Strictly Tacky

Television people know best. At least, that's what they think. I suppose that people from all walks of life are like this, but perhaps it shows more with telly bods.

A while ago, I got a round-robin e-mail from someone who does a what's-on listing for swing dances. It said that the BBC was looking for people to appear on a telly show about dancing. I sent in my e-mail, and was asked by the Beeb to tell them what dance I did, where I was from, and that sort of thing. They also wanted a photo. Later, they asked me for a video. I did a very short .avi movie file with my digital stills camera and e-mailed them that, and then forgot about it. Time went by.

I got a telephone call and someone called Claire said that "we" would like me to be on "the show". I had no idea what she was talking about. I asked, and she explained that the show was connected with something going out on BBC1 on Saturdays called Strictly Come Dancing. A worse name for a show could be devised I'm sure, with a bit of effort. On this, 'celebrities' were paired up with professional ballroom dancers and each Saturday they performed a dance or two and then one couple was voted off. The following week was the last week, and they were down to two couples. The show I was wanted for was a "fanzine" show for the ultra-interested, which followed the couples in rehearsal during the week. It went out every day at eight thirty on BBC3. They had a lot of air-time to fill, and in the last week especially, very little to fill it with.

They wanted me to go down to London the following Tuesday, shoot an item live in the studio, then on Wednesday dance for a location shoot at a dance in London with a partner they'd find for me, and this would go out on air on the Friday. I said I was interested, but was not immediately committed. Consulting my friends, or those I might have mistaken as friends, I was advised to do it. "No publicity is bad publicity" was said a fair few times. Over the next few days, I received more calls from Auntie, and it became clearer just how tacky the show was. I can't get BBC3 and had never seen the show, but I already knew how bad 'reality' telly is.

They had hit upon the wild idea of doing the item like Blind Date. For those in ignorance, this is a long-running light entertainment show hosted in Britain by Cilla Black, in which one member of Her Majesty's general public asks three questions of three others who are hidden behind a screen. Based on the answers given, he or she picks one of the hidden three to accompany on a televised 'date'. The screen slides back to reveal the chosen one. In our version, instead of a date to exotic climes, it would be a dance somewhere in London. You can tell already, can't you, that there is little chance of this being very good.

The producers, all called 'Claire', knew nothing about dance. I sent them details about swing dance nights in London, since they needed to shoot the date at one.

The Claires were in their twenties, and all people who had grown up in the age of mobile 'phones. This meant that they considered that they didn't need to plan ahead, and that the solution to every problem involved a mobile 'phone. When I explained that I don't have one of these gadgets, they said "Ah - you're one of those eh." Conversations went along these lines:

"We'll let you know. We'll give you a call."
"How? I don't have a mobile 'phone."
"Well you can call us."
"From the taxi? How?"
"Oh yes, I see. Well, just text us, then."
"How? I don't have a mobile 'phone."
"Well, we'll telephone the taxi driver. He'll have a mobile 'phone."
"Do you know his number?"
"Oh, no, I suppose that wouldn't…"
"Why don't you just set a time now, and I'll arrive then?"
"No, I think it's best if you call us."
"How? I haven't got a mobile 'phone."
"Oh no, you haven't have you. Er… well, could you call someone else?"

My train was late, and this had been a bit of a concern for them, but the others, the three ladies from whom I would be picking one, hadn't had far to come, and they had rehearsed their bit in the studio. I got to the White City Television Centre, and waited for some while in the ultra high-security glass foyer, and watched media-types come and go. I recalled the time I shared a lift with Jeremy Paxman, when I had been there for a job interview. He looked a lot greyer in reality. I said that a couple of very intellectual friends of mine thought that his book on the English was very good. He adopted an air of amused disdain and said "Well, that's praise." I let it go, but perhaps I should have said 'Oh, cheer up, Paxo, you don't have to be grumpy all the time. Being polite and gracious is an option, you know.' Next time.

Anyway, everything I had been told had changed. They were now shooting the dance date that night instead of Wednesday, and somewhere different. I was taken to a little self-contained studio a few minutes walk away. There I met the various Claires who were producing the show. We agreed on what I was going to wear, and my shirt was sent away to be very thoroughly ironed (it had been stuffed in a rucksack). I was sent to make-up, where they painted me orange. This was presumably their idea of what a dancer should look like. Actually, they only painted my face orange, leaving my forearms, exposed by my rolled sleeves, pale. They didn't darken my eyebrows, and instead these disappeared beneath the cake.

