After four years on Holby City, Strictly reacquainted Joe McFadden with the thrill of live performance. The Glitterball winner tells Janet Christie how the show has changed his outlook and made him more open to the opportunities the future might bring
Joe McFadden might be able to get his toes around a tango and cartwheel his way through a Charleston but when it comes to winning the annual sequins, fake tan and celebrity-sparkled glitzathon that is Strictly Come Dancing, he’s still in a whirl.
“I still can’t quite get my head around it,” he says. “I certainly didn’t have any hopes or ambitions of winning. I did not expect to win at all. Every week I expected it to be my last.”
This despite the former Holby City actor being the hot to trot bookies’ favourite to clinch the Glitterball with partner Katya Jones after starting the BBC series as a dark horse. Stunning moves like their thighs of steel cantilever/wheelbarrow lift in the Argentine tango, and a Viennese whirl of a fleckerl in the waltz that won McFadden a paddle busting 11, saw them beat off Debbie McGee, Gemma Atkinson and Alexandra Burke.
“Looking around there was so much talent. I knew I had to work really hard on every single one to try and be as good as the rest,” he says.
“Strictly taught me that you can achieve pretty much whatever you want if you’re willing to make an effort, if you’re willing to try hard enough and apply yourself.”
After three months of schmaltz, McFadden enjoyed a short holiday in which he dressed down in monochrome and let his skin tone return to its Scottish peely-wally pallor.
“Yeah, black and grey, very muted. No sequins!” he says, talking to me from a taxi taking him back to the London home where he stashes the Glitterball. Bubblier than a bath of prosecco, he’s looking forward to performing live again and it’s back into sparkle and Spandex as Strictly hits the road on a nationwide tour that comes to Glasgow next month. With the biggest TV audience yet at more than 13 million viewers every Saturday, the glitz of Strictly shines brighter than ever.
“It’s great to see the people who voted for me, so I’m really looking forward to it, with whatever Craig [Revel Horwood, who directs the Strictly tour] has in store for us all,” he says.
At 42, McFadden, as well as being the first Scottish winner, is the oldest, which seems surprising when you see 59-year-old Debbie McGee doing the splits like a Barbie, but McFadden can vouch for the gruelling nature of the training.
“The previous oldest was 38,” says McFadden, “and I can sort of see why, because it does require so much energy. I certainly did feel my age for the first time during certain weeks, certain dances. But Katya didn’t take into consideration my advanced years.” He laughs. “She cracked the whip, which is as it should be.
“I had a really, really good time and I think I realised quite early on that you never know when you’re going home, so enjoy it because it’s going to be taken away at some point. Every week I thought I was going home, so I just tried to savour every moment and that freed me up because you can overthink it, try and analyse what people are thinking. I just tried to get on with it, get better, and enjoy it.”
Prior to Strictly, McFadden had only done “little bits of dance in panto” and had no dance training at all. “Katya said that was a good thing because I had no style to lose, ha, ha.”
Now, however, he’s got all the moves and was out over the festive season throwing some shapes in clubs with his friends.
“I was in a salsa club the other night with my friends, my first time dancing since doing Strictly, and that was quite interesting, not having choreography and getting to do my own steps…”
He laughs at the memory.
Surely he must have been pretty good?
He laughs some more.
“Hard to know really. Certainly I had a lot of people watching me and there were quite a few Strictly fans there, so you get more eyes on you. But I don’t know if my dancing’s improved. After 12 weeks, hopefully it has a bit…”
Apart from his ability to master the steps quickly, McFadden’s victory was fuelled by his popularity with the viewers, having starred as dashing telly doc Raffaello di Lucca in medical drama Holby City for the past four years. He had another prime time hit as a hunky cop in ITV’s long-running crime drama Heartbeat and starred alongside Dame Judi Dench and Michael Gambon in period drama Cranford, worked with Robert Carlyle and Sir Ian McKellen and you might also recognise his voice from the Harry Potter and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag video games.
Born in Glasgow in 1975 McFadden was steered into drama by a teacher at secondary school who encouraged him to go for a role in Taggart when he was 12.
“To get that first job on Taggart was amazing. I was the son of a man who had his head chopped off because he was a money lender and I was a key witness. I got interviewed by Mark McManus as Taggart.
“It was fascinating, having never been in that world before, just seeing a film set was really interesting. And they were all so lovely to me, of course, because I was only 12. I have such fond memories of it.
