And so the strange sequinned life of Ed Balls continues. The 50-year-old political bruiser who traded economics for paso doble and pastry came up smelling of rose extract when the electorate rejected him and he was embraced by the world of television.
His latest turn? Fantasy dinner parties for Radio 4. “It’s possible because of BBC archives,” Balls explains, half laughing at the idea. The idea being that with some clever editing of past recordings you can exhume famous people and have them “chatting” to each other over the canapés. Or in Balls’s case – lasagne.
What? You have brought back Danny Kaye and Joan Rivers to give them lasagne? It’s a Balls speciality, apparently. There’s also macaroons, “made” especially by Balls for Rivers, and lashings of fizz, under which you can hide the crackly fact that Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP, is arguing across the decades with Les Dawson, the pioneer of sexist ribaldry.
Really? “Oh yes, Les has rather old-fashioned views about women, and gets roundly ticked off by Nancy and Joan,” says Balls, fondly. “There is a whole row about gender, which is quite fiery, and I have to step in and calm it down.”
But what’s the point of such a strange show? “Well, the first thing is that you are trying to entertain, and then draw out a series of conversations from different eras,” says Balls. “There is a huge wealth of material and it is a more interesting way of using it than, say, doing a programme where Denis Healey talks about his life.”
Is there anyone Balls would have blackballed? “It has to feel like a real dinner party, so if you had Stalin, it wouldn’t work because nobody else would come. You have to have someone who is in the archives, so that rules out Boudica or Henry V. Margaret Thatcher would have been good, but she might have dominated. And you don’t always have to endorse everything a person says in order for them to be invited.”
Yet Healey, one of Labour’s biggest beasts and a famous chancellor, is clearly someone Balls would have loved to have dinner with in real life.
“He was in his 90s when I went to visit him to talk about politics after becoming shadow chancellor. But instead, we talked about friendship and the importance of having a hinterland. Part of the reason I wanted Denis to come was to discuss the things I spoke to him about that day.”
Indeed, Balls – who almost seems to think he has been holding an actual dinner party – has clearly relished being the perfect “host” to such disparate company. “What links these people is they had to perform in difficult circumstances, and part of the conversation is about how you deal with vulnerability and challenges,” he says.
Such as what? “I’m someone who has a stammer and who dealt with it in Parliament and talked about it publicly. Both Les Dawson and Joan Rivers, in different ways, had challenges that they had to cope with.”
How about vulnerability? Balls is at pains to dispel any ideas that he is crying into his pillow about losing his seat at the last election. “Yes, I lost. But I was a cabinet minister and did important things, and I’m now doing new, enjoyable things. It’s definitely about how you turn negative things into a positive.”
Isn’t Balls worried about the way he pranced, Gangnam Style, so readily into the world of reality TV and celebrity while Britain lurched toward an unknown Brexit and his own party was in crisis? “I was in politics for 20 years. I was an MP for ten. It’s true I’m not in there voting. But more than 600 people are. It’s their job at the moment. I’m making a different contribution and I’m not sure if it’s a lesser one.”
What we need is Strictly, says Balls. And Bake Off, which he did the Sports Relief version of last year. And now, bantering with Les Dawson? “At a time when we have had lots of big divisive political issues, we want to draw people together. Whether you are Labour or Conservative, remain or leave, you can enjoy Strictly. Unifying things are good.”
Indeed it’s given him a whole new fan base. “It was a surprise for me to see that people enjoyed it, especially children under eight.” He shakes his head, marvelling. “The number of letters and pictures I get from six-year-olds.”
Did he get any letters from fed-up grown-ups, annoyed he was squandering his PPE-schooled brain on foxtrot rather than concentrating on fiscal policy? “I used to feel guilty. The day after Donald Trump was elected my children went to school asking how could this have happened and I went to do the salsa in a studio. On the other hand, what was interesting was how many tweets and Facebook posts there were saying at least Strictly gave them something to look forward to.” That’s OK then.
He’s just completed a 30-date arena dance tour. “You walk out and there are 10,000 people cheering. If you’re a footballer, a certain proportion of the crowd wants you to fail. If you’re a politician a large proportion wants you to fail. Whereas in Strictly, people want you to do well. It’s nice to do things that people enjoy.”
I suspect the harsh terrain of politics will never inspire Balls again. The public servant inspired by Denis Healey has been overwhelmed by a combination of laughs, adoration, self-raising flour and Danny Kaye. Sit on the opposition benches for years? Forget it. Ed Balls is having the time of his life.
Ed Balls’s Dream Dinner Party is on Thursday at 11:30am on Radio 4
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