Producer Larry Bass is giving me a tour of the Dancing with the Stars set. We're in a former printing works operated by Ardmore studios, surrounded by props: a gazebo, a tree, a fake rock. We're watching stagehand Eddie Cummins paint a bench green. "Hopefully it'll dry quickly," says Cummins. "Or someone will have green stripes on the back of their dress."
“It took me 11 years to get this on,” says Bass as we walk. “When I first asked the BBC, they felt another English language version was too close to home. After seven years of asking, eventually they relented... I think it’s RTÉ’s single biggest commission.” The BBC, he notes, do this with five times the budget and now send potential franchisees to Dublin for guidance.
He takes me into the lighting gallery, where the LED screens and lights that illuminate the set are controlled by lighting director Peter Canning and production designer Fiona Cunningham. "There are so many different styles," says Cunningham, gazing at a bank of screens. Some are straightforwardly beautiful, she says, but sometimes "you say, 'this one is going to be gaudy, just go with it.'"
Can it be too gaudy? “Not for Dancing with the Stars, no. Father Ray’s are particularly insane.”
A moment later, Father Ray appears onscreen skipping across projected flora with a pigtailed dancer. "There are no words," says Canning.
As we walk out on to the main floor, Bass points out details that make this iteration specifically Irish: audience booths based on Irish ballrooms, pillars modelled on Clerys’ and the fact that Irish contestants talk more. “It’s difficult to get them to stop talking.”
He introduces me to scriptwriter John Murphy and autocue operator Diarmuid O'Grady. We're joined by Jennifer Zamparelli who has been running through links with co-host Nicky Byrne. She is, for now, wearing a coat over an Adidas top. It's her second year hosting. "You just need to trust in people like John and have fun with it... You can't just…"
She adopts a staccato robot voice. “Read. What’s. On. The. Autocue. [You] inject as much of your personality as you can without getting fired.”
Is there a line she can't cross? She laughs darkly. "There's a very definite line on RTÉ 1 at half six, isn't there Larry?... I've been on my best behaviour."
Would she dance on the show herself? “I was asked but I was pregnant every time.”
Bass recalls a pregnant contestant on The Voice and how they had “a midwife at the side of the stage”.
“Great for the ratings,” says Zamparelli.
Does she find it scary? “Sometimes when I’m standing on the top of the stairs before I go out there’s a brief moment. But I’m very fortunate… It’s the biggest show on Irish telly and I enjoy every moment… It could end any time. Isn’t that right, Larry?”
“Welcome to telly,” says Bass.
When the power went
Things can go wrong. Several people mention the time the power went and the show went off-air for seven minutes. In the outside broadcast truck, where the "holy trinity" – vision mixer Deirdre Ryan, director Richard Valentine, and broadcast coordinator Joann Bradish – control the show, they had to use the light of their phones to see.
“The ratings actually went up when we were off air,” says Bass.
I visit the OB truck briefly. It's a busy place, illuminated by screens and with just a framed picture of Marty Morrissey for comfort. "A sort of shrine," explains series producer Ailbhe Maher.
Over lunch I ask what celebrities have turned down the show. "We've asked Dermot Bannon," says Maher.
“We’ve asked Brian O’Driscoll and Amy,” says Bass.
“We’d love a couple,” says Maher.
Later Bass says, "What I'm not allowed do is have a politician… I'd love to see Danny Healy Rae out there."
Nearby, newly retired Nationwide presenter Mary Kennedy poses with surfboards from an earlier dance. She and former contestant Glenda Gilson both hated this one, she says, so she's sending Gilson a photo. Kennedy is wearing curlers and exercise clothes. "I must look like something out of Coronation Street."
In the hair and make-up room, singing priest Fr Ray Kelly is being made up by Mary Drummond. He had a hard time, initially, due to painful sciatica, but also because, "some people didn't think a priest should be doing this kind of thing. Anonymous people. Christmas cards. One of them said, 'Remember what happened to John the Baptist. When a lady danced for him, he was beheaded'."
He’s since received more positive messages. “Last night at mass I said, ‘Don’t forget to vote for me tomorrow, I’m doing the jive’ and there was an eruption of laughter.”
The previous week, Dancing with the Stars made history in Ireland and the UK when television presenter Brian Dowling danced with male dancer Kai Widdrington. Broadcaster Lottie Ryan also danced with Emily Barker. Dowling had really pushed for this, says Bass.
“When I watch it back, I get quite emotional,” says Dowling, as his hair is coiffed into a Mohawk. “I’m an openly gay man, five years married... I should be able to dance with a guy and people shouldn’t have a f**king problem with it. And it’s been received so well. Hopefully next year you might have a same-sex partnership from the start.”
Dowling turned down the show in the past. “But we lost mum two years ago and I thought, ‘actually I’ll come out of my comfort zone’.” He says he still feels vulnerable. “I felt I needed to mix things up. Life is so short.”
A few minutes later, the dancers gather by the stage for the dress rehearsal. Hurler Aidan Fogarty is on the ground stretching. "It's the calm before the storm," says B*Witched singer Sinead O'Carroll.
