Strictly Come Dancing week eight: perspective from the trenches

So anyway, on the off chance anyone reads these posts, I have something different for you this week. Having been lucky enough to get tickets for the show, I made my way to London to experience Strictly firsthand and so the least I can do is blog about it in excruciating detail, all the while trying not to degenerate into mindless fangirl ravings.

Waiting is the hardest part
I can’t imagine that many people feel a thrill at the idea of spending hours waiting in the cold, and for someone who gets bored easily it seemed like something of a trial. Nonetheless, the threat of not being let in because we arrived too late (since more tickets are issued than there are seats, latecomers risk disappointment), I took on board plenty of forum advice and made sure to arrive at Television Centre at around 1pm. Having made such an effort, it was slightly disappointing that the queue didn’t build up as quickly as anticipated; we could probably have left it another half an hour and still been secure.

Anyway, thus began the first stage of waiting- queuing outside the audience entrance at the BBC for some two hours. Although time could hardly be said to pass quickly, it was actually quite a manageable wait, helped along by chats with the people I now like to think of as my ‘queue buddies’, despite the fact that I’ll probably never see them again. The scarily organised among fans will no doubt bring picnic hampers and folding chairs for the long haul, but I settled for standing around with a surprisingly delicious hot chocolate and Danish from the café in the BBC building down the road. Provided you have someone with you to keep your place in the queue, you can break off the waiting to visit the café and toilets- or, if you’re truly cruel, you can sit in the café reading for the whole duration whilst they wait outside in the cold.

Fortunately, just as the cold was causing me to lose all feeling in the lower part of my body, we were allowed in at 3pm- some 45 minutes early. Our names were checked against the list, mobile phones were handed over and placed in plastic bags and then it was through ‘airport security’ to check we weren’t trying to smuggle weapons into the BBC. As it turned out, I was- having forgotten to clear out the front pocket of my handbag, I’d left a very dangerous pair of blunt nail scissors in there, which had to be bagged up for me to collect at the main gate after the show. In the end, I couldn’t be bothered to pick up the offending scissors on the way out, but I was left with this vaguely guilty feeling, like I was a terrorist trying to destroy the very heart of the BBC.

Violent impulses curbed, our tickets were stickered with numbers 41-2, and we were finally let into the glorified commoners’ holding pen that is the BBC audience foyer. Compared to standing outside, however, the foyer was nothing short of lavish- complete with toilets (also useful for changing from arctic-wear into glam gear), a cloakroom to check in coats and large bags (only small handbags are allowed in the studio), overpriced BBC shop with DVDs and assorted Doctor Who merchandise, café (I partook of a toasted cheese and tomato roll which wasn’t bad but definitely shouldn’t have had chocolate gateau crumbs on it), tables and chairs, ceiling mounted monitors showing the rugby on BBC1 and a nice big plasma screen with last week’s SCD.

By the time we got in, there was another hour and a half or so of waiting ahead, and even though I’d gone to the effort of lugging a not inconsiderably sized book with me, I was in no mood for quiet reading. Instead, I watched as much of the SCD episode as I could, although by the time we got to the results show the place was so full that I could barely see anything (a shame as I wanted to experience the pro foxtrot on the giant screen). By this point, the place was getting uncomfortably warm, to the point where falling asleep before we were even called into the show was becoming a distinct possibility.

Happily, 5 o’clock could not delay its arrival forever, and in due course the BBC staff were ready to call us over to the studio. Having been close to the head of the queue, I naively let myself believe that we would be among the first to be called in, but in a retrospectively amusing piece of irony, it was not to be. Instead, we had to wait whilst “production tickets with a red sticker”, “production tickets with a blue sticker”, “production tickets with a yellow sticker”, “production tickets with a green sticker”, “people with voting cards” “people with pink/orange/polkadot/aquamarine stickers” were lined up- and only as we were beginning to despair of ever getting in were “everyone else, numbers 1-50” (and so forth) called to take their place. It did seem that not everyone got in, however- some had their tickets stickered with a mere ‘standby’ sticker, and only the first two of them were granted access.

