Interview with Ed Balls: Strictly, glitter and politics
PUBLISHED: 13:26 09 January 2017
Picture: Guy Levy/BBC/PA Wire
Dressing up in ever-increasing amounts of sparkle, dressing downs from the judges and could dressing room dance-offs replace play-offs? Rowan Mantell gets Norfolk-born Ed Balls to quickstep through the heavy stuff, swing around his Strictly triumphs and reveal the Norwich experience which means he will never be a celeb in the jungle
Sequins, sparkles, music, cameras, choreography - Ed Balls is off his high horse and on to his Gangnam-style pony; a politician and academic transformed into fun Ed glitter Balls, Great Ed Balls of fire, Ed having a Ball.
The former shadow chancellor morphed into a sashaying cha-cha-champion, swapping finance for the foxtrot, and the public vote for, well, a public vote.
The political heavyweight became lighter and lighter on his feet until, finally defeated in a dance-off, he was released back to the real world and his role as chairman of Norwich City Football Club. But lovers of the ex-politician with the extravagant pout can rest easy. This is not the end of Ed’s dancing days as he will be joining the Strictly stadium tour from January 21 to February 12. He would have loved to have strutted his stuff in Norfolk but says: “It’s only going to the big arenas.”
How about Carrow Road?
Ed is not convinced that he will retain his star status if he high-kicks Take That off the pitch. He also (sadly) has no plans to get the Canaries’ Wes Hoolahan waltzing, goalkeeper John Ruddy rocking a rumba or the Murphy twins doing the tango together at Carrow Road. Everywhere he goes people want to talk about dance, but he very nearly did not glide, gallop, pirouette and pout on to our screens and into our hearts. When the call came, his first thought was to run (and he has run the London Marathon three times) not dance.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Of course not!’” he says. “Why would someone who had been a politician and now teaches at Harvard and King’s College, London, go on a dance show? But when I went home and mentioned it to my wife [MP Yvette Cooper] she asked how I could possibly turn it down.”
Ed worried people would not take him seriously if he added ballroom to the Balls brand, but says: “I have since been on the Today Programme on Radio Four talking about the future of central banking after the financial crisis, and central bank reforms. I have done lots of interviews when I have had these enormous segues from finance to dance. I was able to go from New York’s central bank to the New York, the name of a move in the cha cha!”
He was also astonished at the reaction of the Strictly viewers who recreated him as something of a sex symbol.
“If I was to ever even imagine that was the case or try to be one, that would backfire massively, but people like seeing someone who puts inhibitions aside,” he says. “The only way to do Strictly was to completely throw myself into it. You really have to put caution and worries to one side and go for it. And it becomes quite liberating!”
And so the man who had been cabinet minister, shadow chancellor of the exchequer and chief economic adviser to the treasury, knuckled down to changing glower to glitter and nailing the complex rhythms of competitive dance.
He admits his professional partner, Katya Jones, had never heard of him.
“She had no idea who I was but the first thing she did was buy a copy of my book. Every day she would come in and say, ‘The decision not to enter the Euro, that was a big deal’, or, ‘Should people have seen the financial crisis coming?’
“She also became very good at seeing when I was becoming distracted by world events, and told me I had to stop thinking about Brexit or the American elections, and focus on dancing.”
The show was so intense, and Ed was so keen to do his best, that the couple had to fit rehearsals in whenever and wherever possible.
“We would quite often rehearse at OPEN, in Norwich, before a Norwich City match,” he says. He is frequently in Norwich, visiting his parents, Michael and Carolyn, and other friends and family, as well as his beloved Canaries.
“My footwork was never going to be refined, but we did a lot of moves and steps,” he says. He particularly enjoyed the week he danced the Charleston, despite being accused by judge Bruno Tonioli of “flapping around like a mating rooster”.
In Blackpool he was lowered to the stage, playing a flaming grand piano. And then there was the cha-cha chutzpah of Gangnam week.
He admits his three teenage children found it all “simultaneously impressive and totally embarrassing.”
“As a parent of teenagers you are supposed to embarrass them and I feel I have surpassed that and over-achieved!” laughs Ed.
Even fearsome judge Craig Revel Horwood (“It’s his job to be difficult but sometimes he gets a bit pantomime and some weeks it seemed like he had got out of bed on the wrong side!”) could not take the shine off Ed’s Strictly experience. It was not just his footwork which got ever more exuberant, surging from flat to fancy to flabbergasting in less time than it took Tess and Claudia to announce who would be in the weekly dance-off.
“The most exciting wardrobe choice I’d ever made before was whether to wear a blue shirt or a white shirt,” says Ed “The very first week I said, ‘I want to be myself, I don’t want lots of sparkles.’ They said I needed just a bit of sparkle and put some on my collar. Within a few weeks I was going in and saying, ‘I hope I’m going to have lots of sparkles’!”
Ed’s plans for 2017 include keeping his slimmed-down figure after losing a stone-and-a-half. But he will not be jettisoning the heavyweight economic theories for a life in light entertainment. And a childhood experience in Norwich led to a fear of rats which means he will never join Ant and Dec in the jungle of I’m A Celebrity.
“My dad was a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and I used to go there with him on a Saturday. He was a biologist and he would go to check the animals. One day I put my finger in a cage and got bitten by a rat.
“Anyway, having done the biggest and best of the shows, why would I want to do any of the others?” asks the man with the sparkling wit to match his Strictly wardrobe. He would like to return to some kind of public service, but for now, he’s having a ball bringing joy to the nation by pouting, prancing and whipping a pretend pony.