil, with a foxtrot about a little girl who makes friends with a cold and frosty snowman. We're reminded that Anita made the semi-final in 2015 and did a paso flanked by shirtless men, and Anita says it's so good to be back "in the glitterball". Wait, does the entire series take place inside the trophy? That would be a twist. She adds that it's a little bit different this time because she's got a new partner, and she's hoping to summon a little Christmas magic. Neil tells her that The Snowman is the inspiration for their routine, and Anita declares it "amazing", because who hasn't wanted to fly and dance with a snowman? (Me, as it happens: I was a very timid child and also a very literal one, and that whole flying section made me very nervous because I kept thinking of the improbability of a creature made of snow being able to keep a firm grip on a small boy to stop him from plummeting to his death.) They do a bit of business in the VT where Neil spots something wrong with Anita and she tells him that she thinks the whole day will be ruined if they don't have a white Christmas, so she's going to sort some snow by meeting "somebody I've not spoken to in a long time". Was I the only person hoping for this? Sadly there is no Sexy Santa Gleb cameo, Anita's just off to meet boring old regular Santa Claus, who sorts out some CGI snow for them. Yeah, but can he do a Gleb Special? I bet he can't.
They're dancing their foxtrot to 'Winter Wonderland', and it's all very nice and elegant and classic - aside from a genuinely ridiculous bit where they lie on the floor as a moving snowscape gets projected over them to make it look like they're sliding down a hill. Why? What is this adding? [I am a rare advocate for floor projection but this was too much even for me. It just looked shiiiiit. Although I thought it was meant to resemble them flying - Rad] There's also an illegal lift in there which I'm assuming will be ignored because Christmas. Anita's technique looks good, at least, and the whole thing is pretty fun to watch, if a little forgettable - although I do like that when Neil turns back into a snowman at the end, they've given the snowman some ginger hair.
Tess thanks our festive singers - the classic line-up of Hayley, Lance, Andrea and Tommy - and of course Dave Arch and his orchestra. Shirley opens for the judges by saying that Anita managed to melt all the ice - there was some beautiful footwork and lovely heel turns, and Anita brought the magic to Christmas. Bruno says Anita was like a snow angel, and he was completely taken with her. Craig loved the big band section that they went to town on, and the accents that they provided - he thought the whole thing was beautiful. Princess Darcey finishes by saying that they brought razzmatazz and finished it off with a beautiful top line, proving that Anita has lost none of her flair.
In the Clauditorium, Anita says it's so nice to be able to dance again. Claudia asks if it's weird to go from Gleb to Neil, as if anything could be weirder than dancing with Gleb in the first place. Anita says that it's actually lovely because "Neil likes to keep his top on". Oh, so that's why they won't give him a partner for a full series. Scores: Craig 8, Darcey 9, Shirley 9, Bruno 9 for a total of 35. They seem very happy with that score, though I expected slightly more for it.
In the death slot, if such a thing exists at Christmas, we have Aston and Janette. Tess is sitting with the cast of 2018 in the audience and asks Joe if it's nice to be reunited with everyone, and he confirms that it is (having seen them all presumably quite recently when this was filmed), then Tess turns to Ranj to ask him if he's looking forward to seeing Janette again, and Ranj confirms that he's a huge fan of Janette and Aston and he feels like a proud parent right now. That's...a little odd, but okay.
In his VT, Aston says that he feels like he has unfinished business from his time on the show. Weeks eight to thirteen, wasn't it? He also says that he feels very lucky to be dancing with Janette again.  He tells us that since he was on the show, he's got engaged and had a baby (presumably not personally). In training, Janette tells him that their dance is the epitome of what Christmas is all about: a jive to The Nutcracker. Ah yes, love to be reminded of all those Nutcracker-jives of yore. The song is 'What Christmas Means To Me', which I don't think I've ever heard before, but Aston explains that it's all about spending time with your loved ones, which is an extremely convenient segue into going to visit Aston's fiancé and their little boy Grayson. (It blows my mind that there are people out there who actually call their children "Grayson".) Janette goes over to Aston's big-ass house (which my niece informs me features heavily on his Instagram), where Aston tries to sell her on the values of parenthood, possibly in some sort of bid to talk her off the show entirely since most of the pros who have babies in the off-season never come back. Well, the female ones don't, anyway. Janette gifts Grayson a Nutcracker teddy bear, and Grayson doesn't look hugely impressed to be honest. Aston's fiancée Sarah shows off Grayson's jive moves, which are quite impressive for someone so young. If he gets a few more classes in before, say, February, he's probably in with a decent shot of replacing Graziano.
