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The sound of Strictly

12/12/2019

Daniel Gumble visits BBC Studioworks' facilities at Elstree Studios for a look behind the scenes at a TV phenomenon

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Daniel Gumble visits BBC Studioworks' facilities at Elstree Studios for a look behind the scenes at a TV phenomenon

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Setting foot on to the set of Strictly Come Dancing is like stepping into a rainbow. Dozens of multi-coloured spotlights swirl and fizz in every direction, while LED displays and video screens bathe the room in a bubbling froth of luminescent pinks, purples, greens, blues and oranges. As we arrive to check out the rehearsals we find a beaming Anton Du Beke laughing and mopping his brow as he departs the dance floor following a run-through of his routine, soundtracked by a loud, brassy circus tune that's being prepped for the next couple. It all stands in stark contrast to the oppressive, slate grey drizzle lurching over Borehamwood's Elstree Studios on the day of our visit. It's a Friday, which means we are 24 hours away from the live Saturday night broadcast. BBC Studioworks, the studio and post production provider for Strictly, has kindly invited us into the fray for a look behind the scenes and a chat with some of the key members of the sound department, including Andy Tapley, sound supervisor, BBC Studioworks, who has worked on the show for the best part of a decade.

He takes us on a comprehensive tour of the studio where we see and hear first hand precisely what goes into the making of an episode of Strictly. The collective effort of the production team is phenomenal, as they create an audiovisual spectacular that dazzles and sparkles like the contestants' outfits, working to a schedule almost as tight.

We divvy up the mixing because it's such a big show, says Tapley, referring to his broadcast mix partner and co-sound supervisor Richard Sillitto, as TVBEurope sits down with the pair in a bustling mixing room. We have lots of circuits coming from the studio floor it's a busy show and it takes two of us to mix it. We use a system that has developed over the years as the production requirements have become bigger and bigger with each series. If you were to look back at the early days of the show you'd see it looks very different. It's evolved a lot. It certainly has. Now in its 17th series, Strictly has fought off stiff competition from numerous Saturday night prime time contenders to remain one of the most popular fixtures on the TV calendar. With each series the stakes are raised, and as the visual elements of the show are elevated, so too are the challenges placed on its sound team.

We work closely with the visuals, says Tapley. It's become more demanding in terms of the content we're covering. From a music perspective, it's very challenging. The music is incredibly diverse and has got more and more varied over the years.

Sillitto elaborates: There has been an ambition to incorporate more modern-produced tracks. It's moved away from the band just doing a cover to much more often trying to recreate the track and getting it as close to the original as possible, albeit with a pit band.

The calibre of the musicians is a huge part of that, Tapley continues. Headed by Dave Arch, the 18 session musicians seamlessly switch between orchestral scores to produced pop. They are an amazing team, as are the sound team members working in the background; organising the radio mics, band, monitors and PA. It's the professionalism of this team, and all teams on the show that make it possible.''

To help us understand what a weekly cycle of Strictly from one Saturday to the next looks like, Sillitto provides a breakdown of his and Tapley's schedule.

Principally it starts for us on a Thursday when we have a planning meeting, where we'll discuss what's happening the following week, he explains. That'll incorporate sound, lighting, props, everyone. Then Friday is spent with Howard Hopkins, deputy sound supervisor playing in commercial tracks, cameras can rehearse and it's a good time for me and Andy to have a listen to the tracks. Later this evening, all the cameras will go home and the rhythm section of the band will arrive, and we'll run through all the tracks, building up snapshots and then we'll come in on Saturday, have 15 minutes with the band to add the front line and start rehearsing with the couples. So then the couples will dance for the cameras with the live band, which gives us another two hits with them. Later on in the day we'll do a dress rehearsal, then it's live to air. Then we forget all about that and start again!

Presumably, as the show rolls on and couples are eliminated, the process becomes easier. Not so says Tapley. You'd believe that was the case, but you have to factor in that every week there might be another group dance or some special event, like Halloween, he tells us. In theory, it should get easier but it never actually does because there are always additional challenges. And in a couple of weeks we're off to Blackpool. We pack up everything and rebuild it in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. It's a big show to take on the road. Then it's back here, where we rebuild everything again and then it's the Christmas show. It's a juggernaut production that starts at the end of August and goes through to Christmas and it's only then that you take a breath.

Most of the people who work on the show across all departments have been with it for many years, so it's built quite a nice famil
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