Oh I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused. But since their wings have gotten rusted, you know the angels want to wear my red shoes
Okay, NOT my words but Elvis Costello’s from a song he wrote when he was twenty. And nearly forty years on, I can’t help thinking of my hero’s lines as I approach the Strictly studio and catch a glimpse of my own footwear. If only the angels were jealous; I think if I was an angel I would want Jay’s shoes instead.
When I arrive at Strictly towers, I always go backstage first. I just like a minute to walk around. The security people are brilliant here. Everyone else needs a pass, but they know who the dancers are and let us through with a super-friendly “Afternoon, Jeremy!” (Get me: I just described myself as a dancer). Backstage I work out a pattern — the props used for the previous programme aren’t cleared for ten days, so we have a phenomenon called prop-lag. This afternoon I am confronted by leftovers from Halloween. And this unusual sight. Ghouls? If it’s not old scenery from last week, then it’s former contestants come back to spook Craig and Bruno.
As so often on Strictly, words fail. Karen had told me there was “a horse” involved in our dance — and of course I think immediately of the scene from Spinal Tap (funniest movie ever), where the band have demanded a huge piece of scenery but because of a misunderstanding the model of Stonehenge comes out as 18 inches instead of 18 feet, leading to the furious line from the lead singer:
The problem may have been that there was a monument onstage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf
With Strictly it’s the other way round. Backstage I almost run into Karen’s horse in the dark. I imagined it might be a model the size of a small mini. It looks more like a juggernaut. The fibre glass animal is taller than me and it would not be “crushed by a dwarf” — the saddle you can see is the height of my collarbone. A monster! Apparently I will get camouflaged steps to mount it before our routine begins. But getting down under pressure may be a bigger problem. They never do things by half here, do they?
Big shout out to Sophie Halsey. I hope, if you love Strictly, you are getting a bit of insight into the people backstage through this blog because without them there would literally not be a single second of the show. Sophie is the unfailingly-positive person who does my schedule with Karen. So if we are not eliminated (and she always encourages me by saying, “You won’t be!”) she books a whole series of gym sessions; either near where I live or within reach of Radio 2. She troubleshoots everything, coordinating taxis and making sure we stay on the Strictly grid. By this stage, halfway through the contest, there is quite a lot of exhaustion creeping in but Sophie always has a smile for us. I ring her at least once a day and my usual question is, “Where am I supposed to be now?” She only worries if I ask, “Where am I?”
When I get on set, I find Peter Andre on the floor. I have written a lot about how much I like Peter — I think the secret to his success is a combination of huge modesty and an amazingly generous spirit; he is so lavish with praise for his colleagues. But for an instant here, as he waits for Janette, I think I am seeing a little of the pressure in the competition. You can see the concentration. Peter’s scores started very high in September, then came down a little, and he knows he has to put in a huge performance on Saturday. But his dance is the Charleston, which is the trickiest of them all. If you get your Charleston right, it is military in its precision and it looks amazing. But one false move and there is nowhere to hide; by the time you get back on track you have missed half a dozen steps. By the way, on Friday you are allowed three rehearsals with your music played off tape. On Saturday morning we have two run-throughs each, with the live band. On Saturday afternoon the dress rehearsal allows just one. You can see how intense Peter is at this moment. This is precious floor time and must not be wasted. He is turbo-focused and I don’t want to interrupt.
Maybe it was seeing Mr Andre’s incredible focus in his rehearsal just now, or maybe it was hearing that the actor Rufus Hound described my dancing this week as “like a giraffe giving birth,” but I suddenly think I ought to grab five more minutes practising. You think this is my tango face, but actually it’s me concentrating on what Karen told me just about the posture I start the dance in:
Chin up. Back straight but not over-straight so it curves. Shoulders and feet pointing where we’re about to travel. Hips in against mine. Ribs touching mine. Chest out. Lock in your arms
(Sometimes there is an interesting word between “your” and “arms”). And that’s before the dance even starts! Just looking at this photo a day later I can see she would want my chin higher and chest further out. And the fingers on my right hand must NOT be splayed, even slightly, because Craig will pick up on that.
I go through to costume and hope this is not some kind of terrible omen. With the boys in the competition down to three, there is a lot more rail space in this room, and for some reason my name is next to the word “dying.” I can only hope this means “dyeing”, i.e. clothes that are due to have a forced changed of colour. But I don’t dare ask for clarification — they are too busy in here. Dying Jeremy is going to find another room to worry in.
Just before returning to the hotel I go back into the studio. I have been meaning to take this picture of the backdrop. How many light bulbs? I think one should go out every time someone is eliminated. Not that you’d notice, as there are so many. It’s a very happy place, this: on show nights you can hear the audience going crazy; the cheering hits this curtain and drops down to us where we wait on the staircase. The lights are like a constellation of stars above us as we wait to go on.
Supper. You will know, if you follow this blog, that the dinner on Friday has become a bit of a tradition. The line-up this week is a little different because tomorrow we record a dance for Children in Need. So who is that at the end, on the left? Clue: if you walkabout to the end of the table you will recognise her straightaway. Proper screen royalty. Great to have you, ma’am!
Last week there was a demand for quiz questions in the style of Eggheads. The only ones I could find on my phone were a bit obscure so this week I came better prepared. Rob Dean, the Eggheads maestro who is more responsible than anyone for the quiz show’s longevity, has kindly emailed me 20 multiple choice questions (Giovanni loves Eggheads so much that he says to me, at least five times a day: “Jeremy, do you want to go first or second?”). I ask my fellow diners if people would like to have a go at Rob’s questions. Jay and Oti are definitely on for it.
