‘Numerous serious complaints’: Strictly axes Giovanni Pernice after biggest scandal in show’s history

Arrivederci, then, Giovanni Pernice. The BBC have at last confirmed that the Strictly Come Dancing star won’t be part of the professional lineup for this year’s series.

It brings to an end a tumultuous period for the BBC’s ballroom blockbuster – all the more embarrassing because it’s not even been on air. The furore risked spilling into autumn’s landmark contest, which celebrates two decades of dance. Ultimately, the corporation had little choice but to part ways.

After a backlash from actor Amanda Abbington and other former dance partners, Pernice has been at the centre of an escalating crisis. The 33-year-old Sicilian has been fighting “serious complaints” about his alleged “threatening and abusive behaviour”. He strenuously denied any wrongdoing, but now the axe has fallen.

Last October, Abbington withdrew from the series after five weeks, citing medical and personal reasons. Rumours of bust-ups with Pernice swirled, not least when she pointedly thanked everyone except her dance partner in her farewell message. In December, she declined to return for the traditional “Strictly Class of 2023” group dance in the grand final.

In January, she requested BBC footage of their “tense” training sessions, saying she had suffered mild PTSD and was seeking legal advice. Law firm Carter-Ruck said there were “numerous serious complaints” about Pernice’s behaviour. He refuted all accusations and vowed to clear his name, engaging “reputation consultancy” Schillings to defend him.

Abbington wasn’t the first to complain about Pernice. Laura Whitmore said after the 2016 series: “I was extremely uncomfortable with him. In the end, I felt broken. I cried every day.” Ranvir Singh, who partnered him in 2020, said: “Don’t be fooled by his angelic face. He’s a fiery Italian, super-strict. I’m a bit scared of him.”

Amanda Abbington and Giovanni Pernice. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC

Abbington, Whitmore and Singh reportedly met up to discuss their experiences, described by tabloids as “a tearful summit”. A male celebrity – unnamed but thought to be Pernice’s 2022 partner Richie Anderson – came forward to offer the women his support and share his own experiences with Carter-Ruck.

Not all of Pernice’s partners, it must be pointed out, have found him difficult. Debbie McGee tweeted in support of him when the allegations emerged. His close bond with Georgia May Foote blossomed into a romance. Pernice recently told The One Show: “I’m definitely a perfectionist. Like every competitor, I like to win.” Abbington retorted that he was “nasty” and “awful to a few of us”. There were whispers of a dossier of evidence being handed to the BBC, including accusations of Pernice stamping on partners’ feet when they fluffed steps.

Even more than “curse of Strictly” showmances, this has arguably been the biggest scandal in the beloved show’s history. As a result, it was claimed, producers were finding it hard to sign up female talent for the forthcoming series. Potential candidates were wary of being paired with Pernice. His fellow pros saw the saga from the other side and were said to be “deeply worried” about the lack of psychological assessments for the celebrities with whom they’re partnered.

Last month, a leaked internal memo didn’t include Pernice’s name on this year’s roster, prompting reports that he’d quit. So rife were rumours that the previously tight-lipped BBC urged people “not to indulge in speculation” while an internal inquiry was in progress. Not for the first time, the corporation has been slow to react to an unfolding crisis. Surely bosses should have intervened before it got this far? Training sessions are filmed, after all. If Pernice’s conduct was out of control, producers should have tackled it sooner. The current row rumbled on for eight months before action was taken.

One reason they agonised so long may have been due to Pernice’s status as the show’s premier male pro. He has been a consistently standout performer, popular with viewers and judges alike. In nine years, he has reached four finals, including his 2021 glitterball win with EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis, the show’s first ever deaf contestant. Their Couple’s Choice routine, with its stunning silent interlude, was named Bafta’s Must-See TV Moment of the Year.

This high point was followed by a disappointing low. The next year, he formed an all-male couple with Radio 2 presenter Anderson. They were eliminated in week three, Pernice’s worst ever finish. Then came the pairing with Abbington, which precipitated his departure.

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Giovanni Pernice and Rose Ayling-Ellis perform the Must-See Moment of the Year. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC

Pernice foxtrots off with the most perfect 10s ever awarded to a Strictly pro, having notched 98 maximums. He’s topped the leaderboard more times than anyone else. He also holds Guinness World Records for Charleston swivels and jive kick-and-flicks.

When he arrived on the show in 2015, the 25-year-old “Italian stallion” was perceived by some to be arrogant. Head judge Len Goodman scolded him in his debut series for shaking his head during the panel’s critiques. As Pernice settled in, he won over viewers with his sharp choreography, smooth charm and results show catchphrase of “thank you, thank you, thank you”. He built a large fanbase, with 1.1m followers on Instagram – the same number as Strictly itself. The BBC gave him a travelogue series.

His partnership with McGee in 2017 was his breakthrough year. She was still grieving over her late husband Paul Daniels, who’d died the previous year. Pernice helped rebuild McGee’s confidence and enabled her to laugh again. I interviewed her at the time and she couldn’t have spoken more highly of her partner, praising him as a patient teacher and perfect gentleman. A former ballerina herself, maybe McGee was more accustomed to exacting methods.

Strictly has lost a string of male pros in recent years. Kevin Clifton, Pasha Kovalev, AJ Pritchard and Aljaž Škorjanec all waltzed off to pastures new. Anton du Beke swapped his dancing shoes for a scoring paddle. While some of their replacements have become fan favourites – notably Kai Widdrington and Vito Coppola – the exit of a dancer like Pernice will be keenly felt.

So strong is Strictly’s format that it has always been able to ride out high-profile departures, from Lord Len to Sir Brucey. Pernice being jettisoned is just another reminder that nobody is bigger than the show; the BBC couldn’t afford to tarnish such a flagship franchise.

If he had stayed, all eyes would have been on who he got paired with. It risked overshadowing the contest’s milestone 20th year. What should have been a celebratory occasion almost became a controversy-plagued one. Let’s hope we can consign this unedifying chapter to the past and concentrate on sparkly matters instead.

The Guardian