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