Interview: Torvill and Dean
A resurgence in the popularity of ice skating has ensured Olympic duo Torvill and Dean are in more demand than ever. They talk TV, the Dancing on Ice live tour and, of course, Bolero, writes @JanetChristie2. Portrait by John Devlin
At one end of Glasgow’s Braehead arena, skating legends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean pirouette and glide, loop and flip, all dazzling smiles and Lycra, making it look ridiculously easy. At the other end a gaggle of photographers and journalists stand around, legs locked, making it look ridiculously hard, as they concentrate on catching the shot without smashing their equipment. “Bend the knees” is Torvill and Dean’s top beginner advice, and a couple of journos even go for their own Blades of Glory moment when the duo oblige them by taking them for a spin on the ice.
Thirty-four years on from their gold medal winning Bolero in Sarajevo, Britain’s most famous Winter Olympians are back on the ice for a photoshoot to promote their live show, Torvill and Dean’s Dancing on Ice Live UK Tour which comes to Glasgow’s Hydro this weekend.
The spin-off from their hit TV show, ITV’s Dancing on Ice, it will see the former champions joined by the 2018 tenth series winner Jake Quickenden (The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity), along with Scotland rugby player Max Evans, Bucks Fizz’s Cheryl Baker, weatherman Alex Beresford, TV presenter Donna Air and Love Island winner Kem Cetinay. They’re joined by Dancing on Ice professional skaters and Ray Quinn, Torvill and Dean’s all time favourite contestant and twice winner. With a different winner at each show, thanks to audience voting and judge scoring, could Max Evans add another cap to his 44 for Scotland with a win in Glasgow?
“The celebrities skate and there’s a winner, then in the second half it’s a free-for-all, an exhibition where the professionals get to show off their talents,” says Torvill.
The Sunday night TV show, hosted by Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, with Torvill and Dean on the judging panel alongside Jason Gardiner and Ashley Banjo from Diversity, has been a hit with viewers since its return to STV schedules. Along with the recent Winter Olympics, not to mention the Beast from the East and the award-winning bleakly-funny biopic of figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya, on the big screen, ice skating is definitely having a moment.
“When Dancing on Ice comes on the TV it gets in the public psyche. People think ‘I’m going to have a go’, which is great, ‘cause out of that we might get some youngsters that are future champions,” says Dean. “From 2006 when Dancing on Ice came on, you started to get all those Christmas rinks that are still going strong.”
The attraction of the TV show is obvious: watching the transformation of a dozen singers, soap and reality stars from helpless novices to skilled performers is fascinating and entertaining in itself. Throw in the element of danger and it’s a winner, more risky than Strictly and potentially soggier bottomed than Bake Off any day. Let’s be honest, watching at home on a knife edge, aren’t we more than a little motivated by schadenfreude, the chance to see a bunch of pampered celebs risk a fall on their pampered backsides, live? Will they be more klutz than lutz and career off the ice completely like EastEnders’ Todd Carty or fall foul of the headbanger, a killer move where the male dancer spins around holding the female by her ankles with her head way too close to the ice?
It’s been four years since Torvill, 60 and Dean, 59 skated together, but they’ve dusted down their blades and given the assembled press a sneak preview of a new routine they have choreographed for the Hydro show. They admit to being a little nervous and needing practice, but come on, it’s what they do. Torvill has been skating since she was eight and Dean since he was ten. They’re the highest scoring figure skaters of all time and on top of the gold in Sarajevo in 1984 there was bronze in Lillehammer in 1998, before they retired from competition in 1999.
They’ve been skating together now for 43 years. So long that we can’t imagine them apart. Torvill without Dean would be like Netflix without Chill. But live apart they do: Torvill in East Sussex with her husband Phil and son and daughter, Kieran and Jessica, while Dean is based in Colorado in the US, divorced, and dad to Jack and Sam.
Never a couple yet always a couple, they’re as familiar with each other as family, finish each other’s sentences and know what the other is going to say before they’ve thought it. Chatting away in the changing room after their photoshoot, immediately recognisable with their carefully coiffed blonde hair, in smart black athleisurewear, you see the partnership at work even in conversation, as they tee each other up and help each other out, in a graceful conversational display that leaves you spinning as to who said what. It makes shorthand notes pointless so I’ve stuck a tape machine between their (even in civvies, impressively muscular, sorry for staring) thighs, as they sit side by side on a bench.
Torvill is smiley and sympathetic, Dean equally smiley but straight away spears what it is that makes the Dancing on Ice TV show so popular.
They both laugh.
“Are they going to fall?” says Torvill.
“There’s the jeopardy of ‘is this going to be a car crash event’? And then it’s ‘they did really amazing’, so it’s the not knowing. It’s the competition side of it that puts it on the edge, literally.”
When ITV first approached them Torvill and Dean had quietly retired and were busy coaching and choreographing. They were sceptical about a TV show on ice.
Dean starts to explain: “They said do you think we could do a skating show where…
“... you teach celebrities to skate...” continues Torvill.
“.. and we said no, most probably not. We’ve spent a lifetime…” says Dean.
“Training…” says Torvill.
