|Copyright; Sian Wootton|
From l-r Front entrance of Elstree Studios, our tickets validated with our sticker number, Strictly glammed up, in the queue waiting for our tickets to be validated, the queue as we left at around 9.30am, us on the television
Funnily I'm still struggling to find the words to fully describe this experience, but I will try for blogging purposes. And there is just so much to talk about. So much, I'm going to split it into two blog posts, but this is still going to be quite a long one. One post will be on the audience experience, which will hopefully be of use to any lucky folk that manage to get tickets. Or anyone that wants to learn a bit more about behind the scenes of one of our biggest television shows. Then I will do a separate one on the experience from a disability/ chronic illness perspective. So as not to bore the healthy folk hehe. Also apologies for just the one collage of photos the computer I edit on is in for repairs, so I could only do the one.
I signed up for Strictly tickets in late August. I think it was the day they opened the application. You can apply for as many dates as possible, including Blackpool but only once and only a maximum of 2 tickets per household. It also comes up with the option to put in whether you have access needs and what you need. You should then get an email to say you have applied and when you should hear back. Generally it's 2 weeks before the date. I applied for most dates. And was lucky enough to win tickets to the first date I applied for, which was 25th September. The first of the live shows where the celebrities dance for the first time. This show is a little different to usual as not all the couples danced and there was also no elimination show, so the experience is a little different to the normal Strictly experience. I heard I'd got tickets on 11th September, firstly via text message then email, which had an attachment with the tickets to print out.
On the ticket it explains the dress code as glamorous, strictly no jeans, and what you can and can't bring into the studio with you. It also explains that the ticket you recieve via email does not guarantee you access. You need to get them validated on the day. This is because they send out more tickets than there are seats available, in order to guarantee a full studio, as they have a fair amount of no shows. I'm not sure of the actual figures, however on that date there were around 500 audience plus friends and family. All in all they process 650 people. As there was only 6 competing couples dancing on that date I'm not sure how this is reflected in the normal ratio of public/guest tickets or whether the numbers are the same. On the email print out it explains that they will start validating tickets from 9am and access on site is from 3pm. It's important to read between the lines here, and know that getting your ticket validated is the only way to guarantee access. Which means queuing up in the morning. If you look online you'll find varying information about what time to start queuing and I'm sure it changes from date to date. Especially from year to year, and panic builds that last year the person queing from 7am got tickets 50 and 51 and the year later those in the queue from 7am getting tickets 100 and 101. That's just an example don't take those numbers as gold. The best I can do is share what happened on the day we went, which I will in a bit. Then it's down to everyone what time they decide they want to queue from.
As we were travelling down from Wales, we decided to travel down the day before and stop over night near the studios. We got a room in the Ibis Borehamwood, which is the closest hotel to the studios at only a five minute walk. You simply exit the front of the hotel, turn right, cross over at the pelican crossing and take the next left. Go past the visitor entrance through a small car park and ahead you'll see a field with a path on which people queue. The Ibis is a nice enough hotel, with plenty of parking as it backs onto the civic centre car park. A lot of people use this car park for the studios. Hotel guests can park there for free with a voucher from reception. Breakfast is £6.50 for continental and £8.50 for cooked (and continental) but wasn't really worth it. To be honest we probably should have bought something with us. On a practical level you can probably get in the queue quicker too.
We got into the queue, just after 8am. I was quite shocked by how many people were in the queue already. There were people sitting in camp chairs, wrapped up in blankets, even some in those foil blankets. All to the annoyance of the parents doing the school run. Apparently those at the very front that looked liked they had camped overnight had queued since 2am! Luckily it was quite a nice day and most importantly dry. I think they should put a porch style roof over the walk way, as I imagine if it was pouring down it would be quite hard, especially later on in your Strictly glam. Although it does say on the tickets to be prepared for the elements. The atmosphere in the queue is fun and it's great to talk all things Strictly. There is a Costa Coffee in the Tesco nearby (don't ask me exactly where, as I don't know) if one of you wants to go get a hot drink. There is also some bushes if you really do need to go to the loo. Hehe. Just after 9am the validation staff came out. There were two people scanning the tickets and giving out number stickers and a man with a mic, who came along and explained what was going to happen. He does repeat it at different points in the queue but do ask questions too as you go passed should you wish. As the show that night didn't go live until 9pm he explained that even though it said on our ticket access on site is from 3pm that we could actually return at 5pm. The queue then moves quite quickly. I think those arriving around 10am would get a totally false sense of how many people had queued, until they saw their sticker number. We got sticker numbers 207 and 208. I later spoke to someone that queued from 10am and they were sat on the upper level opposite the Clauditorium. Being in a wheelchair our sticker numbers didn't matter so much in terms of seating but it was still important we got them and our tickets validated to guarantee entry.
