The first (rather wonderful) sight of the day: our beloved Kirkie!! A reminder that poor Carol had 0430 starts for most of the time she trained on Strictly. She is an amazing, inspirational lady. What is great is that Strictly allowed the whole country to see the Carol her friends know and love, away from those rain-flecked backdrops. When we both assembled for Strictly, back in August, we thought we would go out in the first fortnight. But I learnt from Carol — she danced with her smile. For me she is one of the all-time great Strictly contestants.
It seems my dance-mates are everywhere! Carol on the weather, and then a glimpse of Anita and Gleb in a newsagents I pop into on my way to Radio 2. I allow myself a chuckle. There is so much fascination with the celeb/dancer partnerships. Gleb is an insistent teacher, I know that — but Anita is a tough cookie too, and one of my best mates on the show. (She, Katie and I have bonded over our news backgrounds and they call each other “Factual.”) Putting two strong characters like Gleb and Anita together might have created sparks, but actually it has brought her dancing to an incredible level.
So this is my day job. Except that today is a bit special. Friday is Children in Need day of course. This is the Radio 2 Breakfast Show. Sara Cox (on the right) sits in for Chris Evans. Beside me, Ken Bruce has just appeared to hear who has won what’s being called the “Radio Rendezvous” — a series of auction prizes which allow you to meet the DJs. I will be taking my guest around the Tower of London; at this moment Ken is calling his winner, a pub landlady, to tell her that he and Lynn Bowles will be turning up in person to stage R2 Popmaster for her customers. I am here to talk about Saturday’s dance, my quickstep.
A classic radio moment, maybe a classic moment of life. In the studio opposite Sara is the country megastar Carrie Underwood. She and I are sitting beside each other and I notice she looks puzzled when the travel reporter mentions problems “at Spaghetti Junction.” So I quietly draw Carrie this picture and explain (in a whisper) it’s a traffic interchange in Birmingham. Her face is a picture; they don’t have any of these in Oklahoma. It’s been a confusing morning for Carrie — earlier, on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, she mistook Ben Shephard and Susanna Reid for husband and wife.
So I head up to Elstree for the first Strictly rehearsal, always wondering if this might be the last weekend. After six eliminations, I am well aware it will be my turn soon unless there is some sort of miracle. But for now the contest is here to be enjoyed. And I want you to meet the crews. In a previous blog I mentioned the runners and how important they are. The crews are the ones who film everything that’s not live — the videos of us in training, which we call VTs. And yes, that is a strange name for them, since VT stands for videotape, which went out with the Tudors. A couple of people to point out: the assiduous JT (second-left with beard), to whom I apologise for catching him mid-blink; he would definitely not have done that if he was taking the photo! And Sophie Halsey, who has snuck in as the person who books the training rooms for me and Karen and who, as you can see, seems to have ended up with all my bags. Every single person in this shot works themselves into the ground for Strictly. They also raise the spirits of the contestants when we are struggling, something they may not even realise.
Meet Charlie, an animal who (while being very well cared-for) is going to illustrate my hoped-for trip to Blackpool. Wait — Blackpool??? Now I’m nervous again, just thinking about it. The idea here is that I am trying to pack a donkey for Blackpool, but it won’t fit in my bag, so I have to carry him. JT, please note, you are not blinking this time!
I JUST GOT PHOTOBOMBED BY A DONKEY
Filming done, and these are three of the best. Charlotte (left), Glyn and Yas. On the right, Yas’s coat has already won the series (she was the one who gamely wore a bikini for our shoot by a swimming pool, which also wins some kind of award for enterprise). Glyn’s shades are a tad optimistic for November. Charlotte is ace as well. All young, smart and positive. And a reminder of how broadcasting has changed — thirty years ago, a film crew meant three 56-year-old blokes who took ages to set up their lights and spent the whole time complaining about BBC managers. These guys are fuelled by sheer enthusiasm.
That’s me in the middle. Don’t ask.
The ever-efficient Tash, my runner, drives me to the George Lucas studio for my rehearsal. If she puts her foot down she can shake off the donkey. By the way, if anyone asks, it was me that told Tash to look back at the camera, and she was only doing one mile an hour at the time.
Ah, my schedule! Tash always lets me take a photo of the timetable. I can’t understand all of it, to be totally honest (I like the annotation: EARLIER???), but I feel more efficient once I have taken my snap. Points to look for: the “Glitterball” reference, the line that says “Press: Twitter” which results in this online Q&A, and the tell-tale appointment:
Apparently some people asked for signed photos (if that was you, thank-you!). Because the whole Strictly experience is so transient, my pictures have been taken off a colour photocopier. But I have a satisfying feeling when I work out I need to sign around my lower legs. This may be the first time in the entire contest my legs have been in the right place.
