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23 January 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:53am

When people ask, “Could Trump happen here?” I often think about Dancing on Ice

Offered the chance to see skating performed by dedicated professionals, most of Britain would rather see it done badly by someone who used to be in Westlife. 

By Giles Smith

The presenter Philip Schofield likes to call it “the greatest show on ice”, and we can argue about that. But what’s not open to dispute is that Dancing on Ice is now Britain’s leading platform for the exposure of celebrities to gratuitous peril on a frozen surface.

How dangerous is dancing on ice? It’s certainly more dangerous than dancing not on ice – or, as we prefer to call it, Strictly Come Dancing, to which Dancing on Ice forms a kind of frozen companion piece. Ice dance, as practised in ITV’s day-glo rink, feels breathtakingly reckless in the context of 21st-century attitudes to health and safety, and in many ways the 11-series history of Dancing on Ice is an extended study in flirting with disaster.

Veteran viewers still recall with horror the night in 2006 when Bonnie Langford, while being whirled around by the ankles, almost had her brains dashed out live and in prime-time. Then there was Keith Chegwin’s broken shoulder, and Vanilla Ice’s traumatised eye socket, not to mention that time Jorgie Porter from Hollyoaks skated across her professional partner’s forehead, or when Jennifer Ellison managed to plough the top of her own head with her skate and left the ice newly mohawked.

Dancing on Ice’s only rival as a generator of A&E cases used to be The Jump, Channel 4’s similarly ill-advised celebrity Winter Olympiad. The ambulance was such a frequent visitor to The Jump’s brightly lit set in the Austrian Alps that the show stood accused of depleting the nation’s natural stocks of forgotten Big Brother winners and former members of So Solid Crew. It floored its share of proper athletes, too, whose gifts weren’t primarily for slalom skiing: Linford Christie (hamstring), Steve Redgrave (hand), Beth Tweddle (neck vertebrae). Before flying home with a wounded ankle in season four, Bradley Wiggins looked into the camera and uttered a line that might have served the programme as an alternative title: “I was a successful Olympian – now I’m skiing like a prat.”

But The Jump is history, leaving only the fast-receding memories of Jason Robinson, the England rugby international, landing a widely admired ski jump of 14.95 metres. Just to put that feat in perspective, the current world record in that event, held by Stefan Kraft of Austria, is 253.5 metres.

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Best not to speak too loudly about actual sport, though. As usual, the current season of Dancing on Ice will coincide for a while with the annual European Figure Skating Championships – this year from Minsk – the UK television audience for which will barely register. By contrast, 6.5 million people watched the Dancing on Ice launch show this year, wherein a deeply uneasy Brian McFadden was to be found sliding across the ice in the way a filing cabinet slides across an office during an earthquake.

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One was forced to draw a dismaying conclusion: offered the chance to see figure skating performed to the most exacting standards by dedicated professionals, the vast majority of the British population would rather see it done badly by someone who used to be in Westlife. Talk about Michael Gove and his “had enough of experts”. When people ask, “Could Trump happen here?”, I often think about Dancing on Ice.

We’re some way, clearly, from the cosiness of Strictly, where the room glows warmly, where heat and emotions are generated and where celebrities and pros are forever copping off with each other. OK, the former Arsenal and England goalkeeper David Seaman found love with the professional dancer Frankie Poultney during series nine of Dancing on Ice in 2014 – almost certainly to the disappointment of his wife. But what chiefly comes home to us in the sitting room is frigid, municipal, icy. And anyway, at the point we see them, most of the contestants are far too busy concentrating on not gliding uncontrollably out of the studio, crossing the corridor and ending up on another programme altogether.

Incidentally, people always complain that they have never heard of the “so-called celebrities” on these shows, the assumption being that it would be so much better if the producers managed to land someone we’ve all heard of: Prince Charles, say, or Beyoncé, or Angela Merkel. But is that automatically true? Being slightly less than comfortably famous and slightly less than reliably employed is, surely, a good part of the engine that drives a celebrity ice dancing contest. Yes, Prince Charles would bring something to the rink, but it is neediness bordering on desperation that’s the chief requirement here, and you’ll get that even more reliably from resting soap stars and the shards of long-crushed boy bands.

What’s going through the minds of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, though, the show’s head judges and guiding lights? Their gold-winning Bolero routine at the Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984 remains, in terms of audience share, the third biggest sporting event in British history after the 1966 World Cup final and the replay of the 1970 FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leeds. And now here they are, watching Gemma Collins from The Only Way is Essex barge her way around the ice and then shout down the judge charged with critiquing her performance.

Likely as not, Torvill and Dean conceive of their role as ambassadorial, and would argue that on some level the sport benefits. That was certainly Tom Daley’s argument when he was criticised for his involvement in the celebrity diving contest Splash! – that the show might interest a new generation in diving. As it turned out, Splash! briefly interested a new generation in the sight of Penny Mordaunt MP belly-flopping off the five-metre platform, and, shortly after that, ITV cancelled it. It’s a thin line, clearly – and an altogether risky business. 

Giles Smith will be writing fortnightly

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This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?