“This morning I was thinking we haven’t had anybody drop out, we haven’t had any Covid problems, this is the most kind of normal year I’ve had as an exec – and then said to myself, ‘Don’t think it, don’t think it!’” says Sarah James, the executive producer of Strictly Come Dancing, not wanting to jinx how well the current series has panned out so far.
Taking on the top job on the BBC’s biggest show has certainly been quite the ride for her.
She was promoted to executive producer in 2019 after five years of working her way up the ranks of the long-running ballroom competition. Shortly afterwards, she found out she was pregnant and gave birth just before her first series in the hot seat hit our screens.
“I went back to work five weeks after having the baby and finished the series as exec. Then obviously the following year, I was thinking, ‘It’ll be great, now the baby’s a bit older,” she recalls.
Like the rest of us, she had no idea what was around the corner.
Sarah – who previously spent the best part of a decade working on Simon Cowell’s The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent – had to come up with a plan to deliver a TV show centered on the premise of people having close contact, at a time when such a thing was illegal to do with anyone you didn’t live with.
Needless to say, after two pandemic-era series of Strictly, she has been relishing the near-normality of the 2022 run, which has seen the relaxation of various restrictions on the cast and crew and the return of the studio audience.
“You realise now we’ve got a full audience back and that the cast can now all be together the huge difference that it does make. It’s nice to be back to sort-of normal,” she says, caveating that the team are still regularly tested for Covid.
As we continue our behind-the-scenes tour of Strictly Come Dancing in our Backstage At The Ballroom series, Sarah reveals what it takes to be the top boss on one of the nation’s most popular shows, and which perfect-scoring routine she actually had to talk a sceptical Giovanni Pernice into doing…
As exec producer, the whole buck stops with me…
“It’s very much a decision-making job. In the end, it’s the final decision of what we actually do in all parts of the show – from the VTs, to the creative, to the music, to the script, casting of celebrities or judges we’ve had. There’s then the press stuff that comes through, and deciding how we’re going to reveal the celebs with the press team at the start. I also oversee the budget with our amazing production exec – some ideas are too expensive or we have to manage that side of things together.
It’s everything basically, but it’s made so much easier by the team being so amazing. They have incredible ideas and creative thoughts about what to do with the show. It’s very collaborative. They love the show and are so passionate about it and get excited by the ideas they have for it, so they come and pitch lots of stuff to me all the time, which is brilliant.
When I became exec I wanted to keep the show feeling really fresh…
Obviously it’s a really popular show and has lots of viewers, so you want it to carry on in the same vein, but also stay fresh and updated. So a really important thing for me was to make sure it felt creatively quite youthful but without alienating some of our older viewers.
I guess part of that has been the inclusivity of the show, so the introduction of all-male and all-female couples has started since I’ve been exec and I think that’s something that’s appealed to younger viewers as well.
It’s about making sure that what people love about the show is still on track, but being brave enough to make some creative changes as well.
There’s still lots of places we can go in terms of inclusivity, too…
I think it happens quite organically to be honest. I liked the fact this year we had an all-male and all-female couple, I think that feels much less tokenistic than having just one. But it very much depends who we start to meet at the beginning of the year and the characters that start to come into play before you can build that picture.
I know that there are definitely still things we can do, and more places to go, but it very much depends on who wants to do the show and who comes forwards, and who we meet. But it’s exciting, because there’s more to do.
I could not believe how well organized it all is when I first joined Strictly…
Everyone is so brilliant at their jobs that even going into a massive live show that can be a 2.5 hour marathon, everyone is relaxed because they know what they’re doing.
Other shows I’ve worked on, as you’re going live, everything is hectic and everyone is running around, but on Strictly, the thing that shocked me the most was at the beginning of the show, everyone is sitting in the gallery and they are really calm, the titles come on and everyone starts clapping along to the titles and blowing each other kisses, and I’m like, “Is this really happening? Are we really about to start a live show?” But it is, because it is this really joyous thing, and I think that’s what comes through the telly.
We’re making changes to the show right up to the last minute…
I think it would probably surprise fans how much can be done in a short space of time. We start seeing routines and stuff on a Friday and then we start making changes. How quickly the departments can make those changes – from costume, to hair and make-up, to graphics, to props – does still sometimes blow my mind.
Then on a Saturday night, it is virtually unrecognizable from what we were watching on Friday. It’s amazing. Even from the dress rehearsal [on Saturday afternoon] To the live show itself, we might want to make tweaks in wardrobe or whatever else, and those departments go like the clappers – you’ve never seen anything like it! It’s incredible.
