Interview: Torvil & Dean, ice skaters

JAYNE Torvill and Christopher Dean are on the ice but they’re not skating. Not yet. Instead, they are lying back on short wooden benches, that look like something my dad used to keep in his shed, and cycling their legs in the air.

Nina Simone’s Feeling Good is blasting out of the sound system and they’re now holding hands, pulling each other round, bench and all. It looks like hard work.

Karen Barber, the head coach of ITV1’s Dancing on Ice, stands nearby watching. Wrapped up in a fake fur jacket she uses Dean’s iPhone (when it rings later, the ring tone is the show’s theme tune) to video what the pair are doing, then the three of them huddle round the tiny screen, scrutinising and chatting, and then going back to practise it again. And again.

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Torvill and Dean, sporting legends, national treasures (term used advisedly) are the stars of Dancing on Ice, the show that pairs celebrities with professional skaters then pushes them out on into a frozen arena in front of a live audience of several million.

People enjoy the show’s “jeopardy” as Dean calls it, and he’s not being dramatic. Heads are split, ribs are bashed and egos most definitely take a battering. The stakes may be high, but in the seven years the show has been running, there’s been no shortage of celebs willing to risk being “a split second away from looking like Bambi” (another Dean phrase – he has a knack) every Sunday for as long as they can last.

According to Torvill and Dean, people take part ~ because it gives them a chance to learn a skill that’s theirs forever (“like riding a bike,” Torvill says). In the series that’s just ended, contestants from Dallas star Charlene Tilton to Chico, Rosemary Conley (an ice dancing fan – she auditioned for the show three times before she was successful) to Jennifer Ellison tried their luck.

It was finally won by Emmerdale actor Matthew Wolfenden, one of the celebrities who managed to look impressively convincing on the ice and who conquered tricky technical moves, including lifting his professional partner over his head.

“We say every year the standard gets higher and it really does,” says 54-year-old Torvill. “This year we had two guys doing lifts over the head – Chico and Matthew. The guy celebrities this year have been pushing themselves more.”

And taking the brave professional women skaters with them.

“You know what,” says Dean, 53, “the professional women and the men are the unsung heroes of the show. When you have a partner who you skate with you generally know what they’re going to be doing. With the celebrities it can be quite random, so they’re always on guard, watching out for the next little stumble or happening. Mentally it’s stressful.”

“It must be draining for them,” Torvill chips in, overlapping the end of Dean’s sentence. “In the early stages they’ll have been doing a lot of training but when it comes to the first show the professional knows what to expect. They’re used to performing but they don’t know what their celebrity is going to do. Some of them have been so nervous they’re just stumbling all over the place. It’s the professional who then has to take over and talk them through it. You can see it sometimes that they’re talking to them as they go because they’ve completely forgotten their steps.” She laughs sympathetically.

The Dancing on Ice rink is housed in Elstree Studios’ George Lucas Stage. That makes it sound hi-tech, but without the smoke and mirrors of the TV programme, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s much smaller than you’d imagine and without the audience, the lights swirling and the dry ice blasting, it looks a bit like a run down community centre, complete with tea urns and polystyrene cups, that just happens to have an ice rink in it. Not that it matters.

Watching Torvill and Dean on the ice is special. That may sound ridiculous, and maybe it wouldn’t be true for everyone, but for those who remember the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and an unprecedented, never repeated, perfect row of 6.0s for a routine that introduced the rasping snare drum of Ravel’s Bolero to millions of people, there’s a certain thrill at being in close proximity to the pair who pulled it off. Yes, they’ve got heat pads strapped on their aching bits (neck and lower back) and occasionally a steaming mug of tea in hand, but come on, it’s Torvill and Dean.

