Strictly Come Dancing rolled into town yesterday with the arena tour of the immensely popular BBC show. For those who don’t know the programme, a bunch of celebrities are partnered up with a professional ballroom dancer and they learn how to dance. Each week they dance on TV and we get to vote for our favourites. The two lowest scoring celebrities have to go in a ‘dance off’ and the judges then decide who will be going home. Over the weeks people are eliminated until we have a winner. It’s a hugely popular programme, watched by millions, that has spawned similar shows around the world making the BBC a packet of money in fees.

It’s a fun programme to watch and see how people develop. Some celebrities are accused on going into it to revive flagging careers. And, if I was a celebrity with a flagging career, I’d prefer to dance instead of eating insects and kangaroo’s testicles in the Australian rainforest or being locked in a house with a bunch of other people I’m sure I wouldn’t like for a couple of weeks. It’s interesting to see how some celebrities discover a completely new talent they didn’t have and go from just happy to be on BBC prime time TV to really caring about and embracing the experience they are having.

Well, while I was laid up with my ankle, Strictly, along with its nightly fanshow, It Takes Two, got me through the boredom and while I was buying stuff off the internet from my bed and sofa, I secured some tickets.

Manchester was incredibly busy yesterday and, close to the Manchester Arena, we had problems finding a place to have have comfortable pre dancing drink. Eventually we got a table in the Prosecco Bar in the centre of the Corn Exchange, where the barman made us a Raspberry Gin Fizz and a Caipirinha which is Brazil’s national cocktail. I like a country that has a national cocktail. The guy was very taken with my wonderful, orange, Peaky Blinders hat, everytime I wear it someone comes up to talk about it.

Cocktails drunk we headed to the Arena to get seated. I’d had an email saying that, after last May’s tragedy, the security was going to be thorough and strict and so it was. My bag had to be under a certain size, absolutely no backpacks, and there was a list of things  we couldn’t take in with us. I ended up with my little bag, my phone, my wallet and a small umbrella I bought at Marks & Spencer’s that morning.

There was airport style security and all 15,000 plus people attending had to go through it with electronic body searches and every bag had to be opened and checked. I saw no complaints, people are very aware of why it has to be like this. Why would someone bomb an audience of middle England attending a dance event of a TV programme? Well for the same reason they would attack a concert by a pop star attended by her fans of young women and children. Because they can. We joined the queue to get in under the railway bridge on Victoria Street…

The queue snaked by Chetham’s Music School in its medieval buildings…

And then on towards Victoria Station, turning back on itself  several times…

The circular building in the distance is the, under construction, Hotel Indigo…

Eventaully we got to the place where bags were searched and bodies were waved wands at. They people were thorough, pleasant with us but speedy. Once searched we were allowed into the Arena…

It’s the first time I’ve been to an event here since May’s events and I did find it a slightly upsetting experience. Although it was full of thousands of people out to enjoy themselves, that was exactly what the people who died and were injured at the Ariana Grande concert were intending to do. The actual attack took place in the City Room which is beyond the doors in the top picture.

Music was playing in the Arena while we waited for Strictly to begin. The last piece was Ariana Grande’s track ‘One Last Time’, the one she sang in her concert here and finished her amazing benefit concert at Old Trafford Cricket Stadium two weeks later. Hardly a coincidence I think.

Then the Strictly theme struck up and we were in the Strictly sequinned, spray tanned, star spangled bubble. The Arena show follows the formula of the TV show. The set is an Arena sized version of the one we see on TV. We have a host and the popular judges. There are spectacular group dances by the professionals with slick scenery changes. And then we get to see the celebrities and their professional partners recreate two of their most popular dances. The judges judge and vote. Then we get to join in by voting, by text, for our favourites. At the end the winner is awarded the Glitterball Trophy. As it was Manchester, local girl Gemma Atkinson and her popular professional partner, Aljaž won. Sadly, the light show made it impossible to take pictures of the dancers performing, the pictures were just flashes of light. I did manage these of the stage before the light show began in earnest though.

To do the security searches, they only had two entrances to the Arena opened. At the end of the event all of the exits were opened to allow people to get out as quickly and efficiently as possible. We were heading back into the city for dinner so we aimed for Victoria Station which took us through the City Room where the attack was. It was unrecognisable from what I remember it. The walls have disappeared behind huge temporary structures covered with bees and the hashtags that were used in the weeks following the attack. I suppose they are still trying to work out how to deal with this space, a vital link between the Arena and the station but a space that is so sensitive. At some time there will be some kind memorial to what happened but its nature hasn’t been decided yet. I took no pictures, it would have been deeply disrespectful to do so at the moment. People making their way through the space fell quiet as the realised where they were. Walking through a space where people died violently and were maimed was shocking and sobering in contrast with the joyful Strictly experience we had just had.

Moving on…

Note to self….if expecting to have dinner in Manchester on a busy Saturday evening, book well in advance! We’ve had a huge number of restaurants open in the city in the last few years. Some people wonder how they all survive. The odd one doesn’t. But last night every one was packed to the rafters. On top of the people coming into Manchester just for a meal, 15,000 people left the Arena looking for dinner at the same time as ANOTHER 15,000 were arriving in the city looking for dinner before the evening Strictly show. We had thought about going to Wahaca, a favourite Mexican restaurant, in the Corn Exchange but that was out of the question. We headed along Deansgate to Lunya, a nice Spanish place we like, and it was the same story.

Eventually we ended up in our Thai favourite, Thaikhun in Spinnningfields, where we got a table, but only on the promise that we weren’t there all evening as it was booked in a hours time. That promised, we actually got sat down to eat. Like everywhere else the restaurant was busy.

We had some starters to share. Some of the best Prawn Toast with a Sweet Chilli Sauce I’ve ever had and some Thai Fishcakes, more like fish balls. Delicious….

Then we had Chicken with Chilli and Beef with Chilli served with Jasmine Rice….

It was, in spite of the sadness of my first Arena visit since the attack, a very good day.

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