Dancing on Ice: From breaking taboos to socially distancing

Dancing on Ice: From breaking taboos to socially distancing

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The makers of the ITV family favourite Dancing on Ice have broken taboos. Now they’re preparing to socially distance

It was a remarkable moment in British TV, when two men skated on to the ice to perform together in a prime-time show. Hearts melted across the nation, from the Dancing on Ice studio to millions watching at home.

The same-sex pairing of Ian Watkins – “H” – from Steps with pro skater Matt Evers was a new development for the flagship ITV show – and, as a member of the production team told an RTS Midlands online masterclass, judge John Barrowman wasn’t the only one in tears. Executive producer Clodagh O’Donoghue recalled: “It was such an iconic moment and there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere in the studio. I’ve never heard an audience reception like it, on any show. I was so proud and delighted by the viewers’ reaction – we thought it might be more negative.

“I remember when I rang Matt and said, ‘H has approached us about doing this, what do you think? It’s a brave thing to do.’ He started crying on me, saying, ‘I can’t believe the network is going to do this.’ It shouldn’t be a thing so I didn’t quite realise what a big deal it was.”

The RTS event host, Richie Anderson, part of the BBC’s Radio 2 Breakfast Show team and a reporter on its TV magazine The One Show, said: “As a gay man, I felt it was empowering and there was an element of acceptance. It was a beautiful moment.”

Dancing on Ice superfan Anderson was the perfect upbeat host for the entertaining masterclass, as he admitted to having “anorak knowledge” of his favourite TV show. He even confessed to wanting judges and Olympic champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean to be his TV mum and dad.

He’s not alone in his love for Dancing on Ice, which has dazzled as a Sunday-­night family favourite over 12 series. Originally titled Stars on Thin Ice, it began in 2006. So far, 154 contestants have put their skates on, from Joe Pasquale and Todd Carty to Kelly Holmes and Vanilla Ice. There have been 18 judges, including Louie Spence, Katarina Witt, Robin Cousins and the acerbic Jason Gardiner.

The show will look a little different when it returns in January. One solution to filming with social distancing is to have Perspex panels between the judges on the Ice Panel. But one advantage Dancing on Ice has in a pandemic is that it’s filmed in an isolated studio, a mile along a runway on a disused RAF base in Hertfordshire.

O’Donoghue said: “We have to look at what works with cameras and lighting. Will there be a reflection off the Perspex at a certain angle? We have all these decisions to make.

“The cast start training in October and will go into a sort of isolation separately in order for them to come together and train. There will be a lot of testing for Covid and being ‘clean’ – a period where you’re not going out to nightclubs and rubbing up against people.

“Our studio isolation works very well for Covid. It’s just us, there aren’t any other shows around. Dancing on Ice used to come from Elstree and Shepperton Studios, but they were booked up when the show relaunched in 2018, so we purpose-built a studio at RAF Bovingdon. It’s big enough for two ice rinks, a rehearsal and main studio rink, and for all the crew, dressing rooms and parking.”

The on-screen talent consists of 13 celebrities and 13 professional skaters, four judges, two presenters – Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby – and a commentator.

Backstage, there is a crew of 250, including medics and physios, catering staff and a wardrobe department for all the colourful, sequinned costumes. Then there are the more unusual jobs, skate sharpeners and a tanning team to make sure the sun-deprived contestants aren’t the same shade as the ice.

It may be freezing in the studio – it’s no wonder the audience are wrapped up in coats – but it can get steamy on the ice. The show has led to three lasting relationships and a baby. Former England goalkeeper David Seaman and Frankie Poultney are married, as are Coronation Street’s Samia Ghadie and Sylvain Longchambon, who have a son.

The last series saw the engagement of footballer-turned-BBC-pundit Kevin Kilbane and skater Brianne Delcourt – who had previously dated soap-star contestants Danny Young, Sam Attwater and Matt Lapinskas.

“Maybe there’ll be a romance this time, who knows?” said O’Donoghue. “I was delighted about Kevin and Brianne. We pair them up on the basis of their heights and personalities. When we first meet a celebrity – and that’s always on the ice, whoever they are, to make sure they can get from A to B – we ask what sort of pro they’d like. Are you competitive, do you need a pro who will push you? Do you just want to have a laugh? Do you want a pro who is kind and nurturing?

“We want people to have a good time. There’s no point doing it unless you’re going to enjoy it. It’s full on but so rewarding. They often keep skating for fitness – you get a really firm bum on Dancing on Ice.”

Inevitably, there are falls, which is secretly what viewers may be waiting for. Everyone remembers reality star Gemma Collins falling flat on her face on the ice in last year’s show, which O’Donoghue said was initially a “heart-wrenching” moment.

“All of us honestly thought she was seriously injured. We felt sick. But she just got up and started waving and smiling at the audience. It was amazing.”

O’Donoghue picked actor Ray Quinn as the show’s best celebrity skater but said that she has a soft spot for the reigning champion, Joe Swash: “He was a real surprise. When we first met him he was falling over all the time. If you had asked me to bet on who would be in the final, I would never have said Joe. And then to win it – and what a lovely bloke.

“If I could sign up anyone, Beyoncé would be incredible. She would come out of that tunnel looking amazing, and I bet she can skate because she can do anything, can’t she?”

When asked for tips on getting into TV, creative producer Sita Patel said: “I applied for every traineeship and runner scheme. Hunt down those opportunities, because they are out there.

“Be enthusiastic, persistent and respectful about the show you’re hoping to work on. Watch it! And don’t say: ‘The last series wasn’t very good’. Quietly getting on with your job, staying late to clean up and helping out with photocopying is what a producer will notice more than the person chatting loudly in the bar.”

O’Donoghue, the daughter of publicans, revealed that her big break came thanks to common sense and a jug of sangria: “I was on work experience with TV production company Initial. It had a late meeting one night and they asked me to buy some sangria from a tapas place down the road. I thought, ‘That’s crazy, to spend all that money.’

“So I made a jug myself and brought it in. The boss, Malcolm Gerrie, thanked me and when I told him what I’d done, he said: ‘You are going to go far’.”

Report by Roz Laws. The RTS Midlands ‘Dancing on Ice Masterclass’ was held on 29 July and hosted by Richie Anderson. The producers were Caren Davies and Megan Fellows.