Strictly is my first foray into anything really “showbiz”, so I was a little taken aback when my mobile phone began to explode into life after it was announced that I was taking part. I’ve never been so popular, it seems.
The messages ramped up when the launch show aired, which now seems a lifetime ago, having spent the past three weeks locked in a studio trying to master the jive. The first message I received was from a friend from university who is now a history don at Oxford. He was rather confused: “I don’t understand, I tuned in thinking you were going to be baking cakes!”
Next to come was a text from a relative, remarking that the outfit I was wearing looked distinctly similar to the dress my mother had worn to my brother’s bar mitzvah in the 80s. And so I did something utterly lethal: I turned on Twitter. I normally give social media my completely undivided indifference but, on this occasion, I simply couldn’t resist.
When my TV show Judge Rinder first started I would, from time to time, look on Twitter to see what people were saying. And if anybody wrote anything particularly awful, I would simply correct the spelling and send their comment back as I will not tolerate bad grammar from anybody, least of all from internet trolls. If you are going to waste your energy being gratuitously cruel to me you might at least take the trouble to use spell check.
The Twitter-feed on Saturday night was entirely different. I have never seen such uniformly positive feedback about a TV show ever. It isn’t hard to see why, really. Strictly is one of those rare things in broadcasting, a show that the entire family can enjoy together, regardless of age or background, which is – above all – the reason I agreed to take part.
Programmes involving celebrities are often designed to bring out the very worst in people; Strictly is the opposite. It showcases and celebrates something rather wonderful. A chance to watch people learning something new and – best of all – to do so while covered in bespoke dresses and sparkle.
For my grandparents, it means a great deal more. Weeks that are spent coping with hospital visits seemingly dissolve when the show comes on as they disappear into the world of their youth. Back to an era of dancing the jive in bomb shelters and waltzing in black tie at the Empire Rooms. It is the hour in the week when nothing else matters; when the pain feels less acute because they are utterly transfixed and transformed.
As I watched the group dance I didn’t even notice the terrible mistakes I made. Instead I took a call from my grandfather: “We loved it, my son,” he said. I knew he meant it and it made the whole thing worthwhile. I could not give a fig whether I forget the steps or embarrass myself from now on. Because I know that, whatever happens, I’m part of something that brings genuine joy to millions and, more importantly, that I’ll be making my grandparents proud.
Strictly Come Dancing starts on Friday 23rd September at 9pm and continues on Saturday 24th September at 6:30pm – both on BBC1