'After my wife died, I dread to think what would have happened to me if it wasn't for my weekly Silver Line phone call'

Boudicca Fox-Leonard
John Bettany used to run a busy dance school, but following his wife's death his social circle has shrunk - Guzelian

When John Bettany telephoned The Silver Line and asked to be matched with a friend, he was told they knew the ideal person. Someone, like him, who had a passion for gardening and, more importantly, dancing.

So when they first spoke in 2014, John said, “You’re a dancer, are you?”

Wilma said yes, and when John asked what sort, she replied: “Line dancing”. 

“I thought, 'oh God',” laughs John in his sitting room in Deeside, North Wales. Having come second in the British Ballroom Championships when he was 15, it’s fair to say that his opinion of line dancing isn’t entirely favourable. “But it doesn’t matter,” he says. “She’s the type of lady who will talk about anything.”

Now, every Tuesday, the 69-year-old eagerly awaits Wilma's call, on the dot of 5.30pm. “We talk for an hour, and she’s marvellous,” says John.

“Wilma is from Blackpool, and obviously I know a lot about Blackpool as I used to spend a lot of time there in my dancing days.”

By his own admission, John was in “a bit of a state” when he first made contact with The Silver Line, one of three charities supported by the Telegraph’s Christmas Appeal, and which provides a 24-hour helpline for lonely elderly people, as well as matching callers with Silver Line friends, who telephone them regularly to provide much-needed companionship.

A rich, full life had flipped into one of terrible isolation after the death of John's wife, Avril, 12 years ago. For 33 years of marriage, their shared passion for ballroom dancing had given them a life full of colour and excitement.

Running a busy dance school, The Bettany School of Dance, which had 400 students, meant they never had a moment to spare. Fortunately, that was just how they liked it. 

“We weren’t the sort of couple who sat and watched the telly together,” says John. “Even when we weren’t dancing, we were following it. We’d go to a competition to watch or support people.”

Avril had beaten a brain tumour eight years earlier, only for it to return. Despite chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she went downhill quickly. “But she was a strong, strong woman. She taught until the day she died.”

In the aftermath, John tried to keep the school going, but the admin was too much for someone whose heart was breaking. So it fizzled out, and with it the buzz of people.

John with his wife Avril and daughter Tracy circa 2000

John found what a lot of bereaved people discover: “When my wife died, at first everybody couldn’t do enough for me, but as time goes on they drift away. They’ve got their own lives. People say ‘have you got over it now?’ But you don’t, you have to learn to live with it. That’s a fact.”

He can see now that he was depressed when he first spoke to Wilma, five years ago. “I needed to get something off my chest. When you lose someone like that, people want to avoid the subject. But she was there to listen and talk about it. And that made me feel better. It was a release for me. Talking to her made me feel better inside.”

Wilma herself is 72, but John says life is different for her. “In Blackpool there’s plenty to do.” 

Whereas in Deeside, he says, “it’s dead”. The demise of the steel industry, and with it thousands of jobs, has left it empty of opportunity and people, as they sought work elsewhere.

John had spent 34 years working there, until he lost his job while caring for Avril during her last illness.  “Before that, we were very comfortable with four jobs between us, as well as me DJing at the weekends. I don’t know how I squeezed it all in,” he says.

Now when I ask him to describe a typical week he says, “It won’t take long. I’ve got nothing to tell you really.” His immaculate bungalow hints at how he spends his time. I admire his beautiful fish tank; I’d love to have one like that, I tell him. “You wouldn’t have time,” he jokes.  

John with Avril in the 1980s

The only person he sees regularly is his sister, who moved back to the area from living abroad four years ago. “She’s married and I just go around there for a cup of tea and a chat.” His daughter, who was 17 when Avril died, lives in nearby Chester.

“But she works all hours and I hardly ever see her,” he says.  It’s sad, but all too easy to see how a busy life can become one of isolation. John goes to the occasional Sunday-night dance class. I suspect he harbours dreams of restarting the dance school, but he doubts it could ever go back to how it was.

“I don’t think there would be a market for it now,” he says. “There were dance halls and clubs. Dancing was very popular everywhere, but now those halls are all shut. People are just at home watching the telly. And when you’re stuck at home on your own, watching the telly every night, that’s not very nice.”

Inactivity doesn’t suit him. “I’ve put weight on!” he says, although he still has that Len Goodman leanness. What he really misses is the social life that dance gave him. 

“I go out shopping every day just to say hello to the lady on the till. It’s sad,” he says without self-pity.  The call from Wilma really is something that lights up his week. They’ve never met, as that would break the rules of The Silver Line.

“I don’t even know her address. I don’t even know where the telephone number is, even after all this time,” he says.  She did phone him on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, he says. Although, like the past five years before this one, he spent Christmas Day on his own. “I didn’t see a soul.”

He has resigned himself to being an armchair dance “critic”. Strictly, in his view, has gone off the boil. He first met Len Goodman when he was a teenager and respected what he achieved on Strictly, but isn’t convinced by the show without him, “It no longer does what it says on the tin.” 

John spent Christmas Day alone: 'I didn’t see a soul' Credit: Lorne Campbell

Back in the day, he knew and met many of the Strictly professionals. John booked Darren Bennett to perform up in Deeside at the start of the second series. Bennett went on to shock win the show with actress Jill Halfpenny, meaning John enjoyed a small success himself in ticket sales. 

A bit of a latecomer to the internet, (“I’m one of those old people who fell behind the times,” he says) his world has been expanded by discovering dance videos online. “Now I can get all the dancing from all over the world. I can get a live feed from Budapest!”

This time of year, when it’s dark at 4pm, is harder than the summer when he can get in his garden. It’s when he’s really grateful to The Silver Line. “I dread to think what would have happened but for Wilma,” he says. 

People tell him that meeting someone else would help. “But I don’t think so,” he says.  “I see some marriages and I think, ‘Oh my god!’ But our marriage was perfect, I think it was anyway. We had the same interests. Absolutely everything was the same. She was a lovely lady. She was great.” 

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