‘I tried to break my ankle to get out of it’: an oral history of Strictly Come Dancing

The glitz! The glitterballs! The fake tan! As Strictly comes to the end of its 20th season, the judges, celebrities and dancers recall how a high-risk venture became a must-watch Saturday-night staple

On Saturday 15 May 2004, a reinvention of the long-running ballroom-dancing competition Come Dancing, but with celebrities dancing with professionals, debuted on BBC One. It would go on to become one of the most successful television formats in the world, sold to more than 75 countries from Argentina to India.


‘This is going to be car-crash television!’: the origins of Strictly Come Dancing

Lorraine Heggessey (controller of BBC One, 2000-05) I had lost out on Pop Idol. I wanted it, but ITV had got that. Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller were right to take Idol to ITV because it was able to be much more commercial than it could have been on the BBC.

I was faced with a schedule that had two or three gameshows stacked one after another. We didn’t have anything that had that sort of va-va-voom, the audience interaction. I knew I needed something different.

I had certain criteria. I wanted it to be live. I wanted it to have the potential for audience voting. Ideally, I wanted a bit of glamour and glitz, something that was going to make people sit up, but it couldn’t be singing. BBC One always got into terrible trouble if it looked as if we were imitating our commercial competitors.

So I put this brief out: “Bring me something that is going to revolutionise Saturday nights!”

Karen Smith (Strictly’s first executive producer) We had just made Comic Relief Does Fame Academy and then The Games. They were the start, after Big Brother, of the celebrity reality show. You saw how entertaining it was when a celebrity took on a challenge.

From left: comedian Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse, 2020; former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and Katya Jones, 2016; actor Emma Barton and Anton Du Beke, 2019; baker John Whaite (left) and Johannes Radebe, 2021; actor Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice, 2021; former rugby player Ugo Monye and Oti Mabuse, 2021
From left: comedian Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse, 2020; former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and Katya Jones, 2016; actor Emma Barton and Anton Du Beke, 2019; baker John Whaite (left) and Johannes Radebe, 2021; actor Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice, 2021; former rugby player Ugo Monye and Oti Mabuse, 2021 Composite: Guy Levy/BBC (2); Guy Levy/BBC/PA (3); Keiron McCarron/BBC/PA

The BBC had started to talk about it internally. And a commissioner [both Fenia Vardanis and the late Richard Hopkins have been credited with the idea] had said: “Why don’t we bring back Come Dancing but with celebrities?” They asked me to format the show and launch it.

I had this instinctive feeling that there was something potentially magical about it. If we got it right, we could appeal to a really, really broad audience, which is obviously the holy grail for the BBC on a Saturday night. It would have that sparkle and fairytale magic for children to watch. We always imagined little girls dressing up and dancing in front of the telly. And it had that Heat magazine quality of celebrities out of their comfort zone. And it had romance for older audiences, who might have met their partners at dances.

Craig Revel Horwood (Strictly judge since 2004) My manager rang and said: “The BBC wants to know if you’re interested in coming for a screen test for a new dance show.” I said: “What’s that about?” He said: “Well, celebrities get paired with professionals, and the professionals have to teach them for two weeks.” I said: “That sounds absolutely dreadful. No one can learn to perform in two weeks! This is going to be car-crash television.”

Heggessey It was a huge risk. There were many people who thought I’d gone mad, putting ballroom dancing up at primetime on a Saturday night.* * *

‘They were not thrilled at all’: twisting the dancers’ arms (and legs)

After visiting dancing competitions for inspiration and to work out a format, Karen Smith drew up a shortlist and asked some of the best professional dancers in the country to the BBC to take part. They were not keen.

Smith We invited them into a crappy little room around the back of the BBC to talk about appearing on the show. I genuinely thought they’d be thrilled and like: “Fantastic! Saturday night television!”

They were not thrilled at all, and it was because of where Come Dancing [which finished its run in 1998] had ended up – on BBC Two at 10.30pm. And it had become a thing of ridicule. People used to take the mickey out of it – the fixed smiles and the big dresses. They were really, really suspicious that we were going to take the mickey.

