As their life story is told in a new TV drama, Torvill and Dean tell how passion and discipline led to victory on the ice
Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent- The Observer
The real point of skating brilliantly, above all the sparkle and the skill, is to communicate with an audience, and Olympic champions Torvill and Dean believe the latest stars of the ice rink are in danger of forgetting this.
Speaking ahead of a new television drama about their privately tempestuous early career, to be screened on Christmas Day, the British skating duo said they would like to see emotion come back into competitive skating.
“I accept the sport has moved on,” said Christopher Dean, 60. “And that kids who do it at an elite level know the judges are looking for technique now. But there is a negative aspect to this: the connection with the audience gets lost.”
Dean, who is played by Game of Thrones star Will Tudor in ITV’s feature-length film, Torvill and Dean, is a Nottinghamshire miner’s son who began skating at the age of 10 and worked as a policeman while he trained relentlessly at the rink, building up to an Olympic victory in 1984 in Sarajevo. By his side, of course, was his skating partner, the reserved and determined Jayne Torvill, from the suburbs of Nottingham, who was a national champion in her teens.
Torvill, played on screen by Poppy Lee Friar, has welcomed the chance to look back at an era when skating was not a route to money or fame: “I find a lot of young people say that they want to be famous, whatever that takes, rather than finding the thing they love and working at it,” she said.
“There are certainly easier ways to become famous,” adds Dean. “Young people have to realise that when they watch the drama. There was every chance I would be back being a policeman afterwards. There was no money in skating.”
Dean regards his own childhood as close to that of a real-life Billy Elliot. “That was my story too,” he said. “My dad worked eight-hour shifts down the pit and I had always thought I was going to be a miner. Then I got some skates for Christmas.”
So he is pleased that the new film emphasises the effort involved in their triumphs. “What we have done didn’t come easily. You have to put the time in, although I think Jayne and I both wish we had taken in more of our success back then.”
The screenplay, by Made in Dagenham writer William Ivory, centres on the powerful blend of artistic feeling and athletic discipline the skaters developed. “Will wanted to get inside the relationship,” said Dean. “He was fascinated by it and we both felt excited and humbled at the idea.”
But reading the script for the first time proved challenging for Dean: “There are moments that made me emotional – just thinking, yes, we did that. At the time it didn’t feel like a job; it was about passion, beauty and discipline. We have written books about it, but seeing it committed to moving pictures was much bigger somehow.”
While the world was speculating about a real-life romance on ice, the partners now admit they were often arguing, but always about skating.
“I think the film will get across that it was great fun yet very hard,” said Torvill, 61. “We knew the harder we worked, the better our chances. At the time you’re not thinking how amazing it is. You have no time to do that.”
Torvill said she found the childhood scenes in last year’s hit skating film I,Tonya, about US skater Tonya Harding, especially compelling. The film, starring Margot Robbie, built up to the physical attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s rival, which her ex-husband was later found to have orchestrated. “It brought back memories of that era, because we were there at that Olympics in Norway,” said Torvill.
She and Dean scored maximum points at Sarajevo in 1984 for their Ravel’s Boléro routine, and also won British, European and World Championship medals. British ice skating was at a peak. Public interest was high following the earlier triumphs of champions John Curry and Robin Cousins.
“Suddenly in 1984 lots of journalists started turning up at our training centre,” remembers Torvill, who lives with her husband, Phil Christensen, and their two children in East Sussex.
“The interest in Chris and me has never really gone away, especially since we started dancing together again and appearing on Dancing on Ice,” she said. “We are more under the microscope in some ways, as it is not just four papers and two television channels any more.”
At the height of their fame, Torvill and Dean did not confirm or deny whether they were a couple away from the rink. They saw it, they said, as part of a story that the public loved.
Torvill is grateful, though, that there was little emphasis on appearance in her early career. “It wasn’t all about how you looked then; it was more about the skating. As I got a bit more famous there was interest in my short hair. I did it because I saw somebody else had theirs cut and it was practical.”
After a 1998 tour, Torvill and Dean intended to quietly retire. Dean moved to the US to live with his second wife, the American skater Jill Trenary, and start a family. But in 2006 the skating show Dancing On Ice, which returns to ITV in January, brought them together as judges.
While the show is entertaining, Dean also sees it as a way to promote the sport he loves. He and Torvill are also glad about the pop-up ice rinks that dot the country in winter.
“I wish there were more rinks generally,” said Torvill. “It is a two-hour drive to a rink from my house – so that is your whole day gone.”
“The Christmas pop-ups are a really good taster,” said Dean. “Especially for kids, who don’t tend to see the fear in it that adults can.”