Strictly Come Dancing helped turn former Yorkshire MP Ed Balls into an unlikely TV personality – and next up is a show called Travels in Trumpland. Georgia Humphreys reports.
Ed Balls is discussing the dos and don’ts of donning a leotard. No, he’s not referring to his Strictly Come Dancing days (in case you missed it, he was
the unexpected star of the 2016 series). The former politician, 51, actually wears a skimpy Union Flag number
to enter the wrestling ring in new
BBC Two show, Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls.
“I’m not someone who previously had bikini line concerns, but they wanted me to wear a really tight-cut leotard, and I thought it would be unflattering,” quips the father-of-three, who spent 10 years as an MP in Yorkshire before losing his Morley and Outwood seat in 2015, and is married to fellow politician Yvette Cooper.
“I got a pair of black boxers under it. Had I only worn the bikini line, that might have ruined it for the viewer...”
He decided not to shave his legs and torso, like his fellow wrestlers did, either.
“My kids think dads should be embarrassing but that I substantially over-achieve,” he adds with a grin.
“I could explain to my 13-year-old why it was important to do the wrestling, but if I’d have been waxed and shaved, she would have said it was too much.”
The factual entertainment series sees the ex-shadow chancellor walk in the shoes of a variety of supporters of US President Donald Trump, to try and understand why they voted for him.
“Lots of people will assume they’re either deluded and don’t understand, or extreme and dangerous, but we just met really nice, ordinary people,” he remarks candidly.
“I thought that after the first year Trump would be losing support, but we didn’t find that at all and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he won a second term.”
The three episodes look at different issues facing Americans, whether that’s the gun control movement or immigration policies, and how they feel about their country since former reality TV star Trump was elected in 2016 to shock across the world.
It’s obviously very timely, especially because it’s airing so soon after Trump’s first official visit to the UK, which led to tens of thousands of people protesting through the streets of London.
“I thought he’d drop the wild persona and become a more reasonable, centrist president, but he hasn’t at all,” Balls notes.
“You assume it can’t get worse, and it does.”
As well as being an insightful and entertaining series, what might surprise viewers is how emotional it is to watch at times.
In the first episode, Balls stays at a farm with a group of war veterans, and as well as hearing their thoughts on Trump, he joins them round a campfire for a toast to friends who lost their
lives in service. And he asks them to toast to Labour MP Jo Cox, the mum-of-two who was murdered by a
far-right extremist outside her constituency surgery in Birstall, near Leeds, a week before the EU referendum.
“The only thing which felt comparable to me was Jo, who I knew very, very well,” Balls confides of the moving scene.
“I did a lot of campaigning and fundraising with her. From a personal point of view... Jo losing her life is a terrible thing, obviously, but I’m somebody who has three kids, and a partner who does exactly the same kind of surgeries every Friday, so it could absolutely have been us.
“I could both think about what it’s like to be Jo but also think about what it’s like to be her family.”
Balls, who was once best known as Gordon Brown’s right-hand man after serving as his chief economic adviser prior to becoming an MP himself in 2005, agrees that competing on Strictly – on which he won fans over with his memorable salsa to Gangnam Style – showed the public a different side to him.
“People kept saying to me, ‘We always knew you were a politician but it’s great to see you’re a human being as well’.”
With presenting this documentary series taking him out of his comfort zone once again, he says we can expect to see even more of his personality. “It’s impossible to be in a character for so many hours [of filming] each day, so it’s impossible to conceal who I am,” he elaborates.
“It’s entirely unscripted so it ends up being very honest. I let it all hang out –literally and figuratively!”
Did he look to an experienced interviewer like Louis Theroux for inspiration?
“I took a decision that I shouldn’t watch anyone else doing this kind of thing until we had made the first episode. I didn’t want to try and be someone else.”
He continues enthusiastically: “If you asked me what the genre is, it’s a mix of old-style, early Louis Theroux meets The Real Marigold Hotel and little bit of Ruby Wax.
“I tried to let the characters do the talking. I reveal my opinions to camera but not to the people I’m with.”
After tough days of filming, Balls knew he would be able to turn to his wife for support.
“The second episode deals with
the Parkland shooting,” he says, referring to the horrific shooting
at a Florida high school in February, when a gunman killed 17 students and staff.
“We thought the pain was going to be talking to the 18-year-old in the
class who was shot in both legs and face but actually, it was (talking to) her mother.
“After, I rang Yvette because it was so hard and you need a bit of empathy. Our kids are 19, 17 and 13 – they go to school each day, and you assume they will come home.”
Going back to politics, it’s an undeniably difficult time for the
UK Government right now too, what with the ongoing Brexit negotiations and growing fears that the country
may be heading towards a ‘no deal’ scenario – leading to reports of preparations to stockpile food and medicines.
Discussing why people voted to leave the EU, Balls suggests: “Some were anti-European, and the world, but maybe it was a roll of the dice.
“People think, ‘The status quo’s not worked for me, let’s roll the dice and try something new’, which is a very challenging thing for a politician.”
It was at the 2015 General Election when Balls lost his seat in the Morley and Outwood constituency.
It was one of the main shocks of a night when David Cameron unexpectedly won a Conservative majority – putting the country on the path to the fateful referendum on Brexit the following year that the then-Tory leader had promised voters if his party won at the polls.
With so much having happened politically since he left Westminster three years ago, Balls doesn’t seem to envy those currently working as an MP.
“I’m regretful politics is so chaotic at the moment, and I look back at better times wistfully,” he says.
“But if you said to me, ‘You could be in Parliament or you could do this show at the moment’, I’d definitely choose this show.”
Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls starts on BBC Two on Sunday.