When I saw the news that John Sergeant had apparently fallen on his sword and retired gracefully with a bow from Strictly Come Dancing, I initially thought to myself ‘What a magnificent publicity coup!’ With a little time and distance from that first reading, I have changed my mind – I am no longer convinced that Sergeant left the show willingly and, whilst the publicity is excellent for him, it would probably have been better had he stayed the course. Or had been allowed to stay the course.
Consider this; John Sergeant was clearly enjoying himself. His dancing was improving and he was clearly enjoying the onrush of cult status his continued survival on the show brought forth. Certainly the audience were relishing him – he may have scored consistently low with the judges, but each week there he was again, shuffling around the dance floor with a look of steely concentration in his eye.
The public tend to treat such shows as popularity contests rather than talent contests, and Sergeant’s slightly bumbling, hope-for-the-best dance persona was a natural winner in that context. I’m also certain that there were a large number of viewers voting for him who were simply delighted to see a more elderly gent shuffling through the numbers next to the bright young things you get everywhere these days; these voters are the same sort of people who registered their disapprobation with Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand recently.
But there was clearly an enormous revolution amongst the judges and producers of the show and I would suggest that they pushed John Sergeant onto his sword. Why would he want to leave the show, after all? He was making a name for himself outside the political and journalistic circles he was best known for, an excellent example of the process I describe in The Fame Formula, wherein, to stay famous, a person has to come up with a new string to their bow every fifteen months.
It’s not as if, in these cash-strapped times, every talent show contest winner is going to make an enormous impact overnight. Last year’s Strictly Come Dancing winner, Alesha Dixon, has not been propelled into the celebrity stratosphere, as one might have normally expected – although this may change in the wake of her forthcoming album release.
John Sergeant, however gracefully he may have departed – in stark contrast to some of his performances on the dance floor – can surely not have wanted to go. His insistence that it was time to go before the joke wore thin was a definite publicity coup – he admitted his failings and got on with it – but the fact that he said “it’s like when you decide when you leave a party, and the time to leave a party is before the fight starts, and I think that’s really what’s happened on this occasion” is most revealing. The producers were clearly attempting to protect the Strictly Come Dancing brand and, if he had not gone, things may have become ugly.
PR people can ponder the publicity coup aspect all they like, but the truth of it is surely that the public have had the ability to decide the show taken away from them in the name of brand protection.