I went to bed at midnight so I could lie in and guess what happens? Bang, eyelids open at the normal weekday time. I resist the temptation to put on Radio 2 and see what’s happening in the world. Back to sleep (sort of). Dreaming about dance steps
Now I’m up. It’s the most divine day outside. Sun and blue beyond the blinds. I tweet:
When I open my overnight bag I find a heart-melting card, from my wife and daughters, hidden from me. This is what Anna, 8, says:
Down to breakfast with Daniel O’Donnell and his wife Majella. Suddenly Jess Glynne music starts pumping out of the speakers — we are electrified. The song is “Hold My Hand,” the first one we all practised together for the introductory group dance. I say to Daniel, “This is like when an old soldier hears a car exhaust backfire and hits the deck…” We both laugh at how we immediately assume we should be on a dancefloor when we hear this song. I have a real bond with Daniel. He is kind, thoughtful, and reassuringly nervous despite having performed in front of millions over the years. But here’s the thing – when we meet for breakfast he has already danced. I have yet to. Suddenly lost my appetite for the hotel bacon.
I arrive at the Elstree studios and find my partner Karen in make-up. When I say “this is now real,” she says, “I got your back, babe,” in that wonderful combination accent (New York, plus Venezuela, plus a little Grimsby). KC has been dancing since she was eight; I have been dancing since August 8th. She is teaching me things she learnt when she was ten. She is impeccably patient. Her very handsome and extremely athletic hubby Kevin is a Chelsea fan, so the two of us see eye-to-eye. He tells me he is pleased to see Karen enjoying herself, but I don’t see how she can be! I glance at the monitor and see a man sweeping the studios (on the right of the pic below). So it’s really happening.
Karen and I have found a small area backstage where we can practise. She communicates certainty but I sense (when we have this pic taken) that she is getting nervous too. Watching the pro dancers, I always come back to the question: do people dance because they are beautiful, or are they beautiful because they dance?
Bang on time, rehearsals start. It’s a funny thing, but there are really powerful bonds forming between the celebs even though we are competing against each other. Ainsley is up with Natalie in rehearsal first, and his “beret” routine makes me roar with laughter in the almost-empty studio. But I can also see, as a fellow non-dancer, how much work AH has had to do. I watch from a ringside seat.
Now they reveal my set. A polling station! I love the way Strictly embraces our personal histories with such gusto. Me and elections; Jay and rock; Iwan and running, Katie and classical, and so on. This will be the photo that sums up the wonderfully mad embrace the programme holds you in. But I can’t really enjoy the moment, because I am realising our dance is close now …
A problem arises in rehearsal. In the final moment, Karen dramatically flings out her leg (doing the splits vertically) and I have to catch it. I miss the leg. So now the stakes double. I must catch the leg whatever happens. This is one problem that can’t be addressed with my famous notepad, the reporters’ pad I have been writing every move in so I remember them.
Out of respect to Karen I decide the notepad has to go. So now it’s just me and her — oh, hang on. And the football. It’s on in what they call the Star Bar. Boys will be boys, right? Four of us rig up two iPads to watch the Spurs/Man City game (the other one is showing Derby v MK Dons). Here you see pros Kevin and Tristan. Ainsley and I use the football to put the dance-terror aside.
I pop round the back of the set and see my bro and sis in the front row. Can I nip in? Wearing a hoodie I give Tim and Sonya a hug, but of course Tim is famous and so people work out it must be me and — this is an amazing sound for a journalist — they start cheering all round us. That is SO encouraging. I am really buoyed up. I take one more photo — the full studio from behind the main boom camera. Now to join my fellow celebs.
The moment is coming. Being a fan of indie rock, I always quote a line from Howard Devoto of Magazine at moments like this: “I enter the room. Confidence enough. For now I tread a straight and narrow path.”
Two minutes before the show starts, we are assembled in entrance order on the rickety stairs backstage. It’s showtime. Karen has her arm around my waist and can feel me trembling. Whatever happens, I want to make sure the audience see how much I am loving this experience.