Anton Du Beke (Strictly judge and former Strictly pro dancer) Come Dancing did look a bit peculiar on TV compared with real competitions. The costumes and the way people were dancing looked a bit odd. When you would go to a real competition, it did not feel like Come Dancing at all. The whole idea of ballroom dancing on television we felt was going to be damaging and we couldn’t be bothered with the mickey taking. It’d all moved on from that.

Smith The meeting didn’t go the way I thought it was going to. I remember a moment when I was talking about the sequins and things, and Brendan [Cole, pro dancer] just said: “Let me stop you there. They’re rhinestones, not sequins.” I was like: “Oh god!”

At the end I basically said: “The show’s gonna happen with or without you. We would love you to take part – you’re the best there is and that’s what we want. But you need to decide whether you want to be part of it or tell me you’re not interested and we’ll move on.” That was a shock to their system.

Du Beke The BBC said they were going to do it anyway; the show was going to be made. They would have ballroom dancers or end up with musical theatre people and commercial people. We just felt that would not be a true reflection of what we did, so we decided to get involved. It would only last for one series of eight weeks and then we’d go back to the way we were, and hopefully we wouldn’t get so damaged by it. Little did we know …

* * *

‘To suddenly get into a short sparkly dress – that wasn’t what I needed’: persuading the celebrities

These days many celebrities champ at the bit to appear on Strictly, but in the show’s first year, convincing some of the cast to take part proved tricky.

Smith Natasha Kaplinsky did not want to do it. We tried – it was a no. The head of entertainment tried – it was a no. The heads of news and BBC One tried to talk her around. I used to send people – we’re in the same building – to show her pictures of the dresses, but she was like: “Karen, you’re just making it worse! You’re making me more nervous!”

Natasha Kaplinsky (first winner of Strictly) I was the anchor on BBC Breakfast, along with Dermot Murnaghan, getting up at 3 o’clock every morning and being in the studio from 4am.

My agent called me and said: “They’re doing a new dancing show and they want you to dance!” And I said: “No, thank you. No, thank you at all!”

As a woman in journalism and having fought quite hard to be taken seriously as a journalist, I felt like that really wasn’t what I needed – to suddenly get into a very short sparkly dress on a Saturday night and start dancing and ask for people to vote for me. I didn’t want to take what I felt was a step backwards. Ultimately, I was persuaded. Once I signed the contract, I had a terrible rush of anxiety and tried to break my ankle by falling off every street corner. I was trying to think of every possible reason not to do it.

Smith She was the perfect booking for series one. It was following on from that heritage of Angela Rippon, the dancing newsreader, but also she was on air every day, she was glamorous, she was talented, she was high-profile. Nobody had any idea if she could dance or not. It was a real leap of faith for her.

Kaplinsky I soon learned that ballroom dancing involved connection and being driven around the dancefloor by a world-class professional. And I guess it didn’t take long for me to completely fall in love with dancing. I loved every single minute in that rehearsal studio.

From left: model Rachel Hunter and Brendan Cole on a Christmas special, 2005; presenter Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton, 2018; actor Joe McFadden and Katya Jones, 2017; actor Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice, 2021; comedian Ellie Taylor and Johannes Radebe, 2022; ex-boxer Nicola Adams (right) and Katya Jones, 2020; former gymnast Louis Smith and Flavia Cacace, 2012
From left: model Rachel Hunter and Brendan Cole perform on a Christmas special, 2005; presenter Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton, 2018; actor Joe McFadden and Katya Jones, 2017; actor Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice, 2021; comedian Ellie Taylor and Johannes Radebe, 2022; ex-boxer Nicola Adams (right) and Katya Jones, 2020; former gymnast Louis Smith and Flavia Cacace, 2012 Composite: BBC/PA; Guy Levy/BBC/PA (5); Guy Levy/BBC

* * *

‘Bruce refused to wear an earpiece’: the hosts sign on

A reason for Strictly’s success is the judging, which gives the show an element of authenticity. Another was the involvement of Sir Bruce Forsyth, who for decades had been the face of Saturday night entertainment on the BBC.

