Introducing new people to skating is something in which Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean have excelled throughout their illustrious careers. And, now, in 2013, the sport is enjoying an extraordinary renaissance.
Indeed, not since Jayne and Chris seized the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games has ice skating featured so prominently in our lives, so colourfully in our national consciousness.
But there’s a crucial difference between then and now. In 1984 – and subsequently in 1994 when Britain’s finest ever ice dancers made their Olympic come-back - most people’s involvement ended at the medals ceremony.
This time, we’ve been getting a regular fix on Sunday nights courtesy of ITV’s Dancing on Ice and, then, once the annual winners have been crowned, hundreds of thousands more of us have been taking our seats for Dancing on Ice: The Tour.
2012 was the sixth tour – and the most spectacular yet. Beautiful movement, a competitive edge, glamour, sensational costumes and, quite possibly, one or two hiccups.
Just as this golden couple left nothing to chance when they were competing against the rest of the world in international tournaments, today they apply the same attention to detail, the same level of intensity and the same professionalism when it comes to Dancing on Ice.
For Jayne and Chris, the show came out of the blue. Jayne was at home looking after her family; Chris was living in Colorado Springs, USA, with his wife and two boys. One day, ITV got in touch. There were vague plans for a new television series. In general terms, the format would feature celebrities with no or very little experience learning to skate. The question was: could it be done?
Jayne called Chris. Chris flew to England. Time passed, during which Jayne and Chris began working with ITV to see whether the idea could work. How possible was it to teach a total novice to skate to such a standard that he or she could dance live on national television? Possible but not easy.
And while Jayne and Chris considered their positions as mentors to non-skaters, there was also the small matter of them returning to the ice themselves after an absence of eight years.
“We thought we had retired in 1998,” says Chris. “And, then, suddenly this opportunity came along and it was like starting out all over again. We absolutely love it and it seems to have introduced a whole new generation to skating.”
Jayne remembers the first live broadcast of the show in January 2006. Specifically, she remembers stepping back on to the ice with Chris. “The audience was so gracious. It was almost overwhelming and made me feel quite humble.”
Which is a typical Jayne Torvill reaction – and perhaps it explains in part why she and Chris enjoy such an enduring relationship with the British public. They are not just exceptionally talented. They are exceptional people.
Many viewers may not have realised that it had been so long since Jayne and Chris had last skated together. Yes, once upon a time they were like two sides of one polished, gold coin, sliding across the ice in perfect, award-winning harmony. And now? Well, we all know of the dangers when athletes come out of retirement – but it was as if they had never left each other’s side.
That first series ran for 8 weeks, producing British actress Gaynor Faye as its Champion. Each subsequent series has become longer, the standard higher, the training more exacting.
"It's now a 10 weeks on air," says Katie Rawcliffe, ITV's executive producer on Dancing on Ice. "Jayne and Chris only have one day off a week and they are involved with every aspect of the show. Their energy and their way of working with everyone is so inspiring."
There is of course the key question of selecting the right celebrities - but there is also the issue of choosing the right music. For hours on end, Jayne, Chris and the ITV team listen to scores, searching for material that can be sympathetically edited down to around one minute 30 seconds and then they have to think about their own routines.
“In the beginning, when we go on to the ice with them we are trying to understand their personalities, to see how they will react under certain pressures and how much they are like to progress in a short space of time. . Other factors come into it, of course, such as size and deportment,” says Jayne.
The success of the first series demanded a second and a third and, now, five series later, Dancing on Ice firmly is established as one of the TV highlights of the year, the tour one of the big stadium sell-outs.
It was after series 2 that the tour was created. It is usually made up of the viewer’s favourite Dancing on Ice celebrities from past and present, along with their professional partners.
Jayne and Chris perform their favourite dances and the Ice Panel is there to give their scores. As with the TV series, it is the audience and the judging panel which decides the winners.
When it comes to the TV show, most of the celebrities have only ever been on ice a couple of times in their lives and what gives the series a whiff of danger is that there’s no such thing as a soft landing on frozen water. Who can ever forget the moment when Bonnie Langford attempted the “head banger,” which involves being swung from the ankle, waist high. She was the first celebrity to try such a move – and promptly fell head first on to the ice. Hayley's Ji Ho was also an unbelievable performance. And, then, there was Todd Carty, the Eastenders actor, who careered off the ice and ended up in the heap half way down the skaters’ tunnel.
“Overcoming your fear of falling is crucial,” says Chris. “Then it‘s a question of remembering basic things like keeping your knees bent and concentrating on gliding rather than stepping. To have good balance is a help but there‘s no reason why most people can‘t get to a relatively competent standard if they have the right teacher.”
After a break for Christmas, everyone gathers at the studios in London on the first Monday in January to rehearse for the opening live show. The day before the live broadcast, the skaters perform their routines in the order that they will appear on the night, while the production team works out which camera angles look best for each dance. They call this ‘blocking’ in the trade. As the show itself is live there is no room for error, so the “blocking” needs to be precise.
The audience is brought into the studio approximately one hour before transmission, where they are entertained until the live broadcast begins. The show is hosted by Philip Schofield and Christine Bleakley and there are three on the all-important Ice Panel.
At 8am the next morning, Jayne and Chris are back to choreograph the next routines for the following Sunday’s show. This continues throughout Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday gives Jayne and Chris their day off. On Thursdays and Fridays they work on their own dance or the opening routine, while also checking on the progress of the celebrities.
“The TV series can be quite tense but the atmosphere is more relaxed on the tour because every one sticks to their same routine – and they get better and better,” says Jayne. “I think it works because it brings different things together. It’s a real family show.”
So, looking back, who has really taken Jayne by surprise? “Well, last year Sam Attawater was absolutely brilliant. He started off being good and went from strength to the strength. But I think the one whose journey made the biggest impression on me was Kyran Bracken. He could not skate at all at the beginning – and ended up winning the series. He then performed on the tours and has carried on skating, even creating his own ice shows. That’s quite a transformation.”
Chris thinks Dancing on Ice has encouraged a lot more people to say to themselves: “I would like to try that.” And he’s right. The truth is that more Britons than ever are taking up skating, with the country’s 64 permanent rinks estimating that their attendances have soared as much as 40 per cent in the last few years.
“The impact of the show and the tour has been amazing,“ says Keith Horton, general secretary of the National Ice Skating Association, the sport’s governing body in Britain, “Dancing on Ice has brought skating into people’s living rooms and given the younger generation a chance to watch first-hand how Jayne and Chris teach and, perhaps more importantly, how they skate. It’s the power of television but it’s also the respect and admiration for Jayne and Chris that has made the show and tour so successful.”