Lilia Kopylova prides herself on telling it direct. “Yes of course Richard is finding it very difficult,” she said in her no-nonsense Russian way on Tuesday, “but so did Darren Gough. He was like a wardrobe at the beginning.” It is now long into legend how Kopylova took Gough all the way to Strictly Come Dancing triumph in 2005 but Dunwoody, the 6th of her “Strictly” challenges, holds out little hope of emulation. “After two sessions,” he said ruefully looking round the gleaming, mirror-lined studio close to the river at Chiswick, “she said she would rather be dancing with Desert Orchid.”
Lilia is a remarkable young woman. She was the Junior Moscow ice skating champion aged 9, was already winning international dance competitions at 12, and before the age of 20 had won both the British and International Amateur Youth Championships with her future husband and professional partner Darren Bennett. As a married couple they are unique to “Strictly Come Dancing” in having both coaxed a celebrity to the top, Darren winning the opening competition in 2004 with Eastender star Jill Halfpenny. Lilia herself is also alone in having, with Matt Dawson in 2006, got another hopeful through to the runner up spot. But she makes no bones about Dunwoody being the greatest challenge so far.
“Richard is different from anyone I have ever had,” she said during a break in the four hour training sessions she has been drilling him through every weekday for the past fortnight in preparation for the opening of this year’s “Strictly” next Friday. “The others struggled at the beginning but both Darren Gough and Matt Dawson were very light on their feet. Richard just finds it very difficult to do anything involving co-ordination. To my mind a jockey would have really good core stability and balance. Yet Richard has absolutely no balance. I just don’t understand it.”
The object of this bleak assessment was sitting against the wall with the arms that pumped 1699 winners and dragged a sledge to the South Pole now wrapped wearily across his knees. Outside the panoramic first floor window green sports fields stretch towards the Thames. It is in that open air, albeit sometimes as cold as -40C, that Richard has successfully tested his manic post racing determination through a series of wondrous feats, the most recent being the “One Mile every Hour for a Thousand Hours” re-creation of the Captain Barclay walk in Newmarket 200 years ago.
Last month while preparing for the 7 day, 700 mile Mongolian Derby he received the “Strictly” call. That distant commitment only released him for a 24 hour, 20,000 mile round trip to London to accept the deal. But once home he was soon to find that this indoor test is his toughest yet.
“It is very, very hard for him,” says Lilia. She sits, cross legged as dancers do, a small, powerful, dark haired figure in a sky blue sweat shirt over black lycra leggings. The fixed smile excitement of the TV screen is a long way off as she details the problems ahead. “I admire these people who take up the challenge because it is like learning an entirely new language and, like a language, some people find it easier than others. Matt Dawson was always very quick at learning new steps but Richard finds it a real struggle. He is very fit and a perfect size and I have never had anyone as dedicated, who has actually hired a studio to dance in the morning. But it is mentally very draining – for both of us.”
Dunwoody is just out of earshot across the room but La Kopylova clearly doesn’t hold anything back when they are together. “I am doing everything I can,” she says, “but I am a very straightforward person. When things are bad I say they are bad. They are never wholly bad. You work hard and they get better. Richard is a sportsman, so he is used to criticism. But cricketers and a rugby players use their feet. Jockeys don’t use their feet. Their posture is like this,” she adds, arching herself forwards with hands and feet turned inward before flipping herself up and open in explanation, “a dancer needs to be like this. It is the completely reverse posture.”
Richard may have had the odd rollocking in his 18 years in the saddle and from the first draft of his dramatic new book slightly unconvincingly entitled “Method in my Madness” his 48 day, 680 mile slog across the Antarctic clearly had a tough exchange or two. But this is an entirely new sort of discomfort zone. At racing, and at any of the other challenges, his equine expertise and utterly implacable courage would see him through or perish in the attempt. Now grit will not be enough and death, when it comes, will not be in some lonely crevasse but in front of 10 million viewers when Bruno Tonioli turns up the final damning marking disc.
Luckily Lilia Kopylova is every bit as tough and big-hearted as Dunwoody is. “You have to work with what you have got,” she says. “You set yourself a goal and work towards it. With Richard it has taken time. We have had two weeks and we have made some progress. Next weekend we only do the “”Group Dance” and you do not get points for that. So we have another week and then we have to do the Ballroom and the Latin dance. It has not been easy. You have to find a way. You have to be clever with the choreography. I have changed the beginning of this ballroom sequence about ten times until I have got the right one. He will get better but there is not much time.”
The “Top Secret” confidentiality which surrounds “Strictly Come Dancing” makes me unable to fuirnish many details, as if I understood them, of the ballroom sequence that came next. It started with the snap of Lilia’s fingers brought Richard and her to the corner of the studio as if it was the bell for jockeys to mount in the paddock. Except that in this case, he was to be much more horse than jockey. And what a jockey.
