Brendan Cole made his British television debut 21 years ago, and has been a Strictly Come Dancing draw since the Saturday night prime-time BBC One show’s 2004 debut.
But forget the small screen for a moment. Right now he’s treading the boards – or at least bounding and gliding across them – in theatres across the UK, promising a spectacular production this month and next with his All Night Long show, featuring eight world-class dancers, a 14-piece band and a feast of lighting, special effects and choreography.
The 40-year-old New Zealander and his cast – including the show’s new leading lady Faye Huddleston – are aiming to dazzle 45 audiences up until an April 2nd finale at the Mayflower in Southampton. And as the headliner himself puts it, this is no ‘sit back and watch’ production.
They started out at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre and earlier this week reached The Palace, Manchester, with future dates including a few more on my Lancashire patch – at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall (Thursday, February 9th), Preston Guild Hall (Saturday, February 18th) and Blackpool Opera House (Thursday, March 23rd). And that must all take a fair bit of stamina, as this two left-footed scribe mentioned to Latin American dance expert Brendan when we spoke ahead of his final tour rehearsals.
“It’s pretty full on and intense. There are five matinees too. It’s not a quiet show.”
He promises a production chock-full of high energy routines. So how did his month of rehearsals go?
“It’s really hard to train for and get fit for. And you burst on to the stage. It doesn’t start with a nice casual waltz. It’s full on from start to finish. There’s no preparing for that. You could do as many hours in the gym as you want, if you had time, but you get fit on the stage, and need to look like you’re fit from that first night. But two or three days in you find that you are match fit, because you’ve done it, your body knows what it feels like and you’ve managed to conserve energy at certain points.”
“Every aspect of the show has my fingerprint on it. It’s not someone else’s show, like some of the others out there. It’s very much mine from start to finish – from concept and costumes to lighting and casting. I don’t have a director coming in and telling me what to do.
“Having said that, it’s very much a creative process, with my cast very much involved in putting the show together. And I want them involved. I want them to feel it and be excited by it. Their input inspires me, and my input inspires them. I make most of the decisions, but it’s very much driven by a team effort. My musical director and my wife sit down and we discuss the songs, but we make sure we’ve got a diverse number of songs. It’s collective, and that’s what makes the show work.”
It seems to be a big undertaking, with rumours of a fleet of trucks heading between towns and cities. Does Brendan enjoy the travel aspect?
“I absolutely love it. I love the camaraderie. We have 22 people on the road, and don’t tell my wife but I love being on tour! It’s exciting. We’re a good bunch. I’ve been working with these musicians now for seven years on the road and know them very well. We all get on really well and have some great nights out after shows.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard being away from family, but to get two months on the road with friends – new and old – is exciting. We’re on a coach, we travel around, we go out, and we unwind after the adrenaline of that two-hour show. You need a good two hours after a show to unwind, so we go for a glass of wine or a beer and sit around talking and laughing about the mishaps that happen on stage. We’re just talking nonsense all the time. It’s great!”
It turns out that this is Brendan’s ninth UK tour. Could he ever have dreamed of all this as an 18-year-old about to leave New Zealand for the UK?
“No, it’s quite something when you look back.”
“In some ways, but I believe in hard work and I’m very much a hard worker. And when you’ve got that work ethic and you’re determined to follow your dreams and push, hard work creates opportunities. People who don’t work hard very seldom get the opportunities.
“Take Strictly for example. I worked so hard in my early days as a dancer to try and be the best I could and get myself in a position to be a world champion. That’s what I wanted to be. That dream didn’t come to fruition because Strictly came along, but they wouldn’t have taken me on if I hadn’t had the base in the first place.
“It was a big gamble but I chose to take that, where others didn’t. And when the opportunity for my first tour came along I was petrified that it wouldn’t be well received or a flop, but I believe in myself, I believe in the product and that’s how I’ve worked my whole life.”
Born in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, Brendan started dancing at the age of six, yet between leaving school at 17 and heading to England a year later, he was a builder and roofer. Could there ever have been a career in the construction business?
“That’s interesting, actually. I love building, creating, knocking something together. I was always pulling a nail out of my garage wall, getting two bits of wood and sticking them together, or making a go-kart, pulling wheels off old prams.
