I have spent 20 years in broadcasting, but nothing sharpens the nerves like dancing live on Strictly. Hearing announcer Alan Dedicoat declare that you and your partner are about to perform sends the butterflies flying up from your toes to your false lashes. Those lights drift across the floor and the sight of them scrambles whatever you have left in your stomach. There are only a few moments to compose yourself, calm your nerves, collect your thoughts and then – you begin to move. There are one and a half minutes ahead where you’ll either dance to make your professional partner proud – or... I can’t even bring myself to write the alternative.
What can prepare you for this? How many people perform before an audience of 11 million? Each morning on BBC Breakfast I broadcast to 7 million people – but I have an autocue to read, a computer full of facts under the desk in front of me, and an experienced presenter with whom to ad-lib. Bill Turnbull and I have worked together long enough to trust each other thoroughly. We know that if the other needs a moment to consider their next question, we’ll jump in. We know that if there’s breaking news, we’ll take it in turns to research the facts while the other does the interviews as guests are thrown at us thick and fast.
Sometimes, of course, things go wrong. Perhaps the question you ask doesn’t make sense. Or doesn’t elicit an answer from the guest. Or a guest doesn’t turn up and you have three minutes to fill with chat. Perhaps you fluff your lines, or what is written on the autocue isn’t clear. On a recent Strictly Saturday night, Sir Bruce turned to me when something similar happened and reminded me that it happens to us all if we’re presenting live television. It really does. I can remember many awkward moments when it felt as though tumbleweed was rolling through the studio.
Bill told me very early on in my Breakfast presenting career that if you make a mistake, own up to it immediately and acknowledge that the audience knows something went wrong. It’s why Bruce said, with a twinkle in his eye – after his autocue stumble – “Did I say that? Did anybody hear it?” Once the audience knows that you’re aware you’ve slipped up, they forgive you – they’re on your side. So you include them in the mistake. There is another way of saying this that has become my motto: “If you stumble, make it part of the dance”. And that makes more sense now than ever before.
On the Strictly dance floor – where potential stumbles are always just a step away – I’m with a wonderful man whom I’ve never seen make a mistake. We also need to trust each other. He needs to trust that my memory will hold, and that my performance will sing.
I’m not hoping to achieve perfection in a live broadcast. Or in our dances on Strictly. Things will always go wrong. Perhaps the nerves make legs less snappy than they should be in the cha-cha-cha, or the hand grips too hard in the tango. The goal isn’t to perform a perfect dance, but an entertaining one.
When I come off the dance floor I don’t think, “Great, I got everything right.” Instead, I hope that someone has been moved by what we’ve done. That someone has loved it. That someone watching thinks, “If I learnt to dance, I’d love to dance like that.” And to be relaxed enough to dance like that, it’s important to make peace with errors and the fact that there will be some. Novices make them – and so do broadcasting legends. You bring the audience along with you in your fallibility – and if you stumble, all you can do is make it part of the dance.
Strictly Come Dancing continues on Saturday at 6:40pm on BBC1.