In this week’s print issue of The Stage (and also reproduced online), a writer to the letters page wonders whether racism is a reality in TV talent shows:
I just wanted to get the chance to bring up an issue that has repeatedly come to my attention over the last year observing reality TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, I’d Do Anything, Last Choir Standing and The X-Factor and which I’m sad to say has very much been the case since these programmes began.
In these shows contestants of ethnic minorities are repeatedly voted off by the British public in situations where they are held in better esteem by their fellow contestants/judges/leaderboards than their white rivals indicating the ‘support your own ethnic/class group’ mentality of the British public, which surely makes any of these competitions unfair and must be very dispiriting for an ethnic minority performer in Britain.
Last week, of course, we had a Strictly Come Dancing dance-off between the only two ethnic minority celebrities, actor Don Warrington and singer Heather Small, despite three other couples receiving lower marks from the judges.
So does our letter writer have a point?
Let’s start with Strictly. For this show, above all the other reality shows cited, we have some statistical data. It’s the only show where the judges in the studio award points, and have a direct input into the scores received by contestants.
Last week’s show saw political correspondent John Sergeant, GMTV presenter Andrew Castle and swimmer Mark Foster (along with their respective partners, Kristina Rihanoff, Ola Jordan and Hayley Holt) avoid the dance-off despite receiving fewer than 20 points apiece. Heather and Don, on the other hand, were awarded 23 and 25 points respectively, yet found themselves having to dance again.
When it comes to calculating the final placement each week, though, the judges’ scores are regraded, so that whoever is in last place gets 1 point, the couple with the next highest score gets 2 points, and so on. Viewers’ votes are converted into a similar scale, and the two scores are added together.
This means that although there were a clear six points between Mark and Andrew (17 points each) and Heather, there was a single point difference when the scores were calculated — which effectively means that, while the middle of the judges’ leaderboard may look like a safe position, it’s actually quite a precarious one.
There is plenty of evidence that the public has a tendency to support those couples who find themselves right at the bottom of the list (one may call it the “Garraway Factor”, after last year’s principal beneficiary). That was certainly the case with John Sergeant, even though he tempted fate by acknowledging it on screen. It’s not inconceivable that both Mark and Andrew received some similar support, for whatever reason — the sight of an Olympic swimmer’s pectorals, or the sight of a grown man beating himself up for not doing very well being two possibilities. On various SCD message boards, it’s also become folklore that whenever Craig Revel Horwood, the show’s harshest judge, awards a low mark, the public overcompensates.
With both Heather and Don, it was disappointing to see them in the dance-off — but it was not unexpected (indeed, one of our commenters proved remarkably prescient). So it’s disappointing that the show was forced to lose 50% of its black representatives, but it’s not in itself proof of endemic racism.
The main example our letter writer cited was of I’d Do Anything contestant Keisha Amponsa-Banson, whose departure from the show saw Andrew Lloyd-Webber leave his podium at haste.
Keisha was a veteran of the IDA sing-off, having been placed in the bottom two by the voting public. It was far from her first time in that position, though, and each time she had previously been asked to sing for survival, it was just as believable that she was there for artistic reasons than because of her skin colour.
I felt Keisha’s presence there was unwarranted this week, and certainly in the sing-off itself she gave a blistering performance. Andrew, never very good at hiding his emotions, proclaimed himself to be very, very angry, but ultimately saved Niamh, leaving Keisha to finally exit the competition after many near misses. Andrew wasted no time in departing his throne either, a walkout that the BBC cameras helpfully recorded for posterity.
As far as I know, Lord Lloyd-Webber has never publicly stated just why he was so angry on that night. From what we’ve seen of the man, though, it would have been down to artistic (and, of course, commercial) reasons and those alone. As I again said at the time:
…if you want 100% control over the casting, the last thing you do is involve the Saturday evening voting public…
I’m not trying to deny anything here. There may be some element of racial profiling going on in some people’s minds when they ring a premium rate phone line to vote. Certainly some clearly vote on entertainment value rather than for technical ability to generate the Garraway Factor. I remain optimistic, though, that a larger portion vote for the person who they think can best fill the role, or the celebrity that is becoming the best dancer.
I actually think that there some issues of race to be explored more fully when it comes to Strictly Come Dancing. Not on the celebrity side — a show where Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson are runners up (in series 2 and 3 respectively), and the show has been won by ethnic minority competitors (Mark Ramprakash and Alesha Dixon) for the last two years has actually shown that ability wins out every time, regardless of skin colour.
No, the real kicker for me is that in all six series of the show, every single one of the professional dancers taking part has been white. If you really want to talk about race in Strictly, that’s where you ought to start.