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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Strictly is more gruelling than anyone imagines – as Robert Webb just found out

But his abrupt withdrawal also raises questions about how he came to participate in the first place. Speaking to The Times earlier this year, he described what sounds like a terrifying ordeal in November 2019: a routine medical check-up that detected a mitral valve prolapse, leading straight to an eight-hour emergency surgery during which he was placed on a heart and lung machine.

Given the seriousness of Webb’s operation, one wonders whether Strictly did any extra consultation with him above and beyond their usual medical check-ups with potential contestants. Were any concerns raised about him entering such a strenuous physical contest? Although it’s worth noting that the Times interview also reveals Webb has been dealing with some major psychological challenges and upheavals in his personal life, so it’s possible that there’s more to this story.  

Webb’s not alone; less than 24 hours after Webb’s departure, rugby player Ugo Monye also announced that doctors had advised him to skip this weekend’s show due to his “history of back problems”.

Even if we just consider the physicality of Strictly, it’s a beast of a show. To borrow a phrase from another high-pressure reality competition, dancing doesn’t get tougher than this. Yet that aspect still comes as a surprise to many celebrities, even after ample evidence over numerous seasons that Strictly is a gruelling boot camp. Don’t be fooled by the smiles and sequins: this is serious business.

In fact, its original presenter was taken aback when the BBC juggernaut made its debut back in 2004. Bruce Forsyth admitted that he thought it would be a comedy show like The Generation Game, “me getting amongst the contestants, showing them how to dance, and them all falling all over.” But he hadn’t reckoned with the formidable work ethic and competitive drive of the professional dancers, who wanted to represent their industry in the best possible way – and wanted desperately to win.

Add in the casting of professional athletes, even Olympic champions, like this year’s Adam Peaty, and that training regime just keeps getting tougher. In the early seasons, the couples tended to rehearse a few hours for four days a week, although cricketer Mark Ramprakash and partner Karen Hardy raised the bar significantly in Season 4. Now, celebrities are told by producers that they need to commit to at least 12 hours’ rehearsal a week, but many do more like 12 hours a day, five days a week. It’s a fulltime job, and unless you’re used to such intensive training, it’s a brutal awakening.

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