Strictly confidential: We chat to Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag
Ahead of their appearance at tomorrow's BBC Proms in the Park, the dancers talk to Maureen Coleman
They're the Fred and Ginger of modern day ballroom dancing, his old-fashioned, gentlemanly charm complementing her elegance and glamour. For 17 years now, Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag have been tripping the light fantastic together, in a journey that has seen them rise through the amateur rankings, turn professional in 2002 and become household names on BBC1's prime-time show Strictly Come Dancing.
The pair enjoy such a close bond the happily-married Boag refers to him as her "other husband". When she tied the knot to business executive Peter O'Dowd on Italy's Amalfi coast in June 2009, the dapper Du Beke was her "bridesman". And when she gave birth to baby Ewan earlier this year, Du Beke was immediately offered the role of godfather.
Kent-born Du Beke (48) and New Zealander Boag (39) were among the original line-up of professional dancers when Strictly Come Dancing launched in 2004. Boag left the series last year after discovering she was pregnant with her first child. Du Beke has appeared in all 12 series and will partner Andy Murray's mum Judy this year.
But the couple still find plenty of time to dance together, going on nationwide tours, which have brought them to Belfast five or six times. And they'll be back in the city tomorrow to take part in the BBC Proms in the Park at the iconic Titanic Slipways.
The dance superstars will be treating the audience to two classic routines – a Quick-Step and a romantic Viennese Waltz.
The quick-witted, quick-footed Du Beke had just started rehearsals for the new series of Strictly when we caught up for a chat ahead of the BBC Proms Titanic event.
"It's perfect timing really," he tells me, during a rushed lunch-time break.
"The Strictly live shows start at the end of the month and today's the first day that we've been in rehearsals. It means I can pop over to Belfast in the morning to dance with Erin that night and be back home on Sunday for another week of rehearsals.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world. We did the Proms in the Park in London last year and it was incredible. But we both love coming to Belfast as well. We always get such a lovely response in the city. Every experience we've had in Belfast has been tremendous."
Du Beke is hoping he has enough time to slip out and explore the Titanic Quarter during his short stay in Belfast.
"I really want to visit the Titanic Museum," he says. "I think the Titanic Quarter looks amazing. It'll be a joy to dance there, especially with a wonderful 60-piece orchestra. The atmosphere will be fantastic."
I point out that the Titanic Quarter hosted last weekend's world title fight between Carl Frampton and Kiko Martinez. It turns out Du Beke is a big fan of boxing.
"Yes, I know," he enthuses. "I was delighted to see Carl win. I've been following his career for a while now. I'm a big fan. I know his manager, Barry McGuigan, well. It was great to see Carl win, not just for him, but for Belfast."
McGuigan himself was part of the line-up of Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special in 2011, when he was paired off with Boag. The same show saw Du Beke partner former Hi-De-Hi star Su Pollard. Perhaps, because of Du Beke's larger-than-life personality, he has often found himself dancing with the show's more colourful characters, those who can be relied upon to provide plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Who could forget the routine when he bravely dragged Ann Widdecombe by her legs around the dance floor?
Given that he often ends up with the show's hopeless cases, it's no surprise that Du Beke has yet to get his hands on the coveted glitterball, although he did win the Golden Pudsey Award during the BBC's Children In Need 2008.
"Yes, that was brilliant," he laughs. "I was paired with Tess Daly (SCD's co-host) and we beat Sir Terry Wogan and Flavia (Cacace), but we were at an advantage as he had a dodgy knee.
"The thing is, I do take it seriously, of course I do. It's a competition and a show at the end of the day, and it's important to me that whoever I'm partnered with has a great time and a wonderful experience."
How does he rate Judy Murray so far?
"It's hard to say as we've literally just started rehearsals," he replies. "But I'm happy with her. So far it's going well. She's coming on. I don't want to say that she'll be a surprise, but I think she'll surprise herself.
"I just want to make sure that she really enjoys the Strictly experience so I don't want to mess around. The first night we dance together will be very nerve-wrecking. I can't give too much away, but it will be a slow ballroom."
Du Beke, whose favourite book is Fred Astaire's autobiography, Steps In Time, says he's happiest when dancing with a top hat and cane. A flirtatious smooth-talker, who stills receives text messages from the formidable Ms Widdecombe, he obviously adores the company of women.
His love life was the subject of much speculation in the past, when he refused to be drawn on his romantic status. And while he laughs at a description of himself as a "straight man in a gay man's body", he is strictly a ladies' man. For the past couple of years he's been dating a marketing executive called Hannah Summers, though he gives little away about his private life. He adores Erin though, and says he misses her terribly from the show.
"But I get to dance with the lovely Iveta, so I can't complain," he says.
Another face he misses from the Strictly family is former presenter Sir Bruce Forsyth, who was replaced this year by Claudia Winkleman. The quirky brunette now co-hosts alongside Strictly stalwart Tess Daly.
"We all miss Brucie," he says. "He's a hero of mine. But the two girls work great together. They did an excellent job with the launch show last week."
He's not surprised that Strictly's launch show last Sunday beat the X Factor in the television ratings and says he's thrilled to be part of such a popular show.
"It was always going to do well last weekend with it being the launch show," he says.
