Anyone expecting Holly Willoughby to address her recent problems upon her TV comeback would have been left disappointed. All eyes were on the troubled 42-year-old as she returned to our screens for the first time since quitting This Morning after an alleged kidnap plot. Perhaps wisely, given her track record of ridiculed speeches - see that misjudged “Firstly, are you ok?” farrago - Willoughby resumed duties on Dancing On Ice (ITV1) as if nothing had happened.
After two months out of the public eye, she dazzled in a silver gown. As smooth and smiley as ever, she even seemed to be enjoying herself. It’s just a shame her renaissance came on such a tame, turgid show. It was barely worth pointing your remote control at, let alone coming out of temporary retirement for.
Understandably, Willoughby hinted at nerves ahead of her live TV return. The daytime darling lost credibility during the Phillip Schofield scandal and desperately needed to reconnect with audiences. She did so with a polished performance which reminded us what terrific, twinkling presenter she is.
After weeks of speculation, her sidekick Schofield’s replacement was unveiled as ITV mainstay Stephen Mulhern. An uninspired choice but seen as a safe pair of hands who had Willoughby’s trust. The pair have been pals since hosting children’s TV together 20 years ago. Mulhern was overly partial to a painful pun but injected impish energy. Willoughby appeared more relaxed than she did alongside Schofield.
In the turbulent build-up to this 16th series, several of the show’s longest-serving professional skaters departed. Further eyebrows were raised when Willoughby skipped the pre-launch photo call. News emerged that producers had hired a body double for rehearsals. ITV must have been tempted to put this mediocre franchise out of its misery. That’s before we consider the high chance of injury in the notoriously treacherous contest.
Gogglebox’s Stephen Lustig-Webb pulled out after breaking his ankle. Love Island’s Amber Davies tore a quadricep, Emmerdale’s Roxy Shahidi fractured a rib and long-jumper Greg Rutherford feared he’d broken a hip. Ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards’ pro partner Tippy Packard fell victim to the injury curse and was replaced by Vicky Ogden. It’s been like a sequin-spangled Battle of the Somme. There must have been sizeable sighs of relief at ITV HQ - not to mention their insurers - that the only pratfalls were those on the training footage.
This year’s plucky - or perhaps foolhardy - 12 “celebrities” were the usual mix of faintly familiar faces, soap self-publicists and reality rent-a-names. Six took their tentative first steps onto the RAF Bovingdon rink. Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas, partnered by the fabulously named Amani Fancy, topped the scoreboard with serious swagger.
At the opposite extreme was Bambi-like boxer Ricky Hatton, who wobbled like he’d been hit with a haymaker. Pro skater Robin Johnstone resembled Hatton’s carer, rather than his partner. Head judges Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, celebrating 40 years since their fabled Winter Olympics win, must have wondered what they were watching. Less Bolero, more Mr Bean. Unsurprisingly, Hatton was consigned to next week’s skate-off. At least he got to playfully punch Mulhern.
With its low-rent casting and tacky trimmings, Dancing On Ice remains the runt of the talent show litter. It’s traditionally timed for January to fill the gap left by autumnal staples Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity. However, viewing figures have fallen like a novice skater with a bruised bottom. From an all-time high of 12m, ratings slid below 4m last year. One wonders why they still bother.
Despite selling itself as “the greatest show on ice”, this was a frozen Strictly knock-off from the bargain aisle at Iceland. After her year from hell, it was pleasing to see Willoughby back on TV. The rest of the ropy production? Not so much.