Belfast Telegraph

Daniel O'Donnell's Strictly debut: A mixture of grace and raw-knuckle terror

To the chintzy strains of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Daniel O'Donnell made his dance-floor debut on Strictly, pirouetting across the shamrock-strobed BBC studio with a mixture of grace and raw-knuckle terror.

Holding dance-partner Kristina Rihanoff in a nervous embrace, Daniel spun, wiggled and adroitly manoeuvred his feet.

Not since Jim McGuinness perfected the blanket defense had a Donegal man so impressively combined steely will and athletic precision before a baying audience. And all while wearing a blinding white dicky bow.

The giant of easy listening had acquitted himself well in the launch show that preceded tonight's crunch episode.

He was personable, grounded, clearly determined not to take the Strictly circus too seriously (then he was knocking about with Pete Andre – in whose company a tape dispenser would come across as winningly charismatic ).

Following endless preliminaries and hype, tonight was the wee man's big moment, however.

Predictably, producers BBC had foisted upon the "pop patriarch" the most condescending song they could find, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling being a tune no Irish person has ever sung ever (though Daniel seemed au fait with its maudlin cadences).

You wonder if anyone had suggested he hold a pig under his arm and don a hat with a belt buckle (you can bet they joked about it after he left the room).

Aesthetics aside, Daniel's waltz was an impressive turn from an entertainer sure to go down well with the Strictly audience, tending as it does to trend wrinklier and more blue-rinse than those of rival franchises such as X Factor.

And the judges appreciated his efforts, more or less.

"Your hold could be stronger but your footwork was the best I've seen," said Len Goodman. "You danced like the perfect gentleman but relax your neck and make eye contact," chimed Darcey Bussell, noting O'Donnell's discomfort as he squeezed close to his dance partner.

A whiter shade of waxwork, Daniel proclaimed himself pleased with his score of 24 and, flashing a smile fairly rigid with fright, insisted he was relishing every heart-rending moment ("I'm excited now but you can't tell," he said, his mouth clamped so tightly the words had to escape through the sides).

All 15 of this year's celebrity dancers make their debuts Friday and Saturday (other hopefuls include weather lady Carole Kirkwood and Call The Midwife star Helen George) .

There are no eliminations this week, with public voting commencing with the next round of episodes. How will O'Donnell fare once the shadow boxing ends? If he loosens up and at least pretends to be enjoying himself, his twinkling, understated charm has the potential to take him far.

Assuming, of course, that's what he actually wants.

Ed Power, Irish Independent

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