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Len Goodman takes on stars including Love Island’s Amber Gill in a contest to boost brain power

Len Goodman doesn’t sit still for long. During lockdown he culled his wardrobe by 50 per cent and took up gardening with a passion.

‘I found trousers that were almost flares, and I must have had 40 golf shirts,’ he says. 

‘Well, I ask you! Half of those went. I’ve got lots of suits, especially from Strictly, there were six dinner suits so four went off to the charity shop.’

His gardening started last spring when his wife Sue came back from her father’s with seeds and pots, and he’s now growing lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, carrots and courgettes. 

‘When I was a kid I couldn’t understand how my dad, a mad keen gardener, didn’t get fed up with all that digging. But there’s something lovely about seeing tiny seedlings push through and become vegetables. I’m out with my watering cans every night when it’s warm.’

Len Goodman, 77, is one of the five contestants on a new series of Can I Improve My Memory? which sees two experts teaching techniques to help them remember information. Pictured with fellow contestants Amber Gill (left) and Anna Richardson

He also does exercise with Sue and a personal trainer in the garage, and every Sunday at 8pm they do a quiz with four other couples. It’s on Zoom, but Sue sorts that out.

‘I don’t want to,’ says Len, a confirmed technophobe. ‘But the quiz is very stimulating.’ 

As is his latest TV venture – Len, 77, is one of the five contestants on a new series of Can I Improve My Memory?, which sees two experts (former Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke and psychiatrist Dr T) teaching techniques to help them remember information. 

Last week’s first episode saw Len having to commit facts about American hip hop music to his memory, and in this week’s second episode he’s tasked with knowing about Winston Churchill’s career and learning his rousing ‘We will fight on the beaches’ speech. 

Love Island winner Amber Gill has to learn about Mick Jagger and memorise some of his lyrics, former boxer Chris Eubank studies Shakespeare and learns Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy, TV presenter Anna Richardson is given Jane Austen and the opening passage of Pride And Prejudice while actor Nina Wadia attempts Martin Luther King and his ‘I have a dream’ speech. 

Host Sandi Toksvig then puts their memories to the test, with one being eliminated each week from here on until we’re left with a champion.

The show’s presenter, Sandi Toksvig, (pictured)  then puts their memories to the test, with one being eliminated each week from here on until we’re left with a champion

The show’s presenter, Sandi Toksvig, (pictured)  then puts their memories to the test, with one being eliminated each week from here on until we’re left with a champion

Len didn’t go in with the highest of hopes though. ‘Age creeps up and you’re not as sharp as you were. I struggled putting names to faces. I always expect to fail on things like this, but I don’t have a huge ego or worry that I’m going to be humiliated.’ Last week he did surprisingly well with the American rappers, especially as Sinatra is more his style. ‘I don’t know why but I’d heard of 10 Cent,’ he says, seriously devaluing well-known rapper 50 Cent.

In the first week the contestants learned through visualisation – conjuring up often comic images to represent what they’re learning. ‘With memory we want to be as unserious as possible, and visualisation takes everyone’s memory and amplifies it,’ memory expert Ed Cooke explained. This week the group is taught to use the Memory Palace technique, which is good for learning chunks of text. They use visualisation to produce an image for each phrase and then imagine themselves placing all the images, in order, in a ‘room’ of their choice. ‘It’s amazingly powerful for storing lots of information,’ says Ed.

Len went to the Cabinet War Rooms to learn Churchill’s famous 1940 speech. He imagined a tropical island for the ‘we shall defend our island’ phrase and added a blank cheque to remind him of ‘whatever the cost may be’. He thought of shingly Brighton beach for ‘We shall fight on the beaches’.

The group are then taught the Hyperawareness Technique. They’re shown a video, and afterwards are given quick-fire questions on it. The idea is that you first focus on the big picture and then zoom in on as many small details as possible. If they want, they can create a story using all the objects they see. Too often, says psychiatrist Dr T, we don’t look hard enough. ‘Switch off your reject mode and give the picture/video your undivided attention,’ he advises.

Len says he plans to use these techniques in the future, especially when he struggles to remember names. We won’t reveal who’s eliminated first, but Len’s first thought after each episode is always to call his wife. ‘I can’t wait to tell Sue how I’ve done,’ he says. ‘She’ll pickle her walnuts when I do.’

Colourful phrases like this are much missed by Len’s fans since he left Strictly in 2017. He says he’s tried to keep watching, but finds it tricky. 

‘It is the most lovely programme but I can’t resist turning to Sue and saying, ‘If that was me judging, I’d have said…’ Which is daft really, as we’re all different personalities.’

Len's colourful phrases are much missed by his fans since he left Strictly in 2017. He is still head judge on the American version of the show (pictured)

Len’s colourful phrases are much missed by his fans since he left Strictly in 2017. He is still head judge on the American version of the show (pictured)

What did he think of last year’s series featuring the first same-sex couple – boxer Nicola Adams and pro dancer Katya Jones? ‘I’m an old fuddy duddy,’ he says. ‘I’d always have the men in tail suits and the ladies in ball gowns.’ What about two women in frocks? ‘It might be a bit confusing. You wouldn’t know who was the leader and who was the follower. My line is that I’m a cup of tea in a world of skinny lattes.’

He’s still head judge on the American version of the show Dancing With The Stars, but says he’s constantly wary. 

Five  fascinating memory facts

1. Your short-term memory can only hold about seven facts for around 20-30 seconds.

2. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that converts these into long-term memories.

3. Scent is a powerful memory trigger because the olfactory nerve, responsible for our sense of smell, is close to the hippocampus.

4. Experts say one of the most accurate descriptions of amnesia in film is found in the animation Finding Nemo.

5. And the best memory booster of all? A good night’s sleep!

‘That’s partly why I left Strictly, I got nervous because the show is live. You can put your foot in it inadvertently. You have to be bland and that’s not my way. I told somebody their rise and fall was up and down like a bride’s nightie and got told off for it. I could have just said there was too much rise and fall but there’s a more humorous way of putting it. One of the producers ticked me off. There are people looking for things to object to now, which is a shame.

‘If I was judging a same-sex couple I’d have to be so careful. The world’s becoming so fraught you’re afraid to make a comment. On the American show once I was saying how in the rumba some chap’s arms were too soft and airy-fairy. Well, we had the gay rights people emailing us, but I wasn’t talking about fairy as in a gay person.’

He’ll return to Dancing With The Stars in September as long as he can fly to LA, where he’ll be reunited with Bruno Tonioli, who’s sacrificed his place on Strictly this year because of the commuting problems. 

‘I don’t mind the American show because they don’t understand half the things I say anyway,’ laughs Len. He and Bruno used to commute to LA together on a Sunday morning. ‘We stayed in the same apartment block. He’s a marvellous cook and would invite me round to eat. He can’t iron though and I find it soothing, so I’d say, ‘Give me your shirts.’ But I drew the line at his underwear.’

Since leaving Strictly, he and Sue now stay in LA for the full 11 weeks of the US series. ‘It’s a nice little holiday,’ he chuckles. ‘There’s only one day’s work a week.’ Hopefully he won’t forget to turn up.  

Can I Improve My Memory?, Thursday, 8pm, Channel 4.

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