It was my first time in the audience, with special press access, and I was more than aware how lucky I was. A record 3.5 million (yes, you read that right) people have applied for tickets for this season of Strictly which gives just a flavour of how popular this 18-year-old show has become – 10 million tune in every week - and how remarkably special Blackpool week is. The Tower is the home of ballroom and it’s no secret how much every contestant wants to make it to the sprung dancefloor under the glitterballs.
Every production is an undeniable marathon – the Saturday show is filmed live and the Sunday show recorded immediately afterwards which is a massive undertaking. Not just for the celebrities and their professional dancers but for the dozens of black-clad production crew who arrived at 8.30am and were still working away at midnight, sweeping and vacuuming up every bit of glitter, ticker-tape and accidently-shed hair extensions and tiaras meticulously between dances and takes, manhandling cameras and lights and constructing enormous sets complete with pyrotechnics and swings hanging from the ceiling, in moments as the show goes out live.
It’s a long one for the audience too (understatement) who are asked to come and queue from the morning and advised, if you are not early, you may not get in at all and to eat a big meal beforehand. When you finally make it through the door after walking through the buzz of Blackpool’s ‘Christmas by the sea’ extravaganza, and past streets closed off for production trucks, everyone is asked asked to sacrifice phones for the entire shebang to stop spoilers (and selfies).
And once in that’s it. Unless you have access to the VIP bar (admittedly I did) it’s a bottle of water, juice box and a biscuit until midnight. VIPs and crew were luckier, some had ordered in pizzas between the show recordings. But in the audience, bums were numb, hands bruised sore from clapping on cue and throats sore from whooping to order; you have to buy into the sheer showbiz of it all or there’s no point going.
And no-one cared. Once in the stunning ballroom the magic engulfed us and the starriness feel-good of the event was relentless. The audience was full of contestant families, well known faces and former contestant and pros, from front-row Leigh Francis and Paddy McGuiness (who swapped jackets between shows), from Steph McGovern and John Whaite, to Kelvin Fletcher to Rylan, who presents the ‘It Takes Two’ weekly show to former contestant and boyfriend of pro-dancer Dianne Buswell Joe Sugg, who presents the Strictly podcast. In the ladies loo we bumped into Joanne Clifton, who presents with Rylan, and several choreographers discussing their thoughts on their couples.
The ballroom is buzzing from get go and it’s not long before the dancers are nervously practicing their moves, hours before the show goes live. On the stage, the full orchestra warms up and at the other end of the dance floor there is the ‘Clauditorium’, where presenter Claudia Winkleman chats to the couples between dances, neatly distracting attention from the manic activity to construct a set for the next couple up.
Ah, Claudia. When she arrives on the stage with co-presenter Tess Daly, the pair are instantly likeable, not least as the flawless-looking but clearly desperately uncomfortable Claudia, sporting a tight black-flared jumpsuit under which she is struggling with her support underwear, keeps squatting, scratching and gurning as she tried to come to terms with her outfit and warm up her face.
Meanwhile, Tess looks perfect but relatedly admits she ‘changed her dress at the last minute’ and is smoothing it down worriedly and seeming nervous before pre-recording some bits and pieces. In moments the pair have the audience on side and once the show goes live, all signs of any discomfort are professionally batted away. The judges arrive and are seated on their podium, immediately opposite from my position on tier one, and are greeted to huge roars from the crowd.
And of course not everything’s live. Before the show even begins the UK’s Eurovision star Sam Ryder has to perform his new single, with accompanying group dance, not once but twice, and the culmination of the opening sequence is played so the audience can rehearse the clapping. When the show does go live, the excitement is overwhelming, the emotions about the return to Blackpool very real and once the dancing starts, it’s almost surreal.
An enormous camera on a crane sweeps across the ballroom while agile camera people run across the dance floor, carefully out of shot at all times, almost as well choregraphed as the performers themselves. Some sections are filmed in the corridors and one point, returning from the bar, we were forced to hide behind a convenient curtain or we’d be starring in Anton du Beke’s piece to camera.
Between every dance it’s all action and not everything goes to plan. When the ‘d’ from the ‘Quick and step’ bar set for couple Helen Skelton and Gorka Marquez fell off moments before the cameras went live, they swept it away hurriedly as there was no time to re-attach it. Did you notice? During the later recording Claudia and Tess balanced precariously on the edge of the ballroom’s first tier for the intro, Tess genuinely terrified of the height and begging the crew to hold on to her ankles while Claudia clings to her waist.
Once the live show was over it was time for everybody to queue for the loo and re-set for the recording of Sunday’s show. This is where warm-up man and comedian Stuart Holdham came into his own. Not enough can be said for Stuart who held the whole thing together, keeping the enormous audience laughing and motivated, sharing one-liners. “Do you know how Sam (Ryder) gets his hair life this?’” he asked the audience. ‘It’s because Claudia has given him some Head and Shoulders”.
He later admitted as the longest ever filming of Strictly grew later and later: “At this point it's a hostage situation”. He laughed at and with celebrities while being relentlessly given instructions by floor manager Alan Conley, brother of presenter Brian Conley, who conducted the entire night like an orchestra and whispered in Stuart’s ear. Even us as audience had a few retakes or ‘pickups’ as they call it in TV.
The entire night was a showbiz extravaganza but it was the moments that made it and in the audience you can see all sorts, depending on your seat. Opposite us, Tyler West and Dianne Buswell were practicing on the balcony opposite while the show went out live and next to our seats Joe Sugg popped up – it turned out he was friends with a Lancashire Tik-Toker in the audience.
Then there were the two tiny ballroom dancers waiting nervously for their starring moment (it was 11pm and they had to perform twice as did Sam Ryder, again, despite it appearing perfect) The reality is the dance off was filmed at practically midnight and I can tell you pro-dancers Dianne Buswell and Carlos Gu, who also performed in group numbers all night, looked like they needed an ice bath off camera. That was a lot of dancing and I can also tell you the emotions were very real.
A wonderful night in a wonderful place and Strictly – Blackpool can’t wait to see you next year. We’ll get the jazz hands ready and rehearsed for you once more.
A version of this article was originally published on our sister title, the Blackpool Gazette