They met when they were “nine or ten” in Nottingham. They were a skating pair by 1975 and won their first competition in 1978. Their first Olympics was in Lake Placid in 1980 where they were placed fifth. By the next games in Sarajevo they had both given up their jobs – he had been a police officer and she was an insurance clerk – and were training full time. When finally they took to the ice on Bolero Day (14 February, of course) in less than five minutes, everything changed. That’s what happens when 24 million people witness something truly extraordinary.

And now, deep in rehearsals with four days to go until the live show and a tricky routine with light projections to be choreographed, the pair are locked in concentration. They speak to each other constantly, checking, readjusting. It’s painstaking, repeated movements run through again and again. In their training clothes they look in unbelievably good shape – muscular, strong and flexible. Dean throws Torvill about like a rag doll. In one move, she has to find a way to clamber round Dean’s body as he glides across the ice, before sliding down him and on to the ice from where he flips her over by the ankle from her back on to her stomach. It doesn’t look easy. And when she lands on his arm just a little bit wrongly, he gives a definite wince.

Karen Barber glides over while the pair practise another part of their routine that involves mimicking swimming, belly down on the ice. They look like they’re working hard.

“Jayne says this is hard for her because she doesn’t swim,” Barber laughs. “They did a routine the other week that had ten lifts in it. Why would you do that? Surely it should be age appropriate?” She giggles. Still belly down, Dean shouts over to ask Barber if that looked better than the last time?

“Yes,” she shouts, having missed their last attempt, and pulling an oops face out of his line of vision. “I’d better get back over there,” she laughs as she skates away.

Why is it surprising that this is all as serious as it is? Torvill and Dean are Olympians, sporting legends, of course they are dedicated. But it seems beyond what’s expected for a bit of Sunday night telly.

Ten-hour days are routine, 14-hour days are not unheard of. They choreograph for all the celebrities involved in the show. The total is sitting at about 120 routines so far. Is it cynical to assume that Dancing on Ice would be less taxing than this? That it might reasonably be their meal ticket rather than catapulting them back into hard-core training?

Not cynical perhaps, just a punter’s misplaced view of what it takes to deliver.

On the ice there’s an obvious physical shorthand between them. When they move around if they’re not holding hands their arms are outstretched to find each other. They talk all the time, they move like a unit. It makes sense, they’ve been partners for nearly 36 years.

Rehearsals over, they move to a backstage room full of sofas that look like they’re in need of a skip. The pair choose hard seats to sit on by the window. They look leaner than they did on the ice. He’s got two orange ice bags balanced on his neck and shoulder (that awkward lift hurt) and she’s titchy in jeans and a pink top. Her nails are long and metallic blue. The rapport between them is just as clear here as it was on the ice. They often speak at the same time but they don’t seem to notice that they do it; they’re not competing with each other, it’s just how they talk.

Did they ever skate with other partners?

“In our early career … ” he starts.

She interrupts: “In group work I’m sometimes lifted by a different guy or by two guys and Chris has sometimes lifted a different girl.”

“It’s never a long-term relationship,” he chips in with a raise of his eyebrow. They laugh. “A one-hit wonder,” she laughs.

“A one-night stand,” he says.

Clearly he’s the mischievous one, likeably so. It’s also clear that Torvill really likes him too. For decades now, they have insisted they were never a couple other than on the ice. In the fevered days after Sarajevo people asked them live on television when they might get married. They blushed and demurred. Still now, people don’t believe they’ve never been romantically involved. Even when they both got married – to other people – the doubts persisted.

Some of it is confusing fantasy and reality – mistaking the characters they danced for the people dancing. But there’s something else. When they retired in 1998, Dean moved to the United States where he married and had two children, two sons who are now 13 and 11, while Torvill stayed in the UK with her husband and two children, a son, 11, and a daughter, six.

Still, though, they spoke to each other most days on the phone. For eight years. They describe their relationship as like brother and sister but closer. It’s intriguing.

So what to ask a couple who have been asked everything about each other? Something random? What’s your favourite thing about Christopher?