“So going into roofing and the building profession straight from school – I left at 16, knowing I probably wasn’t going to follow an academic career – all I really wanted to do was get out there and look after myself. I didn’t want to have to ask Mum for $8 a week for my scooter petrol money. I wanted to earn my way up. I was always driven in that respect.
“I probably would have gone on to be a builder, have a building firm, run my own business. Instead I decided to try the dancing dream. That sounds weird, but I played lots of sport and was into everything. But the dancing was consistent. I never stopped, and obviously had a talent for it.”
“Not so much, but Mum was very musical and rhythmical, and we were a very musical family. Pretty much everyone can sing, save my brother! It’s something I didn’t realise until my Grandad’s funeral. It was like a choir in there, pretty much pitch-perfect. Dad was pretty rhythmical as well.”
I seem to recall from my youth that the original BBC Come Dancing series (1950-1998) was a rather starchy affair, far removed from what we have beamed into our living rooms on a Saturday night these days. So what made Brendan think ballroom dancing was the career for him? Was Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Australian film success Strictly Ballroom an influence?
“When I first saw that film I was around 15, yet a few years later was working on the New Zealand version of Strictly, called Dancing with the Stars, with Paul Mercurio, one of the stars of that film. At first, I didn’t really like that film, as it was taking the mickey out of something I really loved doing. However, in my humble opinion I’d say it’s one of the most brilliant movies made. I love the story, and looking at it now from a very different perspective, I appreciate it as a brilliant piece of theatre in many ways.
“Come Dancing was a bit dated, but it was of its time and one of Britain’s longest-running television series, which is amazing. It certainly had a following, and we’ve taken that on. And even since Strictly started, it’s two very different shows. Look back at the original, it’s very dated, but there’s a real innocence about it that is lovely. But television improves and increases and grows, and production becomes more, and people expect more.”
Brendan’s certainly seen his fair share of stunning celebrity partners during 14 series of Strictly Come Dancing. On the debut series there was newsreader and presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, the pair going on to win the show. And from there, his screen partners have included actresses Sarah Manners, Claire King and Sunetra Sarker, TV presenters Fiona Phillips, Lisa Snowdon and Kirsty Gallacher, model Kelly Brook, businesswoman (and former Rolling Stone wife) Jo Wood, Olympic cycling legend Victoria Pendleton, and singers Michelle Williams, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2016 writewyattuk interviewee Lulu (with a link to that feature here) and most recent screen partner Anastacia.
Come to think of it, I recall Len Goodman talking a while ago about how lads of his generation thought dancing was a rather ‘cissy’ career (his word, not mine), but that he soon proved them wrong, not least on account of all the glamorous women he met through his dancing. Was it a similar story with Brendan?
“I guess so. I got a lot of stick growing up for being a dancer. But at the same time that stick is part of what I am and what I do today and part of what drives me. I like the stick and like people giving me a hard time. It fuels my drive to be better and stick two fingers up. It certainly is quite a glamorous thing we do now.
“I’ve had my fair share of really lovely women to dance with, and I’m sure a lot of people watching think, ‘Crikey, I wouldn’t mind having a dance with her!’ I’m very lucky, and it’s an incredible thing to be a part of.”
Is that right that on arrival in England he studied pasodoble, ballroom, ballet and the robot in Manchester?
“That’s a bit of Wikipedia fiction – I don’t even know how that’s on there. I did a paid gig for the dance school mentioned once, but … that really upsets me.”
So where did he head when he initially got off that plane?
“South London was the place for dancing, and I went to a place in Norbury called Semley Ballroom. I watched from the sidelines, waited to get a partner, then that was that.”
I understand his late father was from a Glaswegian family. Did Brendan have family roots over here?
“None, just a one-way ticket and a thousand pounds in my pocket. Very strange to look back on. I wouldn’t do the same now. I’m older and wiser!”
It seems that Brendan was only passing through, taking time out during a European competition. Either way though, he was hooked and soon returned, landing at Heathrow one April morning in 1995. He was soon sharing digs with other struggling dancers, his money spent on lessons, taking jobs where he could find them to finance his dream.
