Ice Skating: The best of friends: A perfect couple renew their rare relationship and glide back to glory in Europe. Richard Williams studies the chemistry of Torvill and Dean's winning formula

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'LOOK at it this way,' Phil Christiansen said, not really wanting to talk but perhaps feeling that the time had come to state his own position. 'If your wife spent so much time working with another man . . . if it was in anything but this sort of special circumstance . . . you might not feel very comfortable about it. As it happens, I don't have a problem, because I can see that it's so unique. That they go out there and do this work, and do it so well. Nothing comes into your mind that something could be wrong with that. You just have to let it go. I think Isabelle didn't quite come to grips with that, to be honest.'

Twenty minutes later, you could see what there was to get to grips with as Phil Christiansen stood at the back of a room listening to his wife tell a crowded press conference about being in love with another man.

Jayne Torvill had just been confronted by a rather tortuous variation on the question that people started asking a dozen years ago: are you now, or have you ever been, Christopher Dean's lover? In this instance, the question was angled as an inquiry about the emotional verisimilitude of the highly charged rumba routine Torvill and Dean had just skated in Thursday's original set dance at the European ice championships in Copenhagen, the second stage of their attempt to regain all their amateur titles - British, European, Olympic, World - on their return from 10 years in the professional ice shows. And it was a good example of the sort of sneaky tactic journalists have been resorting to ever since it became obvious that a straight answer wasn't on the cards, which is to say back in Mrs Thatcher's first term.

'We're taking a role when we perform the rumba,' Torvill now replied. 'From performing so much, we've learnt to be different people.' She paused, probably calculating the effect of her next words. 'We were in love for the two minutes that we were dancing.'

Some journalists wrote that down. Others swung quickly round in their seats to check the instinctive reaction of two figures standing at the back. Jill Trenary, the orthodontically perfect blonde former US figure skating champion who has been Dean's girlfriend since the collapse of his 1991 marriage to the Canadian ice dancer Isabelle Duchesnay, smiled with an air of amused confidence. Phil Christiansen, the rock 'n' roll sound engineer who married Jayne Torvill in 1990, just blushed.

Well, you could understand it. He was right. How would you like it?

Just imagine this. You're an American boy who has built a good career pushing faders and twiddling knobs in the darkness of arenas around the world on tour with Phil Collins. In a competitive world, you're at the top. Then you marry an Olympic champion who has turned professional and is out on the road herself quite a lot of the time. It works because you understand each other's priorities. But suddenly things change, and you find yourself in the middle of a nightmare. It's Mills and Boon meets True Confessions, a weird and disturbing mixture of the sentimental and the sadistic. Now the eyes of several dozen journalists, whose job is to find the dash of sadism to spice up the sentimentality in such a way that their readers are both shocked and comforted, are suddenly watching you to see how you respond to your wife's words about how, not half an hour ago, she was in love with her professional partner.

IT'S a funny little world, this one, a mini-universe cosily suffocating in a kind of Fifties-style tweeness - where the price of twinkle nylon or dotted glitter georgette or sequin tulip lace vies for attention with the technicalities of the lutz, the flip and the triple axel.

But only just beneath the frozen perfection, under the bright sparkly surface of the ice-rink, lies a subterranean lagoon that boils and seethes with a stew of darker emotions. They surface only in the tiniest ripples, but they make the doings of, say, the Football Association international committee or the World Boxing Council look as limpid and serene as a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

The notoriously subjective marking system - 'And that 5.6 is from the Russian judge' - is only a small part of it. In those terms, there's not much difference between a Russian judge and a Russian linesman. But ever since the day the International Skating Union announced that professionals could return to amateur competition in pursuit of medals, the waters have grown more turbid.

Why did the ISU decide to readmit the Torvills and Witts, the Deans and Boitanos? Because, like several other sports (notably tennis and grand prix racing), ice skating has lately suffered from an absence of vivid personalities - the sort who keep television executives happy. The amnesty was a cheap and easy way to recover the broadcast ratings the sport won in the early Eighties.

And why did Torvill and Dean, 10 years after their Olympic gold in Sarajevo, decide to accept the ISU's invitation? What made them think, at 36 and 35 years of age, that it was worth risking their unassailable reputation to testing themselves against the youthful freshness and athleticism of Oksana Gritschuk and Evgeny Platov who pushed them to the closest possible finish in the Brondbyhalle on Friday night.

The official explanation, according to their coach, Betty Callaway, is that they fancy the challenge, and that the idea just popped into Christopher Dean's head at the centenary reception during which the ISU's decision was announced. And the official reaction from the couples they slaughtered as they regained the British title with embarrassing ease in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago was that they were delighted to see the old champions back and that the consequent publicity could only benefit the sport.