“I can tell you my least favourite thing,” Torvill says instantly. “It’s that he’s such a timekeeper, such a pest about timing.

“But it wouldn’t stay on track if I wasn’t, would it?” he objects without sounding in the slightest bit wounded or even interested.

“He’s always ten minutes early for everything and I’m absolutely on the nose … ” she tries to continue.

“A little slack … ” he says.

“I think I’ve been better,” she answers.

“You have been a little better this last two weeks.”

“Just the two weeks,” she shrugs, and then gets back to the question. “I like that Chris always thinks ahead. He plans and he’s enthusiastic all the time. He’s got that energy. I’m more quiet but I’m taking it all in. But he’s the one with all the crazy ideas in his head. That’s what I like.”

He looks pleased. What’s the most surprising thing about Jayne?

“Don’t tell the truth,” she says and turns a deep shade of red. He looks like a man who would.

“The older you get the more surprises you’ve got.” He laughs. “After we’d taken time off we weren’t the same shape.” She laughs and rolls her eyes. “I’m being honest. I’m surprised how you got back into shape and how you look.

“When you were younger, you looked nice, but you didn’t care about this as much,” he uses a wafty hand gesture to take Torvill in from head to toe. “But I think as she’s gotten older she’s more confident than she ever was,” he says. She looks at him. “I think age has given you confidence,” he says, looking pleased with himself.

“That’s not bad,” she says. “I was worried.”

Karen Barber describes them as “funny” and she’s right. When Dancing on Ice was dreamed up, Torvill and Dean thought it was going to be a one-off. They hadn’t been on the ice together for seven years. “When we agreed to do it we were involved in coming up with the format because they wanted us to choreograph,” Torvill says. “But then they were like ‘can you demonstrate moves? Can you demonstrate to music?’ And we were like, well, that’s like doing the routine isn’t it?

“We were quite clear at the beginning that we had retired, we hadn’t skated for seven years. But we got cajoled into doing a routine.” “Well you say that … ” Dean chips in.

“But as soon as we’d done the first week it felt familiar again,” she says. “Even though we hadn’t done it for seven years, for the previous 20-odd years we had so it felt nice again.”

But all that work. How can they face it?

“As we get older he says the brain says do this do that, the body says ‘what were you thinking?’” Dean says, proffering as evidence the two bright orange ice packs that he’s been holding on his neck and shoulder, and laughs. “It gets harder. But it’s what we’ve always done.”

And now that the TV show is finished for another year, before their break over the summer, there’s a stadium tour to get on with. It includes most of the 2012 line-up and it’s clear for Torvill and Dean it’s a chance to get back out on bigger ice in front of a much larger crowd and they love it. It makes sense, it gives them a chance to connect with an audience that still cherishes them.

“The national treasure thing, we do feel that,” Dean says. “People do say it.”

“In a nice way,” Torvill says.

“We’ve been around long enough to enjoy it. It’s really endearing and it doesn’t feel … ,” he screws up his face, “ … celebrity.”

“It feels like people have respect for what we’ve done,” she says. “We’re not famous for being famous. We get a feeling of respect from people, from the Olympics and beyond.”

More than one million people have seen them dance live as part of the tour, voting by text for their favourite celebrity and seeing Torvill and Dean work their magic first hand.

“It’s a really slick exhibition,” he says.

“The final bit is when two celebrities do a Bolero and there’s a champion each night,” she adds.

“It’s the TV show and a bit more,” he says. “And there are no ad breaks,” she adds smiling.

All the training and preparation, all the choreography – thousands of steps for themselves and others. It’s been 36 years. It’s still a struggle to fathom how they can still be so motivated.

“What else would we be doing?” she says, shrugging. “A bit of housework? Popping to the supermarket?”

“It’s all we know how to do,” he completes the thought. And they both smile.

• Torvill and Dean’s Dancing on Ice: The Tour 2012 is at Glasgow’s SECC from 4–7 May. Tickets from £42.50,