Parts I and II of the waiting game were thus completed, but even though Strictly Come Dancing was now within reach, there was still a final level of queuing to be cleared. Having handed in our coats and become accustomed to the warmth of the foyer, we were again thrust out into the cold on the walk to the studio- and whilst the distance was not great, it took a while for the queue to slowly file in and be shown to their seats. Fortunately, along the way there was a modicum of entertainment- after her chauffeur took a while to park, Gloria Hunniford emerged from her Rolls Royce, whilst Brendan Cole emerged from the stage door on our right and passed across to the studio. I’m not even a Brendan fan, but since he was there in front of me, I just had to wave to him- had it been Anton, I most likely would not have been so restrained.

Fortunately, all the effort was soon to be rewarded, for as the stubs of our tickets were taken, we were led into the studio. Even though we walked around the edges, where all the ugly reality of cabling and gantries are hidden away, through the gaps in the red curtain we could see the set itself- it was there, and it was real.

Warming up
We ended up being seated in the gallery above and a little to the right of the judges- just next to the stage. Even though it wasn’t a position conducive of running out onto the floor or ‘accidentally’ bumping into celebrities, we did get a good view of all the action- the judges below, the dancers in front. Just as everyone tends to say in these situations, the dance floor was smaller than it looks on TV, but I was already expecting that- I remember how modestly sized the Barcelona Olympic stadium seemed in real life.

Shortly after we got in, I spotted Craig standing by his seat and plucked up the courage to wave to him- better still, he waved right back!

Whilst the crew made the final preparations, our gallery seats made the ideal position for a bit of celeb spotting- knocked out contestants Brian Capron (and his wife), Gabby Logan and Kate Garraway were there, alongside the likes of Henry Winkler, Gloria Hunniford, Quentin Willson, Vernon Kay, Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and others I didn’t even recognise. Anton du Beke was spotted being very gentlemanly and leading a white-haired old lady to her seat, before talking to some people and even hugging them- despite the temptation to call out ‘ANTON!’ in a loud voice and maybe leap over the railing (not recommended), I was able to resist.

Then it was time for the warm-up man to do his job, and since only Len and Craig had arrived, he picked out two people from the audience to be the other judges- one of whom was apparently a teacher at Len’s dance school (I haven’t me her, though). She got to show off her dancing skills with Len before the real Bruno and Arlene emerged, and then after a bit more banter, filming commenced- not on the live show, which was yet to come, but on the guest singer performance. This week saw the Sugababes take to the floor to perform ‘Change’, accompanied by a spectacular rumba by Darren and Lilia (this is the point where I digress into “OMG! Darren and Lilia in the flesh! Dancing together!” mode). We had to do two takes for the song- apparently the audience wasn’t enthusiastic enough first time around, although I’m not sure if that was the actual reason for the retake.

That was a nice appetiser, but by this time I was ready for the live show, and by now there was only a matter of minutes to go. Before it began, however, Brucie decided to introduce himself to us, complete with a rendition of Come Dancing. He also picked out a lady from the audience to dance with him- I would loved to have gone round the floor with Brucie himself, even though I have to admit that I don’t know the feather step (which he wanted to do with her- it looked like she didn’t know either!). He then took the time to remind us to laugh at his jokes, before heading back into place for what we had all been waiting for- the main event.

Live show
Since Strictly Come Dancing goes out live, what you see it what you get- right? Well, yes and no- because whilst the camera is looking at one thing, something else might be happening that you can’t see. There’s the expected stuff like the autocue, of course, but there are also other things to see, like make-up people nipping out powder the judges, a rather overenthusiastic man with a steadicam who runs out onto the floor to make a circling sweep of the dancers while they’re doing their routines and of course the floor manager encouraging everyone to clap after a VT. Yes, all that cheering and booing is encouraged by the staff, and so caught up in the excitement are you that you go along with it- although admittedly the celebs in the audience seem to partake with the most enthusiasm. Even standing ovations are less spontaneous than you might think, although for health and safety reasons those in the gallery aren’t allowed to stand. I think the Yanks have us beat on that one- they have a larger audience and presumably a much more secure gallery.

