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Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

The reality rebellion

John Sergeant (right) with Strictly Come Dancing host Bruce Forsyth and partner Kristina Rihanoff

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

The experts dissed John Sergeant. Ergo, the British public loved him. Were viewers just making mischief, or has reality TV witnessed an outbreak of genuine civil disobedience?

He hardly looked capable of inspiring mass insurrection, this portly, unassuming ex-hack shuffling ineptly across the dancefloor.

Strictly Come Dancing's judges
The judges' low opinion of Sergeant was not shared by viewers

Strictly Come Dancing's judges certainly had no fear of John Sergeant. He wasn't up to the job, they told him. He was the "dancing pig in Cuban heels" who should make way for the truly talented contestants.

But it didn't seem to bother the Saturday tea-time viewing public that the former political correspondent's abysmal dancing made David Brent look like Rudolf Nureyev.

He was their man. They would carry on voting for him to stay on the show no matter what the judges said. And when the bashful Sergeant himself bowed out of the contest, howls of protest reverberated in newspaper letters pages and internet messageboards across the nation.

Call it sheer wilfulness, call it a blow against metropolitan elitism. But defying the professionals and backing the underdog appears to be a peculiarly British expression of mass psychology.

Power to the people

Strictly's ITV rival, The X Factor, witnessed a grass-roots revolt of its own when audiences kept voting for 38-year-old pool cleaner Daniel Evans over singers favoured by the show's judging panel.

This was the country, after all, that took useless ski-jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards to its heart.

John Sergeant with Strictly Come Dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff
Sergeant's partner, Kristina Rihanoff, laboured patiently alongside him

It would be tempting to assume Strictly's viewers were being deliberately perverse, that they simply enjoyed the wind-up. One survey of 3,000 voters suggested 41% of those who backed Sergeant did so purely because they wanted to annoy the judges.

But Dr David Giles, a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester who specialises in the psychology of fame, suspects there was more at stake.

For him, Strictly Come Dancing's viewers had been growing increasingly sceptical about a format whose credibility had been dented by phone-in scandals.

In Sergeant - an imperfect everyman pitched against glamorous actors, singers and sports stars - they recognised themselves, and took the harsh words directed against him by the judges personally.

"There's a real sense of empowerment for the audience," Dr Giles says. "They've witnessed a growing culture of malice on television that began with Anne Robinson.

The British don't like bullying, and they don't like people who take themselves too seriously
Kevin O'Sullivan, Sunday Mirror

"But now viewers realise they can get one over on these all-powerful judges - they don't have to just sit back and do what they're told."

Kevin O'Sullivan, the Sunday Mirror's TV columnist, agrees. He believes viewers were making a very serious point by backing Sergeant.

At the dawn of reality TV, he says, audiences tended to defer to on-screen experts. But as they grew more familiar with the format, so too did they become more confident about asserting what they wanted.

According to O'Sullivan, backing Sergeant was a way of demonstrating you disagreed with the judges over their heavy-handed criticism of the ex-hack, and their apparent belief that the show should be a serious competition rather than a bit of light-hearted fun.

"What we are seeing now is Britishness in all its glory," O'Sullivan adds.

In rehearsals

"The British don't like bullying. They don't like people who take themselves too seriously.

"The judges seem to think this is a proper dancing contest. The viewing public know better."

None of which is to say that mischief didn't play a part in Sergeant's longevity.

Dr Aric Sigman, of the British Psychological Society, believes wilful defiance of one's social betters is hard-wired into the nation's psyche.

And this, he argues, is no bad thing.

"Because Britain has traditionally been a much more class-ridden society, people have much less respect for their superiors than somewhere like the United States," Dr Sigman says.

"It's all about siding with the underdog. Sticking two fingers up to authority has a real therapeutic benefit."

Sergeant might have carried both his left feet off into the wings for good.

But if a different set of experts are right, he has done more for the nation's wellbeing than his modesty would allow him to admit.


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