"Mary Kennedy, the woman of the hour!" says dancer John Nolan as he greets his dance partner.
Floor manager and producer Sheila Meaney guides everyone through an exact replica of the show. I sit with Bass and RTÉ press person Maureen Catterson. When Father Ray dances, Catterson says, "He did two funerals this week."
“And he’s had a cortisone injection in his knee,” says Bass.
Zamparelli comes over and Catterson compliments her dress. Zamparelli worries the sleeves are too short. Is she worried about fiddling with them? “I’m fiddling with them now, but I won’t fiddle later. Don’t give me a complex!”
“We get asked every week about what Jen was wearing,” says Maureen.
“I could be saying anything out there, they’re just looking at what I’m wearing,” says Zamparelli with faux sadness.
Upstairs there's a corridor of dressing rooms. In one of these I sit with judges Loraine Barry, Brian Redmond and Julian Benson. Even offstage, says Barry, she has to compete sartorially with Benson who's wearing a golden tracksuit. "This is Julian dressed down," says Bass.
Barry refers to Brian Redmond as “Mr Nasty”. Redmond laughs. “Someone said to me, ‘You’re not as pompous in person as you come across on the television’… The most common thing I get is, ‘Come here you’ and that’s the precursor to someone having a pop but also a bit of fun.”
“And then everyone just loves Julian for all the gorgeous jackets and the positivity,” says Barry.
“I like to encourage,” says Benson, who has Cystic Fibrosis and the previous week performed a charity song for his CF foundation. They all feel pressure to be as fair as possible but Benson, they all agree, finds the choices most emotionally trying.
What do they do to prepare before the show? “Julian puts on his music,” says Barry.
"We are Family, YMCA, Whitney Houston, Abba," says Benson.
What does Redmond listen to? “Radiohead,” says Bass.
‘I didn’t think she’d win it’
In the pro-dancers room, I ask husband and wife dancers Stephen and Kylee Vincent what being in competition does to their relationship? "Well, Stephen's already out," says Kylee.
Stephen, who was Love Island star Yewande Biala’s partner, shakes his head and laughs.
What do they do between now and the show? Ryan McShane sprays himself with deodorant just as I'm asking.
“We make ourselves smell better,” says Kai Widdrington.
“No brands displayed though, Larry,” says McShane, showing him the can.
“We got pasted for putting brands up on social in the past,” says Bass. “The [spray] tanning booth downstairs is an official partner on the show [Bellamianta tanning] … but another tan got mentioned on social and they were not too happy.”
Between now and show time the dancers eat and meet family. Widdrington usually sleeps. “He’ll say, ‘I’m going to sleep’ and I turn around 30 seconds later and he’s fast asleep,” says McShane.
“I probably sleep twice a day,” says Widdrington.
In the canteen, Bass lists the romantic relationships that have started on the show: dancer Karen Byrne with former contestant Jake Carter; Emily Barker with actor Johnny Ward; and Ryan McShane with model Thalia Heffernan.
Last year’s winner Mairead Ronan and her 13-year-old son Dara join our table. When Bass first called her, she says, she thought she was being asked to present the show. She had just had a baby and wasn’t sure she wanted to dance. “But Larry’s very good at his job.”
Did Dara think she’d be good? There’s a long pause. “I thought she’d be better by the end.”
Was he surprised at how well she did? “Yeah. I didn’t think she’d win it.”
Ronan laughs. Dara is very proud of his mum. He was more nervous than she was, she says. “He couldn’t eat... I had to say to him every Sunday, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’”
She’s very happy she did it. She spots former dance partner John Nolan. “He’ll always be my John Nolan,” she says. “I might have a little tear in my eye that he’s dancing a Viennese waltz with Mary Kennedy.”
Bass goes to watch the show with RTÉ execs in a small room called Narnia (it's accessed via a fake wardrobe) and I join 300 audience members who are being roused by floor-manager Sheila Meaney and warm-up man James Patrice.
When pre-recording the professionals' dance, Meaney gets the audience to cheer for Steadicam operator Mick O'Rourke. "Come on Mick!" says the audience, then O'Rourke and his assistant, Ian Birney, weave deftly among the dancers. He's never collided with a dancer, he says, but once when filming a rugby match Rob Kearney "came thundering into me".
While the crew fix a technical issue, Meaney hands Father Ray a microphone and says, “Sing it Father Ray!” He sings. “Our single is out next week,” says Brian Dowling, leaning into the mike.
I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the actual show. You can watch it on the RTÉ player. Two stars fall foul of the public vote – Sinead O’Carroll and Brian Dowling. “C est la vie,” says O’Carroll, later, evoking her band’s hit record.
But they end up dancing for the judges who ultimately chose O'Carroll to stay. Afterward Dowling and dance partner Laura Nolan sit down with journalists. The contestants have a running joke this year, started by Dowling, in which they say with faux bitchiness "byeeee", as though they're about to be ejected. Dowling and his dancing partner Nolan laugh about this now. Dowling has one regret, he says. "I didn't get to dance to Britney. I have to have words with Larry Bass about that."
“You’ll just have to do it again,” says Bass.