Just a few days before the Strictly Come Dancing celebrity line-up is revealed, a school playground in Greenwich, south-east London is doubling as the filming location of the show’s promotional trailer.
“We’ve got Lion, Fire, Queen and Powder in hair and make-up,” says the production manager, referring to the code names that have been given to the contestants to prevent their identities being leaked. “Wasp, Love, Lily, Bridget, Sloane and Star arrive this afternoon.”
The secrecy surrounding the show is so intense that the celebrity contestants only discover who else has signed up when they arrive. Rory Bremner is Lion, Lulu is Fire (as in her hit song Relight My Fire), Anita Dobson is Queen and Edwina Currie is Powder (shorthand for curry powder). Wasp is McFly’s Harry Judd, Love is former tennis player-turned-TV presenter Dan Lobb, Bridget is the code name for presenter Alex Jones and Sloane is Waterloo Road actress Chelsee Healey. Ex-footballer Robbie Savage has become Lily and actor and astrologer Russell Grant is being referred to as Star. Other contestants are Holly Valance (Ivy), boxer Audley Harrison (Glove) and Nancy Dell’Olio (Twist, as in Oliver). Australian Jason Donovan is Dundee (that’s Crocodile Dundee).
HELLO! has been granted the first exclusive access to the latest batch of Strictly contestants, all of whom are in a state of nervous excitement.
“It feels like the first day of term at the campest school in the country,” says impressionist Rory, 50. “My great fear is I’m going to make Ann Widdecombe look like Ginger Rogers.”
The older contestants are the first to arrive and Rory is relishing being the youngest one in the group. “I’ve been knocking on the women’s Winnebago going, ‘Over-sixties, please,’” he says. “I said to Edwina in make-up, ‘Is there anything I can get you?’ and she replied, ‘George Clooney.’” The lady herself is having false eyelashes applied, not an embellishment you’d usually associate with an-ex Conservative MP. “I feel like I’m looking out on the world through a pair of beetles,” she says.
She has expressed a wish to the wardrobe department not to wear anything too revealing. “A lot of elderly female flesh doesn’t strike me as the best sight on television, especially not on HD.”
Vying for the title of Most Excited Contestant are Russell Grant, 60, and former EastEnders actress Anita Dobson, 62. “I’m wired already,” says Anita. “So who knows what I’ll be like by the end of the week.”
TANGO THROUGH THE PAIN
Astrologer Russell suffered a back injury earlier this year, when he fell off stage while demonstrating how a fairy should flap its wings during a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, as he “worships at the altar of Strictly”, he is willing to tango through the pain.
“I also put off a new TV series in America that I was due to start in September because I wanted to do this. Wouldn’t you be excited if you were in this kind of drag?” he asks, checking his reflection in the mirror of the men’s Winnebago.
“We’re getting paid to look fabulous. I did tell them that my outfit wasn’t glittery enough, so they added these stars,” he says, before further divulging that he doesn’t suit certain colours. “In yellow I look like I’ve got some liver disease and in red I just look as if I’m angry, like Mount Etna on legs.”
Russell, who has lost ten stone since 2009 and hopes to lose a couple more through dancing, has equally firm opinions on the type of partner he wants: “Pisces or Libra.”
Rory, meanwhile, says he knows the shade of spray tan he wants to try. “I’m going to turn up to the live shows with a Farrow & Ball paint chart,” he jokes. “I’m going for somewhere between ‘smoked trout’ and ‘dead salmon’. I think Dulux has a ‘white with a hint of Craig Revel
Horwood’ but that’s quite orange.” Rory’s bringing more to the table than a tan and tap shoes. He can, he says, imitate the show’s host Sir Bruce Forsyth, but needs to work on perfecting the judges. “I need those in my holster to shoot back if necessary.” The celebrities are taken into the school hall to rehearse their scenes for the trailer. “Taxi for Bremner!” shouts Rory as they finish going through their few steps.
Russell, who wore slippers as he rehearsed, said: “I was exhausted. I was like, ‘I need an oxygen tent.’ We did an hour and a half in there.” Says Rory: “It was 20 minutes.”
