Jeremy Vine reveals the sad story of the young dancer who inspires him on Strictly Come Dancing

Saffron Bailey died young from a rare cancer in 2007, but her name is inscribed on a bench near where Jeremy trains

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Strictly Come Dancing creates a bubble. While it’s on, and you’re in, you live in the bubble.

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In the olden days people went mad from mercury poisoning; the modern equivalent is inhaling sequin dust. When someone told me the other day they had family and friends staying, I said, “What are family and friends? I only have fellow dancers.” I was joking, of course, and being a twit. But afterwards I realised it was not the kind of joke a balanced person makes.

As I say, a bubble. But sometimes you get pulled up short. 

Karen and I train a lot at a place near Marble Arch in central London. The Sylvia Young Theatre School sits behind Edgware Road, a tidy building dwarfed by washed-out apartment blocks. We have a routine that sounds like a dance-step: chat, train, chat; train, train, coffee, bench. The coffee we get from the nearest coffee shop. The bench is the one outside the school, with an inscription attached on a scuffed brass plate. We sit there and talk about life.

We have a rule – anything but dancing. So our conversation ranges over football, films, even love. Our families. Travel. Our personal histories: Venezuela versus Cheam. What we like. What scares us (firearms, tipper trucks). What excites us. Our future and our plans. Usually we laugh, but one day we got serious. After a few breaks on that bench, we took the trouble to turn and look at the small print on the brass plate.

We both fell silent. Saffron was what, 12 or 13? That’s terribly young. Karen looked up the story on her phone. Saffron wanted to dance. But she did indeed die aged only 12, soon after being accepted by the school where we train. 

The little girl’s symptoms made medical staff think it was pneumonia. Lack of appetite, exhaustion and a bad cough were mistakenly treated with antibiotics. But no one was really to blame. She had a cancer of the kidney so rare that most doctors never see a single case. Because people have two kidneys, it can envelope one (as it did with Saffron) without being detected. The tiny dancer collapsed in hospital and died soon after, on 25 March 2007.

It made us pause and think about our day and how lucky we are. We are in a dance contest that sometimes feels quite serious, but of course it is not. The Strictly bubble is pure fun – the kind of fun Saffron would have had if she had lived.

I want her parents to know we use her bench. The school very kindly tried to contact them, but drew a blank. Saffron, I bet you would have loved meeting Karen. We will be thinking of you when we dance, and all the dances you missed.


My special girl

After reading Jeremy’s words, RT tracked down Saffron’s mother, Carol London, to her new home in France.

“It brings back all the emotions and memories,” she said. “Saffron had just started school at Sylvia Young and she developed a very rare cancer and died within four months. It was devastating. She was the most amazing singer and pianist and dancer — everything. Sylvia Young told me they were dedicating a bench to her and doing a scholarship in her name. She was such a special girl.”

Carol said she moved to France — where she is still a massive fan of Strictly — after Saffron’s death. “I moved abroad because it was just so hard in London with all the memories. You try to be fine because you know she would want you to carry on. It is just unnatural for a child to die before you, as a mother. It is so hard.”

When told what Jeremy had written in RT, she thanked him, saying, “That’s lovely. She was just full of dreams and ambitions for the future. And she would love that.”

As told to Paul Revoir

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Strictly Come Dancing continues on BBC1 today (Saturday 7th November) at 6.30pm