Forgive me, I don't really know The Nutcracker that well (/at all) so I can't comment on the faithfulness of this adaptation (and to be honest I'm a bit exhausted on the faithfulness debate after Poirot The Priest in The ABC Murders), but I am a little bit over seeing Janette Manrara (35) playing children in routines. The jiving looks pretty good to me although I'm sure I spot Aston getting a little bit behind the rhythm in places, and the routine suffers from a resurgence one of the problems that led to me never fully getting on board with Aston in the first place: it's just too full of "look what I can already do!" tricks instead of actual dancing. Also he proper overbalances when he's getting Janette onto his shoulders in the lift. (Which again shouldn't be there, but again: Christmas!) [I thought it was a bit lumpen and boring to be honest, but that might be as much the fact that Christmas dances are longer than usual, or at least seem to be? - Rad]
Shirley gives it a standing ovation, and Janette gives it a "YASSSSSS". Tess calls the routine "classic Aston", and I guess there's no arguing that. Bruno says that Aston is "born to jive", and that it was a "technical tour de force". He thinks it's one of the best jives they've ever had on a Christmas special. Yeah - take that, Helen Skelton! Charlie Brooks better get some ointment for that burn! Moving on: Craig loved the acrobatics, and the way it came across like a street jive (...okay?). Darcey thinks Aston must have springs built into his feet, and Shirley finishes by saying it was a firecracking performance, and she was glad to see him squeezing his leaps and tricks into there.
They march into the Clauditorium where Aston says that Janette is incredible and brings the best out of him in every routine they've done on the show. Even that Viennese waltz? Claudia reminds us that Aston has spawned and gets everyone to wave to Grayson. Scores: 10s all round for a perfect 40. Aston does a celebratory backflip, Claudia runs for cover. [I'd shout bollocks at it but I remember the special from two years ago so I've long stopped giving too many fucks about the special. Although Katie and Brendan's win last year was still great - Rad]
Next up are Ann and Anton, playing the wicked stepsisters, so only the "stepsisters" part requiring any acting. In her VT, Ann says she hasn't danced a step since finishing on Strictly. Or indeed at any point while actually on Strictly. She says that she wouldn't have done the Christmas special if they'd asked her to dance with anyone other than Anton, and honestly that's the best argument for not renewing Anton's contract right there. She's very happy to be reunited with Anton, because it means they can be horrendous people together. Anton says there are no rules about dancing with Ann, apart from "no bumping and grinding", so we can be grateful for small mercies. They don't reveal which dance they're doing - and it's not really like it matters, is it? - but in rehearsals it looks like a paso. There's some business about Cinderella in there too, but I have already spent more time than I care to detailing the actions of Ann Widdecombe, so let's just get right over to the dancefloor.
Apparently they're actually doing an American smooth (see, I told you it didn't matter), and Ann is carried in on a sedan chair by Aljaž, Kevin, Graziano and Johannes, with Aljaž drawing the short straw and having to kiss Anton's hand when he drops Ann off. There's just not enough Blistex in the world, is there? They're dancing to 'Sisters' from White Christmas, so at least the song's nice? The rest is the same stompy, arrhythmic shambles that we've come to expect from Ann Widdecombe, and quite why we're being exposed to it yet again is anyone's guess. I guess the BBC One audience loves familiarity and mediocrity? [I just laughed that they've basically made Widdy do dirty filthy same-sex dancing and that was enough for me -Rad]
The camera cuts to Susannah applauding wildly, and I guess she would be your go-to for Widdecombe support out of this current cast? Tess says "eight years on, and it's good to see you still dragging her across the floor, Anton!" For my money it would've been funnier if she'd said "Ann" at the end, but w/evs. Tess asks Craig if Ann's still got it, and Craig says she never had it. Ann says that Craig has "always given me one" (there's a mental image I could've lived without), but since this is Christmas he should give her two. Number of times Craig actually scored Ann 1, out of the 10 dances she got to perform? Three. Darcey says they were "so glamorous" out there, and claims that Ann was doing "jétés en tournants", which I highly doubt. Shirley tells her to ignore Craig, because she's going to the ball. I thought that was on the list of things Ann refused to do? Bruno says that he is overwhelmed, and it's impossible to find the correct terms to describe any of this, so he just shouts a lot and sexually harasses them instead.
They amble up to the Clauditorium, and it's just not the same without Michelle Williams squealing "we love you Ann!" Ann says it's wonderful to be back in Anton's arms, even when he's dragging her around the floor. Anton says drily that he loves dressing up in a frock and kissing Bruno Tonioli. Scores: Craig 2, Darcey 6, Shirley ("I love you, Ann!") 7 and Bruno 7 for a total of 22, beating Ann's personal best of 21 for the tango.
