He came. He danced. He conquered. That pretty much sums up 2019 Strictly champion Kelvin Fletcher who, as a last-minute addition to the original line-up (replacing an injured Jamie Laing), went from zero to hero within nanoseconds of stepping on to the dance floor.
His opening Samba routine sent jaws to the floor when he displayed a natural flare for the notoriously difficult dance and his wattage never dimmed as he powered through the competition to lift the Glitterball trophy three months later. Fletcher is a star, and, arguably, the best amateur that Strictly has seen over its 17 series.
Unsurprisingly, he was the main attraction on the opening night of the Strictly Tour, a condensed version of the TV series that draws tens of thousands of eager fans out on an unforgiving January evening to witness seven of the pro-celebrity couples battling it out for the nightly prize.
It’s a glorious production, and, since the TV show only allows over-14s in its audience, it is also the closest that excitable young fans can get to their dance idols. The Thursday-night audience in Birmingham was decidedly flat, though, and you can’t help wondering if the absence of youth and groups of partying revellers played a part – a misstep, maybe, to schedule the opener on a school night.
Host Stacey Dooley – who won Strictly to thundering applause with professional partner and now boyfriend Kevin Clifton in 2018 – failed to rouse the Arena audience into giving more than a few polite whoops. Dooley is a warm and likeable character, and is used to a certain pressure having made 90 documentaries for the BBC exploring topics as diverse as slavery, suicide bombers and the global financial crisis.
So perhaps it was first-night nerves, or perhaps she is better suited to the more intimate setting of TV, but there were missed opportunities to chivvy the crowd into cheerleading their favourites (the phone vote passed most of us by) or heckle the judges (resident Scrooge Craig Revel Horwood deserved at least two big boos).
Nevertheless, the dancing delighted. Alex Scott’s fiery Paso Doble made full use of its foot-stomping female troupe and sparky pyrotechnics, while Karim Zeroual proved his mettle by wowing with a series of virtuosic fouettés in his Hairspray Jive. Head judge Shirley Ballas became as giddy as a goose over Fletcher’s fluid hips, while Mike Bushell’s apparently gave Bruno Tonioli indigestion.
Speaking of Tonioli, he took to the floor like a mad giraffe not to dance, but to sing. Flanked by shirt-busting backing dancers, giant feathered fans and all the confetti in the world, it was as if he was acting out some sort of candy-floss fever dream. Not as entirely unwelcome as one might first expect, since the sleepy audience required such carnivalesque antics to kick-start their engines for the second half.
Strictly 2019 had the potential to be one of the franchise’s most thrilling and unpredictable seasons yet. Injury dramatically ended the involvement of two contestants. History was achieved with the first ever same-sex routine, between pros Johannes Radebe and Graziano Di Prima. Motsi Mabuse replaced long-serving judge Darcey Bussell. And Anton Du Beke achieved what would once have seemed impossible by reaching his second final.
Yet despite these firecracker ingredients, last year’s show maintained a stolid countenance, giving way to Fletcher’s underdog story. Judging by his thrilling performance with Janette Manrara (his original partner Oti Mabuse is tied up filming the BBC’s Greatest Dancer series), they could win a clean sweep of Tour glitterballs.
Until 9 Feb; tickets: strictlycomedancinglive.com