Ready, steady...

Char­lotte can’t stop gig­gling, and Alexan­dra’s lost with­out a mi­cro­phone. Brian’s got a se­cret back­stage ally – while Jon­nie’s just plain ter­ri­fied. But they’re all do­ing it for touch­ingly per­sonal rea­sons, they tell Jenny John­ston

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There’s a cer­tain ter­ror that comes with step­ping into the Strictly spot­light for the first time. It’s OK for the con­tes­tants who know they can dance a bit, and per­haps have a proven sense of rhythm. It’s also eas­ier, surely, for the co­me­di­ans, know­ing their hu­mour may at least win them a place in the next round.

What about those in the mid­dle though? ‘What are you say­ing?’ says Good Morn­ing Bri­tain presenter and news­reader Char­lotte Hawkins in mock hor­ror. ‘That I’m not funny and I can’t dance, so I’ll go out in week one?’ Who knows, but if she does her fans will have been robbed be­cause she has a spec­tac­u­lar abil­ity to rock those Strictly frocks. Which, let’s face it, is a nec­es­sary tal­ent too. When she emerges from the dress­ing room for our pho­to­shoot, a vi­sion in scar­let with legs up to her armpits, all jaws drop. I joke that all she’ll have to do to win over the pub­lic is of­fer a flash of thigh. It worked for An­gela Rip­pon. ‘Is that why peo­ple start ask­ing for shorter dresses as the weeks go on?’ she jokes.

We have to have a lit t le sul­tri­ness served up on our Sat u rday n ight Strictly, but is it go­ing to come from Char­lotte, who’s al­ways seemed like a bit of an ice queen? Well, let’s just say her pro­fes­sional part­ner Bren­dan Cole might have his work cut out as she’s al­ready strug­gling with the sen­sual side of things. ‘I can’t stop laugh­ing,’ she says. ‘You have to look deep into your part­ner’s eyes. It’s the weird­est thing, be­cause who does that with a stranger in ev­ery­day life? My de­fault is to start gig­gling. It’s like be­ing at the school dance and be­ing mor­ti­fied when you come face to face with a boy. I hope I can get over that.

‘I’m thrilled to be part­nered with Bren­dan though. He’s a bril­liant dancer and he’s been on Strictly from the start, so I’m in safe hands. We had a twirl to­gether live on Good Morn­ing Bri­tain re­cently when he was a guest, so he may have re­alised he’s in for a tough time teach­ing me. The good thing is we’re al­ready friends, so I know we’re go­ing to have a laugh to­gether as well as get the work done.’

She’s cer­tainly in line for some teas­ing from GMB co-host Piers Mor­gan, who re­acted to her Strictly news with glee. ‘He sent me a text say­ing, “Oh we’ll have some fun with this”, which sounded like a threat,’ she says. Does she reckon Piers will ever do Strictly? She shakes her head. ‘No, he only does things he knows he’d be good at.’

Char­lotte does let slip that she’s had dance lessons be­fore – she and her hus­band Mark, a drinks com­pany ex­ec­u­tive, took a few to pre­pare for the first dance at their wed­ding, which was a waltz to Michael Bublé. ‘ I can’t say we were too ex­pert though. We were ba­si­cally try­ing to learn enough so we didn’t step on each other’s toes.’ Does her hus­band mind the idea of her get­ting raunchy with another man? She laughs out loud at the idea that their mar­riage might fall foul of the Strictly ‘curse’, in which the stars leave their part­ners and waltz off with their pro dancers. ‘I’m very hap­pily mar­ried, thank you,’ she says. ‘Mark’s not wor­ried at all. Al­though maybe I should be con­cerned about what he thinks of me. He did ask me if I was go­ing to be the Ed Balls char­ac­ter this year.’

It turns out she’s not alone in her hor­ror of get­ting up close and in­ti­mate with the pro­fes­sion­als. Singer Alexan­dra Burke, who’s paired with Gorka Mar­quez – or Gorka the Corker, as his part­ner last year, EastEn­ders ac­tress Tameka Emp­son, nick­named him – has her own tale of woe. ‘Be­fore we were al­lo­cated our part­ners I went nose to nose with one of the pro­fes­sion­als – I won’t say who – and I pulled back so fast it was em­bar­rass­ing. I was a big chicken. I was say­ing to my­self, “Come on, you’re a 29-year-old woman, you can do this.” But I couldn’t.’

