Before Strictly‘s head judge waltzes away from the series, Jane Hill salutes his charm, his love of rules and his disdain for “messing abaht”.
Len knows that rules are rules
Ballroom dancing, like any competitive activity, has rules. And the rules are supposed to be kept to. The dances are codified. When Brendan (and it’s always Brendan) choreographs an illegal lift in a foxtrot, Len is disappointed in the same way your mum is disappointed when you tread mud through the house or punch your brother.
As far as Len’s concerned, it’s like picking up the ball in football and running with it, or doing the crawl in a breaststroke race. It may look great, Brendan; it may even seem artistically right, you hot-headed Aussie. But if it breaks the sacred rules of ballroom, Len will mark you down. He might seem grumpy for doing it, he doesn’t want to, but he will. Them’s the rules. When Len goes, will Strictly become some kind of anarchic free-for-all?
He’s our bulwark against “messing abaht”
Len hates messing abaht. He hates it when the dancers spend ages prancing about on the top step doing all sorts of business before they finally get into hold. And he particularly hates all the prop nonsense. First it was just an occasional top hat or parasol, then garden benches and flower-bedecked swings started creeping in. Next thing we know, Ore and Joanne are dancing the paso doble around a table for absolutely no good reason.
Len takes a stand against these things. He’ll dock points if too much time is spend faffing around on a giant swan that’s been lowered from the ceiling and not enough time in hold. Again, without Len, anarchy.
It weighs heavily on Len each week that someone has to leave and that his could be the casting vote that sends them back to obscurity and breaks up a promising show-mance. In truth, Len rarely gets to give his casting vote – only once this season, I think. But he’s always prepared.
As Tess announces “in the event of a tie, head judge Len will have the casting vote,” we cut to Len and watch his face. He pulls a little moue of distaste at the gravity of the task in front of him, then puts his shoulders back and tilts his head to one side, graciously accepting the weight of the responsibility. He’s the head judge and that sometimes calls for the wisdom of Solomon.
Would his rumoured successor Anton du Beke have such gravitas?
Len loves a trier
“You got out there on the flawer and you give it a good go.” If Len tells you this it means you are a bit shit. But he says it nicely, and he means it nicely, so treasure it. Because basically that’s an A for effort and if you improve a bit more, then next week you might get a seven.
Len’s appreciation of the finer points of ballroom is a joy to behold. Give him a fleckerl* and his face lights up. Heck, even some well-executed heel leads will bring a smile to his face. Classic steps done well; that’s all he’s asking for. Will his successor want the same? (Please let it be Karen Hardy off of It Takes Two).
*A fleckerl is the fancy bit, usually in a Viennese waltz, where the dancers rotate on the spot and the man does something complicated with his feet.
He’s a National Treasure(TM) and he knows it
Len was in his 60th year when Strictly began and you sense he’s loved almost every bit, except when Brendan disappoints him or Bruno accidentally hits him. The weekly commute to the US for Dancing with the Stars might be a bit of a slog, but Len has embraced his stardom and perfected his character and I don’t know what we’ll do without him.
My friend Monica Winfield met Len when she interviewed him for her radio programme and was thrilled to find his persona backstage was exactly the same: “Absolutely charming, a bit naughty, great eye contact, accomplished flirt.” Admittedly she lurves Len. But it’s always nice when National Treasures remain National Treasurey offstage.
He reminds us of a time when men learned to dance
Len was a welder at the Harland & Wolff shipyard. He didn’t yearn for showbiz; I’m sure he didn’t dream of TV stardom. But he learned ballroom dancing because that’s what working-class men did back then. My dad did; my Uncle Bob did. They took ballroom dancing lessons and learned how to steer nervous young women around the floor at the factory dinner dance because that was an essential life skill.
One of the great joys of life is watching your elderly uncle spin your aunt lightly around the dance floor at a wedding, doing all the proper steps, while the blokes who grew up in the 60s and 70s just awkwardly move from one foot to the other, like that boy in the stripy tank top on the Top of the Pops clip of David Bowie doing Starman.
Light on his feet in his immaculate black tie and shiny shoes, Len is a window to another age, and we’ll miss it.
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Jane Hill is a novelist who also does standup comedy. When she’s not doing either of those, she works for the BBC on local radio projects. She lives with her partner in rural Leicestershire and once reached the Mastermind semi-finals.