Katie Derham: Pandemic could have cost us everything but Helen McCrory was an inspiration

BBC Proms and Radio 3 presenter Katie Derham (Image: Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images)

As this year’s Strictly Come Dancing celebrities battle it out for the coveted glitter ball trophy, one veteran of the programme who knows only too well what it is like to be immersed in the ballroom bubble is Katie Derham.

The BBC Proms and Radio 3 presenter took part on the hit show not once but twice. In 2015, she was partnered with Anton Du Beke, and reached the final, only to be pipped to the post by Jay McGuiness. Then two years later, she was back on the dancefloor for the Strictly Christmas special with Brendan Cole – and this time, she won.

Four years on, the glow of victory hasn’t dimmed. “I was lucky because I got to dance with Brendan as well as Anton and whenever I watch it now, Strictly sends me back on a very happy memory,” says Katie. “I am a huge fan of Strictly and it’s amazing what you can achieve. The people who are really good make it look easy, but it is hard!”

Hugely sympathetic towards this year’s crop of stars who put as many as 12 hours a day practice into learning a new routine every week, Katie says she marvels now over how on earth she even managed to pick up the steps.

“Us muppets come in aged 44 or however old you are and you get chucked into it,” she chuckles. “There is so much going on behind the scenes and it is difficult learning the steps. But I also actually think Strictly is a really good lesson to show what you can do if you put the hours in!”

And how does she think Anton is faring as a judge on this year’s series? “Fantastically well,” replies Katie, now 51. “We all know he is hilarious but he is getting the balance beautifully right of being a laugh and giving out really good technical advice.”

And she’s quite keen on passing judgment herself. “I am a classic back seat driver now going ‘Oh well I am not sure about that footwork’.”

Katie Derham and Anton Du Beke

Katie Derham and professional partner Anton Du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing 2015. (Image: BBC)

Spending time with her family is something Katie cherishes. A hands-on mum to her two daughters, Natasha, 21, and Eleanor, 16, Katie’s husband is John Vincent, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain.

They met at Cambridge University in 1999 and they’ve been together ever since. She says the past 18 months have been particularly tough on her husband as he battled to keep his business afloat during a series of lockdowns. They even worried they might lose the family home in Sussex.

But that did not stop John stepping up to do his bit for the NHS. So, with star power from the late Helen McCrory, Damian Lewis and Matt Lucas, John and Katie set up a new charity, Feed NHS, to provide 40,000 meals every day to medics at the height of the pandemic.

“My husband’s business is restaurants and so it obviously was a challenging time,” she explains. 

“Everything did turn on a sixpence, but it was very impressive in the way John and his colleagues did their level best to keep everything going. They all did their bit and in the first few weeks, he started Feed NHS.

“It was a complete family affair.We would all be sitting at the kitchen table doing daily zooms with all the restaurants, liaising with the different health trusts and trying to work out how many meals they needed. It was very busy, as you can imagine!

“Different areas had different needs and we had to try and match those up. We were working with Helen and Damian, who were part of the driving force behind it.

“Now when I look back, I am proud of John and the huge amount of energy he had throughout it all. But that said, it was certainly an interesting time!”

She says what made the venture all the more remarkable was the fact that the actors, who helped to raise over £1million, never once complained it was getting too much, even though Helen was secretly battling breast cancer. She died six months ago.

Helen McCrory and Damian Lewis

Damian Lewis and his late wife, actress Helen McCrory, helped set up the Feed NHS charity. (Image: Mike Marsland/WireImage)

“We didn’t know Damian and Helen before this and we weren’t in their inner circle, so we didn’t know (about Helen’s cancer),” says Katie. “She was amazing. We be wo ha became friendly during that time and we would often chat about the kids. I didn’t have a clue.

“Now when I look back on those conversations, I think how phenomenally strong she was, that spirit she had, her energy and her humour, which didn’t waiver at all. She was extraordinary. I was always a huge fan of hers and I loved everything she did.”

She pauses and then adds: “Her death is such a tragic loss for us all.”

And while counting her own family’s blessings, one of them, she says, is that they managed to hang onto their home.

“I feel very lucky we have come through the last year and a half in the way we have,” she continues. “It was tough, as it was for everybody, but touch wood we are all well and still standing. We didn’t have to sell the house. John is on good form and our two daughters are happy. I am happy too and I’ve got a job I love.”

As well as presenting the BBC’s Proms coverage, which she has done for 12 years, and co-anchoring a drivetime show on BBC Radio 3, she has also just launched her own podcast series, Just the Tonic with Katie Derham.

In it she focuses on the many different arts organisations helping people with issues like mental health, unemployment, dementia and rehabilitation.

Katie Derham and John Vincent

Katie Derham and her husband John Vincent. (Image: Danny Martindale/ITN/WireImage)

“It’s very uplifting to be doing this,” she explains. “And it is also a lovely opportunity for me to look at how organisations, like The People’s Orchestra, are doing great practical work helping people get back on their feet. Through the podcast, I am able to help shine a light on them.”

A very upbeat person, she remains humble about her achievements over the past three decades working in TV and radio, first as a journalist, then the country’s youngest ever newsreader at the age of 27 for ITV before moving into the classical music and arts area both on TV and radio. But she is determined to never let work take over.

“Perhaps now we have had a year and a half of not being able to do stuff, it’s made me hugely conscious I’ve only got Eleanor now for another 18 months before she leaves home,” admits Katie. “She is in sixth form and so I am absolutely not going to complain if she wants lifts as I see it as another extra half an hour I get to spend with her.

“Tash is in America and last year was hard, as she had to remain in the States during the pandemic.

“We didn’t see her all year but thank goodness for FaceTime! I was able to chat to her every day still.”

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Is she planning a new adventure when the nest is finally empty? “That would be the time, wouldn’t it? But we will just have to wait and see.”

She thinks there is definitely “less chat” than there was a couple of years ago about difficulties for older women working in TV.

“Certainly when I look around at the presenters I started with 25-30 years ago, we are all still there,” says Katie. “And I think that is a good sign.”

Looking far younger than her 51 years,

Katie says any spare time is spent “chatting with trainers” – her description of going running with her friends – or taking the family dog for a walk.

“I don’t feel any different now I’ve turned 50,” she adds.

“I used to think of 50 as a big number but I look at people in their fifties and think, ‘Well you look fine and normal!'”

  • Just the Tonic with Katie Derham is available on all podcast platforms including Apple and Spotify

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