As a boy I loved to dance and I dreamed of making people happy by doing just that. It wasn’t such a fanciful thought. Back then, if you had enough talent and a lot of luck, you could hope to make a career through dance. With the variety circuit, the Summer Seasons, cabaret, West End and provincial shows flourishing, there were many opportunities for dancers. The main reason for that, of course, was that dancing was a very popular pastime with the public. Ballrooms and dance halls up and down the country were full of couples enjoying themselves to the sound of big bands and even bigger orchestras.
And then, slowly, dancing – ballroom dancing – fell out of fashion. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this change in fortunes began, perhaps in the mid-60s, but certainly by the 70s the public seemed to have moved on from the quickstep, foxtrot and jive. It was sad to see. Dance was my passion, the backbone of my career, and although I and many others worked hard to keep it alive as a form of entertainment and a social activity, it seemed that it was in terminal decline in Britain.
Then, in 2004, along came a television show that would give a 76-year-old man, who still adored to dance, the opportunity to be part of something that would resuscitate his great love, and place it firmly back in the public spotlight. What a wonderful thing to happen. When I first heard about Strictly, however, I would never have predicted that it would become such a phenomenon.
My first thought was this must be some kind of wind-up; it was such an unexpected idea. That might sound odd now, given the success of Strictly Come Dancing and the many other dance shows that followed in its wake, but you have to remember this was back in 2003.
Reality TV was king, although much of it was rather cruel for my taste. Big Brother, Fame Academy and other similar shows “starring” members of the public were the big ratings winners. Entertainment shows – or, at least, what I thought of as entertainment shows – had practically ceased to exist. Yet here we were, talking about the possibility of a series with the working title Pro Celebrity Come Dancing in which well- known contestants would learn to ballroom dance (it could not have been less fashionable at the time) and compete against each other.
My thoughts were immediately drawn to The Generation Game, and the various dance-oriented games we had played. I began to imagine contestants tripping over each other, the chaos and laughs that would bring. I soon learnt, however, that the BBC envisaged something that was far more of a genuine competition.
In the end, Strictly brought together the best of both worlds – the fierce competitiveness of professional dancers, which I had overlooked when the concept was first discussed, combined with the more laid-back attitude of many of the contestants, people such as David Dickinson and Russell Grant, who were only participating to have a bit of fun. Indeed, I think it was this unique combination that made the show such a success. While viewers cared how well people danced, they also enjoyed supporting the celebrities who were just there to have a go.
From the start, Strictly was a very warm show and it has maintained that positive feel-good factor throughout, while still managing to create a strong competitive edge as each series progresses towards its climax. From early on this meant the contestants were reaching standards of dance that I would never have thought possible. Add to that some much-needed Saturday-night glamour, four larger-than-life judges and the best band on television, and this unlikely idea worked. Indeed, the bravery and vision of those responsible for Strictly still amazes me: especially Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC 1 at the time, who commissioned it…as a live show.