Edwina, 64, is happy to be moving at all. “Six months ago I was in a wheelchair. I broke my ankle when I slipped on a step.”
The mishap was her motivation for signing up to Strictly. “If I can dance, it would thrill me to think that if there was somebody out there who has had an injury and is getting depressed about it, then they could think, ‘If she can do it, I can.’”
She is also a long-time fan of the show. “My daughter’s baby is named after Zöe Ball,” she adds, referring to the former contestant and new Strictly: It Takes Two host.
Edwina’s inclusion will no doubt draw references to ex-contestants John Sergeant, the former ITN political correspondent, and ex-MP Ann Widdecombe. “I shall take it all more energetically than John,” she says. “I weigh the odd pound less than Ann, and if I can do half as well as her, I’ll be really happy.”
Not one to be easily daunted, Edwina says she’ll employ the same mantra she used during her political career: “Whatever you do in life, you do your best and do it with a smile.”
Perhaps the most nervous contestant is recently retired footballer Robbie Savage, 36.
“I’ve never danced,” he says. “Ever, ever, ever.” So just why is he doing the show?
“I just want people to change their perception of me.” The former Wales international and ex- Premiership star was known as an
aggressive player, at one point holding the dubious distinction of being awarded more yellow cards – 89 – than any other player in the league’s history.
“I’m known as a bit of lunatic on the football pitch, but away from it I’m a normal, shy guy,” he says.
And on set, he is reserved and polite and swears he won’t backchat the judges, a habit he once employed with referees. “They know what they’re talking about,” he says. “And I’ve always had respect for my elders and the people who employ me.”
He will, he says, draw on the same determination that he put into football. “My dedication will be eight hours’ practice a day because I don’t want to embarrass myself.”
He says his two sons are excited about his latest venture but his wife had reservations. “I’d be gutted if my wife was dancing with another man for three months,” he reasons.
McFly drummer Harry Judd, 25, also feels out of his comfort zone, doing something away from his bandmates. “We get on so well,” he says. “When we meet celebrities we can be quite quiet. Often, people in this industry have big personalities and we’re kind of intimidated, so I was a bit concerned. But everyone has been really welcoming and Russell has been providing the entertainment.”
Harry has never had dance training and is used to “just sitting at the back of the stage drumming away”. But he did win the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special last year. “I’m already being branded a cheat by Robbie,” he laughs. “But I was only competing against one other person [The Saturdays’ Rochelle Wiseman].”
His McFly friends have already been laughing at the prospect of seeing him on the dancefloor. “They are hoping I stay in as long as possible so their Saturday night entertainment is sorted,” he says. “It will make their day when I’m in a ridiculous outfit. Dougie [Poynter] would be the most entertaining band member to do Strictly – he’d be like the new Ann Widdecombe.”
The rest of McFly and Harry’s girlfriend, Escala violinist Izzy Johnston, will be among the celebrities in the audience. Other famous faces will include Anita Dobson’s husband, former Queen guitarist Brian May.
The actress hopes he’ll have a calming effect. “When I was younger, if my mum was in the audience I didn’t feel nervous because she had so many nerves for me. So I feel that with Brian there, even if I fall flat on my face and rip my dress, I have a life sitting out there in the audience and that’s him.”
Anita says Brian “physically blanched” when she told him she wanted to do the show. “He went very quiet and very white then said, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never see you.’ But he thought about it and said, ‘It’s something you’ve always wanted to
do – I’ll support you 100 per cent.’” Likewise, former Neighbours actress and singer Holly Valance, 28, has the support of her partner, millionaire property developer Nick Candy. Unlike many of the contestants, Holly says she’s looking forward to the “thrill” of the first show. “Music videos can take days, but with this, you can’t mess it up,” she tells hello!. “I’m really excited that this
will be in front of a live audience.” Holly’s dance training amounts to studying jazz for three years when she was younger, but she is “quietly competitive”.