After some midway madness with Tess and Claudia, it's onwards to Michael and Nadiya. Michael says that his eight-year-old daughter is actually, genuinely a dancer, so she's finding it very amusing that her dad is dancing again. Nadiya tells Michael (44) that he'll be playing Peter Pan in this dance, and Michael says it's hard to get into a youthful mindset when you're all old and that - so they go to visit his daughter Jemima at school. Michael asks the class for tips on how to be young, and one little wisecracker says "get Botox". Nadiya gets Michael to dress up as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (because...?) and they dance for the children. He gets a good review from the class, but concedes they may be a little biased.
They are dancing the Viennese waltz to 'Please Come Home For Christmas', and in the history of people flying on wires on Strictly, I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone look quite as unsteady as Michael does here. Even Ann Widdecombe made it look less awkward. Also they have a giant St Bernard sat with Nadiya at the beginning to no great effect, but I'm a sucker for a cute dog nonetheless. I remember quite enjoying Michael's ballroom back in the day, but he's clearly gone a little off the boil since then - he's dancing most of the routine on tiptoes, his frame looks flimsy, and there's no real sense of him leading it at all. Mind you, it took Natalie Lowe a lot longer to work miracles with him than Nadiya's had, so maybe it's my own fault for not correctly managing my expectations.
Tess thanks Michael for "flying in from Neverland" and he grumbles that it was a bit tight around the mid-regions. Heh. Darcey tells Michael that he's a great leading man, and that he was swift and fast around the dancefloor - occasionally too fast. Shirley says she liked parts of it, and this is definitely a Viennese waltz that would go down well after roast dinner "and Nanny's sherry", because the timing was a bit off - but she liked the flying, and she liked the dog. Over to Bruno, who says that Michael looked like he was in a rush to get back to Neverland, but he "made it back in time" in the end. Craig thought the dog had more grace and his timing was ropey, but he loved the lift and the presentation.
They fly (/walk) up to the Clauditorium, and Michael jokes that most people watching will be shitfaced by now anyway so the timing will probably look okay to them. Hee! Scores: Craig 6, Darcey 8, Shirley 8, Bruno 8 for a total of 30. Michael says that is "plenty".
Our penultimate Christmas couple are Jake and Luba. Tess reminds us that Jake was nicknamed "Snake Hips" when he was on the show, but since it would be ridiculous to make him dress up as a snake, they're going to make him be a frog instead. Jake says that even though it was four years ago that he did the show, people still talk to him about the hips. He's excited because he gets to be on BBC One on Christmas Day twice this year, thanks to Strictly and EastEnders. Luba tells Jake that they'll be doing a cha cha cha themed around The Frog Prince, because it would be a crime to lose those Latin hips to ballroom or something. Their VT storyline is that Jake isn't feeling very Christmassy, possibly because nobody's getting married or divorced or falling off a roof. Luba tries to win him over with a festive hat and mince pies, but nothing doing. In the end, she arranges a choir to sing 'Merry Christmas Everyone' for him a capella, and finally Jake is feeling appropriately seasonal. Hooray!
They're dancing to 'Could It Be Magic', and it opens with poor Jake having to leap out of a well with a green stocking and a foam frog's head on his bonce, which seems particularly cruel. Anyway, Luba kisses him and he turns into a handsome prince, and then they do a cha cha cha. Sadly the cha cha cha curse of 2018 appears to have extended right into the Christmas special, because it's not great: the hips are still present and correct but the routine itself is fairly uninspiring and relies far too much on Jake waving his bum at the camera every 20 seconds. Like Aston's routine, a bit too much time is wasted with showy tricks at the expense of the dancing too.
Shirley is cackling with delight when Tess comes to her for feedback, and she says that she never expected to want to dance with a green frog, but Jake is fantastic: he's got rhythm, fun and personality. Bruno says that Jake has lost none of his reptilian skills (much like Ann Widdecombe), and the snake hips are in perfect working condition - he turned up the heat on a cold winter's day. Craig says he's kissed a lot of frogs, and they've never danced as well as that. Jake obligingly runs up to give him a kiss. Darcey says she's really missed Jake, and his accents were sharp and strong - "those hips don't lie".
Up they hop to the Clauditorium, where Jake says that he hopes he's made his kids proud. He says that Luba is an amazing teacher and dancer, and it's an amazing privilege to dance with her. Scores: Craig 9, Darcey 10, Shirley 10, Bruno 10 for a total of 39.