“I thought this would be a very brilliant way to make a living, though I never thought I would. But then I went on to Take the High Road when I was 15 and did that for six years and thought, maybe this is a career option. High Road became my training – those are the years I would have gone to drama school and I was lucky enough to learn on the job. It’s invaluable being on a TV set because you just drink it all up.”
McFadden doesn’t feel that he missed out by not going to drama school. Although he wasn’t studying formally, he used the theatre and TV sets as his classroom, as his career progressed.
“Things like using your voice… you can teach yourself if you want to, so hopefully, I’ve caught up!” He laughs. “I thought there was something other actors that had been to drama school knew that I didn’t, but then I realised everyone’s sort of making it up as they go along.”
After Take the High Road, a starring role in the BBC’s dramatisation of Iain Banks novel The Crow Road alongside a young Dougray Scott, Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi, put McFadden firmly on the map.
“The Crow Road was a real life changer for me because so many people loved it and it was so well received, and it was after that I moved to London.”
Iain Banks’ books remained a favourite with McFadden, who enjoys “mulling through his back catalogue – The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street, Complicity, all brilliant,” he says, and acting-wise, he’s inspired by the likes of Emma Thompson and Jake Gyllenhaal. And his favourite dancer?
“It has to be Darcey Bussell. She’s amazing, arguably one of the finest dancers we’ve ever produced. And I love Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. When I was learning the American Smooth I watched those guys, amazing.
McFadden’s theatre credits include Rent, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Rainbow Kiss and he also wrote for the National Theatre of Scotland before starring in Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julie. Live theatre is something McFadden has a hankering to return to after his Holby City character was killed off before Christmas.
“I have a strong background in theatre at the National Theatre Scotland with John Tiffany, and The Royal Court, and I’ve done some really great theatre in the past. Holby was great, and it’s nice playing a character for so long because you get to know them, but it would have been too tempting to stay forever. It’s good that he was killed off because you want a bit of drama when you leave a TV show. It’s nice to go out with a bang. And there’s something good about the door being firmly shut because it would have been too tempting in a few years to ask to go back. It’s similar to Take the High Road – I asked to be killed in that – because I think you perform better when there’s no safety net and you have to keep moving forward, you can’t go back. Hopefully I’ll keep thinking that...
“After the Strictly tour it would be really nice to do some telly drama, and having played the same character for four years on Holby, play different characters and work with some new directors. Maybe a little bit of theatre... just see what’s out there.”
He feels he needs to challenge himself again.
“Coming from four years of Holby I’d maybe got a little bit lazy and too comfortable and Strictly reminded me how much fun doing live entertainment was. It’s thrilling going out and not really knowing what’s going to happen and having to pull it out of the bag. It gave me a real hunger for that again.”
McFadden would also be happy to head north once more, if the job took him, and he’s looking forward to the Glasgow dates on the Strictly tour.
“All of my family are in Glasgow, between Glasgow and Ireland, so it’s great to come back. Any excuse to come back to Scotland. I miss the people and I always have a great time when I come back. The people make Glasgow, isn’t that the saying?
“And I’d love to come back to work in Scotland, love to, somewhere like The Citz, or do more stuff with the National Theatre of Scotland, because they do such brilliant productions. And a musical would be good, or some nice telly, a play, whatever comes along really, it depends on the merits of the job.”
So McFadden is in a good place, professionally and personally. He is currently single so there was no danger of his succumbing to the so-called “curse” of Strictly that sees relationships hit the skids.
“I’m very happy with being single at the moment,” he says, “and I’m about to go on tour so I’m not really thinking in those terms.
“What I’ve learned is that everything happens for a reason and if something’s meant to come to you, it will. Keep yourself in the right place and keep ready for things and if they’re supposed to happen they happen. And I’ve also learned to say yes to things. To not worry so much. A few years ago I would have worried about doing something like Strictly, but as you get older you think, ‘oh, I’ll give it a go, I might not be brilliant, but who knows?’ So, open yourself up to possibilities. At the risk of getting too profound…”
Yes, let’s not get too profound, because there’s a Strictly tour afoot and McFadden has an urgent appointment with the fake tan and sequins.
Strictly Come Dancing Live UK tour will be at the Glasgow SSE Hydro 2-4 February. For tickets see www.strictlycomedancinglive.com