Sporting victory can come down to the finest of margins, and so too can success in the Strictly ballroom. On Sunday night Annabel Croft very nearly ended her extraordinary dark horse run with a place in next week’s grand final – but alas, it wasn’t to be.
Croft, who finished bottom of Saturday’s combined leaderboard, landed in the dance-off with Bobbie Brazier (second to bottom), and both celebrities reprised a ballroom dance: Croft her delicate Viennese waltz and Brazier his buoyant quickstep. A split decision meant that head judge Shirley Ballas had to use her casting vote for the first time this season, and she saved Brazier.
That means our youthful final trio, who will compete for the glitterball trophy next Saturday, are Layton Williams, Ellie Leach and Brazier. But for Croft, it’s game, set and match.
Annabel was the people’s champion
Croft’s exit is a disappointment for the millions of viewers who were moved and inspired by her “journey” with popular pro Johannes Radebe, but in many ways, Croft had already won. Radebe brought her out of her shell during an incredibly difficult time (her husband Mel passed away earlier this year), and gave her a new lease of life. She will take so much away with her from this Strictly experience.
No one expected Croft to go this far. The 57-year-old wasn’t one of the big names going into this season, nor one of the “ringers”: she had no dance or performance background, other than her presenting work. A surprisingly accomplished cha cha cha in Week 1, with neat footwork and good rhythm, suggested potential, but it’s been a slow build, dance by dance.
By Week 7, Croft was ready to open herself up to the public by dedicating her Couple’s Choice to her late husband, and in the following week’s samba, she unleashed her inner party girl: this was a whole new woman, liberated and rediscovering joy. She even scored a 10 in Week 10 for her passionate paso doble, and Anton Du Beke proclaimed her ballroom topline the best in the competition.
But what viewers loved most was her relationship with the supportive Radebe. In her gracious exit speech, Croft said to him: “You have given me a reason to get out of bed and come and dance with you, to distract me and heal me. You are an unbelievably special human being. I simply adore you.” She called Strictly “the most wholesome family entertainment magical show, with so much glitz and glamour and so much enjoyment for everybody.”
In turn, Radebe thanked Croft for deciding to enter the show and said: “My life is richer with you in it. I hope we dance long after this has ended.” It’s been another triumphant run for the South African pro; if the BBC has any sense, they’ll hand him a very promising celebrity next year.
Shirley Ballas makes the final decision
In a rather extraordinary turn of events, Ballas hasn’t voted at all this season – her fellow judges have reached majority decisions without her. So it wasn’t until this crucial semi-final dance-off that the head judge got to actually weigh in on the elimination.
It was a challenging one, too, with Croft and Brazier pretty evenly matched. The latter had scored higher on Saturday night (two 9s and two 10s, to Croft’s three 8s and one 9), but Croft has been the ballroom queen for much of this season, and had more potential to improve in the dance-off.
Craig Revel Horwood spoke for all the judges when he noted it was a tricky comparison to make, with one dance “flashy” (Brazier’s quickstep) and one “quiet” (Croft’s Viennese waltz). He thought that Croft had improved enough that, based purely on this dance, she and her “exquisite technique” deserved to go through.
Motsi Mabuse agreed it was a tough call, but she noted a “slight hesitation” in Croft’s performance, so voted for Brazier. Anton Du Beke agree: Croft wasn’t as clean as he would have liked when coming out of her pivots, so he voted for Brazier.
With the vote standing at two to one, it was up to Ballas to decide who would go through to the final. She praised them both for lifting their performances, but concurred on Croft’s minor error, so decided to save Brazier.
Should we scrap the semi-final dance-off?
This really was a close call, and, on the whole, I think the judges got it right. Croft improved enough that her technique equalled, or perhaps just bettered, Brazier’s, but she also made a clear error – which should be taken into account in this situation.
However, I do wonder what the result would have been without the dance-off. Revel Horwood said on X: “Can I just remind everyone on this platform that you can vote to put your favourites into the final. We as judges have 50% of the vote. You have the remaining 50%. If you don’t vote then you have no voice.”
Except that’s not actually true with the current system. That 50/50 split only decides who goes into the dance-off – then the judges have all the power, and the audience none. With so few celebrities left, it would take some complicated maths to entirely frustrate them.
Perhaps Brazier would have still gone through. He really impressed with two strong routines this week and fought for his place, while Croft had issues in her salsa. Nor does it really affect the final result: it’s highly likely that either Leach or Williams will win. But I can’t help feeling that this particular dance-off put the less interesting celebrity through, and curtailed an underdog story for the ages.
Deck the halls
Christmas came early to the Strictly studio, thanks to a group routine providing the mash-up precisely no one was asking for: ballroom dancing-meets-gloopy festive romance movie, of the “overworked woman gets stuck in a charming small town and falls for a humble lumberjack, who turns out to be a prince in disguise, and they get married in matching reindeer jumpers” variety.
Lauren Oakley is TORMENTED by happy couples until she too is paired off, with the handily available Graziano Di Prima. Snow falls. Richard Curtis breathes a happy sigh. Plus: bonus dog! Called Mr Darcy! He is easily the highlight of the entire run of pro dances.
We also got a musical performance from the remainder of Take That (Gary Barlow, Mark Owen and Howard Donald – all wearing exceedingly naff velvet suits), singing their latest, very middle-of-the-road single This Life. The female pros slinked around them in slightly bored backing-dancer fashion.