Strictly’s An­ton is danc­ing to a new tune as a nov­el­ist

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BIG INTERVIEW -

The star of BBC’S ‘Strictly Come Danc­ing’, An­ton du Beke, talks love, mar­riage, IVF ba­bies and dodg­ing the dreaded Strictly Curse, with Ju­lia Molony

AN­TON du Beke tucks into his Eggs Bene­dict (sauce on the side) and his Amer­i­cano (milk on the side) over break­fast in Lon­don’s Lang­ham ho­tel with the gusto of a man who has been up do­ing the Paso Doble since dawn.

He hasn’t though. At least not this morn­ing. He’s on promo duty to­day. Hav­ing been held up do­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view across the road at the BBC, he glides into a restau­rant booth, and launches into chat­ter with barely a pause for breath, all friendly charm and be­fore-the-wa­ter­shed ban­ter. He cuts a strik­ing fig­ure — with the grace of Fred As­taire, the grin of a Cheshire cat, and the con­ver­sa­tional man­ner of a Lon­don cab­bie.

Strictly Come Danc­ing’s most stal­wart, long­est-serv­ing pro­fes­sional dancer (he’s been on the ITV show since se­ries one) has writ­ten a book. Not a highly un­usual prospect for a man who found na­tional fame on a prime-time re­al­ity TV con­test, granted. Ex­cept this one is not a celebrity mem­oir but a novel, and a rather good one at that. One En­chanted Evening is a nostal­gic flight of fancy set in the 1930s. The cen­tre of the ac­tion is the daz­zling ball­room of a five-star ho­tel.

If I was sur­prised that the man, who to date is ar­guably best-known for lead­ing for­mer Tory MP Ann Wid­de­combe in a calami­tous samba live on tele­vi­sion would be so deft at writ­ing fic­tion, per­haps I shouldn’t have been. Du Beke is a multi-tasker and a grafter who, out­side of the world of dance al­ready has a rather suc­cess­ful side-ca­reer as a singer. And, as he ex­plains, he didn’t rise to the top of the cut-throat world of pro­fes­sional ball­room danc­ing by do­ing things by halves.

“I want the novel to be the best it could be,” he says. “I don’t want to just give it a bit of this and that, and it says An­ton du Beke on the front and some­one says, ‘ oh I’ll go and buy that and read it’ and it’s ter­ri­ble. I want it to be great. I want to do this prop­erly.” And so he tack­led it the way he tack­les ev­ery­thing, with full-on fo­cus. “I spent my life do­ing les­sons so I’m very good at tak­ing crit­i­cism and tak­ing ad­vice,” he says. “And seek­ing it out. I’ll go and find the best peo­ple to ask, how do I do this? How did you do this? I’m al­ways in­trigued by peo­ple’s process. It doesn’t mat­ter what it is, dancers, singers.”

Not only that, he’s fa­mil­iar and com­fort­able with be­ing the one play­ing catch-up in a new dis­ci­pline. Du Beke came to danc­ing rel­a­tively late — he was in his teens be­fore he started, and soon found him­self in the open cir­cuit danc­ing “against all these kids, and they were amaz­ing while I was still plod­ding around the floor do­ing my best. But I was fiercely de­ter­mined. Sort of a bit men­tal.”