The way Strictly works, though, these two will surely be throw­ing their legs around their part­ners’ heads within weeks. ‘We’ll see,’ says Alexan­dra. ‘But I’m over the moon I got Gorka. He’s one of the dancers I’d hoped to be paired with so I’m re­ally pleased. I’ve got a lot to learn though, so it’s work, work, work from now on.’

Per­haps the men in this year’s line- up are more im­me­di­ately in tune with their sen­sual sides? The talk to­day is cer­tainly of strip­ping off. First stop is the leg­endary Strictly sheep dip – aka the spray tan booth. Par­a­lympian Jon­nie Pea­cock tries to ar­gue that he’s been al­ready (‘can’t you tell?’) but with his blue-white hue there’s no way any­one’s buy­ing that. Co­me­dian Brian Con­ley is rather hor­ri­fied to learn he’ll be ex­pected to have an all- over tan. ‘Why? Surely they just need to do my face and hands. There’s no way I’m strip­ping off on the dance­floor. Show my six-pack like Judge Rin­der did last year? Are you hav­ing a laugh? I need a bra for my man boobs.’

Can Brian dance? Surely an old­school en­ter­tainer like him – old

‘It’s like be­ing at the school dance – mor­ti­fy­ing’ CHAR­LOTTE HAWKINS

enough to have per­formed at a Royal Va­ri­ety Per­for­mance hosted by the late Bruce Forsyth – can tap dance in his sleep? ‘I wish. I thought I could dance be­cause I’ve done quite a bit of stage work, but now I re­alise that sort of danc­ing was more about me stand­ing in the mid­dle while other peo­ple danced around me.’ Then he re­mem­bers he was in the mu­si­cal Hair­spray. ‘But that was in a fat suit and heels. I’ve got a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion I can only move if I’m a fat woman in heels.’

The line-up this year is cer­tainly a bit bonkers with an eclec­tic mix of stars in­clud­ing The Satur­days singer Mol­lie King, EastEn­ders ac­tor Davood Ghadami, TV presenter Ruth Langs­ford and the ac­tress Gemma Atkin­son. They’re join­ing many of the old favourites – and some shiny new faces. Ob­vi­ously this is the first year with­out Len Good­man at the helm of the judg­ing panel. Latin ex­per t Shirley Bal las wi l l be tak­ing his place on the panel as head judge. There are some new­bies too among the pro­fes­sional dancers af­ter the de­par­ture of Joanne Clifton, Na­talie Lowe and Oksana Platero. Step for­ward Dianne Buswell, 28, from Aus­tralia, Na­dia By­chkova, 28, from Ukraine and Amy Dow­den, 26, from Wales. At 56, Brian is one of the more ‘ma­ture’ con­tes­tants (the old­est is ac­tu­ally 58-yearo ld De b b i e McGee, the widow of ma­gi­cian Paul Daniels). He’s quick with the quips about his age, get­ting in there be­fore any­one else can. When I ask Brian whether his wife Anne-Marie wor­ries about the Strictly curse and him run­ning off with his pro­fes­sional part­ner, new girl Amy, he

chor­tles. ‘I have un­der­pants older than her,’ he says. ‘Come to think of it, I’ve got fill­ings older than her!

‘Se­ri­ously though, I’m re­ally pleased I’ve got the lovely Amy. My daugh­ter’s also called Amy so it will save me hav­ing to learn a new name! The op­por­tu­nity to be taught by such a bril­liant dancer is un­be­liev­able. It’s go­ing to be tough but I’m be­ing given the best pos­si­ble chance to go as far as I can.’

It was Brian’s other daugh­ter, 15year-old Lucy, who per­suaded him to sign up for the show (‘she said “Dad, if you loved me you’d do Strictly”’) but it turns out he’s not the first fam­ily mem­ber to be a Strictly star. His younger brother Alan is the show’s long-stand­ing floor man­ager, the per­son who makes it all run to plan. ‘I ac­tu­ally went along, as his guest, to watch film­ing last year, and I was blown away at what a great job Alan does. We’re all so proud of him. It’s the hard­est job in telly, but see­ing it all come to­gether is a joy.’ Alan joined the show on the sec­ond se­ries. ‘He was stand­ing in for some­one but af­ter that, Bruce said he wouldn’t work with any­one else but Al. That was lovely. He thought the world of Bruce. Be­cause Bruce wouldn’t use an au­tocue, Alan would be re­spon­si­ble for giv­ing him his cues – and he wore white gloves for that. When Bruce died, Alan put a pic­ture of his white gloves on Twit­ter and said “Time to hang them up now”. It was a fit­ting trib­ute.’

