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Out of Time: The Story of Torvill and Dean

14 February 21 words: Emily Thursfield
illustrations: Natalie Owen

Love can take many forms: romance, familial, lasting friendships, or the undying commitment you feel towards your passions or vocation. This is a story which includes all of that – teenage make-outs, lavish trips to every corner of the globe and decades of dedication. Plus, in the midst of it all, two young ice dancers from Nottingham, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, make global history...

For decades, rumours surrounding the supposed relationship between Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean have plagued the couple’s lives. Despite multiple marriages, children and years of denial, the press and public alike are still seemingly awaiting the day the pair announce they’ve been smitten all along. Whether it’s the secret squeezes of the hands, the constant singing of praises or the twinkle in Chris’ eye when he finally confessed that they had “dabbled” in a teenage romance, we’re all desperate for this fairytale to have a happy ever after. 

Jayne Torvill’s story begins in 1957. Born and raised in a Clifton estate, she discovered her passion for dancing from a fairly early age. Her parents – a Raleigh worker and Lace Market machinist – recall that anything with a slight rhythm would have the toddler up on her feet and trying to twirl. But it wasn’t until primary school that Jayne stepped on the cool surface that would define the trajectory of her future. Organised by her teacher, Mrs Fitzhugh, Jayne and her classmates were taken for a day at Nottingham’s Ice Centre. As most of the children clung desperately to a long rope held taut by the skating instructor, Jayne took to the ice like a duck to water. As soon as she’d experienced that feeling of flying, she never wanted to walk again. 

First weekly, then daily, skating sessions became a staple in her life, and early success saw Jayne and her first partner, Michael, crowned British Junior Champions while she was in her mid-teens. When Michael turned eighteen, he broke up the partnership to continue with his steady day job, and as Jayne approached sixteen herself, she too turned her attention to work, taking on a position as an insurance clerk for Norwich Union – but still saving every spare moment for a ring around the ice. 

Unfortunately, Christopher Dean’s upbringing wasn’t quite as picture-perfect. Born the son of a miner in Calverton in 1958, Chris and his parents lived a relatively quiet life in the village, bathing once a week to save money and wearing out pairs of shoes until tape could no longer spare them. Every minute he didn’t spend hiding in the local Co-op storage room while his mother worked on the meat counter, Chris would be found climbing, swimming, playing football or winning a hundred-metre dash. They may have had their struggles, but the Dean family still had each other – until one evening, Chris descended the stairs of his home to find his mother standing by the door with a suitcase. As he watched her disappear down the driveway, he was blissfully unaware that this would be the last time he’d see her for over three decades, and that a family friend named Betty would arrive to take her place in the house just two hours later. 

His relationship with his stepmother would always be complicated, but it was Betty who convinced Chris’ father to buy him his first set of skates, as a seemingly random Christmas gift at the age of ten. Straight away, he was charmed by the great arched roof and yellow walls of the Belward Street rink, and soon enough he was making the eight-mile journey daily to practise skating. Things quickly took off for Chris’ career too; partnered with a fiery girl named Sandra, over four years they clashed and argued their way to taking sixth place in the British Championships in 1970. Soon after they parted ways, and word soon spread through Nottingham’s skating community that this rising star needed a new partner. 

Many would like to believe there was an instant connection – that as soon as they entwined fingers there were fireworks

It was around this time that Jayne became aware of Chris – or rather the “white-blond haired boy” who whizzed around the place, as she later described. With both parties now looking for new partners, but both as shy as the other, teaming up never crossed their mind – even after they were paired up for a competition at their dance club and blew every other couple out the water. No, the decision to train together came in 1975, spurred on by coach and renowned ice dancer Janet Sawbridge, who saw potential in their union. Janet was determined not to let their timid natures get in the way of what she thought would be great success, so summoned them both to the rink at 6am to train together for the first time, where she encouraged them to hold hands and stand pelvis to pelvis for the entire session to break down any barriers. 

