“You here for the dancing?” asks the taxi driver, before giving me a quick tour of Bray’s showbiz hotspots – Sinead O’Connor’s house, and Kilruddery House where, I’m told, Ireland’s Fittest Family is filmed.
We arrive at Bray Business Park, not exactly a likely epicentre of razzle-dazzle. Still, appearances are deceiving. Once through the door of Ardmore Studios Film Factory, a pro dancer in full costume glides past: taut, precise in her movements, bronzed and shiny of limb, like a prize racehorse. Today is filming day on Dancing With The Stars Ireland, so through the doors lies a Narnia of glitz, glamour and rhinestones. Lots and lots of them.
By Sunday, the day the live TV show goes out on air, much of the spadework on each episode has already been done. The celebrity contestants, and their professional dancing partners, have been practising a routine – essentially, a mini-musical production – all week at Liffey Trust dance studios in Dublin.
Creative producer Darren Bennett, who has helmed productions of the Strictly Come Dancing format in a dozen other territories, has been hard at work all week too. He has created hairand make-up concepts for each routine, and delivered mood-boards to creative personnel. In tandem with the contestants, music has been chosen. Costumes have been delivered, mainly from DSI London, and tailored to fit. Bennett's wife Lilia Kopylova, another former Strictly dancer, has spent the week choreographing a routine for the pro dancers, to be broadcast before the elimination.
“It can be a real jigsaw puzzle, choosing the costumes,” explains Bennett, easily the most delightfully effervescent person around for miles. “You can only have one of each colour [dress] there in every episode, and you don’t want to put people in a colour they’ve worn before.”
By 8.30am on Sunday, the dancers and contestants have arrived to the hair and make-up station. According to chief make-up artist Lisa O’Connor, it takes five minutes to complete make-up for the men – she tells me this while combing pro dancer Ryan McShane’s magnificently manicured beard – and 30 minutes for female contestants. “Erin’s [McGregor] look took a little longer, as her look is very strong for the paso doble,” says Lisa. “Some weeks, the looks are very soft, but you have to be able to see it from the cheap seats as well.”
The hair and make-up and the costume teams are more than aware they’re taking contestants to the outer edges of their comfort zone. Comedian and 2FM presenter Bernard O’Shea, for instance, resembles the product of a fling between Liberace and Cats’ Mr Mistofelees, and appears a supremely good sport about it.
Has any of the celebs flat-out disliked their costume? Monica Ennis, costume supervisor, keeps counsel. "Sometimes it can be a bold colour and they don't particularly like it, or they might not like that it doesn't have sleeves. We try and persuade them that it's a costume, and not a fashion plate." "The pro dancers are definitely the pickiest," observes Kopylova later.
By 2pm, RTÉ's GAA man on the spot Marty Morrissey and comedian and actor Deirdre O'Kane are getting the finishing touches to their live-show looks in the make-up room. Seven weeks into the series, the vibe is industrious, but definitely relaxed.
“The plastic surgery around here is fantastic,” Morrissey smiles as Lisa gets to work on his eyebrows. “Try us at 6.15 though – that’s when the panic sets in. It might be 5.45 actually.”
Does he really get nervous? “I think we all do,” he says. “Most of us are really outside our comfort zone here.”
This is the first show to feature the dance-off; one of the eight remaining contestants will cha-cha-cha their last (in this case, Bernard O'Shea, dancing with partner Valeria Milova, is eliminated). With the stakes raised there is, I am told, more tension in the studio than usual.
But there's little denying the familial, easygoing atmosphere among DWTS Ireland's contestants. Each of them doubtless want to stay in the competition, but they are a tight group, enjoying another's highs and commiserating together on lows. (In the absence of any evident romance between contestants, a regular occurrence on the British version of the show, fans have honed in on a "bromance" between Jake Carter and Rob Heffernan.)
“I think what happens on a show like this is people are together for so many weeks, rehearsing before they get to the studio, so it becomes very collegiate. A sort of Stockholm Syndrome takes over,” says executive producer Larry Bass.
Herein, I suspect, lies the ongoing success of the Strictly format. The “I’m not here to make friends” iteration of reality TV has long been supplanted by something much more cheery and benign, and the enthusiasm of DWTS’s contestants is infectious. It’s this warm glow, coupled with the glamour of the costumes, and the physicality of the challenging routines, that has birthed a winning formula.
Before last year, Bass had spent 11 years trying to get DWTS on to Irish screens. Shinawil Productions has long had stellar form in live TV, and the production appears effortlessly polished, run by a well-greased machine of hundreds. ("This is by far the slickest small show in a production sense," affirms Bennett).
