‘I knew that if I were to have children it would be because I had found the one I wanted to be with for the rest of my life’
The star of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, Anton du Beke, talks about love, marriage, IVF babies, his new novel and dodging the dreaded Strictly curse, with
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 longest-serving professional dancer (he’s been on the BBC 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 star, 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 wanted 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. 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 who 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, 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, came 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 in 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 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 the bulk of 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. Among 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.
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 being papped in a drunken clinch, despite the fact that he has, or now had, 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
She’s wonderful to be with, I love being with her and I love doing stuff with her
they welcomed twins. “It wasn’t anything sinister,” he says of why it took him so long to get around to marriage and parenthood. “I wasn’t a player or any of that old malarkey. I was a dancer, and that’s what I set out to do and be. I had no desire, particularly, to have children. It wasn’t something that I was. I was, you know, getting older and stuff, but I wasn’t searching for somebody to have children with — a conduit for having children.
“But what I did know in my mind, was that if I were to have children, it would be with somebody I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
“We would get married and have children because (he’d found) the one I want to be with for the rest of my life, and that was Hannah. She wanted to have children, and that’s what we did.”
There were some hurdles to overcome on the way to parenthood. Hannah “had massive problems with endometriosis all her life”, he explains, which is why his twins were conceived by IVF. And he’s now a firm believer in the importance of openness regarding fertility struggles. Endometriosis, he says, “is one of those silent things that women go through on their own, which they shouldn’t. I don’t know why they do. They should stand up and talk about it because so many women go through it. It’s a funny old thing, I remember when I was competing as a dancer, and you look around and you think, everybody’s got it better than you. ‘I wish I was more like him’. But everybody’s got their own demons. And it’s not till much later you find out that he had the same problems you had and he had other problems you didn’t have”.
IVF, he says, was tough, but rather than being a strain on their relationship, it was “quite the opposite”. “I just think it was a shared experience. I say shared, but naturally she does all the work. It just fills you with even more admiration for somebody who goes through that. We were fortunate that we got it on the first go, but it’s a massive thing.
“It’s hard for the girls, with the injections in the tummy and the backside and the blood tests every day. Hard. And so all I can do is just say, ‘Okay, right. What do we need to do?’ I feel like you do that thing where you just pick her up and carry her through. That’s what I felt my job was. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t take the injections, so what do I do? How can I make this better? That’s my responsibility, that’s my role in this.”
A month after Hannah gave birth to George and Henrietta, Anton whisked her away to get married. “I sort of sprung it on her, I don’t know why. I just had this urge. It was our fifth year of being together and it felt like the moment — ‘together for five years, we’re getting married. We’re going to Cliveden House we’re getting married, I’ve organised it. I’ve got six people coming. Afternoon tea, bosh, home’.”
Some brides wouldn’t be thrilled with an ambush for a wedding, but apparently, Hannah took it all in her stride. “I did the foxtrot in front of her and she couldn’t resist me,” he wisecracks. “We got engaged on Christmas Day, we had babies on March 28 and we got married on April 20. After all, what else is there in life? She didn’t know any of it, apart from having the babies bit. That one didn’t spring up on her.”
So what convinced him that Hannah was the right woman for him? “She’s very beautiful, she’s very clever, she’s very funny and she’s very kind.
“There used to be an expression years ago — they’ll do you a good turn before they’ll do you a bad — and she will only ever do nice things. There’s not many people like that. She’s wonderfully supportive of what I do as well. And loves it. She loves to come and see me perform. So it’s sort of everything. And she’s wonderful to be with. I love being with her. I love doing stuff with her.”
He’s enchanted by fatherhood. “It’s the most incredible thing. It’s inexplicable. I love every second of it.”
Will his children be signed up for dance classes? “I don’t know. They might do. I’d like them to try everything. George is wonderful. When you put music on, he starts to do this dancing thing and doesn’t look at you, doesn’t show off in front of you. He turns his back to you and starts dancing”.
But Du Beke won’t be a pushy dad. “It’s one of those things, isn’t it, where if your child takes an interest in what you do, then give them to someone else to teach, because it would be a nightmare if you teach your own children... I want them to try everything. There’s so much to try.
“And if you do dance, try everything. Don’t just do ballroom dancing because I do it. I’ve done it all. I’ve tried it all.”
DOUBLE ACTS: Anton du Beke with wife Hannah Summers, and (right) dance partner Erin Boag
One Enchanted Evening, Bonnier Publishing, £18.99