The first thing I see at Elstree is my dressing room door. “Lucky you weren’t here half an hour ago,” says a researcher, “because that door had ROOM 101 written on it.” So my dressing room is a place where unloved things are disposed of? Karen — where are you? We need to talk urgently!
It’s like beach towels by the hotel swimming pool when it comes to space round here! My friends Ainsley and Natalie have swiftly nabbed the ballroom-sized bar (where everyone goes after the show, with friends and relatives, to compare bunions and bruised egos). Good luck to Ainsley & Nat — their routine is always worth seeing. Here two runners are asking them a question about their wardrobe fitting and just look at the graceful way a dancer stands, even when she’s off duty. I Iove the time I am spending with these people. They are human beings, yes; but I feel I am only distantly related to the likes of Natalie and Karen. The work they have done on their bodies and their movement is phenomenal.
Film crews are everywhere here, because Strictly is more than a dance competition: it’s a programme that tells the story of all the celebs as they compete. Here I’ve been buttonholed by Tash and Ricky who want to ask whether movie week is up my street. (Answer: yes, because Karen and I have got Top Hat).
Strictly is filmed in the George Lucas studios in Elstree — which is more a film set than a TV studio. We staged the BBC general election programme across the road in the sister complex; and you might also recognise this strange temporary hangar I photographed. Yes, right beside Strictly is the eviction area for Big Brother. When Strictly and Big Brother overlap, the competition to find the country’s liveliest postcode is cancelled.
Only on Strictly do you get handed a schedule which says “1850 Tan.” So furious they never allowed this on Panorama.
Photo of the day. The spray tan lady, Clara, is so overwhelmed with tanning requests that she has come to the hotel and set up in Karen & Kevin’s bedroom. When I walk in for my session, Kevin is already in the tent (that’s the silhouette of his face on the right) and on the bed we have the makings of a party: left-to-right are Kellie Bright, Joanne Clifton, Karen and Katie Derham. And, I do believe, some white wine!
Dinner with friends! From the left: Joanne, Jay, DB*, Kevin, Kellie, Katie, me, Anthony. I had a prawn cocktail because I am getting retro in preparation for Movie Night. We all had a huge laugh at the dinner — Kellie told us some fascinating stories about what it’s like to film hours and hours of Eastenders every day (she learns her scripts during dancing breaks), and Jay described his surprise when The Wanted went to Number One in the States. We ended up finding John Sergeant’s Paso Doble on Kevin’s smartphone and all laughing about it so much.
*The Divine Being.
I want to go to bed, but the top hat is in the way. To quote Elvis Costello from the album Get Happy: “I was looking at the black-and-white world, it seemed so exciting; if you’d only get me back-to-back with that girl, when the night’s inviting.” Looking at this majestic top hat under the single spotlight in the hotel ceiling, I feel that if I touch it I will suddenly be in the 1930s. Tender is the Night.
Examining my ankle after breakfast — yesterday it was swollen because of the violent swerving leg & ankle movements demanded by the beastly Charleston. It looks and feels better now! The midnight ice-pack must have worked.
Rehearsal. And look at the boxing ring setting for Anthony, who’s being Rocky. Actually Anthony is better than Rocky in real life — not just a dancer, but a brain and a beautiful personality too. The empty chairs remind me that nothing prepares you for the moment the audience appear. Or, for that matter, Mr Revel-Horwood.
Breaking news on the top hat. The original one is “too high for the show,” producers have decided — because it makes me nearly seven feet tall. It also makes me look like an undertaker. So they swapped it for a slightly less monumental one. On the right is the top hat which was sitting on my bed last night. On the left is the new one, which, somewhat disconcerting, says ALJAZ in felt tip inside it.
Possibly the busiest room in the building, the make-up area is a hive of flailing powder puffs and brushes in the minutes before our rehearsal. There’s Natalie. There (sitting on the left, almost hidden) is Kellie as Princess Leah. As she put it, “WHAT buns!!!” Strictly is all about transformation, and amidst the fun some things are profoundly serious. How much foundation? What about lip balm, to shiny up the lips a little? Those are very important questions in this part of town, I am discovering.
The water bottles have our names on — but Iwan’s isn’t there. The missing bottle is just a reminder that at the heart of this show is the jeopardy of elimination. You can have as much fun and joy as you like, but you can never take for granted that you will be back in seven days. Dancing well does help. So in every free moment, I sip my water and practise my dance. Charleston here we come.
Make-up this week is a little on the wacky side. Everyone has to channel a movie character and for Kellie Bright’s Star Wars moment they have photos of Princess Leah on the mirror. And to the right — how embarrassed am I that I took a second to recognise Ginger Rogers herself? Not least because that’s who my dance partner Karen is playing. By the way, you can see Brendan Cole in the mirror. His dressing gown is not for the show. At least I think it’s not. I ask Anna, the hair stylist, to “make me Forrest Gump.”
Asking Anna for a Forrest Gump hairstyle turns out to be my worst idea so far. No sooner has she finished a meticulous reshaping of my hair than I am handed this red baseball cap which covers all her work. Still, I suppose I can channel Forrest Gump more fully if even parts of my body that are not visible are shaped like his (let’s not continue with this thought). Plus, Anton is gently pointing out that my jacket still has the price tag hanging from the second buttonhole — and it is most unlikely that Mr Gump would have bought a jacket in pounds sterling from John Lewis.
My friends and family are waiting to come into the studio and I am getting excited because once again Strictly is showing it doesn’t just do big, it does BIG. Our “movie night” sequence has a huge orange curtain, spotlights, popcorn, and, strangely, a model horse (on the left, at the foot of the stairs). Cast of players: probably 30. With the horse, 31. Can’t wait for my guests to see us record this number.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The bike that is carrying Kellie across the sky (think of the movie ET) has stalled and the back end just dropped precariously, so now Kel is hanging on with more than a little desperation. This is the most complicated dance number I can imagine. It’s brilliant. Once Kellie has been rescued we go for the take!
Ah, and a lovely photo from home. My daughter Martha has made biscuits to suit the occasion. Hopefully I will still be in the competition after of these are all gone, but you never know. Just in case I am eliminated in the next 24 hours I want to say thanks to you for reading this diary; thanks for your kind messages; and thanks especially to Karen, who is one of the most extraordinary, encouraging people I have ever had in my life. Lucky me. Now roll on the show…