Inside Strictly’s Blackpool history, from Angela Rippon’s Come Dancing to the show’s first ever ‘40’

As the BBC’s dance competition returns to the Tower Ballroom, Isobel Lewis explores the town’s dance history, and how ‘Blackpool Week’ became a ‘Strictly’ institution

Isobel Lewis
Friday 17 November 2023 10:42 GMT
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Defiant Angela Rippon's message to Strictly fans after bottom-two finish

When Victorian architect Frank Matcham was drawing up the plans for the inside of Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom in the late 18th century, the idea that more than 100 years later the venue would host Britain’s glitziest reality TV competition would have probably been beyond the furthest realms of his imagination.

Yet as Strictly Come Dancing heads up north this week for its annual Blackpool bonanza, it’s apparent once more that Matcham’s design wasn’t made for a full-on TV production. Former Strictly pro dancer Erin Boag recalls her years on the show in Blackpool, the cast and crew “squashed” together backstage. “It’s absolutely manic behind the scenes… you just don’t see it,” she tells me.

Once one of Britain’s top holiday destinations, Blackpool, like many UK seaside towns, has suffered in an age where you can buy a flight to Spain for less than a train to the north west. But while tourism has dwindled generally, the town has remained the home of British ballroom dancing. Competitions still take place in the city’s Tower Ballroom and Winter Gardens, with the former hosting Strictly within its high gold ceilings inscribed with Shakespeare and expansive dance floor. For the show’s celebrity contestants, it brings around a whole new dance challenge. Sure, you can fill the space at Elstree Studios, but what about a floor as big as two swimming pools?

While Blackpool featured in Strictly’s initial two series in 2004, it was 2009 that “Blackpool week” as viewers know it now was born. These days, it’s a pivotal moment in the Strictly calendar, separating those who’ve coasted on through from the truly great dancers who deserve a spot in the final. Boag, who appeared on Strictly from the beginning until 2012, says the week is “a certain point to aim for” for celebrities. “First week in Strictly Come Dancing, really you just want to get past week one,” she says. “Then you have an aim to make it to Blackpool, to dance at the Tower, and then once you get through that you have a goal to make it to the final.”

This year’s contestants are feeling it too. Speaking ahead of this week’s competition, 2023 frontrunner Layton Williams told The Blackpool Gazette: “The fact that we’ve made it to Blackpool and we get to dance there, that’s like a massive tick. There’s so much history and nostalgia, I think it’s going to be a beautiful moment so it feels like a win getting there – I can’t wait.”

In order to fill the yawning space of the stage, today’s Strictly couples are joined on stage by accompanying dancers during their routines. The floor, too is “extra sprung”, unlike the Strictly studio’s, presenting new challenges. “If you stand on one side of the floor… and you really jump, you can feel it on the other side,” Boag says. Describing the feeling of dancing on that floor, cast member Karen Hauer previously told BBC News: “You feel a bit like, ‘Ooh, my belly! We’re not used to having a bouncy floor in Elstree, but that’s the beauty of Blackpool.”

But the significance of Blackpool week goes much deeper than Strictly, encompassing British history, dance history, and BBC history. Strictly’s namesake programme Come Dancing, the BBC’s classic ballroom dancing programme, would pay visits to the Tower Ballroom between the 1970s and 1990s. During her tenure as presenter, Angela Rippon, one of the most talked-about stars of Strictly 2023, hosted Come Dancing from the historic venue 17 times. On Saturday, she’ll be the one dancing (fans have predicted her American Smooth will pay homage to Come Dancing), not watching on as others take to the floor.

The original Tower Ballroom

The bright lights of Blackpool may have earned the town the nickname of the “Las Vegas of the north”, but it was Paris and the Eiffel Tower mayor John Bickerstaffe had in mind when he commissioned Matcham to create the Blackpool Tower. The tower itself opened in 1894, with the ballroom as it stands now opening five years later. When a fire devastated the venue in 1956, it took two years and £500,000 to rebuild what was lost. This included the dance floor, which had been destroyed in the process. The spacious dance floor replacing it stretched to roughly 36 by 31 metres, and consisted of 30,602 separate blocks of mahogany, oak and walnut. It remains in place today.

Throughout the 20th century, Blackpool’s association with ballroom dancing grew, as new competitions popped up across the town. Boag was 21 when she first danced on the Blackpool stage, having moved to the UK from New Zealand to dance with fellow Strictly star and eventual judge Anton du Beke in 1996. For her, Blackpool’s dance roots made it a “prestigious” place, and she compares dancing at the Tower Ballroom to “running on one of the biggest tracks in the world”.

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It was during the 1970s, ahead of the first British Championships at the town’s Winter Gardens, that Come Dancing first took to Blackpool. The show first aired in 1950, and featured regular members of the public (as opposed to celebrities or professionals) dancing across the UK, bringing some necessary glamour to the channel after the war. Alongside Rippon, the show’s presenters over the years would include Terry Wogan, Judith Chalmers, David Jacobs and Rosemarie Ford.

The ornate ceilings of the Tower Ballroom

Come Dancing came to an end in 1998, but was revamped in 2004 as the edgier, celeb-ier version. The title mixed the classic BBC show with Baz Luhrmann’s racy dance drama Strictly Ballroom, the channel mixing the history of the dance world with the glamour of reality TV. Those first two series, both airing in 2004, featured two mid-season episodes filmed in the Tower Ballroom.

In series two, Strictly returned to Blackpool for a second time in the grand final. Here, the show came as close as it could to a viral moment in a pre-social media age, when EastEnders star Jill Halfpenny’s electric Jive to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” with partner Darren Bennett scored the first ever perfect 40. It was the ultimate watercooler moment, and showed that Strictly could turn stars into professional-standard dancers.

Boag got to perform in Blackpool in both those initial series: once with Martin Offiah and twice with finalist Julian Clary. The professional dancers have all competed on the venue many times, but it’s still considered an honour. “Walk into the tower ballroom and it takes your breath away,” she says. “Logistical problems” meant Strictly did not return to Blackpool in 2005, and stayed away until judge Craig Revel Horwood publicly called on the BBC for its return in 2008, which it did the following year.

Boag and comedian July Clary compete in the final of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ at the Tower Ballroom in 2004

Bar 2012 and 2020, “Blackpool week” has been a Strictly staple since, creating some of the show’s most memorable moments, from Danny Mac and Oti Mabuse’s slick Charleston to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to the late Caroline Flack jiving in a Union Jack dress to “Crocodile Rock”.

Today, Strictly’s journey to Blackpool is a slick operation, with production teams heading up weeks in advance to deck the space out with lighting and cameras. But backstage, the limited space has many restrictions. Wardrobe, hair and beauty have to pop up in cramped side rooms and tight corridors, with no room for dressing rooms. As line producer Kate Jones said in 2018: "We turn broom closets into dressing rooms for our cast… We even use a large toilet as our physio room, so the poor physio gets to spend the whole day in the toilet. We do cover the toilets for them.”

But despite the chaos backstage, there’s always a palpable excitement in the air ahead of Blackpool. “Blackpool’s a very distant land when you first start this show, and then it’s honing into view and then suddenly, we’re here, and that is kind of amazing. It is a hell of an achievement,” actor Nigel Harman told local media ahead of his appearance in this week’s competition. Even for professional dancers like Boag, that never goes away. “Whenever they say, ‘Live from Blackpool’, you just get jitters,” she says. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”

Strictly Come Dancing continues Saturday 18 November at 6.40pm on BBC One.

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