They required me to agree everything I was going to say in advance. Various ideas had been mooted, but the only thing that had been settled was that I would ask three questions. I had sent them various ideas for questions, that I thought would separate the wheat from the chaff. They came into the room where I was changing, and told me what the question I wanted to ask was. Now there was going to just one question, and it had nothing to do with anything I had suggested, or would ever have thought up myself. It was this.

'I am to the Lindy hop what Paul "Killer" Killick is to the Pasa Doble. What is your signature dance and why Number One?'

Try reading that out loud fast and clearly. There are only seven people in Britain who can. They clearly had faith in my diction. I rephrased it a bit to make it more like something a human might say, and then we went on to agree on the next few things I would say in the conversation. I had had many ideas for amusing things to say, but these were for the most part vetoed, but I saw opportunities for working a couple of them in anyway. The plan at this stage, though, was to do a rehearsal. They reassured me several times that we would have time for a rehearsal (and that I would not be made to dance). If I used all my gags up in rehearsal, they might be blown. I was not trying to wreck their plans, just to inject some of myself into proceedings. Everything I planned to say could be fitted into their scheme. The script they showed me had my lines on it, but not the presenter's. Instead, there were strong implications that the presenter would be saying something simple and clear, that led to my next line.

They were bothering to make sure that I saw none of the three potential dance partners I would pick from. I was shown into the studio, after the three had rehearsed twice, and had been taken out of the way. The studio was very small, and a cul-de-sac. I was met by a man who had "Floor Manager" written all over him (metaphorically), and shown to a place just behind the set they had built. The set consisted of a short wall, and through this could be pulled by means of a simple string, a sliding partition. I was warned not to trip over the runner on the floor that the partition rested on. The wall was short. One step to my left, and I would have been able to see the three women, and half a step to my right and I would be visible to the cameras. The AFM (assistant floor manager - I was playing the game of guess-the-role of the crew, and playing it well) was next to me. She quickly spotted that I had done telly before.

The presenter - Jason someone - took up his position, and did his madcap wacky introduction, and they played the introductory jingles and hyper-corny commentary, making it clear that they were going all-out for tacky, in the hope that this would be funny, or something. What had I got myself into? I knew that it would be tacky, but this was off the scale. I was introduced. The music then stopped, and there were a few quick words exchanged. The floor manager appeared in front of me. "We're just going to go for it, okay?" There was to be no rehearsal. We started again. Again the wacky intro. Clearly, the presenter was not improvising. I was introduced again. I was just about to go on when everything stopped again. "My heart rate doubled", I told the AFM. "Are you nervous?" she asked. "To a healthy degree" I replied. A bit of nervousness I think helps a performance.

My heart calmed, and we started again. This time there was no stopping. I walked on, and, being a bit taller than the presenter, he made a weak gag about my being all right "up there". He told me to take a seat. Straight away this was a good feed line for a gag. I looked around and saw several, but chose the one he meant - screened off from the women. It was a stool. One never looks good perched on a stool. The presenter bantered on, clearly drawing on prepared words, and these did not seem engineered to make me look good. On cue, I eyed the camera I had been told to talk to, and asked my question. I had wanted to surprise people a bit by asking Number Two first, but this idea had been firmly vetoed.

The first of the three answered, and reeled off a carefully worded load of corny innuendo. I remember that she ended with a claim that she would "jive you wild". I had considered saying something like 'Hmm - a thinly veiled promise of something there,' which would have led to 'Hmm - an even more thinly veiled promise of something there,'' leading to 'They don't make veils like they used to, do they?' after hearing the third question. I didn't though, because it seemed to be rude to draw attention to the ladies' innuendoes when the words were almost certainly not theirs, and they delivered them with such smiles. Sure enough, each reply was more innuendo-packed than the last, and the presenter revelled in the first two, and then said that the third was just filth. I rallied to Number Three's side with a "Oh" in reaction to his disapproval. Throughout the conversation, I did manage to work in a fair few reactions to him, including a "Steady now", which I thought worked quite well. It was, though, a hopelessly uneven partnership, because he had the full script, and I was constricted by my much lesser one, and he had sanction to go off-script.

To 'help' me with my choice, the corny announcer's voice came over the speaker, giving prepared summaries of the replies. I was then asked to choose. One part of me wanted to look at the camera and mouth "help!" but that too would have been rude to the three potentials, so I had to choose. I had genuinely no idea which to pick. The puns and innuendoes were no help, but one had mentioned that she was a dance teacher (albeit of salsa), and since none was a Lindy hopper, I picked her. I stood, and the door slid back. As I had predicted by the voices, I saw three middle-aged ladies, all smiling, and one of the three was standing. Of course I smiled and gave my chosen one a peck on the cheek. Immediately, I was asked to do some dancing with her. I obliged of course.