This is what I read off my smartphone. The asterisk shows the answer. The quiz becomes competitive. Joanne Clifton switches teams after Jenny Agutter leaves and gives her new side the answer on “Pb.” There is momentary uproar. After the three teams answer six questions each, they are tied at 3:3:3, so we have our decider. And of course it is the whizz, Katie Derham, who breaks the deadlock by shouting the answer first.
Q. What type of cheese takes its name from the Italian for sweet milk?
I have multiple choice options — (a) Pecorino (b) Dolcelatte or (c) Parmesan — but I don’t read them out because this is the free-for-all tiebreaker moment. The answer is at the end of this blog.
Hugely proud to see this on my Twitter. A teacher in Cambridge says she is encouraging her pupils to think about just getting better instead of coming first. As discussed here before, I know I can’t win Strictly, but I feel it would be wrong (and disrespectful to Karen) to decide there is no point competing and just lark about or give up. You may know that I recorded a short video explaining to a critic that it would be a bad message to my children if I stopped working because I couldn’t win. Much to my surprise, a teacher in Cambridge played that video to her class and asked them to write responses. Thank-you, Miss Phillips, because this encourages me too.
Is this dedication or a very mild form of madness? My wife said she saw Ian Waite (super-pro, Nat Lowe stage partner, dance commentator) on It Takes Two saying that, based on my rehearsal videos, it looked like I was not leading with my heel in the tango as I should. That was actually very helpful and I am always grateful when I get a positive tip like that. So now every time I turn on my phone it reminds me about the so-called ‘heel lead’ (if you’re new to dancing, it means you push off with your foot, usually the left, with the back of the heel the only part in contact with the floor, and the top pointing up at about 45 degrees). It’s yet another one for my list — things to remember in the all-important starter position.
Rehearsal. The first runthrough of the day, and I find myself remembering back seven years. I wore a cowboy hat for a graphic on Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat party at midnight during a council election programme. I got pretty much flayed for the silliness of this graphic — “Why on earth did the BBC feel it had to dress its reporter in a cowboy suit to report the elections?”, that type of thing — and I remember being a bit hurt by it all. Years on, the graphics team (including me) now believe the famous “Clegg Cowboy” moment was probably one of the best graphics ever put out in a council election programme. So no regrets, and here I am in 2015 with another cowboy outfit. When Karen said to me at the start, “You are going to do something I guarantee you have never done before on TV — dress as a cowboy,” I had to tell her the council election story, and the look of mystification never really left her face. After our studio rehearsal I jokingly texted the elections director Claire Bellis to tell her, “I have a great idea for our next graphic and it involves a horse.”
Best moment of the day. A little preliminary “anti-shine” eye makeup from Joanne. Her kids are coming to see the dress rehearsal, as are mine, so we are a bit excited to see them. It’s a special day for lots of children. They are not normally allowed in the studio but today is our “watch the dress rehearsal” day. Fun times. By the way, everyone in TV knows that the best place to be is hair & makeup. These artists don’t just work on the face, they work on the soul. You can sit in this chair and talk about anything.
Glamorous? It’s raining in buckets outside and, somewhere out there, about 200 children are trying to dry their shoes and get into the studio. There’s a funny thing — in front of the camera it’s all lights and flashing teeth; a kind of perfection. Behind the stage, there’s rain in puddles, the loos smell agricultural and my dressing room is a seven-minute walk away with cheap LED bulbs that make it look like a morgue. That is not a complaint — in a way it’s the opposite. What makes the show a wonderland, is the contrast with our everyday lives. The real world is the bloke in that white van whose satnav has taken him to the wrong building in the wet. The show gives us all an unreal hour every week, and it’s what we need, isn’t it? The other day I told a friend,
Being on Strictly is like arriving in someone else’s dream
The kids are in the house! Such a special occasion — fans bring children to see the dress rehearsal. Normally even contestants can’t have children present. So it’s a treat for us all.
And everyone gets to see a pre-recorded charity performance for BBC Children In Need by actors from Call the Midwife, which is like Helen George’s address book arriving in the studio. Jenny Agutter and all the actors gave it such spirit. This is the view from inside the wardrobe dept, where they barely get a chance to look up. Won’t say too much about the dance as it is taped for Children in Need on Friday. But thanks to the Midwife-megastars for giving up their time, not just to perform but to train. Watching them I know how many hours they will have spent practising this week. Watch out for a patent Jay move when Laura dances!
One more photo, to answer a question. A lot of people ask who is responsible for choosing the music on Strictly. Obviously a number of individuals have a voice — for example, Karen needs to feel comfortable that we can dance to the chosen track and Dave Arch’s musicians need to be able to play it. But the key person here is Matt Howes. It was Matt who chose the Elvis Costello song “She” for me to dance a waltz to. The song is not in waltz time (a number of worried viewers pointed this out to me before the dance!). Matt reconfigured the beat and even sang his own version so Karen had a tape to play me. For Matt the key is to choose a song that is popular, but perhaps not too obvious — sometimes he unearths a treasure like “Sweet Disposition” by Temper Trap which Anita and Gleb danced their astonishing tango to. Matt has a huge role in the show because the right song on the right night can be immensely powerful: and by the way I’ve enjoyed all mine so far. Now I shall stop taking photos and get changed ready for the lights to spark up and your Saturday night viewing to begin.
PS The Italian cheese answer is “dolcelatte”. Afterwards Giovanni (who shouted “mozzarella”) says dolcelatte is not a cheese but a yoghurt and demands we stage a rematch next Friday. Okay Gio, if I am still in the contest and Rob can supply the questions, it’s a deal