“Strictly is an international television format, and we create the show according to a structured bible, to be true to the original [series] but bring a little Irish twist from a design point of view,” explains Bass. “If you look at the pillars and lanterns, they’re a nod to Clery’s, while the booths around the dance-floor are different to any other version of the show in the world, and [evoke] the old Irish ballrooms.”
That’s not to say that things don’t occasionally go wrong: “We have paramedics here all day Saturday and Sunday, not just for the dancers but for crew,” explains Bass. “That’s the nature of the beast unfortunately. We’ve had lots of dancers suffer an injury, and have to go out and dance through sheer pain. Denise McCormack last year couldn’t do half the dances in rehearsals [owing to injury], but had to do it on the night.”
After the resounding success of last year’s inaugural series, was it easier to enlist celebrity names for this year.
“No, not at all,” says Bass. “And it will be even harder for the third year. You’ll always have people who want to be on the show, and that’s not meaning that we necessarily want them. You need to right mix of old and young, people who have some ability to nail it on the dancefloor, and others who might not have the same ability but will entertain. By now, we have proved our case [to celebrities] that from a career management point of view, this is a good thing.
“In other countries, they have politicians but unfortunately we’re in a political climate that we could have an election at any time, so we’re not even going to go there,” he adds. “Lots of politicians would love to be on the show and I’ll love to see their little rinces [dances].” Pressed for a wish-list, he adds: “There are a couple of brothers in Kerry I wouldn’t mind talking to. And Mary-Lou [McDonald] would definitely keep it interesting.”
As is often the case with TV, the DWTS studio is much smaller than it seems on-screen. The look is created with a tangle of optics, graphics and projections – in the event of a power cut, the DWTS studio would turn back into a warehouse fairly quickly.
There are several areas off the main set: a sort of ante-room for dancers to limber up in and receive their make-up retouches; a cafeteria where curries, chillis and salads are served to crew and contestants; the wardrobe department, an expansive blizzard of sequins, tulle and rhinestones.
Nearby, there's a holding area where the (over-18) audience for the live show are warmed up by James Patrice. Patrice presides over the Facebook Live segments for the show, often enlisting various celebrities.
Upstairs are the dressing rooms for the pro dancers, celebrities, judges, Bennett and Kopylova, and presenters Amanda Byram and Nicky Byrne. Julian Benson's extensive jacket wardrobe lives upstairs in stylist Clementine MacNeice's workspace, along with Nicky Byrne's tuxedos and Amanda Byram's sweeping gowns, in this week's case, a strapless Alex Perry dress from Ivory Closet.
A live rehearsal, taped at 2.30pm, is essentially a run-through of the real thing, albeit open to a family audience, and filmed without judges Loraine Barry, Brian Redmond and Julian Benson. The dancers aside, the two busiest people on the crew appear to be the Steadicam operator, who literally runs around the floor in circles to create those sweeping wide shots, and the poor sod whose job is it to mix up the props from dance to dance.
Ryan Tubridy has come along to the rehearsal with one of his daughters (“my curiosity has gotten the better of me”) and is devoured by the young audience. The young crowd proves an interesting barometer as to the contestants’ ongoing popularity: they go apoplectic for Marty Morrissey (“the Marty Party”), Deirdre O’Kane and Erin McGregor in particular.
Everything goes smoothly in the rehearsal, but for one minor moment: during a particularly dynamic lift, the head of Rob Heffernan's partner Emily Barker sweeps perilously close to the floor.
Job done on the live rehearsals, much of the cast mingle with the young fans for selfies, or retreat to the make-up area. Depending on how cumbersome or cinching the costume, some change into dressing gowns before the live taping of the show proper at 6.30pm. If they’re nervous, they’re doing a stellar job of hiding it.
Right before filming of the live show, the three judges materialise. A week previously, Erin McGregor’s partner Ryan McShane had criticised the marking, particularly that of Loraine Barry, noting in an outburst that she was marking him and McGregor harder than the others.
Barry, however, is upfront in her approach. “For me, I don’t think it’s tough at all,” Barry counters. “That’s down to my experience. I’m not cold-hearted in any way. I have a big heart and a lot of my students would confirm that. Speaking for myself, what marks I give is absolutely my truth at that moment in time, and there’s no sort of conniving in it.”
Still, it comes as a surprise later to see Erin McGregor – not just popular, but pretty much as light on her feet as the pros – wind up in the dance-off with Bernard O’Shea. Yet with O’Shea eliminated, McGregor will go on to waltz for another day. Proof positive that in the topsy turvy world of RTE’s latest light entertainment behemoth, anything can happen.
Dancing With The Stars is on RTÉ One on Sundays at 6.30pm