“Training,” agrees Dean. “But we said we’d love to be involved and we really developed it together with ITV, who knew about making television. After the first year we knew we had to train the celebrities first with coaches. Once they can go forwards, backwards and turn, you can start getting into choreography and performance, lights, costumes, props, smoke and mirrors.”
“It’s like a medical drama, they’re not real doctors,” says Torvill… “having said that, more than any other ‘reality show’, they have to spend time prepping. You can’t turn up two weeks before and be ready.”
When it comes to judging, Torvill and Dean don’t find themselves disagreeing about the skaters on the show, or about anything really now that they come to think about it.
“It’s not what people want to hear,” says Torvill, “but we’ve performed so long together, worked together, choreographed together…”
“Grown up together…” says Dean.
“That we know what each other is gonna like and dislike pretty much. There will be odd times we disagree on something but not much.
“It’s usually about when to be somewhere,” says Dean, the punctual one.
“Yeah, timekeeping,” says Torvill, apparently not so punctual.
Both raised in Nottingham, the pair worked their way up from skating at their local ice rink after falling in love with the sport as children. Torvill was working as an insurance clerk and Dean as a policeman when they started skating together, spending hours practising every day, including Christmas. Despite their perfectionism and dedication, they never foresaw where it would lead.
“It was step by step,” says Dean. “We never had that star that we were going to hook ourselves to. It was keeping the head down and one thing led to the next, then the next, and eventually, oh, we’re nearly there!” says Dean.
“From a local competition, we never thought well, Olympics next…” agrees Torvill. “It was win this junior competition, then that turned into a national competition, and it just progressed.”
Torvill and Dean accept they will always be known for Bolero, for which an audience of 24 million tuned in to watch them perform live, and they will always regard the routine and music with affection.
“It’s our signature tune,” says Dean. “We had been using it as a warm-up because it was nearly 18 minutes, pretty long, and by the end you are ready to start training. And we just decided for our routine that time to do something different, to start slowly and build and once we’d decided that, we were like, ‘oh, Bolero! And the minute it came out of whoever’s mouth (they can’t remember), that was it.”
This time round Dean was involved with the Winter Olympics again, with choreographing input to the German, French, American and British skating teams. He admits to being pleased when the German gold medal-winning pair Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot took to the ice in outfits that were a nod to Torvill and Dean’s flowing purple Bolero costumes.
“It’s nice,” he says. “You give something to them and they do what they can with it. It’s like an iceberg and they’re at the pinnacle and you’re part of it somewhere in a way. It feels nice to have been part of another gold medal. Competing is for the young because you need to have that sense of adventure and pioneering, wanting to be the best. We’d done all that, and as you grow older you think about things a little more, you’ve matured,” says Dean.
Choreographing and coaching is one thing, but the pair admit that training, this time for the show, is not as easy as it used to be: strains take longer to heal and knees are a little stiffer.
“When we started doing the series, we started performing each week and the routines got bigger and bigger,” says Torvill. “From the second or third series suddenly we were out on tour again in big arenas where we’d been ten years earlier, and it was just ‘wow!, what are we doing? But it’s great!”
Being back in Glasgow brings back memories for the pair, but when they’re asked for specifics, they both start to laugh.
“Yes, we were here at Braehead,” giggles Torvill. “It was before the Hydro was built. Well, everyone got the norovirus that year.”
“I got it first and we lost two shows,“ says Dean. “I did one show as sick as a dog…”
Torvill laughs. “You kept coming off the rink and saying, ‘I’ve gotta go! Now! I’ve gotta go!” She laughs again. “But the show must go on.”
Norovirus was nothing to these pros, who handled pressure at the time by focusing on always being prepared to do their routine, thanks to a rigorous training schedule.
“We knew we could do our routines under any circumstances… a cold or sickness – unless we had broken both legs – and that we could do it and it would still be a good performance,” says Torvill. “And knowing that mentally, when you go into a competition, you just focus on that, and not the pressure,” says Torvill.
“Also, we didn’t have the social media that there is today,” says Dean. “We were able to put ourselves in a bubble, whereas now there are so many ways into your brain and I think kids who are competitors today see all this, read all this... there are times that you need to put that away and concentrate and do what you need to do.”
So what advice would they give young athletes, apart from ‘bend your knees’?
“Stay off your phone,” says Dean, straight away, then qualifies it with, “But you don’t know them. Some people might thrive on what’s said about them, all the comments and discussion. It might be what gives them the edge.”
Torvill and Dean know about having the edge, that competitive streak that made them train harder and focus more intensely, whatever the pressures. It was pressure they enjoyed and thrived on, using it to propel them to greater heights and Dean sees nothing wrong with adding an element of risk to proceedings to keep them interesting, to keep everyone on their toes. Maybe that’s why, now that it’s time to say our thank yous and goodbyes, that Dean looks down at my tape recorder between him and Torvill on the bench, and without missing a beat, says “Oh, shall I press record?” And laughs.
Because we all love a bit of jeopardy.
Dancing On Ice Live is at Glasgow SSE Hydro today and tomorrow. For tickets and other venues please visit: www.dancingonicetour.co.uk