Brits Riveted By A Tory On The Dance Floor

Every western nation seems to have its own TV celebrity dance show these days. Britain has gone one step further. Millions of its inhabitants this weekend are eagerly following the fortunes of a highly unlikely ballroom star, Ann Widdecombe, a 63-year-old former Tory minister known for her outspoken, moralizing views. She's won huge popularity despite being an appallingly bad dancer.

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All Western nations seem to have their own TV talent shows. The British are addicted to them. NPR's London correspondent Philip Reeves spent this weekend watching the tele and he found the British are breaking some surprising boundaries.

PHILIP REEVES: Allow me to introduce you to a woman called Ann Widdecombe. Widdecombe's a former British government minister. She's known across this kingdom for her stridently conservative views: abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women priests, cannabis - Widdecombe's against them all. I should say - the Right Honorable Ann Widdecombe.

She qualifies for that title as a member of the Privy Council, a traditional body that's supposed to advise the Queen. For years, Widdecombe's been widely viewed here as a noisy busybody, the sort of finger-wagger most liberals would seek to avoid. Her fortunes have changed.

Last night, millions of Britons sat down eagerly to watch the Right Honorable Widdecombe carving a clumsy path across a ballroom floor. Many of them were actually rooting for her. Widdecombe's the unlikely star of Britain's hugely popular talent show "Strictly Come Dancing." "Dancing With the Stars" was modeled on it. Celebrities get paired up with professional dancers. They do the cha-cha-cha, they tango and jive. Their fate's determined by a mixture of the judges' scores and an audience phone vote.

The Right Honorable Widdecombe - or Widders, as the British tabloid papers now affectionately call her - is a terrible dancer. She looks like one of those awkward British patricians who, like the Queen, just find it very difficult to strut along to erotic Latin rhythms. Oh, and she's also 63, rotund, and very short.

The judges and critics have unkindly called her a hippo, a heffalump and, last night, a dancing disaster. Widdecombe's compared herself to an elephant.

She usually gets dismal scores from the judges, yet every week, the British public has come to her rescue, voting to keep her on the show. On one show, swaddled in pink and sequins, Widdecombe flew in from the rafters on a wire into the arms of her tall, lean partner Anton.

ANN WIDDECOMBE (TV game show contestant): But if you saw Anton on the dance floor, wouldnt you fly down?

REEVES: On another, the Right Honorable Widders appeared in a billowing gold frock, laid down on the floor and was whirled around by Anton to the tune of "Wild Thing." How the crowd roared.

(Soundbite of cheering)

REEVES: When Widdecombe first appeared on the show, the bookies had her at 100-to-one to win. They've revised that to seven-to-one.

I find all this very strange. I know the British love an underdog and a good sport, and, hey, Widdecombe recently retired from politics so she can do what she likes. But she is a Right Honorable and a former government minister. This behavior would be unusual anywhere, even in America.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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We Dare You To Stop Watching This British Politician Dance To 'Wild Thing'

Heard On 'Weekend Edition'

NPR's Philip Reeves reports on why Ann Widdecombe is hugely popular despite being an appallingly bad dancer.

'Strictly Come Dancing' Series 8 Launch Show - Arrivals

hide captionAnn Widdecombe attends the 'Strictly Come Dancing' Season 8 Launch Show at BBC Television Centre on September 8, 2010 in London, England.

Stuart Wilson/Getty Images Europe

Today on Weekend Edition Sunday, Philip Reeves reported on the current season of Strictly Come Dancing, the UK version of Dancing With The Stars (or, more fairly, DWTS is the U.S. version of Strictly Come Dancing).

As Reeves explains, this season features Ann Widdecombe, a conservative politician often perceived as, he says, a "noisy busybody." Now: she is not a good dancer. In fact, she is really, really not a good dancer, but she has won herself some fans based on the sheer spectacle of her bad dancing which, I have to say, puts to shame most bad dancers that have ever appeared on the U.S. Dancing.

The BBC has been kind enough to offer some video of Widdecombe, including a performance of "Wild Thing" that really must be seen to be believed.

YouTube

I'm also fond of this little boogie to "Mambo Italiano," in which you can actually see her partner counting right in her face.

YouTube

As much as folks are laughing at her, Widdecombe doesn't ultimately come off badly here, in terms of ... well, when it comes to "Wild Thing," you have to be a pretty good sport in order to let somebody drag you around on the floor like that. It's easy to see, based on these two videos, how she might, without any recognizable ability whatsoever, become rather popular, just as Reeves says she has — with the odds that she'd win rocketing from 100 to 1 to 7 to 1.

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