IT IS A long way from the Royal Marines to sparkly Saturday night telly.
For JJ Chalmers, who survived an Afghanistan bomb blast, became an Invictus Games medallist, TV presenter and – for 2020 – the Only Scot on Strictly, that incredible journey began in Govan.
“The early days of my training took place in Glasgow,” he explains. “At that time, I was a reservist – I’d joined up in my teens – and the RMR (Royal Marines Reserve) headquarters were in Govan.
“It was a great experience. Govan is a fantastic part of Glasgow – a serious piece of character. I was really happy there.”
In Afghanistan in 2011, JJ’s life changed forever when he was caught up in a bomb blast which killed two of his friends.
His injuries, to his face, chest and body, were horrific. Chalmers woke up a week after the explosion in a Birmingham hospital, with his arm temporarily grafted to his stomach to keep it supplied with blood. He had dozens of operations, including one in which doctors took muscle lining from his leg and used it to replace a severed tendon in his tricep, He lost two fingers, and his abdomen is severely scarred.
Glasgow Times Scotswoman of the Year Corinne Hutton, who set up amputee support charity Finding Your Feet, says JJ’s inclusion on Britain’s top entertainment show, is a significant step towards more inclusivity on TV and in film.
“It’s great that JJ and Hollie Arnold on I’m a Celebrity and Marc on the Bake Off, have become poster boys and girls for people with disabilities,” she says. “What I’d really like is for us to get to the point where no-one bats an eyelid – where it’s just not that unusual to have people with disabilities on prime time television.”
JJ relates to this ‘100 percent’, he says.
“Finding Your Feet is a fantastic charity and Corinne is amazing – she has achieved great things,” he says. “I’m the fourth person with a physical disability to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. That’s not box-ticking. It is about realising that a programme which is as inclusive as possible is simply a better programme.
“People like me need to turn on the television and see people like me, otherwise they won’t be inspired to do it. I am proud to be part of anything that moves things forward.”
So far, JJ has enchanted Strictly viewers and judges alike, with mostly rave reviews and high scores. Last week’s jive put him in to the bottom two, but he was saved by the public vote.
“I can’t put into words what this means to me,” he tweeted afterwards. “Not the scores I’d hoped for, but ultimately a response beyond my belief.”
The show’s Mr Nasty, Craig Revel Horwood, even suggested JJ and his professional partner Amy Dowden might make it to the final.
“It was incredible to get a comment like that so early in the competition, but I am not thinking that far ahead, not at all,” he says. “Every Monday morning, I’m starting from scratch. You can have the best Saturday night, but you have to forget it when you get back into the training room for the next week.”
This year’s Strictly is a Strictly like no other. Celebrities and professionals have left family behind to ‘bubble up’ with each other for the duration, and thanks to Covid restrictions, there is no longer a live audience (apart from the crew, who are providing the studio atmosphere with admirable gusto each week). Hosts Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman remain socially distanced throughout, and the judges perch on sparkly, individual podiums rather than side by side. There is absolutely no hugging.
Already, one couple has had to bow out. Boxer Nicola Adams had to leave when her partner Katya Jones tested positive for Covid-19.Despite all the changes, viewing figures are on the up, with regular highs of more than 10 million.
JJ grew up in Dunfermline, where he now lives with wife Kornelia, daughter Hayley, four, and one-year-old son James. He became a craft and design teacher in Balerno in Edinburgh before signing up full-time to the Royal Marines in 2010.
After the bomb blast, Chalmers feared he would never walk again. Months of rehabilitation followed and it was while watching the 2012 London Olympics that he felt inspired to take up sport again, a path which led him to the Invictus Games and a friendship with Prince Harry.
(The Duke popped up in last week’s Strictly, in fact, taking a rise out of his friend’s fake tan and shorts, before congratulating him on his determination and ‘amazing journey’.)
Despite his ordeal in Afghanistan, Chalmers says he has never regretted joining the Marines.
“It gave me the opportunity to be part of this amazing support network,” he says. “The guys and girls I served with have always had my back, and they continue to be there for me. Highs and lows, you go through it all together.”