Closing the competitive aspect of the show are Caroline and Gorka with a charleston. Caroline says that she can't believe it's four years ago since she and Pasha lifted the glitterball trophy, and she's up for any opportunity to be on the show again - so here she is, dancing for Christmas with Gorka. She says it's a strong field (is it?) but she's not doing it for the points. Gorka tells Caroline that their theme is Pinocchio, and she says that the tale reminds her of herself as a child because she was quite naughty back then, "but I'm not any more". Gorka is going to be Jiminy Cricket, and Caroline asks Gorka if she's Pinocchio because she's got a big nose. "Yes," Gorka replies. Gorka's got jokes now! They have a comedy VT about Caroline missing rehearsals and lying about where she's been, which causes her nose to get bigger. Hmm, that's not the part of my anatomy I'd expect to get bigger around Gork[yes, that's quite enough of that, thank you - Ed]. Also, Caroline's fake nose is literally held on with string, I guess the entire BBC One CGI budget went on Watership Down this Christmas. It nearly falls off at one point when she leans forward. Oh dear.
Their charleston is to 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', and the good news is that Caroline clearly learned a lesson from that asthmatic reprise of her salsa at the start of series 13, because this routine is nice and light and well-rehearsed. Charleston was always the dance that suited her best, and that hasn't changed in the last four years. There's good swing and swivel, and also this is a genre where you can actually justify a load of tricks, although the bit where Caroline disappears in a cupboard and reappears down the chimney still feels quite time-wastey. [That bit was dumb but otherwise my favourite of the special, and, not gonna lie, I was quite surprised, going on her S13 reprise - Rad]
Someone on the sound team probably needs to dip Caroline's microphone because you can hear her panting for breath throughout Tess's little chat, and then Bruno says that special Christmas treats don't come any better than this one. Craig says he'd forgotten how good she is, and she was ah-may-zing. Darcey says that Caroline was so impressively supple, it was a packed and delicious routine. Shirley says she's never seen Caroline perform before, but she's everything she looks for in a dancer - exact in detail and light on her feet.
They head up to the Clauditorium, where Claudia asks why Caroline wanted to do a charleston again - Caroline says she was so lucky to be able to do her first one with Pasha and her second one with Gorka. Seriously, that is some plum luck right there. She says he's a little shorter than Pasha and a little more strict, but she's very lucky to have had both of them. Er, as dance partners. Scores: 10s all round again for another perfect 40. Gorka earns my undying love here by mimicking Aston's "everybody out of the way" pre-backflip machinations from earlier, and then just rolling around on the floor.
1=. Aston & Janette - 40
1=. Caroline & Gorka - 40
3. Jake & Luba - 39
4. Anita & Neil - 35
5. Michael & Nadiya - 30
6. Ann & Anton - 22
After a joke that involves a fair misunderstanding of the entire concept of charades and a recap of the dances we've seen this evening, the Kingdom Choir perform 'Silent Night' accompanied by some lovely dancing from Johannes and Amy. Poor Johannes, overlooked for a partner once again. Then again he's far too tall for all three women taking part in this one, I'd imagine.
Before we find out who's won, it's time for the obligatory charitable causes bit, as the contestants and pros join forces with the Make A Wish Foundation and Spread A Smile to make some kids very happy. Kevin is very popular with the kids, though I can't imagine "I want to be trilled at by Ann Widdecombe" was on anyone's list - but then Gorka and Janette do a special jive for everyone, and what is the true spirit of Christmas if not Gorka's arse, eh?
Right, let's end this: Anita and Neil had beautiful footwork, Aston and Janette gave one of the best Christmas jives ever, Ann and Anton "had lovely sweeping lines...on the floor", Michael told the story very well, Jake and Luba turned on the heat, and Caroline and Gorka delivered a fairytale to end all fairytales. But when the studio audience's votes were included, who emerges on top?
The Strictly Come Dancing Christmas champions 2018 are...Aston and Janette! This whole thing really is just turning into the Janette Manrara Redemption Roadshow isn't it? Put money on Christmas champion Dr Ranj for 2019 now. [I call 2020, they seem to save it for the years you're recapping - Rad] Aston says he's had the best time, and Janette's brilliant. Tess hands over the trophy and instructs them to "hold it high!", though there's a fairly obvious flaw in that plan.
We end on one final group dance to 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday', with everyone whirling around the dancefloor in Christmas jumpers, which I can only imagine made everyone very sweaty indeed. Points of interest: Michael almost has to jive again, Ann is conspicuously left out of all choreography until the very end, and even then she just sort of sways on the spot while everyone else is kicking and flicking, until Anton picks her up and twirls her around. Money well spent on that booking, I'm sure.
That's it! We're officially done for 2018, but barring any incidents of force majeure, Rad and I will be back to see you through series 17 in the autumn. Until then, have an excellent 2019 and thanks for reading!