Ian Wilson (Forsyth’s manager) The 90s basically saw the demise of light entertainment as we knew it and replaced it with reality television such as Big Brother. There wasn’t the same level of warmth.

Strictly was really quite competitive, and Bruce remembered very quickly how competitive professional dancers are. And then you had contestants, many of whom, in the early days, genuinely couldn’t dance and were doing it for a laugh. So on the one hand you have the competitiveness, and on the other hand you have the light entertainment from Bruce. The combination of those two things turned the format into something that made Saturday night television competitive and fun, as opposed to competitive and a bit brutal. And Bruce’s gift to that was the humour, the experience, the fact that he was genuinely a dancer.

Tess Daly (Strictly presenter since 2004) I was approached to do it in 2004. It was March and I’d just found out I was pregnant with my first child, but it was in the early weeks when you don’t tell anybody. So we kept it to ourselves, and then I was offered a job. I thought: “Oh, do I say I’m pregnant? But it’s too early, I haven’t told anyone – not even my own mother!”

I found myself standing alongside this legend of showbusiness, Bruce Forsyth, whom I’d grown up watching on the TV, and having a series of pinch-yourself moments.

Smith It was an absolute honour to work with Bruce. Though I wish he would have worn an earpiece! It made my life very complicated. I think he just didn’t like the feeling of it. It meant that our floor manager would have to do very visual counts, and he’d have to wear a white glove because he was so far away, behind the cameras at the end of the dancefloor. The white glove ended up being covered in rhinestones.

Kaplinsky Bruce used to do all of his own warm-up. He would be tap dancing and singing to the audience three minutes before going on air, and then suddenly going backstage and walking down the stage as if he was fresh as a daisy.

Smith My regret was not coming up with a better catchphrase than “Keep dancing!” It was a rubbish catchphrase. Bruce was very keen for a catchphrase because he always had one on his shows. In the end, I grabbed him at rehearsals and said: “How about we try this at the end of the show, you know … ‘Keep dancing!’”

And he tried it and now people are still saying it, years later, everywhere you go. I’m like: “Why didn’t you think of something better?”

* * *

‘There were people booing me in the streets. It was really bizarre’: Strictly takes off

The first episode of Strictly Come Dancing on BBC One hit initial expectations of nearly 6 million viewers, but over its run it rose to a peak audience of more than 13 million. Shortly after the first series, Karen Smith and her team were asked to make a second series within four months. Strictly has been a staple of the autumn schedules ever since.

Heggessey We had a big battle about the title. I said: “We cannot call it Pro Celebrity Come Dancing.” And then they said: “We have – that is what it is!”

But if it had “celebrity” in the title, all the critics would start piling in. Everyone would say BBC One was dumbing down. We had a show called Celebrity Sleepover, which wasn’t BBC One’s finest hour.

So the production team did that thing they do when they don’t really want to do what you’re asking. They were coming up with the most ridiculous titles that I couldn’t possibly accept. And I would just go: “No, no, no and no!”

On one of these lists was Strictly Come Dancing, which was a combination of the rather cult movie Strictly Ballroom, which was amazing, and Come Dancing. It just worked as a title.

Revel Horwood It was an overnight sensation. I was recognised in the streets, so there were people immediately booing. It was really bizarre.

I think it took the audience about two years to start getting my sense of humour. When I do speak, it is with a twinkle in my eye and a wry smile. I’m giving good advice, but it always sounds harsh.

I had to learn how to have that critique without being too monstrous or hurting people’s feelings, but still giving them advice and telling them what’s right and what’s wrong.