Brian rubbed shoul­ders with Bru­cie him­self dur­ing his years in the light en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness. ‘He was a huge in­flu­ence. I was very much guided by what he did on The Gen­er­a­tion Game. He was the mas­ter. It’s a huge loss.’

So what’s the at­trac­tion with Strictly? Brian has dab­bled in other re­al­i­ty­type TV con­tests be­fore, most mem­o­rably I’m A Celebrity. That one didn’t end hap­pily. He was fa­mously stretchered out af­ter hav­ing to with­draw on med­i­cal ad­vice. He blames soap star He­len Flana­gan. ‘She kept fail­ing the chal­lenges, so we didn’t get food. I didn’t eat prop­erly for nine days. I col­lapsed. I woke up two days later. I was di­ag­nosed with mal­nu­tri­tion and ex­haus­tion. I was too weak to move. At least I’ll get some food on this one.’

Per­haps it will do more to pol­ish his ca­reer too (which is, af­ter all, why most celebri­ties do it). ‘It’s sup­posed to get you talked about but I came home from the jun­gle and no one had no­ticed I’d been in,’ he com­plains. ‘But Strictly is dif­fer­ent. It’s proper old- school en­ter­tain­ment, a fam­ily show. How could you not want to be in­volved?’ Will any­one no­tice him on Strictly then? Yes, yes, and yes again if his mata­dor im­pres­sion to­day is as en­ter­tain­ing when it shifts to the Strictly dance floor. He has the pho­tog­ra­phy crew in stitches as he larks about with a Span­ish gui­tar and a som­brero.

This year’s show will be the first to in­clude an am­putee and Jon­nie Pea­cock’s ar­rival to­day is in­ter­est­ing in that it’s much more low-key than you would ex­pect. He slips into the pho­to­graphic stu­dio al­most un­no­ticed. ‘I’m not recog­nised much when I’m out and about,’ he says. ‘Mostly peo­ple as­so­ciate me with the blade.’ He’s re­fer­ring, of course, to the rather fu­tur­is­tic look­ing pros­thetic leg that helped him to podium glory, most fa­mously at the 2012 Par­a­lympics in the 100m. It’s be­come syn­ony­mous with his suc­cess (‘kids I meet want to know where they can get one. I have to say, “Er…”’). So will he be wear­ing it on the Strictly

‘I’ve got fill­ings older than my part­ner Amy’ BRIAN CON­LEY

floor? ‘It’s a pos­si­bil­ity but we don’t know yet. It de­pends on how I get along with my stan­dard pros­thetic leg in the first dances. The thing there might be an is­sue with is the waltz, where you have to rise and fall. I can’t do that with my stan­dard pros­thetic.’

He’s a sport­ing hero and an ex­am­ple of how the hu­man body can do things no one imag­ined pos­si­ble, but Jon­nie – who lost the bot­tom half of his leg at the age of five af­ter a bout of menin­gi­tis – is pet­ri­fied about what’s in store. Some of his nerves, ob­vi­ously, are to do with his phys­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, and how he’ll man­age the un­usual moves. He tells me that a dance ex­pert who worked with am­putees on the US ver­sion of the show, Danc­ing With The Stars, is help­ing him out.

‘That’s been re­ally help­ful in terms of flag­ging up some of the prob­lems with cer­tain dances, but to a large ex­tent we’re in un­charted waters,’ he says. ‘It’s ter­ri­fy­ing be­cause on the track I know what I’m do­ing. Ev­ery­thing is pre­cise – how much pres­sure you can put on the blade, what an­gles you can make as you move. The only way to see how it re­acts to do­ing a rumba is to do it and see.’