There are monitors mounted on the ceiling that let the audience see what’s being broadcast (the only way for us to see VTs and the backstage talk with Tess), but of course the real reason for being there is not to watch what you can see at home, but to take it in with your own eyes. His jokes may be old and so unfunny that they’re perversely amusing, and his autocue text is so large that only three or four words fit on the screen (hence his pauses and fluffing the lines), but Brucie is still a legend worthy of coming to see. And then of course there’s Tess, the celebs and the pro dancers- all real and there right in front of your eyes. I love most of the dresses anyway, but to see them in the flesh takes them to the next level- everything looks so much brighter, sparklier and generally more attractive than the TV can manage.

We’d seen a lot already, but it was finally time for the dancing to begin- and first out on the floor were Gethin and Camilla with a quickstep. A couple of weeks ago, Matt’s Viennese waltz was overshadowed by Gethin, but this time it was the other way around- Gethin did a good job (I particularly like the slide when I watch it back), and in my delusional state Camilla briefly appeared to be smiling up at those of us in the gallery (yay! Camilla unintentionally smiled at me in the gallery!), but overall it didn’t quite have the lightness and magic of the quickstep. Camilla’s dress was a paler pink than it looked on TV, which makes you wonder what unfortunate-seeming colour choices on camera actually look worthy in the flesh.

Next onto the floor was John ‘prinny’ Barnes with his samba; Nicole danced well and there were some nice running promenades (see how I can sound like I know what I’m talking about), but overall it had a bit of a ‘Dad dance’ feel about it, with John still looking at the floor and not nailing the performance side of it. On the strength of his salsa, I thought he’d be able to do a good enough samba to get through to next week, but after the performance it seemed inevitable that he would end up in the bottom two again.

Third onto the floor were Letitia (in a beautiful dress) and the lovely Darren Bennett, performing the Viennese waltz. From my position in the gallery it looked good, but watching it back later showed that what Len said afterwards was right- all the problems were in the lower half. There was some sloppy footwork and a definite lack of heel leads, but even so it’s great to see how much Letitia’s confidence has grown- despite the knock back of two weeks ago.

Fourth out were Kelly and Brendan with the second samba of the evening, and with only eight hours training put into it, it was not the best of efforts, with too little samba content and too much disco. At the end, the frustrated judges laid into them (leading to much criticism and complaints from the viewers), whilst Brendan tried to argue back before giving up, and Kelly admitting that even she thought they had done a bad job. I have to admit that I thought the judges came on a bit too strong, but the depth of hatred thrown up against Len seems a little extreme- I think the jet lag and DWTS has got to him a bit, though.

Before we move on, I must digress for a moment to talk about those hidden stars of the series- the scoring paddles. Many of the lower scoring paddles have been accused of getting dusty in their container (which I can now report is an open topped silver box), but the ones that made it out proved to be double-sided- perhaps so that there is no embarrassment in holding one up backwards.

Anyway, back to the dancing and next up was Kenny and Ola with an American Smooth. Although it was a solid rather than a great effort, Kenny has greatly improved since the early days; however, instead of attempting a more complex routine, he tried to impress with two lifts that would have been more at home in Dancing on Ice. Although it was impressive that he could perform them, they seemed like quite hard work and lacked the effortless grace the dance should have. Even so, the judge response was generally positive, although when Craig gave a six and the others gave eights, a paddle war erupted whilst the cameras were elsewhere.

Sixth to perform were Matt and Flavia with their salsa, and it was here that the dancing went up a notch and really lit up the place. The atmosphere for their dance was just perfect, so much so that surely everyone must have wanted to get up and dance with them. I have so much respect and awe for the lovely Flavia now.

All too soon, however, we had reached the last dance of the evening- Alesha and Matthew’s cha cha cha. In other circumstances, the dance might not have seemed as good and the music an odd choice, but being in the middle of it right after Matt’s salsa meant the conditions were perfect for a great performance. Now all that remained was to summarise the performance, and for the male celebs to pretend to be shot down by Robin Hood’s arrows (hidden in their trousers) so that Brucie could get all the girls.

