‘It’s a ballet of set pieces’
It’s won countless awards, is one of BBC Studio’s most successful formats worldwide and is watched by millions every Saturday night. It goes without saying that it’s a huge team effort behind-the-scenes, but one that wouldn’t be the same without the magic and creative genius of the set and props. Who will ever forget Russell Grant being fired out of a cannon?
Size and scale of set
As the Construction Manager for Strictly Come Dancing, Mark Osborne is responsible for bringing the designer’s vision to life and ensuring every element of the gigantic glittering set fits together seamlessly. The studio in which the show is filmed, George Lucas 2 in Elstree, is a giant empty box, so everything is built from scratch. This year, for the show’s 16th series, the set consists of over 500 individual pieces, which took Mark and his team of nine, 17 days to complete (the dancefloor takes an entire day to lay). No mean feat. However, for someone who has been doing the job for the past 14 years, Mark is a seasoned pro and very modestly refers to the build as simply ‘a bigger version of Meccano’.
For most, watching the glitz and glamour from the comfort of their sofa, it’s hard to appreciate the sheer scale of the ballroom. George Lucas 2 is the UK’s largest gallery-served stage. At an astounding 15,770 sq. ft. it comfortably houses the iconic 360-degree ballroom and 640 live studio audience (the chairs for the audience alone fill an entire artic lorry!). When the show moved from BBC Studioworks‘ Television Centre facility to its current location in 2013, the whole set increased by 3 ft. in height and the volume of set pieces increased seven-fold. Whereas the original set was simplistic and consisted of arches, tables and chairs, the design is now much bigger and wraps around the house band.
“Every year the set gets tweaked with more things being added. It grows in complexity every time,” says Mark. Despite the size, Mark and his team work to an incredibly tight schedule, only getting one chance to ensure the set build is right. Hot on the heels of everything being in place, the team then focuses on the set build for the launch show, which is filmed in an entirely different location at BBC’s HQ, New Broadcasting House, in Central London.
Choreography of props
Mark and his team are also responsible for all the props the viewers see in every dance, whether it be a simple umbrella as part of a celebrity’s individual dance, or a Cuban car as used as part of the group dance for this year’s launch show. Just like the dance routines themselves, the movement of scenery and props are heavily choreographed. “One of the most challenging elements of the job is ensuring that we can get the props and additional pieces of set on and off within a 90-second window and making sure everything can fit into the studio. If a conveyor belt is required for a specific dance, followed by a car in the next routine, we must realistically ask ourselves if this is feasible in the short timeframe we have. It’s a complete ballet of set pieces.”
Where props can be made, Mark and his team build them all on site at the request of the Art Director. Again, the turnaround is incredibly tight, with the team delivering all the props for the dress rehearsal just 24 hours after being briefed.
The bright lights of Blackpool
When the show moves to Blackpool Tower Ballroom in mid-November, the whole production ramps up yet another gear. “From a logistical perspective, it’s all about ensuring the set and props can fit in the ballroom, which is not only considerably smaller in size (3,200 sq. ft. less) than the Elstree studio, the actual height and width of the doors to manoeuvre scenery and props in and out of are also significantly reduced. Everything needs to be extra special for the viewer and we try to make that a reality.”
For Mark, Blackpool is always a personal highlight. “For me, Blackpool is always magical. Harry Judd’s performance in the show’s final there in 2011, blew me away (a 40-scoring Quickstep, Argentine Tango, Show Dance and a 39-points American Smooth). It’s such a cliché to talk about the celebrities ‘going on a journey’, but every year I watch so many of them start off as truly terrible dancers, only to triumph at the end as simply phenomenal. The talent really throws themselves into it, it really isn’t easy.”
Having worked in television for 35 years across multiple genres of programmes, Mark believes Strictly Come Dancing is by far the most demanding show on television to work on. “The only day the Art Director and I don’t speak is a Sunday, but that’s only because we have made a pact with each other not to.” However, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “As each series progresses, it’s like a runaway train, but in the nicest possible sense. You just have to get on it and enjoy the ride!”
The disassembly of this year’s set will take Mark and his team four days. The glitterball will be carefully lowered from the ceiling and everything will be stored in a secret location until the magic is unleashed once again next year.