Close your eyes. Think of a senior Labour politician. Someone… ballsy. Someone who had been at the top of politics for nearly 20 years, hands on all the levers, when the voters abruptly pitched him out of an upstairs window. Now, think about this man’s serious approach to economics…
What do you mean, you can’t do that because you’ve started laughing? This is Ed Balls we’re talking about – I mean, the guy is serious!
The politician-turned-dancer sits down with me just days after stealing the show on the Strictly red carpet with a series of spontaneous moves that were sheer David Brent. He has a big gash on his forehead. We will come to that.
Balls sounds like he’s more in shock now than when the banks failed in 2008.
“On the launch show, I stood behind the rocket with Lesley Joseph and said, ‘Is it too late to pull out?’ And she said, ‘Do you think we can?’ And in that moment the rocket went up and all the smoke and fireworks started.”
Welcome to Strictly Come Dancing, Ed.
He learnt an immediate lesson. “I walked down the red carpet and talked to the crowd, and they said, ‘Are you OK? You look worried.’ I realised that my caution was exuding, so [Strictly professional dancer] Janette Manrara and I started doing a bit of our launch dance and that was it.”
That was indeed “it.” The moves went viral. Is that how he gashed himself?
“No, it was while visiting The Guardian to do a podcast. A door opened towards me at massive speed and hit me straight in the forehead.”
A day before the launch – which, I was flabbergasted to learn, got a million more viewers than the last series – The Sun reported brutally: “Ed Balls is doomed to fail after getting tips from Strictly flops Jeremy Vine, Ann Widdecombe and Edwina Currie.”
Ouch! Did that hurt him like it hurt me?
No, he says firmly. “In politics you need a Goldilock’s skin. Not too thick, not too thin. Because if you’re thin-skinned then you can’t survive, but if you’re thick-skinned, you become inhuman and insensitive.”
It’s true, he did call me after the Strictly invite came. He wanted to know if his seriousness would be permanently compromised. I told him, “Do it for yourself, do it for your wife Yvette [Cooper] and for your kids. Do it to see inside the most successful TV show the BBC has ever made.”
Jeremy Vine on Strictly in 2015
Afterwards I went home and told my wife about the call. “Oooh,” Rachel said, “I don’t know if that’s good advice. He’s not like you. You’re BBC. Politics is less forgiving. What if he wants to be Governor of the Bank of England one day?”
Ed puts my mind at rest. “Realistically, I don’t think I will be Governor of the Bank. Does Strictly make me a less serious person? And actually, Jeremy, you were a serious radio interviewer before you did the show and you still are. Sometimes in life it’s OK to be short-term. Speaking to you and Yvette, you both said, you will have a great time and you will regret it if you don’t do it. I don’t want regrets.”
This transformation is, I admit, fascinating for me. Balls was a big, bruising figure in politics for a long time. At Westminster, where I worked as a correspondent in the 1990s, I saw him as Gordon Brown’s bouncer. He and Brown were not so much yin and yang as yin and yinner – two big chips off a very hard block.
But now Balls admits to a mid-life crisis, plays piano and talks openly about the difficulty of speaking in public with a stammer. Not only that – he is open about his mistakes in the very readable book he has written called Speaking Out.
He and Ed Miliband presided over an election disaster. There was a moment on Newsnight when Emily Maitlis asked him to name businesspeople who supported Labour and he replied, “Er… Bill.” “Bill Somebody?” teased Maitlis. The surname wouldn’t come. Awful, yet he freely talks about it now.
Why? Is he beating himself up? “No, I’m not beating myself up. I think what I’ve been trying to do is to explain to people that politicians are human beings who make mistakes. People think of politicians as being different, abnormal, maybe inhuman, slightly odd. But politicians are not automatons.”
Ed Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper
But he is not a politician any more, and seems comfortable without a grand plan. He sounds especially proud of his job chairing Norwich City Football Club.
“My dad, brother, uncles, aunts and cous ins all support Norwich and have done for generations. I’ve had a season ticket for years. My mum and dad live in the city and I know Delia Smith well. I was asked to be the chair – it’s really important for the club to have a chair who is also a fan.
“I have seen more of my mum and dad and family in the last six months than I have in the last five years. Mum and Dad are in their late 70s and we are turning up twice a week to stay with them and go to games.” He glows talking about his family. “That has been really nice.”
But for now Strictly is his priority. He asks me for tips. I say: “Start practising the Charleston now. Practise it on the train, in your bedroom, on the street. The step is horrible.” Despite the flash of panic I see on his face, I still think he was right to take the leap. I got two things from doing Strictly last year – dancing and friendship. By the end, I still couldn’t dance, at least not much, but at last I could appreciate the art – and my Strictly pro Karen Clifton became a personal dance goddess. Plus, the celebs bonded in a beautiful way.
He is bonding with people already, I can tell. “We have a WhatsApp group that everybody’s on. There’s a lot of support. For me and Louise Redknapp, we have young children watching us on TV and we are slightly outside our comfort zone. Our partners [in the outside world] are also well known, and we are conscious of not wanting too much glitter or to embrace it in the wild way some of the others are doing. In the same category would be Naga Munchetty and Will Young – we are all cautious about not wanting to feel too exposed.”
Hold it right there. Now I’m worried. Not too much glitter?
“Please tell me you haven’t refused to wear sequins,” I beg.
“I spent the whole week saying, ‘I’m not having any sparkles, I don’t think it’s me’, and then just before the launch dance they said, ‘You are going to have to change your shirt,’ and it had sparkles all over it. My shirt made me look more like a beer barrel than a dancer. In retrospect the hoops on it were a mistake. Someone on Twitter said the wardrobe department just went, ‘Sod it, darts player.’”
I’m laughing very hard now.
“I also assumed I wasn’t going to wear fake tan, Jeremy, but when you told me you had…”
On another Strictly-related note, out of the blue, Gordon Brown got in touch. The subject? Balls’s dancing. “Gordon sent me an email yesterday saying, ‘Congratulations on Strictly, the whole nation is enjoying every minute of it.’
“I had thought he was sitting there thinking ‘Oh my God, he’s mad.’ So it was nice that the email actually said, ‘You go for it.’”
The Westminster bombast has gone. If someone from the future said to me, “It is 2025 and Ed Balls is prime minister,” I would know what I already suspect – the dance floor is about to turn his world around. In Ed’s new life, Strictly is the first step.
The first live show of Strictly Come Dancing is tonight at 9pm on BBC1