Sitting in an audience with a former Strictly Come Dancing contender to my right and a couple sashaying directly in front, the world of the ballroom dancer is an altogether more glamorous setting than the Broadcast office. It's a world where sequins and feathers are a must-have and where calling a man “twinkle toes” is the highest compliment. Amid the Victorian grandeur of London's Langdon Down centre, Mentorn Media was filming Diet on the Dancefloor, its new eight-part series for Living - and I had a ringside seat.
If you believe the blurb, Diet picks up on the craze for getting into shape through dance. Ten ordinary people take part with the dual task of accomplishing various dance routines and losing weight in the process. Like the BBC's Strictly, each of the participants is paired with a professional dancer. Every week they learn a different routine, choreographed by the professional and performed at a dance-off.
The dieting element comes courtesy of sports physician Dr Catherine Spencer-Smith who is also one of the series judges. At the end of each episode, the judges decide which of the contestants has made the least progress in their dancing and fitness levels. They are then eliminated from the competition.
Joining Spencer-Smith on the judging panel are Matthew Cutler, who won the latest series of Strictly, and Karen Hardy, who won in 2006. Signing them up is clearly a canny move designed to capitalise on the success of Strictly, which bagged a ratings average of 11.4 million for its most recent final.
But is Diet a Strictly Come Dancing spin-off too far? Hannah Wyatt, co-executive producer on the series, thinks not: “We've taken it to a whole new place with the fitness element. Yes, they're dancing with professional dance partners, but the similarities end there. For a lot of the contestants it's been a very emotional and personal journey and the transformation has been incredible. They really do look different.”
Still, there's no doubt as to what inspired the series. “The idea came from seeing how much weight the celebrities [on Strictly] lost,” says Wyatt. “I think John Barnes [former England international footballer] shed something like two stone and I thought, ‘Well, why can't we get them to dance to lose weight?'”
The new format was pitched to Living's senior commissioning editor Mark Sammon and the final sign-off came at the beginning of this year. Series producer Kathryn Lennox and her team then got straight into finding the all-important contributors.
Finding the male contestants proved the biggest challenge, according to Dan Barraclough, co-executive producer. “You set yourself so many hurdles,” he says. “You need a guy who can dance, he's got to be overweight and he's got to be an entertaining character with a compelling back-story. Kathryn and her team had quite an interesting animal to find.”
To solve this problem, the team trawled sports clubs and gyms where they felt they would have their best chance of finding the right men. Plus there was the usual cold-calling and placing ads in newspapers. “We had nearly 2,000 people applying,” says Lennox. “It took the team forever to get through them all. We were spoilt for choice.”
Back at the Langdon Down centre, the contestants had performed their routines in front of the judges and one of them had been sent home. I caught sight of the unfortunate also-ran still sobbing in the corridor while being filmed on a Sony Z1 on my way out. It's this drama and the strong characters involved that will be pivotal in making this series a success rather than a gimmick. A potential stumbling block is the fact the three judges also double up as the presenters. While former Strictly champions Matthew and Karen bring flair and glamour to proceedings, the dance-off could benefit from a Brucie or a Len Goodman to add some extra oomph.
Perhaps the most important thing will be for the series not to take itself too seriously. Luckily, the signs are that it won't. Take one of the professional dancers who did the box splits and squeezed her upper-body through the legs of her partner. Face down on the ground and patiently waiting for their cue to begin dancing, she lifted her hand into the air and shouted to the director: “I'm ready!” When this episode goes out, viewers will be glad to find, she doesn't get stuck.
Diet on the Dancefloor is a Mentorn Media production for LIVING. It starts on Wednesday
16 July at 9pm.
Kathryn Lennox: My tricks of the trade
The most important thing to get right is the casting. Go for characters you wouldn't normally expect to see on TV and/or people with amazing back stories.
Good catering is key. A well-fed team is a happy team!
Multitasking: with a small team and a tight budget it's important everyone pulls together. The SD doubled as set and lighting designer, the AP the taster tapes and the SP and exec were very hands on with costumes...especially the dresses.
Remember: location, location, location. We needed a sprung dancefloor, a stage, dressing rooms, a make-up room and a doctor's room as well as plenty of areas to film - all on a very limited budget!
Have fun! We were lucky to have a fantastic team. Everyone really enjoyed it and that comes across on screen.