Interval
Finally, however, the wonderful live show was over, and after Bruce and Tess filmed a few short promos for the results show, it was time for us to depart the studio. The judges stayed for quick intervals, but the rest of us were ushered out- but even the walk back to the foyer was to provide excitement. As well as a brief “he’s walking right past me!” moment with Henry Winkler, I ended up right behind Brian Capron on the way out of the studio, where I let myself pretend to be a part of the conversation as he talked to someone else about his three weeks training with Karen, and how she taught him to stand up straight.

Unfortunately, the celebs were soon whisked off to the green room and various other locations that the common stock are not privy to, and whilst I tried to say hello to Len as he came out of the stage door, he headed in the opposite direction before I got the chance (hopefully not intentionally, although it depends whether he remembers me from dance class). Having decided that I probably couldn’t get away with pretending to be a celeb (even trading on my tenuous connection with Len didn’t seem likely to get me very far, although at the time I didn’t realise that his son was also in the audience- going on squinting during rewatch anyway- who I know a bit better), I returned to the foyer for the next batch of waiting.

This time around, even the TV couldn’t afford much entertainment since all we got was two soundless repeats of Friday’s ITT before the screen went blank, but even so, issues like dehydration had to be addressed before the results show. In their generosity, the BBC handed out one free Kit Kat and carton of apple or orange juice for everyone, but anything more substantial than that had to be bought at the café. Food seemed nonessential by that point, but water was definitely needed, and in between discovering a new liking for the previously hated Buxton mineral water, time was passed chatting with other audience members. Somehow the topic got onto my limited dance experience, so we discussed Len for a while and I tried to sound knowledgeable when someone talked about there not being enough rise and fall in Letitia’s Viennese waltz (in fact, there shouldn’t be much in it- rise and fall is for the regular waltz and foxtrot).

Around 8:30pm, however, all the clocks in the place seemed reluctant to move, and as 9pm drew nearer, we optimistically began to queue once more. Of course, all this earned was a ‘please get out of the way’ from the BBC staff and a need to let the coloured sticker people go to the front of the line anyway, but as the minutes dragged on we finally trekked back out into the cold to freeze our backsides off before we could be let back into the studio.

Results Show
In due course, everyone was sent back to their seats, and after some more words from the floor manager and warm up guy, the recording of the results show could begin. As Brucie was quick to say, you get up on a high for the live show, and then go limp for the results, since this season they are of course pre-recorded. With reassurances along the lines of “this won’t take more than 60-70 hours” and “you’ll be out by twelve, I promise”, the remaining segments were recorded in the order of broadcast, with breaks in between to let the dancers get changed. Having read Brucie’s autobiography, I was interested to see him ad-libbing and interacting with the audience- the one thing he professed to love most of all. As well as checking out the cleavage exposed by a low cut dress, he was quick to explain that Tess’ spiel about the voting was all courtesy of the ITV- who didn’t even give him an egg-timer or a gold watch when he left.

Since the VT summarising the live show and backstage comments had yet to be prepared, the first segment to be filmed were the judge’s comments- specifically those from Len and Arlene (for some reason they didn’t go back later to film any for Craig and Bruno). The first take saw Len claiming “I said if Kenny was ever above Kelly in the leaderboard, I’d show my bum in Sainsbury’s”, forcing the whole thing to be reshot (much to Bruce’s displeasure) because whilst the rather disturbing image of Len’s bum is permissible on early evening TV, advertising Sainsbury’s is not. Also cut from the second take was a part where Bruce joked about how the judges were happy that Kate was out, cutting to a close up of her whilst he said “sticks and stones may have broken her bones, but words will never hurt her”. Kate seemed quite relieved not to have to sit through this part again, and certainly the show wasn’t any worse off without it.

Between the two takes, however, we got to see the week’s pro number- a Charleston from a group called Swing Extreme that segued into a quickstep from Anton and Erin. I would of course have loved to see all the pros do one of their group numbers, but at the same time I absolutely adore Anton and Erin’s quickstep, and to see it in the flesh was a special treat- especially when Anton showed off with a few steps by himself and Erin responded by holding up a ‘1’ paddle. My aunt even waved to Anton when he was waiting in the wings, although he seemed to be focusing too much to notice.