Smith After the first live show, I had to go on Points of View, because there were complaints. Many were saying: “This is not Come Dancing”, and I had to record some answers to some questions. It was when Terry Wogan was hosting it. I must have been very forthright in my opinion. I said: “What is it about the title that makes you think it is Come Dancing? It is Strictly Come Dancing! It is a reinvention with celebrities!”

At the end of the piece Terry does this thing to the camera and goes: “That’s you lot told.

* * *

‘Everyone knocked back a shot of vodka’: what participating in Strictly is really like

Taking part in Strictly can be life-changing, but it can also be gruelling. You can have a routine in perfect flow on Thursday only for your nerves to crash on Saturday.

Kaplinsky I remember my agent saying: “Oh darling, don’t be ridiculous! It’s only going to be a couple of hours of dancing a week before you perform on a Saturday night.”

Daly The celebrities don’t realise that they’re going to become so invested. They might think: “It’s a dancing show. I’m gonna learn a new skill, make a few new friends”but it’s more than that. It runs deeper than that. It becomes a part of their lives and our lives as viewers, because they’re training, sometimes 10 hours a day on top of their real jobs.

Dan Walker (Strictly contestant, 2021) I was ludicrously busy. There were two weeks when I slept for less than 24 hours, because I was doing three BBC Breakfast shifts, and my agent thought I wasn’t going to be in for longer than four weeks, so he was booking me for gigs.

There’s a few secrets to doing well on Strictly, but one of them is to make sure you do stuff that isn’t just Strictly, because when your mind begins to melt, you have to have something to ground you.

Rose Ayling-Ellis (Strictly winner, 2021) You would think that you could improve every week, but because it is a different type of dance, all the techniques are so different. So you’re starting again, and again, and again. Your feet position, just tiny little details, the way you use your hands, and your wrists have to be a certain shape. There’s just so many rules, and that takes a lot of time.

Sometimes Giovanni [Pernice, her dance partner] and I would spend four hours working on one step. Sometimes my brain knew, but to get your body to do it was a completely different thing. I remember training and training and training, again and again and again, until it was in my body and I didn’t have to think about it. It’s like muscle memory.

Oti Mabuse (Strictly pro dancer, 2015-21) It’s a 10-to-10 schedule. And I say [to her partners]: “Listen, this is what it is. Nobody’s going anywhere until this is done!” It is an emotional thing for me. I’m passionate about the work, I’m passionate about the show and I was passionate about the person. It does sound intense, but you are teaching someone who’s never danced before how to dance in front of 13 million people.

Celebrities come on to the show and have the best time, but they’re also putting themselves out there. They’re putting themselves in vulnerable positions. They’re sacrificing time at home. So whatever you give them, you want to give them the best chance of having the best results. And you’re not going to do that in four hours with someone who’s never danced before.

Johannes Radebe (Strictly pro dancer, 2018 to present) The first thing is to make you partner feel at ease and remind them that it’s just dancing. Literally up to the moment when you’re walking out on to that floor, on Saturday, you never stop. You might feel ready on Thursday. Your celebrity might pick it up and sometimes they struggle, but until that last minute it’s: “Your legs could be sharper! More arms! More personality!”

Then the celebrities start appreciating their bodies more. It’s wonderful to see them fall in love with their bodies.

Gabby Logan (Strictly contestant, 2007) Penny Lancaster was on our series and we weren’t allowed any alcohol before the show. But she always had a secret little orange juice that she brought backstage that had vodka in, and everybody would knock back a quick shot just to help calm the nerves.

* * *

‘We always go to the wire’: getting the outfits right

In the days leading up to the live show, the Strictly team confirms the costumes needed for that Saturday’s performances and then frantically look at stocks and cut garments. By Friday, the outfits that had been fitted on mannequins are tested on the pros and celebrities.

Vicky Gill (costume designer) If we have a separate skirt and top, we will stitch all the way around the waistband to make sure that it doesn’t move, because if the pro is going to lift the celebrity or have to take them into a position from their waist, they don’t want the garment to move and slip.