Many would like to believe there was an instant connection – that as soon as they entwined fingers there were fireworks. But truthfully, it was a slow burner – for months they were badgered after every session to make their partnership official, but both of them would always reply ‘Ask us again next week.’ Eventually, as their trust in each other grew and success started coming their way, it became almost a superstition not to confirm the coupling, in case it all suddenly fell apart. For what had happened during that time was that they’d started to stack up awards: in 1978, they were crowned British Champions, and in 1980 they ranked 5th place at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics and 4th in the World Championships. 

Something about their partnership, and the way they flew around the ice in perfect harmony, just worked – coaches could see it, Nottingham’s skating community could see it and the British public were starting to see it too. Up until now, both Chris and Jayne had been holding down full-time careers – as a policeman and insurance clerk respectively – using any spare moment they had in the day to train at Nottingham’s Ice Centre. But all they wanted to do was skate, with a gold medal at the Olympics on their wishlist. After encouragement from Jayne’s mother, the pair wrote to Nottingham City Council asking for their assistance in funding their training. Six months later, in 1980, the Council awarded them £42,000 – money which had been set aside, but unused, to fund local athletes for the Moscow Olympics that had taken place earlier that year. 

Over the next four years, they won and retained the titles of European and World Champions, and worked tirelessly towards the routine that changed their lives – Boléro. In the amateur world, Torvill and Dean were known for their persistent reshaping of the rules that had governed ice dancing for their predecessors – changing lifts, outlandish costumes – and their routine for the 1984 Olympics would be no different. Dancing to one song in its entirety had never been done before, but winning gold in Sarajevo would complete Torvill and Dean’s three-jewelled crown; it was their ultimate ambition, and they knew that to win, they needed to push some boundaries.

The events of Tuesday 14 February are ones that were watched by 24 million people. Hopes of medals had been pinned on the pair by the population, as they tuned in at 9.50pm with baited breath – still one of the most watched television events ever in the UK. The routine – which told the tale of two star-crossed lovers not too dissimilar to Romeo and Juliet, and culminates in their eventual demise in a volcano – stunned viewers and judges alike, earning the duo twelve perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s, the highest score that had ever been recorded for figure skating for a single performance. The pair’s success dominated the news the following day, and upon their return to Nottingham, were greeted by thousands of fans as they toured the city in an open-top Land Rover.  

Chris finally confessed that they’d “dabbled”’ in romance as teens, before they were partners, but the extent of the relationship was a little peck on the back seat of the bus

After turning professional the following year, the pair went on to tour the UK and Australia, choreograph routines for up-and-coming duos and coach on ITV’s Dancing on Ice. There was even an album recorded in 1989, Here We Stand, featuring their shaky vocals which was panned by the public and critics alike. But despite all their success, which at this point in their career charts up to twenty championship titles, plus bronze and gold Olympic medals, the main commentary in the media still surrounds their relationship. Since the beginning, they have fiercely denied any chance of romance, but it wasn’t until an appearance on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories in 2013 that the public truly understood the reality of their feelings towards one another.  

Sat next to each other in those black leather armchairs, Chris finally confessed that they’d “dabbled”’ in romance as teens, before they were partners, but the extent of the relationship was a little peck on the back seat of the bus. This is where their lust started and ended, and in the years following they’ve grown to feel unconditional love in the most platonic of fashion. The media circus put pressure on them to conform to a certain narrative – to the point where Jayne was unable to announce her engagement to sound engineer Phil Christensen as tour promoters were desperate to keep the mystery of this fairytale alive. Jayne has now been happily married for thirty years, and while Chris has experienced a more turbulent journey in his personal life, he’s always had his friend Jayne to lean on. During the breakdown of his second marriage in Canada, he’d call Jayne multiple times a day to soothe his crippling loneliness. “Of course we love each other,” he told Piers. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we did if we didn’t.” And to this day, before any performance, the pair give each other’s hand a little squeeze. 

The story of Torvill and Dean has many elements of a fairytale – stepmothers, chance encounters and world glory – so it’s not surprising that the public are still hanging on to hopes of a happy ending. But what the duo has been telling us all along is that there is one. It just might not be the happily ever after that we’re used to. 

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