Big interview: Anton Du Beke - '˜The only time I've been star-struck is by Bruce Forsyth'
He might not be in tonight's grand final, but Anton Du Beke tells Duncan Seaman why he will always consider himself a winner after more than a decade in Strictly.
Strictly Come Dancing stalwart Anton Du Beke’s hopes of lifting the golden glitterball this year with partner Ruth Langsford might have evaporated under the withering gaze of judge Craig Revel Horwood but the 51-year-old professional dancer still seems to be smiling.
Away from the dance floor, he has just realised a long-held dream by releasing an album of his own his own. From The Top is a collection of swing standards – and one surprise cover of an Arctic Monkeys song – sung by Du Beke with a big band and cherry picked guests Collabro, Lance Ellington from Strictly and the actress and singer Connie Fisher.
Du Beke traces his fondness for singing back to childhood. “I was in a church choir and one thing and another and then I auditioned for a performing arts school so I was singing during that period.” But when his dancing career took off, first on the amateur ballroom circuit then competing professionally from 1997 with partner Erin Boag, singing went on the back burner.
It was not until he partnered the opera singer Lesley Garrett in the 2002 series of Strictly that he started having singing lessons again, at the suggestion of Garrett’s manager. Gradually he started introducing songs into his and Boag’s dance shows and he also sang a couple of times on Strictly. Finally this year, to his delight, came the chance to make a record. “It was something I’d sort of always wanted to do but never quite knew how I could make it work. Polydor, the record company, have just been so remarkable. It’s not something they normally do, this type of an album, it’s not their remit really, but they’ve really embraced the whole idea of doing a swing album and they’ve just thrown everything at it.”
That includes employing a 36-piece orchestra, “an incredible arranger” and a “wonderful producer”, Brian Rawlings, who has previously worked with Tina Turner and One Direction. “I worked with all the best people,” says Du Beke. “There’s an original song on there as well, and there’s a Christmas song, it’s just wonderful music. They’re all my favourite songs, songs I’ve grown up with, songs I’ve dance to and songs that I’ve loved. A bit of a thing about the album was what to leave out.”
For Du Beke, singing seems a natural extension of dancing. “One of my dance teachers, a guy called John Del-Roy, encouraged us to sing when we were dancing because he said it adds to the musicality of what you do, and I think he’s absolutely right,” he says. “When you’re learning your timing you’re talking ‘1,2,3,4’ then you start to put a melodic rhythm to it and try to sing the song and you really are joining the three parts together – the music, the couples and the dance – and there’s perfect harmony between the three. Singing really is an natural extension of dancing, I would say.”
The song More is dedicated to Du Beke’s wife, Hannah, who gave birth to twins last year. “It’s sort of our song,” he says affectionately. “The words are so incredible. It’s a wonderful piece of writing lyrically and it’s a great tune – Nat ‘King’ Cole did a version of it and Bobby Darin did an uptempo version which I think is great. It’s a song I played to Hannah just after we met and it’s also a song I had on in the background when Hannah was giving birth to twins as well, so it means a lot to me.”
Me and My Shadow was the signature tune of the late Sir Bruce Forsyth, a close friend and hero of Du Beke’s. “It’s a song I did with Brucie on Strictly Come Dancing a few years ago,” he recalls, adding: “Those two songs sum up my life, really – my performing life and my personal life.”
Forsyth’s reputation as a versatile and elegant performer clearly chimed with Du Beke. “He was my hero anyway so the opportunity to work with him on Strictly Come Dancing was an incredible dream,” he says. “I loved him since I was growing up as an entertainer because he is exactly the sort of person that I would aspire to have been. And the joy of being able to call him a friend as well and spending so much time with him playing golf and having lunch with him at his house. To be able to call a man like Bruce Forsyth your friend when he’s your hero is an honour that’s very difficult to explain, especially for someone like me. I don’t really get that giddy over people, I don’t really get star-struck, I’ve met so many fabulous people in the business, but the only time I’ve been a bit star-struck is by Brucie. I found myself unable to speak. Now if you’ve ever met me you’d probably know that’s unbelievable in itself.
“He was just inspiring. He was brilliant at everything – a super dancer, he was a tremendous singer, and he was funny and he was a great host. He could play the piano and he was a generous man as well, which was lovely.”
Du Beke may have his tongue firmly in his cheek when he describes his and Langsford’s exit from Strictly as “devastating” but the couple did at least leave viewers with two of this series’ most memorable moments in their samba and paso doble. “I didn’t think anything could beat the reveal of a sparkly trouser and a pink frilly armed shirt but I think we beat it with the paso doble, it was remarkable, really. Two series highlights in two weeks, brilliant,” he chuckles.
During the paso doble Du Beke fell over and found himself straddled by his partner. “I was lying there thinking to myself ‘Oh, my God, I shouldn’t be looking at the lights from this position. Shouldn’t I be able to see the audience’s faces right now?’
“It’s one of those moments where as it’s happening I’m thinking to myself ‘No, don’t worry, I’m slightly unbalanced but I’ve got this’ then suddenly I realised I didn’t have it and everything went into slow motion and there was a great crash as my a*** hit the ground and that was that, as they say.”
He and fellow professional Brendan Cole may be the last men standing from the first series of Strictly but Du Beke is pleased that they represent continuity. “I love the show, I know Brendan loves it as well, and I think people who watch the show like the fact there’s somebody left from original series because people have been watching it since the beginning so there’s that sense of familiarity. It’s an incredible show and I couldn’t think of doing anything else.”
In the new year Du Beke will be touring the country again with Erin Boag. The pair have now worked together for 20 years. “She came over to this country from New Zealand with a partner and I think they quickly realised that it wasn’t going to be successful so they split up and Erin contacted me,” says Du Beke. “We got together and had what we call in the business a try-out and 20 years later I think we’re still trying out.”
He remembers his years on the competitive circuit as being tough. “It’s not like golf or tennis, one of these things where you get paid lots of money to play your sport. It’s the opposite – you earn your money as a professional dancer when you retire from competing. You spend your time competing to build your reputation and win as many titles as you can.
“I don’t know a more intense competition field than the dancing business because it is everything. It’s not ‘if I don’t win this week I’ll win next week’, it’s ‘if I don’t win this week I’ve ruined my whole life’, it’s really dramatic. You really are competing in the purest sense of the word then once you retire then traditionally people have gone into teaching or open a dance school or you coach competitive couples individually. It’s a global thing, the competitive ballroom world, so you find yourself travelling an awful lot.”
From The Top is out now. Anton and Erin – From Broadway to Hollywood comes to Sheffield City Hall on February 25, Bradford Alhambra on March 14 and York Barbican on March 17. www.antondubeke.tv