Strictly Come Dancing fans have waited three long years, but this weekend sees the show head north for the return of the beloved Blackpool special.
While there’s much excitement from the cast of dancers, judges, presenters and viewers alike about Strictly coming live from home of British ballroom dancing, there’s one member of the crew for which the annual spectacle often throws up some unexpected challenges.
Scenic supervisor Mark Osborne has worked on the show since 2005, and has been up to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom countless times over the years.
In his job, he works on the construction of the studio and co-ordinates the building of the sets and props that feature in the couples’ routines, as well as sorting the logistics of how of his team will manage to get huge set-pieces on and off the dance floor in between each performance.
But with Blackpool upping the ante on the production side of things, Mark – who after joining the BBC in 1983 has also worked on shows like The Generation Game, Noel’s House Party and As Time Goes By – is charged with helping to ensure things are “bigger and better” than ever.
Mark Osborne has worked on Strictly since 2005
He tells HuffPost UK: “About four or five weeks in, people just mention the word [Blackpool] and there’s mutterings, and you start thinking, ‘Oh yes, I need to get that sorted.’
“The problem we’ve got this time, because we haven’t been there for a couple of years, you think, ‘Oh it’s alright really, it wasn’t too bad.’ And then it suddenly starts getting [closer] and you’re like, ‘Oh no, it is bad!’” he laughs.
As our behind-the-scenes look at Strictly continues in our Backstage At The Ballroom series, Mark shares the secrets of what you don’t see on screen each week, and why, come the Blackpool special, he becomes “the most boring man on Strictly”...
When I first got asked to do Strictly, I was thinking, ‘Do I want to do all those Saturdays? And will it really run?’
They did two series of Strictly in the first year and after the second, I got asked to do it by Patrick [Doherty], who is the designer. I came and did it and fell in love with it a little bit, because I was a bit amazed by these people who come in and commit a lot. And I’ve stayed on it ever since.
You look back on the early series and how it looked and think, ‘Oh god, is that how we used to do it?!’
It’s like a lot of things – they didn’t have a scandalous amount of money, but they wanted to make this programme. We’ve gone from just a bit of red drape and some tables to this huge amazing set that everyone seems to love.
We used to have star cloths everywhere, and when you did it, you think it looks amazing, but then you look back… I suppose it’s like fashion.
How Strictly Come Dancing looked in its early years
Some of the changes we made during Covid look so beautiful, we kept them…
We used to have one single judges’ desk and then for Covid we went to singular desks. I think they look fantastic and are brilliant. It’s so strange how we got pushed into it because of Covid, but thank goodness we did because of how beautiful it looks. And then you’ve got these lovely tables now that used to keep everyone apart, but now you wouldn’t have it otherwise.
The railcam they’ve got now at the front too – we didn’t used to have that and had it because we couldn’t get near people. Would we have ever made those decisions? We probably would never have changed the look.
The Strictly Come Dancing ballroom as it looks now
It takes two-and-a-half weeks to build the ballroom each year…
It starts the first day of August, and from an empty shell to how you see it on a Saturday night, takes two-and-a-half weeks. It’s a slightly quicker process to get out – probably just over a week.
We only have seven days to build all the sets and props for each live show…
Catherine Land, the performance designer, liaises with the dance team then speaks to me and says, “We want this, can we have it?” We then have to go, “You can have this, but you can’t have that because we’ve only got space for this,” so you have to have a bit of compromise with all these elements to it. We have 90 seconds to get one set of props on, and one set of props off – that’s what you have to accept.
There’s five crew with me and then throughout the three days – we do Thursday, Friday and Saturday – two carpenters and a painter on site, and Catherine has an art department team of four with her. We work as one big team. There’s also a couple of companies who build some of [the sets] for us.
Mark on set with one of the props used in a 2020 group dance number
The running order is about all parties chatting and compromising…
Sarah James [the show’s executive producer] will say to me, “Can these two [couples] go next to each other?” and I’ll say, “Yes they can, but you’ll have to get Claudia to chat a bit more,” so we’ll put 10 seconds on her chat.
You’re also slightly dictated to, in that you can’t have two Latins next to each other, or three ballroom dances in a row. You just have to find the balance. Throughout the Friday and the Saturday, we have a little chat and we’ve learned over the years by being friends that that’s the best way to go about it.
All the sets are stored in a great big hanger – it’s like a magical land…
Whoever makes it to the final, you have to have keep all their props because one of their dances will be their favourite dance, so you can’t get rid of anything or recycle it until December.
We then go [to the hanger] in January and go, ‘Do we really need 54 park benches?’ No we don’t, so we’ll keep three or four. It all goes to a recycling centre and then we keep a certain amount of it in a smaller store.
I find it fascinating how AR and sets work together…
AR has changed what the Strictly team are able to do
For Halloween, we built some bookcases and there was the ghost that came out, and it’s about putting it exactly where Joe – who works with the AR – wants it. I think AR is one of those things that will get better and better. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work so well, as we say.
It was one of those things that we thought would help us and take some of our workload away, but I don’t think it has!
The biggest problem we have in Blackpool is that everything has to go through a double door…
The Tower Ballroom might be the biggest building in Blackpool – this beautiful ornate building with thousands of square feet – but everything you want has to go through a double door. I reiterate all the time to everyone when they say they want it bigger and better, “Yeah but, everything has to through a double door.” If you want something really big, when it’s built, it has to be taken apart and come in however many pieces and go through the double door.
I must become the most boring man on Strictly, because all I reiterate is that, “Oh yes, that will be lovely, but it has to go through a double door.”
Joe McFadden's Blackpool routine caused a headache for the team
We’ve had a couple of issues with the size of things… Joe [McFadden] came down on a big clock. It was made out of metal, so we had to get the angle grinder out in the middle of the street in Blackpool and cut it in half.
All the bits we have to take to Blackpool take up a 40ft lorry…
All that we take from the studio are the pillars – there are 16 of them that wrap around the metal set – you take all of Claudia’s area, all the glittery walls and arch, and a lot of other kit.
After the show on a Saturday, we come in on Sunday, take everything apart. On the Monday, we load it all onto the truck, on the Tuesday we travel and unload that night. By that time, Catherine is still trying to get stuff built for all the dances, so that comes to us Wednesday or Thursday, and that’s when we’ve had a few problems with the door.
Blackpool sees the show go all out on the production
My favourite Blackpool moment is…
I really enjoyed Anita Rani in Blackpool. She had this huge red dress and four of my guys were up on the third floor putting lines in to pull up this piece of material, and then it just floated as if she had this huge dress on. You only get one go at it – I like things like that.
I would say the best thing we did was Stacey and Kevin’s show dance...
They were in these two rooms and everything just disappeared. We had all this floating scenery and got rid of it. Logistically, it was amazing and really exciting for us to do, because the whole crew was on it and we had to be timed on that one beat for this piece to go, and one beat for that bit to go. I think it was one of the best things we’ve ever done as a team.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Strictly Come Dancing’s Blackpool special airs on Saturday at 7.45pm on BBC One.