There had been no real cul­ture of dance at home when he was grow­ing up in Kent, raised in mod­est cir­cum­stances by his Hungarian fa­ther and Span­ish mother. His par­ents were fu­ri­ously hard-work­ing im­mi­grants, who taught him the im­por­tance of ef­fort. “My par­ents, they came to the UK with noth­ing,” he says. “My fa­ther es­caped from Hun­gary dur­ing the up­ris­ing and my mother came to Eng­land dur­ing Franco’s time. I mean noth­ing. So the one thing they didn’t want to do was waste money. They didn’t have any money to waste. They had two jobs, both of them. That’s the one thing I got more than any­thing else, cer­tainly from my mum, is work ethic. My mum al­ways says now, how’s it go­ing? Are you work­ing hard?” The an­swer, in­vari­ably, is yes. At 52, he’s the most se­nior dancer amongst the pro­fes­sion­als on Strictly Come Danc­ing but also prob­a­bly the busiest, what with the writ­ing and the singing on the side. This year, he was part­nered with Su­san­nah Con­stan­tine and the pair were voted off in the first round of the com­pe­ti­tion. Ru­mours abounded that af­ter a run of early elim­i­na­tions, he might be fed up and ready to quit. No chance he says. “I don’t know where that came from, that wasn’t even some­thing I said in a hissy fit. No no.”

Strictly Come Danc­ing, he says, has been “the bless­ing of all bless­ings re­ally. For any­body in­volved in the show. It’s been the great­est thing that has hap­pened to any of us I think.”

The idea for his book, One En­chanted Evening, was born from the sto­ries he heard when he was ris­ing up the ranks in the world of com­pet­i­tive dance. “I had a won­der­ful teacher. He was a gen­tle­man of a cer­tain age when I was hav­ing les­sons from him, and he would tell me won­der­ful sto­ries of peo­ple he grew up watch­ing, from an ear­lier era. These peo­ple in my mind be­came gods. Won­der­ful per­son­al­i­ties that seemed ro­man­tic and fas­ci­nat­ing, and of a dif­fer­ent time. I’m a big fan of things like Poirot and stuff. I grew up with Up­stairs Down­stairs as a child. I love Down­ton Abbey. I love that sort of thing, ev­ery­one dresses prop­erly and we all speak nicely, and thank you very much, and ev­ery­one has their po­si­tion... Life had more of a struc­ture in those days. Whether it was right or wrong is a dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion, but it did. And within that, every­body weaves their own story. Their own per­sonal story. It’s not all that it seems to be, every­body’s got a bit of a dark se­cret, and I like that.”

The plot takes in a di­verse cast of char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing an Amer­i­can heiress, Bri­tish aris­toc­racy, work­ing class Ir­ish and Jewish fam­i­lies — a melt­ing-pot mi­lieu that fits with his own per­sonal his­tory. “I’m sort of first-gen­er­a­tion Bri­tish. I was born here. But we don’t have any other im­me­di­ate fam­ily in the UK.”

How Hungarian and Span­ish does he feel? “Mas­sively, re­ally. It doesn’t feel like a dis­tant thing for me, Hungarian and Span­ish is sort of im­me­di­ate for me, be­cause it’s my child­hood. My sum­mer hol­i­days were all spent in Hun­gary or Spain. Most kids over here would have spent their hol­i­days kick­ing around the UK and then go­ing away for two weeks. My par­ents used to save up all their an­nual hol­i­day and then we’d go away for the sum­mer.”

There’s some­thing old-fash­ioned and up­right about Du Beke. Amongst the tabloid-scan­dal pro­duc­tion line that is Strictly Come Danc­ing, its long his­tory of ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity be­tween pro­fes­sion­als and con­tes­tants, he has al­ways kept his nose clean. At least as far as we know. And he takes a dim view of the lat­est brouhaha play­ing out in the red-tops when we meet; con­tes­tant Seann Walsh and pro Katya Jones papped in a drunken clinch, de­spite the fact that he has a girl­friend and she is mar­ried. “I saw Piers Mor­gan yes­ter­day and he was say­ing he in­ter­viewed Ann Wid­de­combe and asked her if I ever suc­cumbed to a heated drunken ex­change. And we didn’t. It doesn’t have to... It doesn’t have to end that way.”

Hav­ing been a bach­e­lor for the long­est time, he fi­nally set­tled down in his mid-for­ties, with busi­ness­woman Han­nah Sum­mers, whom he mar­ried last year, shortly af­ter they wel­comed twins. “It wasn’t

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