We were back in our hotel room around 9.45am, and had the rest of the day to relax and then get Strictly glammed up. Around 2.30pm we went downstairs to the bar and ordered food from the snack menu, which is available 24 hours so could come in handy for any after show munchies. It's not so much a 'snack' menu either, with toasties, pizzas, mac and cheese and a green Thai curry on the menu. However this was good for us as it meant we could have a big lunch to help see us through the evening. We then started to get ready. We decided to leave our mobiles at the hotel, given you can't take them into the studios and I'd heard the queue to get them back at the end of the night can be quite long. Although of course if you are driving or on the train then it may be best to hand it in.
We arrived back at the visitors entrance at 5pm and there was a long queue outside again. With being in a wheelchair we were told to go to the front, so that they could get those with mobility issues into the marquee safely and sat down at the front. So I can't really tell you how long you're likely to be queing. As soon as you're inside the marquee, you hand in your phone and also go through security. Once inside there's lots of seating where you can sit and watch tv and chat to other Strictly fanatics, that still can't quite believe their luck. Or admire everyones outfits. There's a cloakroom where they recommend you leave your coats as having them on the back of your seat will look quite messy. This is the BBC darlings. The queue to get your coats back is not long especially compared to the queue to get phones back. There's a bar, and a separate stand for tea and coffee. You can drink in the marquee but once you go into the studio you can only take water with a screw top in. Outside the marquee, are some rather plush portaloos. The hosts on the mic will tell you countless times to use them before you go into the into the studio. As once you're in there, there's not much chance to go. Also a new addition for this year is a photo booth, which has a Strictly background and where you can pose for 4 photos with various props, including the scoring paddles. You get 2 free printouts. I think this is a great touch, as a little extra souvenier to remember your time there. Especially as you're not allowed to take your own photographs. I tried to be too posey and just ended up looking like Claudia trying to read the autocue.
We were in the marquee till after 7pm. The hosts kept us up to date at all times, building up the excitement, joking and sharing some Strictly trivia. They liked to remind everyone that this year 4.5 million people had applied for tickets, and so we were very lucky. Just after 7pm once everyone was in and the studio was clear of people rehearsing, they announced the first lot of numbers, which were 1-24. The host joked that these were the people that had been queing up for 3 weeks. After them they took in our group of those in wheelchairs and less mobile. You enter into the studio from the back, so facing the band. It was exciting to see some of the props and wonder who would be using them. When I saw the giant storm cloud I got rather giddy that Carol and Pasha would be dancing that night. I'm not sure if the memory of Pasha on that cloud will ever leave me. As we came out of backstage and we were out on the Strictly set, it was such a bizzare moment. A bit like finding Narnia at the back of your wardrobe, even though you know what's coming. It's rather surreal and much bigger than expected. The first group of people were sat at the end of the dance floor, facing the band and the main staircase. At first I was quite confused as I expected our group to be sat there. When I'd asked in the morning that is what they had said. Also I thought that with those ticket numbers they would be sat on Bruno's side of the judges table and most likely to be on the television. To add to my disbelief they then wheeled us over to the chairs to Craig's side of the judges table and said we could transfer into them. I thought they were joking, especially as they said the front row. When I was safely in the chair I felt my tummy go "oh heck." I'm not sure how many times me and my Mum said no in utter disbelief. Then I had a moment of "I wish I had my phone, look where I am?" Like I said we had stickers 207 and 208 and I saw the women that were in the queue in front and behind us were sat on the opposite side to the judges table about 3 or 4 rows back.
Once everyone was in the studio, including all the friends and family, Stuart the warm up guy took over. Grabbing everyone's attention in a leopard print suit and green shirt. He was really great at getting the audience even more excited for the show, as well as explain what was happening. He explained that first they were going to prefilm one of the pro dances, the one you will have seen on week 2 results show (4/10/2015) and shortly after introduced the pro dancers. Oh my they are all stunning. Brendan told us to cover our hair with our hands as they had to take Aliona's extra long skirt over our heads. Stuart had warned us though not to do it (or scream of the static shock ;-) ) when they took it back over us during the dance and the cameras were rolling. I had Ola at her starting position to the side of me and Pasha on one knee infront (of course I said yes). They had to stop the first take quite soon though, as Oti had hit a woman in the audience during one of her moves. Luckily she was fine, and poor Oti took some ribbing from Stuart. Ola turned around to me and said "it's alright I won't hit you," for which I'm glad she didn't. They then did another 2 takes. I didn't really know where to look as there was so much going on. When all the couples were in hold it was pretty spectacular. I got goose bumps. It actually topped Janette spinning at break neck speed on the aerial, which was also pretty incredible.
