STRICTLY Come Dancing Head Judge Shirley Ballas is positively fizzing with excitement when we meet to exclusively discuss her role as the Evil Queen in the Assembly Hall’s Christmas pantomime Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.
“I’m sooo looking forward to playing someone nasty!” she laughs, rubbing her hands – which are bedecked with numerous shiny cocktail rings – with visible glee as we sit down to chat all things panto.
“I’ve only done pantomime twice before and I played the good fairy type characters both times so now I’m extremely excited to be taking on the role of the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Being nasty is far more me,” she winks before throwing her head back and laughing heartily.
The Times of Tunbridge Wells has been granted a special interview with former World Latin Dance Champion and TV star Shirley during the panto cast’s official photo call at Salomons Estate. It’s the first time they have all met one another and the excitement is positively palpable as Shirley poses up a storm in her glitzy purple velvet and gold Evil Queen costume and the seven dwarfs high five one another.
“When I played the Good Fairy in Jack and The Beanstalk in 2019 everything was sweet and kind so I’m thinking this one is going to be a lot of fun – I’ve even perfected my cackle,” she reveals before letting out a shrill, high-pitched laugh that’s perfectly laced with just the right amount of naughtiness and cunning.
Shirley, who has also appeared on Dancing With The Stars in the US and is a regular on ITV’s Loose Women, may well be dressed in character for our interview but she still manages to exude the glamour she is well known for possessing as Head Judge on Strictly which she joined in 2017, replacing Len Goodman. However, Shirley does admit that she’s no seasoned panto performer and that’s pushing her out of her comfort zone somewhat.
“I think I’m definitely still on the beginner’s step when it comes to doing panto but hey, I’ll give it a go. I’m extremely easy to work with and I’m good at taking direction so that works in my favour but oh my, remembering all those lines! Well now that might be a bit of a challenge. And I may just be relying on the audience to help me!”
Shirley goes on to say that her boyfriend Daniel Taylor, an actor, has been giving her a helping hand with her lines and that it was her fellow Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood who convinced Shirley to give pantomime a whirl in the first place.
“He said ‘just go for it, you’re an extrovert so I think it might suit you’. So yes he gave me a little bit of a push of which I’m glad because I do enjoy it despite all the line learning but my boyfriend Daniel is great at helping me with that aspect. Apparently I’m very good at rhyming couplets!”
And given that Shirley will still be judging on Strictly when the panto’s run kicks off on December 17 how will she manage both I wonder?
“Oh I’m used to juggling!” she shrugs. “I’m a woman so I will multitask. Tunbridge Wells is only an hour and a half from where I live and Elstree Studios (where Strictly is recorded) is an hour and a half away from me so it’s not like I’m hundreds of miles away. I was doing lots of commuting the last time I did panto as it was up in Darlington in County Durham but this time around it’s going to be a lot easier. So much of it is down to good planning and I am an organised person so I want to know what I’m doing.
“I’ll come into rehearsals for two weeks before we launch the show – I just need to make sure as many of my lines are learnt! But I’m good with direction so if you show me what you want I’ll do it. I’m a good mimic so I’m relying on that a little too.”
However Shirley will not be appearing in either the panto’s matinee or evening performance on December 18 as that will be the Strictly final and she will obviously have to be handing out tens in Elstree that night as the show is totally live.
And as she’s such an organised person who likes to plan how does Shirley feel about having to embrace the spontaneous spirit of pantomime?
“The first year I did it I was a bit concerned about that aspect but I think if I get enveloped within the cast and the storyline it will be fine. And hey if something goes wrong then I just need to go with the flow!”
And how does Shirley feel about having to sing in panto. Is she anxious about that?
“Oh yes! I suggest that when the audience buys their tickets they know to bring a pair of earphones and so when I sing they can put them on!”
Shirley’s previous career as a world famous professional dancer will certainly provide her with the necessary experience when it comes to delivering a stellar performance in front of a live audience night after night. How will Shirley ensure she ensures the audience feel like they’re the first people to hear all the funny jokes, boos and she’s behind yous?
“You have to give a fresh performance every time. And remember the audience will only be as good as we as a cast are. If we’re not on top of our game then don’t expect the laughs – you have to work hard.”
And will the audiences in Tunbridge Wells be treated to one of Shirley’s trademark cha cha chas or sambas?
“Well let’s put it this way, the Evil Queen will showcase a little of my Latin Queen,” she teases.
Up until the cast’s first photo call Shirley tells me she had never been to Tunbridge Wells. Is she excited about discovering the town a little I wonder?
“Oh yes! I think we’re staying over a few nights here and there so I’m looking forward to going out for a dance after the performance. Do you know of any good 80s style clubs?”
I tell her that sadly the famous spa town is lacking in that particular musical genre but there are plenty of nice places to eat and drink.
“Well I’m not a drinker so I won’t be going out to pubs but I am looking forward to meeting and greeting the good people of Tunbridge Wells when I’m out and about. I think this is going to be a lot of fun and just a great experience. I’m humbled and honoured that I’ve been asked to play this role. People won’t know what to expect from me when I hit that stage!”
Tickets for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are available now from www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk The show runs from December 17 – January 3 2022 and ticket prices start at £32.50. Please note Shirley Ballas won’t be appearing in either show on December 18.