Torvill & Dean review: Frictionless retelling in which every rough edge is rubbed smooth

The script is unlikely to win any prizes, but it does a good job of articulating how bizarre figure skating is

Torvill and Dean biopic is ITV big Christmas Day drama

The Torvill and Dean story belongs to a more innocent era in British athletics, before medal targets and doping scandals and the whole Team GB industrial complex. These days we expect our tracksuit-clad battalions to come home dripping in gold. As the speed skater Elise Christie learnt earlier this year when she crashed out in Pyeongchang, any performance that falls short of expected success is treated like a failure of national infrastructure, like the bins not being collected. In Torvill and Dean’s time, a medal was celebrated like VE Day. Twenty-four million people watched their record-breaking Bolero ice dance routine, roughly the same number as saw England lose to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final in July.

Torvill & Dean, ITV’s straightforward dramatisation of their early lives, is pure schmaltz, a frictionless retelling in which every rough edge is rubbed smooth to the point where the viewer pines for the violent authenticity of a Hovis ad. In this sunny vision of 1970s Nottinghamshire even the hardships – and this was never going to be the Oscar-winning I, Tonya – are friendly.

Given that, and the fact we know exactly what happens at the end, the fact this remains even vaguely watchable for two hours is some kind of miracle. It helps that both leads manage to cram a surprising amount of likability into their bland outlines.

Poppy Lee Friar’s Jayne Torvill is slightly prim but without a bad thought in her head. Will Tudor plays Christopher Dean as a kind of cherubic bad boy in a silk blouse, driven by the trauma of his mother walking out on his adulterous father when Dean was six. Special mention to Jaime Winstone in the supporting cast, almost unrecognisably dowdy as Janet Sawbridge, the coach who first paired them.

The script is by William Ivory, who wrote Made in Dagenham. It is unlikely to win any prizes but it does a good job of articulating how bizarre figure skating is. It is the only Olympic event to reward a borderline erotic interaction between teammates, apart from perhaps dressage.

It’s not only the audience asking “are they/aren’t they”. The judges are looking for it, too. This hasn’t changed a bit, as Canadian champions Virtue and Moir proved earlier this year, and the Will Ferrell film Blades of Glory exploited it to humorous effect. It is a bit odd to take two teenagers and ask them to dance crotch to crotch in lycra for the next 10 years. Something is bound to happen. Under the caustic glare of a Piers Morgan interview a few years ago, Christopher Dean admitted that he and Jayne once enjoyed a kiss at the back of a coach. This tension between them gives Torvill & Dean the energy it has.

Torvill and Dean at the Winter Olympics in 1994

Still, there are one or two passages where the exposition goes from awkward to excruciating:

“Wow, Christopher, I can’t believe we’re here at the tournament in Oberstdorf in 1977.”

“Yes, Jayne, who’d have thought it, two kids from Nottinghamshire, being really good at skating? If it hadn’t been for my drive and athletic talent, I was going to have to go down pit.”

“Look over there, it’s our deadly rivals Ivanka Skatalot and Glossi Rink. Boo!”

“Yes, to compete with them, I wonder if I’ll have to quit my job as a police cadet.”

I paraphrase, slightly.

It is not quite clear why ITV has decided to air this biopic now, nearly 35 years after the famous night in Sarajevo, except as the least offensive Christmas viewing imaginable.

It makes a change from most of the other TV, which is a mix of lame comedy and women being murdered. The Christmas period ought to be a time for the sharpest and most ambitious television to be showcased. Instead it often feels like we have entered a kind of yuletide banana republic, with the channels given over to cheap thrills and jingoistic propaganda. Torvill & Dean is nostalgia as sleeping gas: heavy with turkey and brandy butter, the whole family can hook themselves up to the TV and slip off. By the time the fiction gives way to the real footage of the Bolero routine, everyone will be lost in memories of 1984. Or asleep.

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