Since the second take of the comments was actually filmed after this, what the audience at home don’t know is that when Bruce was introducing Swing Extreme in the version they saw- there was actually no one there! Afterwards, he told us all to “look at that acting”, because after all, “there was no bugger there”. Even Brucie swears when the cameras are off, it seems.

After another break to let everyone get changed, it was time for all the remaining couples in the competition to take to the floor for the much anticipated Dirty Dancing routine. The monitor showed us the VT of their training, and then it was time to see it done for real- and very well done it was too. Like the earlier Swing Extreme group dance, it was especially good to get a clear view of all the couples without being limited by the whims of the camera, and whilst I chose to focus on the gorgeous Darren Bennett, everyone did very well- whilst Kenny and Ola got the privilege of doing that memorable lift from the original film.

After the excitement, it was time for another ‘insert VT here’ moment, which in the actual broadcast would be the usual video of the celebs saying how much staying in the competition meant to them. After another break for the couples to get changed again, a rerun of the Sugababes’ performance on the monitor (and some clapping as if we’d just seen them perform live), the dreaded hour of the results had come. The couples hugged each other as they took their places in the spotlights- although I have to admit I was slightly distracted by the fact that the one Kenny and Ola stood under was swinging back and forth slightly.

The fateful hour had come, and even while we were having a great time, the celebs were about to be put under the stress of finding out which of them were in the bottom two. Kenny and Ola were first to be put through, followed by Alesha and Matthew, Matt and Flavia, Gethin and Camilla and- just as I was getting worried about her- Letitia and Darren. As we had guessed in the interval, John Barnes was to face his fourth time in the bottom two, this time joined by Brendan and Kelly- little enough surprise given that they had underperformed enough to be second from bottom on the judges’ leaderboard.

With the bottom two announced, it was straight into the dance-off; first out were John and Nicole, and whilst John was determined to take on board the advice to keep his head up, this only resulted in him messing up the steps. Kelly and Brendan also made some mistakes, but even though their routine was much the same, somehow the performance aspect of it seemed enhanced enough to raise it above her initial performance. As expected, the judges unanimously voted to save her- Craig labelled her the better dancer, Arlene hoped she had learned a lesson about coasting, Bruno reckoned she would deliver more in both present and future, and even Len had to agree, although he did apologise to John.

As the credits rolled, John and Nicole took to the floor for their last dance, and once filming was complete others emerged onto the stage- including Vincent and James in ‘plain clothes’. Despite my intentions to stay forever, the usher politely indicated that we should leave, and although I glimpsed Darren, Alesha, Len and some others on the way out, the presence of BBC people everywhere and the need to get back for the last train home prevented me from taking the plunge and trying to make it out onto the stage. Apparently in previous years mingling with the celebs was allowed, but for us it was not to be- not that I wouldn’t try to sneak onto the stage if I went again, however.

After the fact…
Much as I never wanted it to end, the magic of the night was over, and after collecting coats from the cloakroom and mobile phones from the foyer (they were brought up, but the dangerous scissors seemed too much effort to collect), the time had come to venture out into the cold evening and make our way back to our homes and normal lives. Still, it was a wonderful experience overall, one that makes all my enjoyment of the show on TV pale into insignificance, not to mention filling me with a desire to go again- every week, if possible. With so much to take in, just going to see the show once can never be enough.

Extra: rewatching the show at home
Well apart from spotting what appeared to be James Goodman sitting behind Len, it was interesting to rewatch the show, compare the experience and of course look out for myself. I’m happy to report that I appeared for approximately two seconds on national TV, and once I get a decent picture of said moment I may even post it.

I also made sure to watch Anton’s red button commentary for the main show, and it was one of the best RBC’s to date. Much as I like Ian, he was a bit quiet in the commentary box last week, so to have the ever talkative Anton give his opinion was rather refreshing (especially as he wasn’t afraid to do more than give the generic nice comments that Phillip Jackson favours). More Anton in any capacity, please.

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