With Richard making a passable imitation of an expectant dancer’s pose, Lilia took three springy strides towards his outstretched left arm and then pirouetted eye-catchingly beneath it before the pair swept away and across the room. No words were said. Indeed the tension of the moment hushed all sound except the swirl of the music and the sliding hussle of the feet. It is a 90 second routine. Long enough for 7 furlongs on a racecourse, and for ignominy on the screen. After the earlier frankness we had heard before, we watchers feared stumbling failure at every turn. But stumbles never came. The partners finished still tense but poised and together. There was a long pause and then Lilia gave a shriek. “I am in shock”, she cried.
“It is the first time,” she explained, “that we have ever got through the routine. This is good because it shows he is better in front of an audience. Normally we are not in front of anyone until the day and some people really fall apart when they see the judges and the public. This happened with my partner (Don Warrington) last year – he was quite good in practice but on the night everything went out of the window. Richard has responded to the pressure. Please come again. It is a little breakthrough . Every day has to be a breakthrough.”
Richard comes over with a smile with a lot of realism in it. “It is one small step,” he says, “we have made a bit of progress but it has been very hard work. I have trod on her toes, bumped her off balance, even hit her in the face. But she is very focussed and my main concern is just to keep getting through these practice sessions so that hopefully we will be well enough prepared to give it our best shot on the night. “
Not for nothing was his autobiography called “Obsessed.” Under the “Strictly” gun, Richard Dunwoody is not only hiring a studio in the mornings but cannot sleep through the night without getting up to practice his steps. Last Sunday he was in a village hall in Oxfordshire, yesterday he got Lilia off her Saturday break to push through a 4 hour extra stint in Chiswick on the Latin Dance. Of course we have all got used to, some almost irritated with, his self mocking masochism as he sets himself increasingly impossible tasks – “he ought to get a life” laughed John Francome on Friday. But this time there is something rather different and very winning about his frankness over the difficulties ahead.
“With riding,” he says, “after about four years you are doing most of it by instinct. Here you are having to programme in the individual decisions all the time. For me it needs total concentration and at the start it was extremely, extremely difficult. Lilia said it was a different language. It was, and for a while I could not understand a word of it. But she is a top girl. It is great to work with someone who is at the top of their profession. She likes to set herself challenges. The trouble this time, is that the challenge is me.”
Maybe the challenge is for racing to. As concern rises about the game seeming increasingly distant and uninteresting to the general public, here is one of its greatest ever sons putting himself into one of the biggest arenas on show. We have all queued up to have our quips at Dunwoody’s likely incompetence on the dance floor. McCoy’s contribution, after watching Richard’s Paddy Power TV commercial was that “it is bound to be better than his acting.” But the stakes are actually very high. If he drops out awkward, gallant and defeated in the very first round, a colossal opportunity will have been lost. His early marks are unlikely to be chart toppers. Yet Darren Gough got as low as a 3 and 4 in his opening Cha Cha Cha. What kept him alive was the public vote. It is up to us to keep Dunwoody afloat.
It will be difficult, for Richard is not a natural song and dance man. He will have to show his teeth not just grit them. “Yes, he has to smile,” says Lilia. “He has been telling me he is a shy person. But if he is shy he may have trouble on the night. Darren Gough performed. Darren Gough did not have a shy bone in his body.”
What will also have to come through is quite what a 24 carat nugget Richard is. No one else has ridden one, let alone two Grand National winners and then been to one, let alone both of the North and South Poles. He will not say it but judges ought surely to have notice that his final riding injury prevents his right arm doing anything approaching a full dancer’s arc. But most of all he has to let flow the uncharacteristically warm enthusiasm he loosed after dancing on Tuesday.
“When we all first met up,” he said, “it was quite surreal. We were in the coffee shop of this little playhouse and Martin Hingis was telling me about her show jumper and how Aaron Solis gave her duff tips last summer at Del Mar whilst “Tuffers”, (Phil Tufnell) saw the paparazzi outside so picked up his pint, put on his ‘aviators’ and went out to practice his steps in front of the cameras.”
“Of course it’s going to be very difficult,” he continued, “but I am not going to get panicky yet for there is something very special about this. When we practiced the Group Dance last week, I could not understand it the first day, but the second time it was terrific. There was just so much energy in the room. At the end it seemed as if even the walls were full of it. It was fantastic.”
The odds are still long ones. Lilia warns that the Latin Dance with its changing shapes and upper body movement will be even more challenging than the Ballroom. But you can detect a little gleam of hope in Dunwoody’s smile. “Hold that position,” calls out photographer Edward Whitaker, “you are standing just like a dancer.“
“A month ago,” says Richard Dunwoody, “whoever would have thought that someone saying I looked like a dancer would be the highest praise I sought.” Get ready to vote.