We’ve always have our eye on new pro dancers…
It’s something we basically have going all through the year. Lots of dancers want to do the show, so throughout the year, myself and our series editor Jack, who looks after the pros, are contacted by a lot of dancers. Even this year, we’re still meeting people so that we know if anybody goes, or anything happens, we’ve got a pool of people who we’ve already been speaking to.
This series, we’ve got four new dancers and we did auditions at the beginning of this year and got Jason [Gilkison, the show’s creative director] to teach them some of a group dance, got them to teach one of our researchers like they were a celebrity. We filmed it all, interviewed them and that was how we chose them.
A lot of dancers have done other territories of the show, some of them – like Carlos – literally come straight from the competing world, which is a very, very different world. The nicest thing is that whenever they come to us, they always say that they feel like they have joined a family. Genuinely, it’s so nice.
When I first joined Strictly, to be completely honest, there was some sort of tension among the dancers…
There were some people that weren’t that grateful for the show, that were suspicious of the show, but since then, I think it has evolved and now the dancers are like a family themselves. They all get on really well and are really, really close and work really brilliantly together. I wonder also whether Covid changed how they thought about things as well. I’ll never forget when I did a big Zoom with them all during Covid to tell them that we were going to go ahead with the show, the relief they had that they could carry on dancing. Because they had tours and all sorts of things that year [that got cancelled],
Early into Covid, we were still initially planning for a normal series in 2020…
To start with, like everybody else, we were like, ‘Oh this will be over by the time we get to September’. So we were just carrying on as we were… and probably really not planning for Covid for the first month or so. Then after that we were like, ‘Hmm, it doesn’t really seem like it’s going away,’ and I think a lot of people thought there was no way we were going to be able to do it.
Myself, our series editor and our production executive were just really determined to make a plan, because you’ve got all the dancers, presenters and judges, and the team is so huge and we were all just like, ‘We need to make sure it happens for the team, otherwise it’s such a huge chunk of work for them to miss out on.’ And also, for the public, it’s such a joyful show and it was one of those where you think it’s something that people needed.
We literally moved all of the dancers and some of the team into a hotel…
We started making plans for the 2020 series with the group numbers and what we needed to do to record them, and then started looking at hotels.
The site of the hotel was a perfect training space and they all became one big bubble. Then anybody coming in, we literally had to tape off and only go into this area so we could all stay distanced. To start with, the plans [for the rest of the series] were really, really extreme, but then when bubbles came in, we realized we could do this.
It still took a long, long time and lots of Zooms and planning…
Then I had to pitch the plan to the channel, obviously with some nervousness that “is it still going to be as good without an audience? Is it still going to feel the same when they can’t all be together in Claudia’s area?” It’s such an important show for the channel… So when we pitched it to them, they were very much like, “So long as it’s not rubbish!”
Sometimes I’m like, ‘Do we sound like a weird cult?’…
I genuinely get quite emotional when I think about the difference strictly made to my life, the friends I’ve made and how I’ve changed as a person. When I started on the show, I was single for quite a lot of the first few years and now I’m with my partner and we’ve got a baby and we’ve moved away – and all the time, Strictly has been this constant thing with me.
I literally love it, it’s like another baby to me. And everybody on the team feels the same, it’s really weird. Sometimes I’m like, “Do we sound like a weird cult?” But it’s just such a special show, I can’t tell you.
My favorite Strictly routines are…
I really loved Faye and Giovanni’s Charleston to The Lonely Goatherd. I particularly love it because he really didn’t want to do it – he wanted to do Thoroughly Modern Millie or something really boring – so I said to him, ‘I’m telling you, this is going to be really, really fun. ‘ And he was like, ‘OK, I trust you, I’ll do it.’ And it was just the best thing ever, it was so, so hilarious with the goat puppets and the hands, the blonde wig, and then it was a perfect 40.
I loved Bill Bailey’s Couple’s Choice, I thought he was an amazing celebrity for us. I have absolutely loved loads of the routines from this year – Tony Adams’ Movie Week Full Monty was a highlight. I just love those routines where you’re just screaming in the gallery and then you imagine people screaming at home too.
Tony’s just so brilliant and he just throws himself in 100%, and I don’t think he – or any of us – was expecting him to. He was like, “Yeah I’ll probably just do 12 hours a week, 1 or 2 days…” Now he’s training the most ridiculous hours ever. I think the public can see when someone is really going for it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Strictly Come Dancing airs Saturdays and Sundays on BBC One.