Between takes you'll find Anton larking about. He made one woman scream as he snook up on her from behind. He came up to a lady on our row and said "hello Nanna" (she wasn't) followed by a kiss on the cheek. Then proceeded to give our whole row (all women) a kiss so we didn't feel left out. So I guess that makes me the envy of a lot of Strictly fans.
Once they finished filming the pro dance, the pros went off to change for the show and the stage reset. During this time Stuart picked one lady from the audience (sitting on Bruno's side of the table a few rows back) and asked if she wanted to walk down the famous stairs. She was shaking so much "because this is Strictly" in disbelief at getting to walk down the stairs. She and Stuart walked up the stairs, he announced their names, to which we all cheered and they walked down, stood pretending to get the judges comments for a while then walked off and up to the Clauditorium.
Then he introduced Tess and Claudia as they came into the studio. I'll admit to never being the biggest Tess Daly fan beforehand but she is actually really warm and personable, plus absolutely gorgeous. Plus she did say "Hi, sparkly lady on the front row" to me so that gave her some extra marks. Both hers and Claudia's heels are ridiculously high, Claudia could barely walk. Claudia was really nervous too, but used it to her comedic advantage. Joking that her dress smelled of sick after just throwing up. She was also thrilled to see a man from Great Ormond Street hospital in the audience and introduced him to everyone. They rehearsed their opening as well as some other bits. This was as much for the audience too so that we knew not to sing along to the themetune and when to react to their lines. They then left again for final preparations. During which time Stuart reminded us to give as much support as possible to the contestants as the came down the stairs and as they performed. Especially as this was their first time dancing and they were very nervous. And I think having the support of a live audience helped them be more confident.
Not long before going live they gave us a Kit Kat, 4 fingers no less and a box of apple juice. Although there wasn't much time to actually eat/ drink much, pretty soon they were rushing around trying to collect all the rubbish before the show started. During this time the judges also came onto set. They were introduced to the audience and then they posed for some photographs with paddles that spelt out "vote."
The next thing we knew there was 5 minutes till we were going live. There's such a ripple of excitement that goes round the audience at that point. Everyone got into their starting positions and Stuart reminded us to show the couples as much support as possible. Then all of a sudden they were counting down from 10, the theme music began to play and we were cued to start clapping. Just before this I had started eating a cough sweet and consequently tried to hide it in the side of my mouth as the camera went passed, it resulted in me looking like I was giving Craig a dirty look haha. Lesson learned. I did like his sparkly brogues though.
Watching the show live you get so caught up in the atmosphere of being there and getting to experience the show in a way you can't get watching it on tv. You forget that it's actually live on tv too. The six couples performing on that night were Kelly and Kevin, Anthony and Oti, Helen and Aljaz, Carol and Pasha, Daniel and Kristina and Anita and Gleb. Kelly opened the show with such confidence and attack, it really got the audience going. Although the loudest cheer probably went to Pasha as he was flown up in the air on the storm cloud, poor Carol could barely start her weather forecast part. The biggest suprise for me was how well Daniel O'Donnell danced. I was expecting him to be the comedy turn this year, but more fool me, he was really graceful and didn't go wrong at all. It was almost as big a shock as seeing that rip in Anthony's trousers. However the night belonged to Anita and Gleb, she really looked like she had such a good time and gave such a confident performance. Watching Gleb dance was no great hardship either.
All too soon the show had ended. It went by so quickly. I could have happily sat there a whole lot longer and wished we could just continue with the rest of the couples. We did get a sneaky peak at some of them though as after they cut they did some quick rehearsing on the dance floor. Both myself and my Mum were amazed by Jay's hips and predicted he would do well. Aliona looked like the cat that got the cream. The only protest for not being there longer was from my back. The seats are rather uncomfortable and didn't do my aches and pains any good. I should have used the cushion from my wheelchair. As we left the studio and the marquee all the staff asked if we'd had a good time and wished us a good night. I really have to applaud the audience staff as they were all so friendly and helpful. The whole organization of the evening was geared to give the audience a fantastic experience, beyond the entertainment on the dance floor and my Mum and I sure did.
It was all very surreal in all honesty. As we left the studio and walked back to the hotel that seemed to be the theme of conversations. No one could quite believe they were on Strictly. I was so excited though to get back to the hotel and see the messages on my phone. There was lots of photos of friends tv screens and even video and people in shock at how good our seats were. It did take a while getting to sleep that night, trying to wind down from so much excitement. Even after watching the recording of that nights show (a fair few times) and seeing myself on tv, it still hasn't fully sunk in. Watching the show now is not the same, I love the show more than ever and I feel so privileged to have experienced it live. However each week now I long to be there. It really is an experience that will stay with me for a long time.
A very big thank you to everyone that works at BBC shows and tours and to the cast and crew of Strictly Come Dancing that work so hard to make this show the institution that it is.