They then revealed the identities of the two losers. Of one the recorded announcer said that she hadn't had a partner for nine years. That must have made her feel like a princess. I mouthed "I'm terribly sorry" to the other two, thinking this chivalrous.

Then something we already knew was going to happen was then announced as a big surprise: I and my chosen one were going that night to a dance! Since this was not far away, in Ealing Broadway, the other two ladies were going along anyway, but the people at home weren't told that. We waved goodbye to the camera, and they rolled credits to recorded applause. After this, the presenter said to me that it had been "great working with you."

I asked if I would be fed at my hotel, and was told that I could eat there and that they would settle the bill. I therefore ate little of the food on offer at the studio. They told us that the second part of the item - the evening dance - might now go out on Thursday, or possibly Wednesday, but that they weren't sure. I had told everyone Friday. After a quick chat with the ladies, I left for my hotel. I left because that was the plan. It was the plan, because they hadn't thought it through. They didn't think it through because they didn't need to. They didn't need to because they had mobile 'phones.

My hotel was in the centre of London, and that day there was a tube strike on. The Claires sent me in a taxi to sit in a rush-hour jam to the hotel. I arrived after an age, tried to get my orange paint off, and did get most of it off without much use of a chisel, but only with considerable effort. What a foolish man I was to travel without a set of make-up removers. There was no food at the hotel. I just had time to run to a supermarket, buy some sandwiches and scoff them, dampen myself in the shower, and get another taxi back. This was a truly pointless journey.

We were supposed to pick up my date before arriving in Ealing. The taxi driver didn't know the name of the hotel, but between us we managed to deduce which square it was on. We arrived there, and to my amazement, I saw that every building around the huge square was a hotel. He drove round, while I ducked into the first one, which, remarkably, was the right one. We could have lost a lot of time there. We then crawled through jams to Ealing Town Hall. On the way there I considered what I might say to the cameraman about shooting dancers. Most dance is very badly shot, and the Strictly Come Dancing show was no exception. One major mistake they make is not to use full-length shots, showing the feet, but instead use conventional shots of heads and shoulders. Giving tips can be useful and appreciated, but it can also put people's backs up, because professionals don't like being told their jobs.

We got there before they were ready. When the cameraman and the Claires were in place, we got into a different taxi that had just brought someone else, parked around the corner, and then we arrived again for the arrival shots. I already knew that everything on television is fake to some degree or other, and so I wasn't shocked, but was a bit disappointed that they were being so fake, and so conventional. It is my usual way to get out of a car and walk towards a building I intend to enter, but the situation obliged me to escort my 'date', who kept lagging behind. We were told to look up at and appreciate the building, so we did, but I did it in my way. We by this time were both wearing radio mikes.

Now, the night at Ealing Town Hall is called Hipsters, and it has two lots of lessons at the start of the evening. Downstairs, they do the Lindy hop, while upstairs, they do modern jive. You might then naïvely imagine that we would shoot downstairs, since this was meant to be a Lindy hop date. No. The main social dance of the night happened upstairs later on, and so they wanted to shoot everything upstairs. I asked them why we didn't shoot the lesson downstairs, and then the social dance upstairs. The answer was that this would confuse the audience, because the background would change. I pointed out that they could put a couple of words in the voice over, like "later on, upstairs…" but was told that this was impossible. That this was a flagrant lie didn't seem to bother them. Media people are so used to lying to the public, that they see it as part of their professionalism to do so.

So we did the lesson upstairs. I was positioned conveniently at the front, where they could shoot me with one camera on a tripod on the stage, and with another hand-held. I had decided against giving any advice to the cameraman. In cahoots with the BBC, the teachers taught an ultra smoochie routine, just to add to my discomfort.

After the lesson, the social dancing started. As expected, the music didn't really suit swing dancing, and I felt under pressure to dance for the camera, but soon enough they played something swingable. I danced with my chosen partner, and she was a pretty good follower, who did very well considering that this was an unfamiliar dance for her. As I danced, they videoed me, and I could see that they were shooting me with a 'mid-shot', which wouldn't show our legs. Perhaps I should have spoken up.

