Why Bill Bailey on Strictly was a ghost of Christmas past – David Behrens

If ever there was a year to cling to the past, and to values we never appreciated at the time, this is it. Even the Christmas of 12 months ago seems now to belong to a different era.

Bill Bailey and his dance partner Oti Mabuse and Bill Bailey winning the final of Strictly Come Dancing 2020.

In North Yorkshire, where the cinemas are still open, audiences have been treated to screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy about a businessman taken under the wing of a guardian angel and shown what life would have been like without him. Oh, for a heavenly intervention today.

Those of us in the wrong Riding have had to rely on the TV, or our memories, to summon the ghosts of Christmas past. In my case, it came in the form of Bill Bailey winning the final of Strictly Come Dancing.

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I wouldn’t normally have paid any attention to this, not least because I could never see the point of reviving a tired old TV format that reminded me of tedious evenings with nothing else to watch when I was growing up.

Bill Bailey and his dance partner Oti Mabuse and Bill Bailey winning the final of Strictly Come Dancing 2020.

Even the non-celebrity Come Dancing seemed an anachronism. No-one of my age went ballroom dancing or sewed sequins on to gowns, and the show seemed to stand for all that was outdated about a BBC which appeared not to know that anyone under 30 was watching. Now, of course, the opposite is true.

And so it was that when the Billy Cotton Band Show and the show jumping from Wembley was over, Peter West would trot out in his dinner jacket on to the floor of some dimly-lit dance hall in Margate and introduce Syd Perkin, the Bruno Tonioli of his day. When the music stopped, Peter would resume his commentary on Denis Compton and Fred Trueman at Lord’s. This had been going on since 1950.

It took Bill Bailey, a comedian and musician very much of the rock era, to provide an unlikely bridge between the generations. I had seen the way he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand back in 1994, when I booked him for a TV show I was directing in Leeds and Newcastle. He came on with his guitar and did a parody of the insipid song about LS Lowry, Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, with each verse about a different artist. Before he got to the last one, the microphone stand began inexplicably to sink into its socket, forcing him to squat like Dixon of Dock Green. It was then that he uttered the inspired ad lib: “And now, Toulouse-Lautrec.” There were many great comics on that show, but only one who touched the heights of genius.

The success of Come Dancing has spawned a small industry in resurrecting old TV ideas. Countdown and The Price is Right have also been appropriated by comedians, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is basically Double Your Money with added jeopardy.

But none of these holds a candle to a long-forgotten show that re-emerged on a DVD compilation this week. This was called For Love or Money, a sort of primitive Price Is Right from the dawn of the 1960s, in which contestants had to choose between unknown amounts of cash and austerity consumer goods like chipboard dressing tables and cardboard luggage sets. A Mr Boocock from Guiseley walked away with a bureau which didn’t look as if it would survive the journey home, and was forced to brave it out when a young Bob Monkhouse told him that he had turned down 6,000 shillings – about £7,000 in today’s money.

The expression on Mr Boocock’s face told us that this was not the worst thing that had happened to him. He was old enough to have been through the war, as was the studio audience in Manchester and the larger one at home. Another small disappointment was just part of life’s rich tapestry.

That is what marks out that generation from ours. They poured their spare time into sewing sequins on to ball gowns because they knew that a night on the dance floor, or even half an hour watching someone else dance on TV, was as good as life was likely to get.

Had Frank Capra’s guardian angel taken them forward to 2020 to show them the privations that lay in store, they would have been as untroubled as Mr Boocock was when he was sent packing back to Guiseley with his collapsing consolation bureau.

There is a lesson for all of us here, as we weigh the awfulness of the year ending and look forward in hope and expectation of a better one to come. Every generation has had its cross to bear. This has been ours.

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