But there may be other motives, other consequences. The beaten rivals may not be quite as delighted as they profess to be by the reappearance of a couple who have spent the last 10 years making a small fortune. And Torvill and Dean are taking an enormous gamble, one into which they have invested quite a stake - something in the region of pounds 100,000 of their own money to pay for a six- month period of preparation that seems to have been as intensive and gruelling as anything they have endured since they first tested their partnership at six o'clock one May morning almost 19 years ago. 'They're working harder than ever,' said Bobby Thompson, their artistic director, who helped restyle their costumes back in 1978 and can remember the years when Dean would have to clean the rink at Nottingham Ice Stadium after he and Torvill had practised in private deep into the night or in the hours before dawn.

But why now? Why six hours of ice-time a day, six days a week, for six months, with the best part of an hour's drive at each end of the day from the Milton Keynes rink both for Torvill, who lives with Christiansen in central London, and Dean, who has a home in Buckinghamshire?

Here are two possible answers. First, according to their assistant, Debbie Thomas, their immediate plan after the world championships in Tokyo in March is to launch a new ice show, starting off in Britain. A budget of dollars 5m has been rumoured, although Thomas refused to comment on that. Without question, the current publicity is the best possible promotion for such a show; a gold medal in Lillehammer and a title in Tokyo would be the answer to a marketing man's dream. Second, the next world championships will be held in Britain, on a specially constructed rink at the NEC in Birmingham. A top-three finish for Torvill and Dean in Tokyo would give the British team three entries in Birmingham, rather than the single place for which they would be eligible without any top placings. The benefits of that - to British ice skating and to British television - must be obvious.

'I think they've been manipulated,' said Stephen Williams, an ice dancer who was Dean's roommate during trips to major championships with the British team in the early 1980s, when he and Wendy Sessions were the third couple behind T & D and Karen Barber and Nicky Slater.

'A lot of us couldn't understand why they made the decision to come back,' Williams said last week on the phone from the ice rink in Bristol where he is an instructor. 'I think Christopher is the best British skater ever, in terms of innovation and choreography. He and Jayne set the standards, on and off the ice. They reached the top. After that, there's only one way, isn't there? I feel it could be a mistake. Everything develops, and skating has moved on. If they fail at the Olympics, there'll be something to be said.'

WHAT made Torvill and Dean more than just a skating phenomenon was, of course, the mystery of their true relationship, a question revived as soon as they announced their return to prime-time competition. 'It's a brother-and-sister thing,' Stephen Williams insists today. 'People outside can't understand. They always think it has to be something sexual. It wasn't. It's a business relationship between two very talented individuals.'

Nobody wants to believe that prosaic explanation, though. Even in their amateur days, Torvill and Dean quickly learnt how to play up to the outside world's fantasies. 'I can well imagine women's heads being turned by Chris,' Torvill told their biographer, John Hennessy, around the time of Sarajevo. 'Mine was once . . .' To which Dean responded in the same enigmatic key: 'I think we fell in love and out again, but it's difficult to be sure because we were both so young at the time.'

Ten years and two marriages later, they must be surprised to find the world still crowding round the keyhole, and to discover that the old techniques - 'We were in love for the two minutes that we were dancing' - still work so effectively. But the truth is that such a relationship is rare and extraordinary enough to merit interest and inquiry, even if the wrong assumptions are being made.

In methodological terms, their partnership seems straightforward enough. 'Chris did everything on the ice, and Jayne did the money and the clothes,' said Eileen Anderson, the British team manager during their glory years. 'Chris thinks it up,' Betty Callaway said after their victory in Sheffield, 'and Jayne makes it happen.' Which means, she explained to me last week, that Dean is the visionary, while Torvill, with her solid technical background as a figure skater, decides what will work and what won't. This is no Scott-and- Zelda combination, with both parties trying to assume the same creative function and fighting each other to destruction.

What makes them truly fascinating is the existence of these strange and complex emotions within such an apparently ordinary boy and girl - the insurance clerk and the police cadet who came together when both were abandoned by their earlier partners. 'They were natural people,' said Wendy Sessions, who retired from skating in 1984 and now works in a Birmingham bank. 'They got on well together. They were good friends, and they had the same goals.'

'They're such perfect friends,' Betty Callaway said. 'Much more than brother and sister. They understand each other perfectly. They know what the other one's thinking before they've thought it. And as they've matured they've been able to give more to the partnership. Actually, I feel they've grown even closer to each other.'

Chemistry is a word that gets a lot of play in these rather imprecise discussions. 'The chemistry was right from day one,' Bobby Thompson said after watching them on Thursday. 'I couldn't begin to define what it is that works so perfectly for them - but although they have separate lives now, it's still there. When they went out to dance this afternoon, as they stood there before they started, at that point they were in love. I was standing six feet away from them. I could see it. They're two people as one, in my opinion.'

On the other hand, as an antidote to the sequins-and-lace view of their comeback, there's Phil Christiansen's observation. 'When they decide to do something,' he said, 'they don't fool around.'

(Photographs omitted)