At one point I had to go to the loo. Another dancer came in and asked me about what I was doing with the TV crew. I explained to him what the show was, and mentioned a bit sotto voce that it all seemed rather tacky. I then remembered to turn off my radio mike. Perhaps the cameraman heard, or one of the Claire's, but I doubt it went to tape.

Later, my partner was taken away to be interviewed, and then I was interviewed in the lobby on my own. I wasn't filled with confidence as he set up. He was using a very small camera, and plonked it on a very high tripod, and then used the flip-out viewfinder that amateur cameras have. He insisted that I talk to him, and not to the lens, but using the viewfinder as he was, his head was very close to the camera, which meant that I was looking just very slightly off-camera, which I'd have thought would have made me look odd. He interviewed me with very obvious questions, and told me what to say in reply. I don't like this. That television is fake is one thing, but requiring people to tell the dull story that you have made up is another. He said things like "Just say that you've had a good time, and…" I didn't quite play his game. I didn't want to annoy him, but neither did I want to become some bland TV character according to his whim. He asked me what I first thought when the screens went back. I could have told the whole truth, I could have played his game and said something pleasant and meaningless. I compromised and said that I was concentrating on smiling and not tripping over the runner.

Then the time came for the joint interview. We went into a grand room in the building. He seemed to be expecting us to stand in front of a plain wall. "What's our background?" I asked, looking at the grand fireplace, pillars, and picture-adorned walls. "That wall," he asserted, pointing at the plain wall. I saw that he was nearly ready to roll, but in a tone of voice making it equivalent to 'Are you ready to roll?' I said, "You're on your bubble?" I was referring to the air-bubble in a water-filled capsule on the tripod that tells a cameraman that his camera is level. He wasn't on his bubble. Again, he tried to tell us what to say, to tell his story, which was 'They had a nice time and will meet again for regular dancing.' Naturally, he asked whether we'd be dancing again with each other. The pretext of this whole exercise had been to pair up two people to make a dance couple. They had found me a woman fifteen years older than me, who didn't Lindy hop, and who lived in Essex, which, in case you didn't know, is a long way from Newcastle. In other words, the expressed object of the exercise had not been a success. Of course, the real object of the exercise was to fill airtime on the show. I sort of did but sort of didn't play the game. I answered the questions politely and with a smile, but perhaps they sensed that I wasn't quite playing along. I said "Don't see why not."

We were then asked to do a joint thumbs-up to the camera and say "Thanks, Dance Mate." I did this, but the particular way I timed things may have had a sort of humorous cynicism that they weren't after.

They went away, and we stayed to dance some more. Eventually, I went back to my hotel. I 'phoned the next day to find out when the second part was going to go out. There was much confusion. I would have to try again. They were having problems, it seemed. I tried again later, and was told that the second part had to be scrapped because their machine had chewed up the tape, and nothing could be salvaged, not even from the other camera they used. That one tape gets screwed up can happen, but it is exceedingly rare. Two seems very unlikely.

Did I believe them? No. I think that they just decided that they didn't have the time to do the item. Either it would take too long to edit, or too much airtime on the show, and they didn't like the footage they got much anyway. Was this my fault? I don't know. The other contestants and their friends who were at the studio said they liked the way I had played it, but I don't think that the Claires got what they had expected, and they didn't know what to do with it. They chose me because of the little movie file I sent them, so they should have known that I would want to do my thing.

A friend of mine had taped the show for me, and some friends of my parents had been watching BBC3 to see me, every night. These then 'phoned my parents begging to be allowed to stop watching such an awful show. I did once see myself on the tape, and it was clear that the vision and sound mixers had gone with the script rather than the performance. Almost all my reactions and comments were inaudible and off screen.

I sent them an e-mail with some ideas for future dance items, but, you know, they never got back me.

Perhaps they were sensible enough to realise that their idea of matching people up was doomed. They may even have spotted this before they started shooting the item. They had at least got a guy to do the choosing and women to be chosen from, which is the way to do it if the guy does a different dance from the women, because a guy can lead a woman to do an unfamiliar dance.

How mediocre and formulaic the show was disappointed me, but shouldn't have surprised me. That the producers knew so little about their subject and didn't see this as a handicap is standard. That the producers constantly changed their minds about things, and didn't tell the participants is standard too in my experience. I don't like being lied to, and I don't think that there is any special licence that media people have to do this, but I have been lied to more often than not by media folk, so I wasn't shocked. I think that they were assuming that I would be a member of the public who would meekly go along with everything they wanted, because I'd be thinking 'Ooo - I'm on telly!' They were wrong there.


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