With the business end of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing fast approaching, we fought our way across the picket line outside BBC Centre (workers are currently protesting over proposed pension cuts) and found our way to a conspicuous meeting room with nature boffin Matt Baker and his partner Aliona Vilani. After impressing him with our Blue Peter badge, we talked about the nausea-trap that is the Viennese Waltz, skipping training and of course… the one and only Ann Widdecombe.
How’s it going?
MB: Great, we had a camera rehearsal this morning where we were out on the floor for the first time before tomorrow’s show. It’s always bit strange getting your bearings at first.
You do quite difficult routines which is ambitious of you because you don’t have to. How do you feel when you’re putting in all that effort and yet there are still a lot of people backing Ann?
AV: She is in a league of her own!
MB: The style that we’ve created is one that means we go out there and we risk it. In rehearsal we might only get it right once and then we’re practicing it in the corridors and we just go out and do it. It’s so risky. People are on the edge of their seats because they don’t know if we’ll get through it.
How are you going with the spinning?
MB: I’m feeling a bit car sick this week because we’re doing the Viennese Waltz. The only way to get over it is to keep spinning. My wife has had really bad morning sickness so she’s had these bands with acupuncture points on and I’ve been using them to try to get over the feeling of nausea. There isn’t time to sit in the corner and feel a bit sick.
Have you ever actually thrown up during practice?
MB: No I haven’t actually…
AV: But he was really trying not to. He went green and I was thinking we just don’t have the time so I made him do it over and over again. As our dance got better he got over the feeling.
People have started to vote for Ann for comedy value. Do you think it’s become less of a dance competition now?
AV: It’s definitely a bit of both; you can’t just be a good dancer, that’s not going to fly very far. But you can’t just be an entertainer because that’s not going to win it for you either.
Do you think Ann is going to win?
AV: I think she is really trying her best to actually do the steps. She knows the names of steps that I don’t even know. She is really trying to go for the technical aspects.
Would you be happy to lose to her in the final?
MB: Well, if you get into the final you want to win it. It doesn’t matter who you’re up against. Every week we bring something completely different, this week we have a story and a floating theme and we’ve added a sort of beauty to it. It’s going to be very different to the energy of last week and very different to the Charleston.
Do you think anyone can beat Ann?
MB: It’s down to the public vote. If the public want Ann as the champion then that’s what will happen but if the public want us as their champion then great! My game plan is to do what Aliona asks me to do and I go out there and try to get the points.
*(Moderator indicates that maybe we should talk about something else. We rack our brains for non-Widdecombe questions…)*
You’re one of the only contestants with a day job. Is it hard to balance everything else you’re doing with Strictly?
MB: It’s really tricky. There are days like today where we’ve put together the programme for Country File and then tied it all together with the voiceover and scripts. Then that’s suddenly finished and within minutes I’m all the way over the other side of teh building with Strictly and I’ve got to remember my steps. I’m never warming-up properly but we go through the steps and concentrating on giving everything because I want to do start it all again on Monday. Next week I’m doing The One Show for three days as well as Country File and Strictly.. so I don’t know how that’s all going to work!
How do you think your wife is coping with it all?
MB: She’s right up for it. She’s telling me ‘go for it, go for it’. After all, it’s only until Christmas – fingers crossed – if we get there. You have to just remember that it’s only for a short time.
How does it make you feel that you’ve got people betting thousands of pounds on you winning?
MB: Nervous, when you put it like that! I know for a fact that I’m hours behind everybody else which means that I have to work so much harder in the spare hours that I do get.
Have you ever accidentally mixed anything up between Strictly and Country File?
MB: Aliona came back to our farm and we were dancing all over the place. There’s a great cross-over between the Strictly audience and the Country File audience.
Have you promised your wife a holiday after all of this?
MB: Yes, we are definitely going to have a break. It does take up so much of your time and you have to take a step back sometimes.
You have had a lot of airtime recently; do you think that gives you an extra edge over everyone else in the competition?
MB: The One Show and Country File came before Strictly.. so it’s not as though I’m doing those to get extra publicity. Strictly.. is just something that I’m doing in my spare time.
Do you think this could be a career change for you?
MB: I’m honestly discovering sides of myself that I didn’t really know before (ed – deep sigh) and I enjoy all the entertainment which is probably why I do what I’m doing as a career. I don’t want to sound weird but I do watch the tapes back and I surprise myself with what we’ve managed to achieve and if opportunities come up I’m not going to knock them on the head straight away. I feel like there’s still a lot more to come because you can’t learn to dance in five weeks.
Do you do the least amount of training of all the couples?
MB: We are behind; if we added all our training hours together we’d be days and days behind. We’ve done about eleven hours this week and that doesn’t include lunch.
AV: He works so intensely, every single day. The first day and second day we had no lunch and I didn’t let him drink water because every single minute we are dancing. Other couples might walk around and have a sit down or take a breather but Matt gets nothing.
When you go out on stage together is there ever any tension?
AV: If there ever is any tension it’s because Matt is very tired and I have to keep him dancing. So I will push him and he will be exhausted but I have to be strict.