There’s lots of little tricks along the way, too. Simple things like ties and collars needing to be stitched down, so things aren’t flying about and unravelling or becoming unsightly.

Mabuse After looking terrible for the whole week, sweating, crying and getting emotional together [in a studio], you get that one hour with Vicky and she puts you in a beautiful dress on a Friday. You start to see how everything comes together.

Gill We always go to the wire. When we watch the dress run, we might think that something like the colour needs knocking back a bit, so we may dye it in a slightly different shade, or there’s lots of things on every couple that we try to perfect. But we probably only have about an hour and a half between dress run and live. The pressure is always on.

* * *

‘Ann Widdecombe polishing that floor with her backside is seared on to my brain’: creating the show’s water cooler moments

There have been many events in Strictly’s history that got the country talking, from Ann Widdecombe being dragged across the dancefloor to Rose Ayling-Ellis and her partner Giovanni Pernice’s powerful tribute to the deaf community.

Sarah James (Strictly’s executive producer since 2019) Bill Bailey absolutely loved the idea of Rapper’s Delight, and I remember when I first suggested it to him, he was like: “Yes, I really want to do it, but don’t make me wear a shell suit. And don’t let me hold a boombox.”

He was nervous and he took a bit of convincing. I had to make clear: “We aren’t going take the piss out of you – it’s not that kind of show.”

Mabuse The thing about Bill Bailey I loved the most was that people had their assumptions already. So he came on and they were like: “Well, he’s a comedian, he’s a little bit older, so he’s going to be funny, but then he’ll be out in five weeks” – which in a way, even though it was almost all negative, gave us so much freedom! It gave us space to do whatever we wanted because nobody was looking. The first week, we could push the boundaries so far, as far as we wanted, because nobody was looking at us and going: “They’re the winners.”

Revel Horwood I have one moment which is written in indelible ink on my brain that will never leave until the day I die, and even then I’ll probably still be thinking about it as my consciousness is somewhere in the universe: Ann Widdecombe polishing that floor with her backside. It’s something you’ll never see again, and probably never want to see again. That’s the thing that I keep going back to. Rather than the good moments, it is the bad ones that stand out to me.

Daly You tend to remember years by the routines that stood out for you. Last year, it was Rose and that beautiful moment when the music ceased to play. That was unforgettable. The hairs on the back of your arm stood on end.

Ayling-Ellis My deaf friends think what makes it different from other years was that rather than showing a really beautiful dance, it was also showing my story. Giovanni was also teaching me a lot about dancing, but I was teaching him a lot about my community and changing people’s perceptions.

From left: broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky and Brendan Cole, 2004; actor Caroline Quentin and Johannes Radebe, 2020; journalist John Sergeant and Kristina Rihanoff, 2008; broadcaster Dan Walker and Nadiya Bychkova, 2021; broadcaster Gabby Logan and James Jordan, 2007; former minister Ann Widdecombe and Anton Du Beke, 2010
From left: broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky and Brendan Cole, 2004; actor Caroline Quentin and Johannes Radebe, 2020; journalist John Sergeant and Kristina Rihanoff, 2008; broadcaster Dan Walker and Nadiya Bychkova, 2021; broadcaster Gabby Logan and James Jordan, 2007; former minister Ann Widdecombe and Anton Du Beke, 2010 Composite: Abi Wyles/BBC; Guy Levy/BBC/PA (3); Guy Levy/BBC; Mark Chilvers/BBC

People think that being deaf is a really sad thing, but it’s not. I love being deaf. I love it. And that’s what Strictly has the power of. It has the power of changing people’s minds.

I wanted it to be joyful. I didn’t want it to be sad, and I think that hadn’t been seen before on TV. It’s always a hearing person’s perception of what a deaf person is like, not a deaf person’s perception of what it is like to be deaf. That’s what makes the dance so special, because it was all of us working together to create it.

