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Song-and-dance shows set Brit toes tapping

Old-fashion variety shows find new life abroad

LONDON — Mass-appeal Saturday night TV, apparently killed off by the lure of digital media and the reality boom, is back from the brink after years of high-profile expensive flops.

The reason? An old-fashioned cocktail of wholesome entertainment that has more in common with the golden age of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers than today’s abrasive and often voyeuristic forms of popular entertainment.

The weekend before last, a third of the U.K. population (21 million plus) tuned in to watch the final episodes of two new shows that have confounded the expectations of industryites and commentators alike.

“When I told colleagues that I wanted to do a show that revolved around couples competing in a ballroom-dancing competition, they thought I was mad,” says BBC entertainment topper Wayne Garvie.

But Garvie and the fancy footwork of his show, “Strictly Come Dancing,” based on a format first screened in 1950, has provided a much-needed hit for BBC1, the pubcaster’s faltering terrestrial flagship.

In the show, which bowed last summer, celebrities including soap stars and comedians team up with professional dancers, with the pairs voted off by audiences week by week.

Hosted by septuagenarian Bruce Forsyth, who cut his teeth in legit variety shows before breaking into TV in the 1950s, the show has appeal that has stretched across a broad demographic.

The extraordinary thing about what pundits have hailed as the return of the TV variety show is that “Strictly Come Dancing’s” success has been matched by another Saturday night vehicle, ITV1’s “The X Factor,” a talent show that, too, harks back to a more innocent age.

” ‘The X Factor’ is a great big entertainment spectacular that contains elements of the old variety shows,” says executive producer Claire Horton. “People say it’s a reality show (viewers vote ‘Idol’-style for their favorite act), but I think it’s a traditional entertainment show.”

As proof of the show’s diversity, pub and club singer Steve Brookstein beat classical quartet G4 in the final to win a £1 million ($1.9 million) recording contract.

Co-produced by Simon Cowell’s Syco TV and Fremantle Media subsidiary Talkback Thames, “The X Factor” is one of ITV1’s few shows that are popular for 16-35 year olds.

At its peak, 11.2 million viewers tuned in to see “EastEnders” star Jill Halfpenny and her pro partner Darren Bennet win “Strictly Come Dancing” with 10.5 million opting for “The X Factor.”

In Blighty “Strictly Come Dancing’s” popularity has even led to a boom in dance classes.

But could the show work outside the U.K.?

“We’ve sold it in Australia, but it’s not something that can succeed in every market,” Garvie admits. “Ballroom dancing is huge in Japan, so I think it could work there, but I don’t think it’s right for the French. It might work in the States, and I know people are interested there.

“When you get audiences like we’ve got for these two shows, it gives everyone who works in telly a real lift,” he adds.

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