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In Memoriam: Bobby Thompson

Robert (Bobby) Thompson was born in Manchester on 23rd November 1940, one of the three children of William and Margaret Thompson. Bobby’s family was firmly rooted in football where sport was concerned, and although Bobby showed a fascination for the art and forms of skating and ballet his interest did not receive encouragement from his parents, who considered it effeminate. Bobby, however, was not to be deterred and saved money from the deposits on his father’s beer bottles. Each time he had enough money he would go to The Manchester Ice Palace in Cheetah Hill.

He did not realise it at the time but Bobby had embarked on a journey that would shape the rest of his life and also touch the lives of so many others. His patience was rewarded when his uncle bought him a pair of skates, but lessons were still beyond his means. Instead he learned by watching others and he was lucky enough to study the best as, at that time, the World Ice Dance Champions Lawrence Demmy and Jean Westwood trained at the Ice Palace.

When Bobby eventually left school and got a job he was finally able to afford the lessons he had craved, and had such a natural ability that he passed tests up to silver standard in no time. What he needed was a dance partner, so to fulfil his dreams he made the decision to move to London. Quite a brave step for a young man who had hardly ever left Manchester.

Bobby trained at Streatham and found a bedsit nearby. He enjoyed his amateur career but he had come late to skating and thought fairly early on that he could make a good go at coaching and so turned professional, joining the Streatham teaching staff. At around this time he met Courtney Jones, four-times World Ice Dance Champion. This meeting was the most significant of his life as they were destined to become soul mates and spend their lives together.

In coaching Bobby had found his niche and his career was quite spectacular. He was engaged to coach the Italian National Ice Dancers, and so with just his luggage and a packet of sandwiches, he set of for Milan. He could not speak Italian but living in Milan he was soon able to speak passable Italian that held him in good stead in later years.

Under his tutelage the Italian Ice Dancers made their way up the world rankings and his proficiency as a coach was noticed. His best dance couple went on to judge, Olga Gilardini, internationally. In fact his career had now left the runway and soared to new heights.

On his return to England Bobby took up a position at Queens, and by this time Bobby and Courtney were together in a studio flat above Queens Ice Club. The law at the time meant that they had to be very discreet about their relationship.

Bobby was also still very much in demand abroad and was appointed to coach the Japanese team of Ice Dancers. He loved Japan and its culture and visited many times over the years. He enjoyed success during the Japanese years when one of his couples became the first Ice Dancers from the country to win an international competition and compete in Ice Dance at the Winter Olympic Games. They became celebrities in Japan.

But that was not the end of the Japanese story. Bobby had been coaching Kay Barsdell and Ken Foster at Queens and was in the habit of taking a coffee break in the café. He met an elderly Japanese gentleman there who had explained that he loved to come and watch the skaters. One day at an event at another rink a Japanese lady approached him and told him that someone wished to meet him - that was when Bobby discovered that his “café friend” was the Emperor of Japan’s brother!

Such was Bobby’s reputation that he was asked to go to New York to help American Couple Judy Blumberg and Michael Sieburt, and what he taught them was as important was what they taught him in terms of theatre and culture.

In the mid 1970s Bobby was asked for advice and reassurance from an unlikely source - another ice discipline - that developed into a lasting friendship. John Curry had consulted Bobby on the content of his programmes and Bobby also advised him on how to add showmanship to his repertoire. Even after his Olympic Gold medal success John telephoned Bobby to ask if he thought the performance was good! To John he was a mentor.

The pinnacle came when Bobby was appointed National Ice Dance Coach by the NSA. It is always an achievement to be recognised by your home association. This came during the Torvill and Dean years, and Bobby had coached their contemporaries Wendy Sessions and Stephen Williams. It was still a surprise to him, though, when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean asked Bobby to coach them when they made a comeback to amateur competition in the 1990s. Although Bobby spent most of his time with them when they trained at Milton Keynes, he suggested that he should be joint coach rather than sole coach. He did think it an honour to be asked.

Bobby’s life decisions affected others as well. One of his Ice Dance couples was Carol Long and John Philpot. When Bobby went to coach at The Ice Dance Centre of Ontario he took Carol with him. When his time came to return to the UK, Carol - who we now know as Carol Lane - remained in Canada to start a career that now sees her as one of the world’s premier Ice Dance Coaches with World Championship medallists among her pupils.

Bobby soaked up and embraced the art and culture of the countries where he lived and this unleashed another side to his natural talents: interior design. Together with his partner Courtney’s undoubted design skills the two treated every home they have lived in by decorating and accessorizing with style and flair to such a successful extent that not one but two of their homes have featured in the magazine “25 Most Beautiful Homes”.

Bobby’s natural gift for Ice Dancing took him the world over, boosting his reputation as a coach as he went. He not only taught his own pupils and was held in high esteem, but as evidenced by the messages received in the last few days he encouraged others as well. Bobby was a gentleman and well-liked throughout the International skating community and beyond. He spent his retirement years in Spain with his partner Courtney, latterly in San Pedro.

He was a larger than life character who achieved so much more than was expected from that young boy in Manchester, and he will be missed by all of us who knew him. Bobby is survived by his sister Margaret, in Manchester and his partner of 60 years Courtney Jones OBE.

Bobby Thompson died, aged 83, on 5th September 2023 in the Costa Del Sol Hospital, Malaga, Spain, after a long illness.

Bobby was cremated on the 7th September 2023.

Elaine Hooper

BIS Historian


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