Nancy Dell’Olio causes a stir as she arrives. The 50-year-old Italian lawyer makes a sexy signorina in a red dress slashed to the thigh. She oozes glamour. “That is the point,” she says. She seems to have natural rhythm, a virtue aided by ballet lessons in her younger years.
Sven-Göran Eriksson’s ex, who has been dating theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn, says she took a while to decide to sign up. “No decision you make is 100 per cent sure. But I was attracted by the challenge.” Will Sir Trevor be in the audience? “Why don’t you ask him?” she smiles coyly.
Chelsee Healey, 23, the baby of the group, is already entering into the spirit of Strictly, with an over-the-top hair style (“the bigger the better”) and a two-piece glittery outfit (“the shorter the better”).
The Waterloo Road actress is single, making her a possible contender for this year’s Strictly romance story. “I wouldn’t rule it out, I’m on the look out,” she laughs. “But I’m not desperate.”
Also embracing the Strictly vibe is heavyweight boxer Audley Harrison, 40. “It’s real showbiz,” he says of his brightly coloured outfit. Previous boxing contestant Joe Calzaghe was less than nimble on his feet during the 2009 series – can Audley do better? “I’ve definitely got natural rhythm,” the Los Angeles-based former Olympian says. “Twenty years ago I was an aerobics instructor.”
Daybreak presenter Dan Lobb, 39, usually avoids dancing at all costs. “Like many men, especially tall men, I spend parties avoiding the dancefloor, so it would be nice to be able to go on it without having to be dragged up. I’ve pulled out the ‘running man’ and ‘shopping trolley’ dance moves on Daybreak a couple of times, but I don’t think anyone with any credibility would usually do those.”
Jason Donovan, 43, who is juggling Strictly training with appearing in The Sound of Music nationwide tour, is “cautiously optimistic about throwing some interesting shapes at people”. His eldest children Jemma, 11, and Zac, ten, are looking forward to seeing their dad perform in the show. “There was an article in the paper about embarrassing dad dancing,” he says. “And they’re going to get used to seeing me foxtrot around the kitchen.” His good friend Gary Barlow will also follow his progress, despite being a judge on ITV’s rival Saturday night show The X Factor. “Gary is a massive fan of Strictly,” says Jason. “He’s always fancied himself in sequins doing the cha-cha-cha.”
EVERY GIRL’S DREAM
Alex Jones, 34, asked her The One Show co-presenter Matt Baker for advice before signing up. Matt was runner-up on the last series of Strictly. “He’s incredibly excited for me,” she says. “He’s a real support. One reason I wanted to do this was that we’re a fairly new partnership and this gives us something else to share and talk about on the show.” She adds: “It’s every girl’s dream to do a show like this.”
She’s enjoying getting to know her Strictly colleagues. “I’ve instantly got 13 new friends,” she says. And she’s amused by her “Bridget” Jones Strictly code name. “What are they alluding to?” she asks, laughing. “I’m similar to Bridget, as I’m clumsy at the best of times and can say the wrong things, so I was entertained by that. They’ve hit the nail on the head.”
Lulu, 62, may be the contestant with the biggest established fan base, but as the celebrity gang heads out to film on the residential street, one confused local boy asks: “Are you Dolly Parton?” Gamely, Glasgow-born Lulu adopts a Southern drawl and belts out a country tune.
The Shout singer has achieved a lot in her career, but says signing up to do this series has made her family “beside themselves”. She’s most worried about “the pain” and also having “brain blank”. “I have a fear of not remembering – at my age it’s hard,” she laughs. “But I want to have fun.
Rory feels the same. “At first I thought it would be crazy to do this, then I thought it would be crazy not to,” he says. “All the reasons for not doing it were negative and a bit self- important and there comes a time when you have to stop taking yourself so seriously.
“You’ve just got to embrace the madness. You get to learn dance, then there’s everything that goes with it: the fitness, the fake tan, the Lycra, the humiliation… It’s the BBC’s best entertainment programme and I feel like I’ve been given an invitation to the best party on television.”