* * *

‘We’ve seen how beautiful and inclusive dance is’: Strictly moves with the times

While the format has hardly changed from the start, in recent years Strictly has taken great steps to be inclusive. The first same-sex partnership saw Nicola Adams and Katya Jones dance together in 2020.

James There had been talk of having an all-female or an all-male pairing for years. And there was a slight fear, because obviously some of the viewers maybe were a little bit anti-it. It’s something now that really doesn’t feel like a big deal at all, which is what we wanted it to be. We didn’t want it to be, “Let’s make a big song and dance about what we’re doing”, because that kind of defeats the object.

Revel Horwood There were already competitions that had been running for 15 years prior to this, where it’s all men dancing together and all women dancing together. Mostly in schools, there aren’t enough men to go round, so the women have to dance together, so someone’s got to lead or not lead. You’re either leading or you’re following, but it doesn’t matter what sex you are.

John Whaite (Strictly finalist, 2021) Johannes [Radebe, his pro dance partner] pushed me to my limits, and he was really gentle with me in doing so. And I think people appreciated that it showed that art, whether it is dancing or whatever, is genderless. It isn’t about gender – it is about two people communicating through expression and through dance.

We’ve seen how beautiful and inclusive dance is. And all these people who have gone on about: “Well, it is breaking the rules” – these rules were put in place by human beings, and we can bend them to become more inclusive.

Radebe Every single week I was just overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. Nothing can take that away from us, and they’re memories I’ll be holding for the rest of my life.

* * *

‘If an idiot like me can learn an American Smooth in six hours … nothing is impossible’: how Strictly changes your life

Appearing on Strictly can make a huge difference to your career. Your confidence, self-esteem and fitness can grow, but the relationship with your partner can also become the talk of the tabloid press …

Walker We did an American Smooth and I was injured on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so I hardly danced. We continued training on Thursday, and I said to Nadiya [Bychkova, his pro dance partner]: “How long have we got to learn this dance?” and she was worried for the first time, I think. She said: “Six hours.” We did it, and that was our highest-scoring dance.

So if I ever face anything that is like, “How do I do this?” or “I haven’t got time to do this” or “This is going to be really painful”, I just think: “If an idiot like me can learn an American Smooth in six hours in front of 10 million people, nothing is impossible.”

Radebe The most important thing is to reassure them. My partner this year, Ellie [Taylor], wants to run through it 100 times. That’s her way of processing things. And if we don’t do it as many times as that, she will not feel comfortable. A lot of them come in, and then after that first elimination there’s a real realisation of “uh-oh” and they want to do better and they want to learn.

Daly It’s just been a part of my life since my mid-30s and I’m in my 50s now. Imagine that! My daughter turns 18 next week, and I was pregnant with her in series one. It’s amazing. She’s like a visual reference of how long we’ve been on air.

I told my girls over dinner: “Your mum and her friend [Claudia Winkleman, who became co-host after Forsyth stepped down in 2014], we’re two women standing side by side for the first time on a British entertainment show.” I felt so proud to be a part of that.

Logan The expectation was that I would treat it like a sport. I would work really hard, and it would all come out on the night. But there was so much more showbiz to it that I wasn’t used to, as a shiny floor show, coming from sport – and that part of it really did surprise me.

It was the tabloid interest and the stories that were coming out, all that stuff – the ephemera, if you like, the extra noise: that knocked me a bit. And I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with that.

Kaplinsky My biggest regret is that I was so concerned about how it would be perceived that I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it as much as I should have done.

Gill You have a little moment of euphoria very late on a Saturday night. And then Sunday morning – I call it Sacred Sunday – I try very hard not to message anybody I’m working with, just so people can have a minute.

But then either late Sunday night or very early on a Monday morning, it’s that sick feeling of: “Right, we’re off again. What do we need to do?”

Logan Whenever I’m going into a situation that’s really scary, whatever it is, I always think: “This is not as bad as going on Strictly.” It’s set me up for life in that department.

The final of Strictly Come Dancing 2022 takes place on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on 17 December.


Scott Bryan

The GuardianTramp

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