Then again, he’s also got more ‘nor­mal’ wor­ries too. ‘I might be rub­bish and it will have noth­ing to do with my leg,’ he says. ‘I might just not have any rhythm!’ What­ever, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the judges han­dle hav­ing to cri­tique him, and he’s al­ready see­ing the po­ten­tial dif­fi­cul­ties. ‘They can’t treat me any dif­fer­ently from any­one else. If I’ve messed it up then they have to tell me, but on the other hand if they say, “Well, you needed to point your toe more…”’

He says it was a ‘happy fluke of tim­ing’ that led him to Strictly. Nor­mally he’d be in train­ing so tak­ing part in a dance con­test would be out of the ques­tion, but he al­ways planned to take 2018 off ‘so it left the di­ary quite open’. Why Strictly? ‘Be­cause it’s such a de­par­ture from what I nor­mally do. It’s a chal­lenge, some­thing I’ll have to work at.’ He’s part­nered with Oti Mabuse, run­ner-up last year with for­mer Hol­lyoaks ac­tor Danny Mac, and says she’s al­ready work­ing him hard. ‘It’s fan­tas­tic hav­ing Oti as she’s an amaz­ing dancer, but I’ve got my work cut out. Re­hears­ing our first group dance she told me off so much that I know I’m in for a tough ride. But we’ve also had lots of laughs – it’s go­ing to be so much fun.’

He says he’s un­der no il­lu­sion that they’ll make it through to the fi­nal stages and lift that cov­eted glit­ter­ball, but if he picks up a few dance steps it will have been worth­while. ‘At the very least I’ll be able to ball­room dance at my wed­ding,’ he laughs, rather sug­gest­ing that his girl­friend, the 400m Par­a­lympian Sally Brown needs to get in train­ing too.

The chal­lenges aren’t just phys­i­cal, though. For some­one who has duet­ted with Bey­oncé, Alexan­dra Burke’s ner­vous­ness is strik­ing. She laughs about meet­ing Clau­dia Win­kle­man, who co-hosts the se­ries with Tess Daly, the day be­fore and hav­ing her take her hand. ‘It was mor­ti­fy­ing,’ she says. ‘My legs were shak­ing and my palms were sweaty. I felt so sorry for her hav­ing to hold my hand. It was The X Fac­tor all over again.’ Ex­cept on that show, which Alexan­dra won in 2008, she didn’t have to dance. ‘I could stand there and let other peo­ple boo­gie around me. Now, I can’t get my head around the fact that I have to keep mov­ing. And I keep look­ing for a mi­cro­phone. I’ve no idea what to do with my hands.’

All eyes may be on Alexan­dra’s stun­ning out­fits (‘I love the dress­ing up. I’m in my el­e­ment’), but what courage it must take for her to even be here. Just af­ter she was an­nounced as one of this year’s con­tes­tants, Alexan­dra had to re­veal that she’d lost her mum. The for­mer Soul II Sou l s i nge r Melissa Bell, her big­gest in­flu­ence and the woman who en­cour­aged her into the mu­sic in­dus­try, passed away af ter a long bat­tle with kidney dis­ease. She had been on dial­y­sis even dur­ing her daugh­ter’s piv­otal ap­pear­ance on The X Fac­tor, and Alexan­dra had of­fered to do­nate one of her own kid­neys. Melissa had re­fused to al­low this, in­sist­ing that her daugh­ter’s life – and the chance to have her own chil­dren (do­nat­ing a kidney could have af­fected her abil­ity to con­ceive) – should come first. She’s since said she’s de­ter­mined to con­tinue with Strictly, to make her mum proud. ‘It all feels un­real but I’m try­ing my best to stay strong. I miss my mummy so much,’ she told fans on Twit­ter.

To­day Alexan­dra cred­its her mum with giv­ing her the strength to carry on in the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. ‘I al­ways give 100 per cent to any­thing I com­mit to,’ she says. ‘And that def­i­nitely comes from my fam­ily. The great thing about Strictly so far is that ev­ery­one has been so sup­port­ive, all the pro­fes­sion­als, all the other con­tes­tants. Peo­ple talk about it be­ing so com­pet­i­tive but it hasn’t seemed like that. I’ve just seen a fam­ily, with ev­ery­one help­ing ev­ery­one else.’

It’s a rather timely re­minder of how the show must go on, and with se­quins on top too.

Strictly Come Danc­ing re­turns on Satur­day 23 Septem­ber on BBC1.

‘The judges can’t treat me dif­fer­ently to any­one else’ JON­NIE PEA­COCK

From left to right: Alexan­dra Burke, Brian Con­ley, Char­lotte Hawkins and Jon­nie Pea­cock

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