Us rehearsing the opening of the show. Everyone in civilian clothes — can you recognise the couples with their backs to me? And in the distance, in the pink shirt behind the judges’ table, I want to mention the floor manager Alan. A calming presence — which is no mean feat, because his is the voice that says “ten seconds” just before you dance live to ten million people.
Oh, please, no. Now we rehearse the elimination moment on Friday. Top left you see Kellie and Kevin. They fell into the dance-off last week (Kevin’s first ever!), and completely nailed their waltz in very nerve-wracking circumstances. It was a lesson. You need focus if you end up in the bottom two. And this is us, waiting for them to test the red light. I’m sensing — maybe you can tell — that my dance buddy doesn’t like this rehearsal moment. When the red light goes on our journey will be over because we think it is very unlikely we can win a dance-off against any of the remaining dancers. Our partnership has come to mean a huge amount to us both — apart from anything else, it is a friendship — and we don’t want it to end.
Tristan and Jamelia aren’t here because of other duties, so they have stand-ins! Normally I miss this rehearsal too because of Radio 2, and Karen tells me that Tom (on the right) usually has to walk around wearing a sign on his jumper saying “Jeremy” and stand next to her. Yet another job for our keen young runners. I have written before about how they are getting absolutely brilliant experience of how a show works from the inside — even if some of the duties (wearing a piece of A4 saying my name) are not necessarily how you expect your working life to start.
A late rehearsal for Aljaz and Helen. They are pausing because something has gone wrong — the floating ribbons should have been pulled back sooner and they can’t start their tango until they are. By the way, this is a beautiful dance. Since the very first week Helen has shown her class. Watching the two of them rehearse now, I think to myself: this is what the show is all about.
Seeing Aljaz and Helen motivates me to find my favourite bit of space (the first floor lobby above the front doors) to do some more quickstep practice. Laura is the runner who has photobombed me and I don’t mind a bit! Tash took the photo. I must be improving a little, because I can see what’s correct and what’s not: right arm a bit high. Body leaning a bit. Slightly too tango-ey a face for the quickstep. But hey, the fingers are closed and the T-shirt works too. And I am trying to undo fifty years of the wrong kind of movement.
In my dressing room. I don’t think I have ever seen a more frightening sign than the one on my fridge. Would you eat anything out of this?
Ah, the Sisters of Mercy! Well, I always think Karen (right) looks like a relative of Vinnie Shergill. For the celebs Vinnie is pretty much the most important person behind the cameras. Her job is to find a starting 15 each year and to quietly help us decide whether to take part. I think it’s okay to say she asked me three times in previous years and I said no. Then I turned 50, my two young girls fell totally in love with the show, and Vinnie asked a fourth time. She was amazing when we met, telling me that “no one has ever regretted it” and “it can become a real personal journey.” So I said yes. Spool forward many months, and by chance Vinnie and I had breakfast in the hotel together this morning and I told her how grateful I was for her encouragement and how the programme has been even more of a revelation to me (and of me) than I ever could have expected. And there on the right of Vinnie we have the reason.
This is our first Saturday rehearsal. We get two run-throughs with Dave Arch’s band on the Saturday. The technical thing to enjoy here is the steadicam which “floats” around Peter and Janette. In each dance this cameraman works out a moment when he can speed past the couple dancing, making for a remarkable shot which combines their movement with his. Crucially, he must not be seen by other cameras. Note for the technically-minded: the weight of the steadicam is driven through the user’s body by a harness, so the gear is feather-light when carried, which makes it extremely manoeuvrable.
Let’s be honest, some of us need help with the basic things. Push does NOT mean pull. And for any celebrity exhausted by trying to operate this door on their own, the producers have laid on a huge supply of bottled water behind it.
I’ve been told that the very enterprising lot on “It Takes Two” found my 2002 Children In Need dance when I had to be Frank ‘N’ Furter from the Rocky Horror Show. It’s here if you want to see how many faces you can spot (is that you, Carol…?). I will leave you with this, as I have to change for the main programme now and make-up want to see me. Reflecting on the first eight weeks of the show, I thought the most important word to come out of Strictly would be “dance,” but for me it is this one instead:
Oh, just time for a quick sing-song backstage before we all go on: