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Speaking With ... Len Goodman 04.06.12

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‘The Titanic with len goodman’

8 p.m. April 10, WTTW-Channel 11

It’s not often that the film “Flashdance” comes to mind when talking about Len Goodman, the elder statesman of the judging panel on the hit TV series “Dancing with the Stars.” But then it’s not often that one would equate iron welding with Goodman, the suave and sophisticated champion ballroom dancer, either.

But as a young man in London’s East End nearly 50 years ago, Goodman by day worked as a welder in the vast shipyard of Harland and Woolf, one of the world’s largest shipbuilding companies. By night, Goodman and his pals would frequent London’s many dance halls, where the 21-year-old Lenny fell in love with all that fancy ballroom footwork.

What a feeling, indeed.

It was a period in Goodman’s life that also eerily crossed paths with of all things, the ill-fated Titanic, for Harland and Woolf was the company that built the grand oceanliner at its Belfast, Northern Ireland, location.

It all comes full circle courtesy of “The Titanic With Len Goodman,” a one-hour PBS special premiering April 10 on WTTW-Channel 11, in which the dapperly dressed Goodman recounts the tale of the Titanic through the stories of its passengers, crew members, heroes, villains, survivors and their descendants. Goodman takes us on a tour of the sites where Titanic was conceived, built and launched, along with the backstories of some of the ship’s key persons, passengers and crew.

Goodman, 67, talked to the Sun-Times about delving into the history of the Titanic and ultimately asking himself: What would he have done if he’d been on board the ship as she was sinking 100 years ago come April 15?

Question:So how did a welder in East London end up a ballroom dance champion?

Len Goodman: I went to dance studios with my friends only because they said the magic words: “There’s loads of girls and no guys.”

Q.So how did you get from being a judge on “Dancing with the Stars” to a Titanic historian?

LG: I’ve always been interested in history, and the reason the BBC asked me to do this particular show was the fact that I had been a welder at Harland and Woolf in London. Most people, including me, know the story of the Titanic and some of its more famous passengers. I jumped at the chance to do this because I saw it as a way to learn as much as possible about the Titanic, but most importantly, I wanted to tell the tale from peoples’ stories that maybe we hadn’t heard before.

Q.You uncover quite a few interesting storylines through the course of the program.

LG: What I loved about doing the research was going to meet the relatives, the [descendants] of the survivors and of those who were lost. Learning about their great-grandfather or great-grandmother through their family photographs and stories that had been handed down through generations. I learned about folks who were so heroic and others who were not quite so.

Q.What struck you the most about the stories?

LG: You know, it’s a 100-year-old story, and we tend to think that these were all a bunch of old people sailing on that ship. But they were just kids and very young adults for the most part. I kept thinking how excited they must have felt telling their parents, their friends, that they were going to sail to America on the Titanic — the largest moving object in the world, the biggest ship ever built. And then to have their dreams, their lives cut short in such a tragic way.

Q. One of the stories that really astounds is how the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, actually fired every crew member as soon as the ship was reported sunk.

LG: As soon as the ship sank, they were all off the payroll. What a cruel act. [The victims’ families were ultimately compensated by the ship line following all the inquiries into the Titanic’s sinking.]

Q. You talk about the Italian restaurateur who became the ship’s director of dining and the 36 waiters he personally recruited to serve first class, the architects of the ship, the workers who lost their lives during construction, the radio operator. Which story really tugged at your heartstrings?

LG: Just the thought of the band. It was so uplifting that these musicians played to the very last moment as the ship sank. And the Marconi [wireless radio] operator, who was desperately sending out the “C.Q.D” [“SOS”] signal and at the very end the last two letters he sent out were the C and the Q because he didn’t have time to tap out the D. He held his post to the very end. I’m not one of those guys who gets emotional or weeps, but I came as close as I ever have to outwardly weeping as I uncovered all these stories and so many more. It all came down to what would I have done if I had been on that ship 100 years ago, because you can’t really say you would have been a hero or a coward because you don’t really know until you’re in that situation. What would you have done?

Q. I probably would not have survived.

LG: Oh you’d have been OK because I would have graciously held your hand and said please, you get on [the lifeboat]. And I would have waved goodbye from the deck. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do.

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