As the countdown to Strictly Come Dancing’s Blackpool bonanza goes on, Anna Cryer looks back at some of the show’s Tower Ballroom highlights.
IN THE BEGINNING:
In spring 2004, a new series launched on BBC 1; Strictly Come Dancing, recreating the glory days of the competition dance show Come Dancing which had broadcast live from the Tower Ballroom for 49 years.
In week three of the contest, which ran as part of Sport Relief, the celebrities and their professional dancers travelled north to the Tower for the first time. Eventual series’ winners Natasha Kaplinsky and dancer Brendan Cole scored 26 for their jive landing in the bottom two dance off, with actress Claire Sweeney and dancer John Byrnes topping the leaderboard with a 34-scoring tango.
I utter this one in hushed, reverential tones: Jill Halfpenny’s jive, even now, one of the show’s best loved dances.
Series two of Strictly came later in the show’s debut year, in its now-traditional autumn run, with two episodes broadcast from the Ballroom’s hallowed floor.
Week five saw six couples all dance a samba, followed a few weeks later by the final, where actress Jill with professional Darren Bennett made utterly brilliant use of the sprung floor when they scored the show’s first 40 point-dance in their jive to Wham hit Wake Me Up, lifting the glitterball trophy, ahead of heptathlete Denise Lewis and comedian Julian Clary.
Despite the success of that series final, the BBC pulled Strictly at the Tower for the following year. And after four years without the show, in 2008 the Blackpool Gazette launched its Bring Strictly Back To Blackpool campaign.
Stars backed the call, including show winner-turned-judge Alesha Dixon, Aled Jones and Camilla Dallerup. But the loudest call for the return came from Mr Nasty judge Craig Revel Horwood, who said: “Blackpool is ballroom dancing... I love Blackpool and I think it’s really sad the BBC don’t film Strictly here. I demand it goes back!”
BACK TO BLACK:
There was nothing but praise for Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom when the BBC did return to the resort in 2009, thanks to The Gazette’s Bring Strictly Back To Blackpool campaign.
Rock legend Rod Stewart wowed a 1,000-strong crowd as his wife Penny Lancaster, a former Strictly contestant, took to the dance floor. And contestant, now ex-Hollyoaks actor Ricky Whittle hailed the experience ‘a dream’. Professional dancer Brendan Cole gave the Blackpool show a perfect score, adding: “It’s probably one of the better shows there has ever been – a lot of work went into it and everyone had a really good time.”
It’s standard Strictly procedure, that the celebrities make their appeal for a Blackpool place, but one dancer in particular staked his claim on the northern trip more so than any other in the show’s history.
St Annes-born ex-Coronation Street actor Craig Kelly made desperate pleas to reach the Tower Ballroom in 2009, despite being one of his series’ worst competitors.
Sadly the Golden Mile was the end of his journey, being booted off the show with professional partner Flavia Cacace when they scored just 17 points for their cha cha cha. Craig thanked supporters who kept him in that far, saying: “I’m grateful I got the chance to perform in such a magnificent building.”
GETTING WIDDE WITH IT:
Another celebrity who perhaps gained attention for the wrong reasons was ex-Tory MP Ann Widdecombe - with her 2010 series Blackpool samba seeing her dragged around the ballroom floor like a ‘lame canary’ - according to judge Bruno Tonioli.
In her bright yellow dress, including leggings and maribou feathers, she was quite a sight to behold with partner Anton Du Beke. Despite scoring just 13 points for the dance to Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel, she still soared into the next round of the contest, as Good Life actress Felicity Kendal flew the nest and was voted off with dance Vincent Simone.
MCBUST-ING THE MOVES:
In 2011, Blackpool was granted the honour of playing host to the show’s final, once again, as McFly’s Harry Judd lifted the glitterball trophy, with partner Aliona Vilani.
Throughout the series, he’d developed from a shy drummer more accustomed to hiding at the back of the stage, to a confident dancer, wowing judges with his 40-scoring quickstep and Argentine tango, as well as a showdance and an American smooth winning 39 points from the judges, to beat actress Chelsee Healey and pop and stage star Jason Donovan.
Harry thanked the resort for bringing him luck for the final, praising the atmosphere at the celebrated venue, adding: “It has made it more special but it definitely added to the pressure. There is so much history here and it is such an incredible building and you can see why it is such a special place.”
The popularity of Strictly with all ages was shown in the 2013 visit’s opening number, when scores of dancers young and old took to the floor in what was the biggest opening dance seen on the show.
Twelve amateur ballroom dancers, aged 10 to 14 took to the floor, alongside more than 40 amateurs in their 40s to 70s, as well as the celebrity contestants and their professional partners. The Tower Ballroom’s vast floor was a whirl of colour
Dame Shirley Bassey’s no stranger to a grand venue, but sweeping into the Tower Ballroom in 2014, she epitomised all that is great in diva-dom.
What viewers at home won’t have realised is that she was present in the building for a matter of minutes, taking the stage, singing the classic Bond theme Goldfinger and receiving adulation from the capacity crowd. Then in a flash of sequins, she was gone, like a spectre.
That’s not to say the dances weren’t spectacular; Blue singer Simon Webbe produced the performance of the night, drawing in viewers to an intimate Argentine Tango, which covered only a minute space of the vast dance floor. And Blackpool-born It Takes Two presenter and past competitor Zoe Ball stepped into the limelight to co-host with Tess Daly as Claudia Winkleman looked after her ill daughter.
WHAT’S TO COME?:
The cast of Strictly 2015 have now secured their positions in Blackpool, with dances confirmed as: Anita Rani and Gleb Savchenko, paso doble; Georgia May Foote and Giovanni, American Smooth, Helen and Aljaz, Charleston, Jamelia and Tristan MacManus, quickstep; Jay McGuinness and Aliona Vilani, salsa; Katie Derham and Anton Du Beke, American Smooth; Kellie Bright and Kevin Clifton, quickstep; and Peter Andre and Janette Manrara, jive.
Which of these will be your highlight?