Saturday night was quite something, a singular and indeed remarkable experience that will live long in the memory. Oti and I danced our Couples’ Choice to Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang. Suffice to say, it seems to have gone down very well.
In fact, head judge Shirley Ballas was grooving away during the dance and remarked of my dancing “there’s young people that can’t even do that”, before awarding us an astounding score of 10, our first of the series.
I have had many supportive and complimentary messages since, not least a tweet from The Wurzels, who declared that “the West Country wizard nailed it”. High praise indeed, and perhaps this accolade could not have been bettered. That was until today, when all three members of the actual Sugarhill Gang sent me a personal video message of congratulations, and thanks for using their song. I am still a little dazed by it all to be honest, but in a good way. I’ve even become a Gif.
I think perhaps people expected I’d be a bit rubbish at dancing, and was only really drafted in for comedy value. Perhaps I would be dressed as a crab for the quickstep and made to dance it all sideways, or tricked out like I was riding an ostrich for the jive, or just generally be paraded around like some kind of oddity at a Victorian country fair, the Bottom to the Hermiones and Lysanders.
In any event, I always intended to give it my all, perhaps to offset my pantomime horse role – but what I didn’t expect was to be able to dance well, certainly not with a degree of confidence bordering on élan. This is, of course, down to the diligent training and coaching by Oti, along with hers and Tommy Franzen’s and Lizzie Gough’s terrific hip-hop choreography – and, of course, sheer determination on my part.
But I think Shirley’s comments raise another issue, that of age, and what men of my vintage are supposed to be capable of. I want to say to all men of or around my age, never discount the possibility that you might surprise yourself. We are all capable of more than we think, something my old music teacher instilled in me and her advice, offered as it was then for a demanding piano recital, has stayed with me as a mantra throughout my life.
I am just happy to still be in the competition, but it makes me smile to have confounded people’s expectations. So much so, that my odds of winning the show itself have dramatically come down, to the point I am now the bookies’ favourite.
I didn’t feel like I could achieve anything like that on Monday morning last week. The hip-hop routine was intricate and physical, and I really struggled with it at first. It took all week to get it into my system, and even then, we were rehearsing right up to the wire. The show was also hit by the loss of Nicola and Katya which put everyone in a sombre mood, a reminder of how we’re all vulnerable to this virus, and how pervasive it is, even with the most rigorous distancing and sanitising.
Then on Thursday, we had to put our beloved rescue dog Banjar to sleep, as he was old and in pain, and it was the kindest thing to do. I was OK until I read all the messages of condolence that came pouring in, then I must admit I shed a tear or two. It’s a daft thing, isn’t it? Pet owners will know this. You become so attached to them, they are with you every day, pleased to see you. He was such a loyal friend, I forgave him the occasional lapse, like the time he ate a £5 note.
By Friday, not only was I still getting over the dog, I was getting a bit jumpy about the dance. At the start of the routine, I had to unfold and pass Oti a newspaper in a very specific way, so that it would face the right way up after being turned over twice, and flipped open. Sounds a doddle right? Not so much. In the dress run, I was all over the place, the paper was upside down and that one bit of faffing put me off for the whole dance. I missed a few steps, my hat went on sideways, and my arms began flailing at one point like a fisherman on a stricken trawler waving for help – a fisherman with a background in street dance, of course… the Grimsby B-Boys?
It was crushing to have gone backwards after hours and hours of honing the dance and actually managing to perfect it the day before. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be able to turn it back around again after that final run-through, but my 30 years of performing has taught me always to hold back and try to reserve the best for the actual show. Anyhow, it’s a miracle I pulled it off on the night.
This week is Blackpool week, the halfway point in the competition, and the place itself means a huge amount to the pro dancers. For many of them, Blackpool was the centre of the dance universe, a place they travelled to from all over the world to compete in dance competitions as kids.
I have to say my experience of Blackpool is somewhat different, more fish-and-chips and donkey based, rather than mythical dance mecca. Oti’s lifelong affection for the place has made me see it in a new light. Of course, we can’t actually go to Blackpool this year, so the challenge to the show’s producers is, for the first time, to bring the spirit of the ballroom under the Tower to the studio.
Oti and I will be dancing the American Smooth Foxtrot, to the lovely Cole Porter song I’ve Got You Under My Skin, sung by Frank Sinatra. It’s a song I know well, as it was part of the repertoire of songs I played on the piano in hotels and restaurants for my first few paid gigs. One establishment used to have pre-printed cards on all the tables which said “Dear Pianist, please play…” and the rest left blank for your request. It was mostly fun and a way to learn all the old songs, although once a waiter brought me a card on which was written “somewhere else”.
Whatever else happens in this competition, last Saturday night is one I will never forget. On the night, the adrenalin kicked in, I drew on all my years of performance experience, I conquered my nerves, and hit the marks, danced the steps, folded the newspaper in the correct manner and managed to get through the whole thing unscathed and with a degree of swagger.
But I still put my sunglasses on upside down. I will always contest it was deliberate.
Strictly Come Dancing continues on BBC One on Saturday at 7.15pm