Most of those who watch BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing are transported to the glamor of the ballroom from the comfort of their living rooms. But for some, nothing but seeing the show live will suffice and they will brave the elements through the night for the chance of a seat. Why?
‘The best night out I’ve ever had’
It is 06:00 BST on Saturday at Maxwell Hillside Park, in the shadow of the George Lucas stage.
The sun is yet to rise and yet some 80 people are already queueing outside the Strictly studios in Elstree, Hertfordshire.
They are waiting in the hope of getting a seat for Strictly Come Dancingthe show which pairs professional dancers with celebrities.
The show – now in its 20th series – brightens up autumn for some nine million people each week.
This morning, it is wet and the evening’s sequined spectacle seems a long way off.
First in the line are Alison Wratchford, 51, and husband Paul, who arrived at midnight and have come from Warwickshire.
“If you’re going to come to Strictly you want the best seats,” Mrs Wratchford says. “I wasn’t trying to be first in the queue but I was determined to get in.”
Each year, fans can apply to be in the audience, with tickets allocated in a random draw.
As with many TV shows, the BBC over-issues tickets to ensure a full studio, so having a much-coveted ticket does not guarantee entry.
Tickets are validated – which ensures a seat – at 09:00 GMT on the day, with some prospective audience members gathering hours before, not just to make sure they get in but also in the hope of a good seat.
Mrs Wratchford booked a hotel for the weekend but did not spend much time there.
“I couldn’t sleep so we got up and came down,” she says.
She quietly admits it was the first time she had entered the ballot and was “over the moon”.
“I absolutely couldn’t believe it… in fact when I got the text, I thought it was spam,” she says.
Mrs Wratchford says while she “likes everything about Strictly”, as a ballroom dancer herself, it was important for her to get the best seats “because I actually want to see the footwork”.
“You can’t appreciate it on the TV, whereas you can close up.”
Mrs Wratchford confirms on Sunday that after being assigned seats one and two, they “absolutely got good seats” and a “good view” although she admits she did miss half a dance because she was side-tracked into watching a cameraman run round the dance floor.
“I’m still on a high,” she says. “I’d do it all again in a heartbeat and watching how it is all put together is just as exciting as the show.
“It’s the best night out I’ve ever had, I loved the whole weekend, the whole experience, even the queuing, it’s so much better than just buying a ticket and going to a show.”
‘If you’re going to do it, do it properly’
Just behind the Wratchfords were Fran Clarke, 44, and her daughter Victoria O’Brien, 26, from Bristol.
Ms Clarke has been applying for tickets for “however many years it’s been going”.
“It was always TV that I could watch with the children,” she says. “You could relax watching it because you knew it was suitable for everybody and it just puts a smile on your face.
“It’s good fun and there’s not enough of that sometimes in the world.”
She says they arrived at about midnight after “doing their research”.
“We know you need to be in the queue in the small hours if you’re going to guarantee getting in and get halfway decent seats.
“If you’re going to do it, do it properly. That was the plan… we’re number three and four in the queue.
“But it’s been really good fun.”
The pair had not canceled any plans to be there but Ms Clarke says the family’s new Ukrainian guest had arrived on Friday afternoon so her husband and two younger children were settling her in.
She says it took a few translated text messages to explain why she could only say a quick hello before heading to Elstree but hopes the program may soon gain a new fan.
“It’s a show you can watch whether you have the language or not, it has universal appeal,” she says.
On Sunday morning, Ms Clarke says it was “definitely worth the early wait”.
They were seated on the studio’s ground floor next to the stairs and close to Tess Daily’s entry point onto the set.
“They were amazing seats, we could see everything that was happening,” she says, “and [we] got to see lots of people close up and congratulate them [on their performances]”.
She adds the queue was “great fun” and “part of the wider experience rather than just turning up to something five minutes before it starts.”
‘We’re supposed to be at Legoland’
Karen Paterson, 41, and Georgina Sinnott, 43, from Manchester, had hoped “to be in the top 10” of the queue. They arrived at about 03:15.