"Viewers want to see which celebrity the dancers are being paired off with.
"Then you've got the fantastic music, the costumes, the dance routines, the judges and, of course, me in a well-cut suit. What more could you ask for?"
He hasn't been able to sneak a peek at Judy's competitors yet, but reckons Kelly Brook's hunky ex Thom Evans could be one to watch.
"All the ladies love him. I've no idea why," he jokes. "But from the group dance last week, I also think Caroline Flack, Pixie Lott and Simon Webbe could be good."
And what about Judy Murray, I ask?
"Oh, this will be our year," he says. "We'll get our hands on that glitter ball and split the sharing. She can have it for six months and then I'll have it. It's about time, after all."
Cheering Du Beke on this year in his latest bid to be crowned Strictly champion will be his long-term friend and dance partner Erin.
After taking part in 10 series of the show as a professional dancer, she decided to quit last year when she found out that she was expecting. Four months ago she gave birth to a baby boy on the same day her husband Peter celebrated his 50th birthday.
She has no regrets about leaving Strictly behind her, saying she has very fond memories of the show. But she says the time was right to go and that motherhood was her number one priority.
"I love being a mum, it's an absolute pleasure," she says. "I didn't think I was going to enjoy it so much. I get woken up every morning at the crack of dawn by my little baby and when I poke my head over the top of his basket, he's always smiling back at me. You can't be upset at that. Every day is different. Every day is a milestone. I love it."
Tomorrow night Boag will be back in Belfast with Du Beke to dance at the BBC Proms in the Park event. And while she knows she'll miss Ewan, she says he's in safe hands.
"My husband Peter is great with him," she says. "They'll have a boys' day together and it will be fine. And when I arrive home on Sunday and walk through the door, I'll probably find them tucked up in bed together."
When Ewan was born there was never any doubt that Du Beke would be godfather and Boag says he's a natural with children.
"Obviously Anton and I are very close so it would have been wrong if he hadn't been godfather," she says. "I mean, he was my bridesman when I got married!"
In all those years getting up close and personal with each other, was there ever a spark between the pair?
"Well, that's a secret," she laughs, before adding: "We're very good friends."
Boag admits she would love to see her best friend tie the knot too and says she's extremely fond of his girlfriend Hannah.
"Of course, I'd like to see him married," she says. "Hannah, his girlfriend, is marvellous.
"I told him 'Why don't you get married next year in the south of France? I could do with a good holiday'. I always joke with him about it but I hope he does. I'm sure he probably will some day.
"I don't think I'd be matron of honour, though. It's the bride who gets to pick that. Maybe I could be his best woman."
Boag was out for a girly night with her friend and former Strictly pro dancer Camilla Dallerup when she met her husband-to-be. Ironically, Dallerup had set her up on a blind date with another man but by the time he arrived, she had already met O'Dowd.
"Camilla's boyfriend arrived with some work colleagues towards the end of the night," she recalls. "Peter was one of them. Little did I know though that Camilla had set me up with another guy.
"He did arrive later that night but by then I'd already got talking to Peter. Anyway, he was a bit scruffy for me, he wasn't really my type."
Peter O'Dowd, on the other hand, was very much her sort of man.
"I love a suit on a man, especially a good suit," she says. "I was sitting with Camilla when this beautiful suit walked in. I thought 'Oh, that's nice' and then the suit sat down next to me. That was that, the suit never left my side."
The couple married in the stunning Italian setting of Ravello five years ago while Boag was still dancing on Strictly. But while she had a wonderful time on the show, she says she would never swap it for motherhood.
"I was faced with a decision, Strictly Come Dancing or starting a family," she says. "It was the right time to leave.
"I only ever wanted one baby. I left it late enough even for that. Now that I've had one, I'd love 100. But I don't think that's a very good idea."
Dancing is in her blood, though, and she has no intentions of giving that up.
"I still dance with Anton," she says. "I couldn't just stop dancing and I see no reason why I should. And I dance with Ewan as well. We have a little jig around the house and he giggles a lot. I sing to him and we dance and he loves it."
And Erin adds: "I'Il be back in Belfast next year with Anton for our tour. Dancing is part of me and I can't give it up."
And Alfie Boe's there too!
- Joining Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag at this year's BBC Proms in the Park in Belfast will be tenor Alfie Boe. The platinum-selling star of the West End and award-winning artist, will take centre stage at this year's concert performing some of the classic tracks that have made him one of the UK's biggest box office draws, as well as material from his forthcoming new album
- He joins a star-studded line-up of international and home-grown talent who will perform alongside the Ulster Orchestra under the baton of David Brophy at the iconic Titanic slipways tomorrow night
- Also appearing will be Grammy-nominated saxophonist Amy Dickson, the first saxophonist to win the Breakthrough Artist Award at the Classic BRITs in 2013, violinist Kirill Troussov, BBC Young Musician 2014 winner, Martin James Bartlett and jazz vocalist Dana Masters, who will be accompanied on stage by some of Northern Ireland's finest jazz musicians
- BBC Proms in the Park in Northern Ireland will be hosted by Noel Thompson and Claire McCollum. Extracts from Northern Ireland will be carried nationally across BBC One and BBC Two on the night