Around then he met Danish-born dancer Camilla Dallerup, the pair – soon a couple – going on to travel the world, learning their craft and entering competitions. They became contestants on the BBC’s long-running show Come Dancing as amateurs from 1996, and from 2002-04 as professionals, by which time they were engaged.
While that relationship ended in time, he was soon well and truly settled in England, and married model Zoe Hobbs in 2010, with their daughter Aurelia born on Christmas Day, 2012, the family settling in Aylesbury. I’m guessing he’ll miss Zoe and Aurelia over the next couple of months. Are there gaps in the schedule to get back to Buckinghamshire?
“Yes. I tend to schedule in a little time for family, so I’ve got time at home as well. Things are really cool. Never a dull moment, but it’s fun.”
Has having a family of his own changed Brendan’s outlook on life?
“Definitely. Everything is about family rather than all the other things you get up to on any given day. It definitely changes your thought process. Everything revolves around your child and wife. I love that and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
All these years on, what does he miss most about New Zealand?
“I haven’t been back in about six years, for my father’s funeral. But you miss family and there’s a freshness in the air that’s quite spectacular, a certain light you won’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s a beautiful place. It’s nice to go back as a tourist as well. You get to visit some amazing places.”
It’s certainly a lovely part of the world, not least his home city of Christchurch, where this scribe briefly stayed in both 1991 and 1999. How close were Brendan’s family and friends to the earthquake zone last year?
“Very close. It affected a lot of my friends. It’s not nice, and earthquakes continue unfortunately. Luckily, I haven’t lost anyone, but hundreds died in the first earthquake (the 2011 earthquake killed 185 people). It’s tragic and also happening elsewhere. Look at Italy recently.”
Talking of home visits, from 2005 to 2009 Brendan was a judge on New Zealand’s version of the Strictly show, Dancing with the Stars, where there were said to be a few on-air differences of opinion with fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood. Wasn’t that just Craig playing his role of pantomime villain? Only I get the impression they might sneak out for a pint after shows.
“We certainly do. Quite often we’ll be arguing one night and then down the waterfront the next day enjoying a nice glass of something cold. It’s quite amusing, we’re good friends, and we have a good relationship. But on air, I can’t stand him – ha!”
From appearing in 2006 on ITV’s Love Island and judging and teaching roles on Britain’s Next Top Model to 2007’s BBC show Just the Two of Us, partnering Beverley Knight, there have been many TV appearances. He also represented the United Kingdom with Camilla Dallerup at the first Eurovision Dance Contest in 2007, and was a guest team captain on the What Do Kids Know show in 2010. What’s the most ridiculous role he’s been offered?
“No idea. I’ve been offered some crazy stuff, turned a couple of things down and accepted a few that were crazy, but it’s the way it is. It’s nice that people want you involved.”
Meanwhile, he’s appeared in every series of Strictly, often clashing with the judges over scoring and comments on his performances, on occasion deliberately breaking the show’s rules, not least through incorporating illegal lifts into his choreography. But this so-called ‘bad boy of Strictly’ is one of only two professional dancers to have completed every run of the show, along with Anton du Beke, who I gather is set to be the father of twins this Spring. Are Strictly‘s stalwart movers and shakers in touch between series?
“Yes, he’s one of my very good friends, and I’m so excited for him and Hannah (Summers). It’s an amazing thing.”
I mentioned Len before. Will Brendan miss the veteran Strictly judge now he’s left the show?
“I will. The show will be very different without him. It’s a shame he had to go, but change happens and he will be very much missed.”
“Yeah. I’m not an actor by any means, but it’s definitely part of what we do as artists and there’s an element of acting involved. Once Strictly comes to an end for me – whenever that may be – it’s definitely something I’ll look to become more involved.”
Meanwhile, it’s been a while since he was on Strictly’s winning team – 13 years to be precise. Is there still a keen sense of competition among the professionals?
“There is, but you’ve got to realise your limitations. You can only do so much with your partner. Not everyone can win it. You’ve just got to give your best, put your best foot forward, and hopefully it works. If you’ve got someone who can win it, great, if not, never mind.”
Brendan Cole’s All Night Long visits Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, February 18, with tickets starting at £23. For ticket enquiries, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call the box office on 01772 80 44 44.
And for details of all the other shows on the All Night Long tour, head to Brendan Cole’s own website via this link.