“I’ve been trying every week for 10 years and this is the first time I’ve been assigned tickets,” Ms Paterson says.
“We wanted the biggest chance of getting the best seats and it’s an experience we wanted to make the most of.”
The friends say they had come well prepared, with the exception of failing to pack an umbrella.
“It poured down and we got extremely wet,” Ms Paterson says, “it went right through one sleeping bag but luckily we had a spare.”
They stayed in Slough, Berkshire, because they were supposed to be taking their children to Legoland Windsor – but used the hotel booking for this instead.
She says the youngsters “didn’t mind” that the trip to the theme park would need to be rearranged as they were “very excited” for their mum.
When asked what she loves about the show, Ms Paterson immediately says “Johannes” [Radebe]the dancer partnered with stand-up comedian Ellie Taylor.
“He’s my very, very favorite person in the world except for my husband – it’s very close though,” she says.
But she also admits that she loves the “dancing, glitz and glamor”.
After the show, Karen reveals they got seats near the stairs.
“We could see everything, the whole floor, the only thing we couldn’t see was the band,” she says, “and Johannes came right down next to me which was amazing.”
“It was just so, so, good, well worth the wait and anyone who tells you different is a liar.
“I’d do it again – but this time with an umbrella.”
‘You get a common bond for the day’
Kathryn Rogers, 53 and Neil Garlick, 61, from Glossop in Derbyshire, arrived at about 03:30 but claim they would have made the journey down on Friday evening if it had been necessary.
Staying in a nearby hotel, they walked over at about 22:00 to see if anyone was there.
“When there wasn’t we thought we’d go an get a bit of sleep but woke up at three and thought let’s go – we’re awake,” Ms Rogers says.
Mr Garlick adds: “There comes a point where you think there’s no point waiting for an extra couple to get up, so you might as well just go and sit there.”
Ms Rogers says: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’ve entered the ballot for probably the last 10 years so it’s like we’re not going to miss this.
“I love everything about it, I love the costumes and the dancing, it’s just such an uplifting program to watch.”
The programme, she says, inspired the pair to take up dancing.
“Four years ago we actually took up ballroom and Latin dancing ourselves so we’re learning,” she says.
After the show, Ms Rogers says they had been sitting near the front and were “in shot a lot”.
“We had such a fantastic time, it was so interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes.
“It’s like clockwork, there’s so much to look at and it’s so well organized,” she says, “I’d do it all again.”
And of the whole experience, Mr Garlick says: “You get a common bond [with people] for the day even though you’ll probably never see or hear from them again.”
‘An excellent, if exhausting, experience’
Eric Smith, 71, from Shrewsbury in Shropshire, arrived at about 03:15 with his wife Linda, 66.
Mrs Smith says she was “thrilled” to finally get a ticket about six years of trying.
“I was jumping up and down,” she says. “We just really enjoy the show and know we are very lucky to get tickets.”
The couple arrived with chairs, snacks and warm clothes after “a bit of a tip off” that they should get there between 03:00 and 04:00.
“It’s been quite wet but not that cold and there have been very chatty people so it’s been fine – you only live once so do it,” he says.
The couple “both enjoy watching the show”, says Mr Smith.
“The production values, the whole business, is fabulous,” he says.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Smith said the couple were seated in the corner to the right of the band as you look at the set on the TV.
“We had a very good view of everything, including the judges’ desk,” he says, “and it was an excellent, if exhausting, experience.”
Why don’t tickets guarantee a seat?
- Ticket numbers vary but they are free. Not everyone who receives a ticket turns up on the day so the BBC says it has to issue more tickets than there are seats available to ensure a full studio – and this is the same procedure for many programs
- The BBC says it considers how many extra tickets to issue for each show on a weekly basis, taking into account tickets assigned to guests
- It says it is rare that it has to disappoint ticket holders, but recommends arriving in good time
- Entry into the show is on a first come, first served basis, and is not guaranteed but once your ticket or tickets have been validated you know that you will get into the studio