Whisper it dah-lings, but the toughest judge on Strictly Come Dancing, Craig Revel Horwood, actually feels sorry for the contestants when the series starts every year. ‘It’s a crucifixion,’ he says. ‘When they’re walking down those stairs, they know there are 12 million people with beady eyes who know everything about dance, apparently, watching them, and who’ll comment.’
It’s true that every fan has strong opinions. ‘Strictly has educated the nation about dance,’ says Craig. So every move, every slip and every trip will be scrutinised by people at home, even before the verdicts of Craig and his fellow judges Motsi Mabuse, Shirley Ballas and Anton Du Beke. ‘And it’s live, so you can’t do it again. Terrifying.’
Craig knows all about the pressure of performance, having been a West End dancer before winning acclaim as a director and choreographer. He had to be cajoled along to the screen test for Strictly back in 2004. ‘I thought it was career suicide,’ he recalls. ‘I thought there’d be no interest. Len Goodman and I gave it three weeks. How wrong we were!’
Right from the start Craig was cast as the waspish pantomime villain of the panel. So it’s striking to hear this 57-year-old Australian speak with such sympathy about what Kym Marsh, Helen Skelton, Matt Goss and the other contestants are about to go through.
Whisper it dah-lings, but the toughest judge on Strictly Come Dancing, Craig Revel Horwood (pictured), actually feels sorry for the contestants when the series starts every year
‘Plus they have to be themselves. I call that being naked,’ says Craig, who believes the way to do well on Strictly is to drop your guard. Once you go out to dance there’s no hiding place. ‘It’s like taking all your clothes off then walking out onto an arena stage, exposed.’
Would he do it? He roars with laughter. ‘No! That’s why I did The Masked Dancer: I was masked the whole time, until my identity was revealed.’ Former Strictly pro Oti Mabuse was on the panel and recognised his walk anyway.
This tall, tanned man is surprisingly shy for someone who wrote an autobiography called All Balls And Glitter and who’s been revealing himself bit by bit on other reality shows. ‘I did Celebrity MasterChef as I love cooking, but people saw how nervous I was, out of my comfort zone. I also did Maestro, which I won.’
The challenge there was for a musical novice to learn to conduct a full orchestra in front of an audience at the Royal Opera House. ‘People saw my flaws. They saw me as a little mouse, rather than the beast they think I am.’ Is there really a mouse inside him? ‘Yeah, of course. There’s a loving, humane person who likes to nurture and embrace… but not when I’m judging.’
He laughs and it’s true that today he’s most unlike the frowning Craig Revel Horwood we see on Strictly. If he is a mouse, it’s the feisty Jerry from Tom & Jerry, buzzing from the joy of putting a company of singers and dancers through its paces.
We’re in a rehearsal space in north London where Craig is preparing a new production of the stage musical version of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 movie Strictly Ballroom, a high-camp look at competitive dancing in Australia.
‘The story is a cyclone of emotion and the background to ballroom only those involved in competition usually see – the backstabbing, the bitchiness,’ he says. ‘They go to extremes and even push people down the stairs to win. I’m highlighting the darkness. It’s funny, but there’s a lot of truth.’
The glitz of Strictly Ballroom was the BBC’s inspiration when it revived the tired old series Come Dancing back in 2004, mashing the two titles together.
Winners Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice with the glitterball trophy during the final of Strictly Come Dancing 2021
‘It makes no grammatical sense,’ sighs Craig. But the connections are strong in this musical, with former Strictly pro Kevin Clifton in the starring role and the show’s choreographer and ex-ballroom champion Jason Gilkison, who’s also from Australia, putting the moves together. ‘This is almost Jason’s life story.’
Born and raised in Ballarat, Australia, Craig used dancing as an escape from life with an abusive, alcoholic father. He was working as a chef and performing in drag clubs when he met a man he calls Mr X, who transformed his life.
The older man took the teen on a tour of the world, including the opening of Cats on Broadway, in return for a sexual relationship. He also paid for dance lessons, which led Craig to a career on stage in Paris then London.
Ironically, Craig then became a choreographer and director at the age of 30 as a way to step out of the spotlight. ‘I felt like a grandfather at auditions and thought, “I’ve got to reinvent my life.” I liked giving myself so others would shine,’ he says. ‘I love sitting in the dark watching it all happen as a director. I feel like a proud father when I open the show, then I have to give the baby away!’
This is the kind of thing he spends most of his time doing, before being driven to Elstree Studios on Saturdays for a BBC lunch and a briefing on the progress of the Strictly dancers. Come showtime, Craig has just a few minutes to evaluate each performance and find the right words, spontaneously. ‘I rarely write anything down,’ he admits.
He makes it sound easy, but says with a smile, ‘Strictly is my Saturday job.’ So what will he be looking for from the 15 celebrities – including singer Fleur East, actor James Bye and Paralympian Ellie Simmonds – appearing under the glitterball? ‘As soon as they walk down the stairs I’ll know what they’re going to be like,’ insists Craig.
‘I’ll see everything that’s wrong with them: how they’re not listening to the music that’s playing, or coming down the stairs in a very unmusical way. They might be pigeon-toed or so bow-legged you could drive a truck through their legs. You can tell whether there’ll be a timing issue or a physical issue with how they hold the space. There’s so much body language you can read.’
He also knows how the various professions usually react. ‘Sports people get in trouble because they’ve never had to emote. You don’t inform a high jump with a flourish or tell a story when you’re kicking a football to someone. You’re not doing it as though you love them.’ That’s former England captain Tony Adams in trouble then.
‘Comedians think they have to make everything funny,’ he continues. ‘Actors want a character to hide behind, because they’re generally fearful, timid and closed off.’ Let’s hope actor-comedians Ellie Taylor and Jayde Adams aren’t reading this.
‘Anyone who comes on Strictly is exposed. That’s why people watch it. They might be a YouTuber, a reality star, a great actor or a Paralympian, but now they’re trying to dance on Strictly and they’re all at level one.’
Are they though? Really? One of the controversies every year is that some contestants have had no dance experience at all, while others have. ‘If you’ve trained before you’re at a disadvantage, bizarrely,’ he says. ‘It’s so hard for people who’ve had classical ballet training because the feet turn outwards and you point with the toe. With ballroom dancing, the feet are in parallel and you go heel-toe. If you’ve done ballet you have to unlearn everything and relearn.’
Hmm. Still not sure it’s not easier for someone who’s flexible and knows how to move than a stiff-hipped dancefloor novice. But can he really spot potential winners straight away? ‘Yes. And I’m usually right.’
This tall, tanned man is surprisingly shy for someone who wrote an autobiography called All Balls And Glitter and who’s been revealing himself bit by bit on other reality shows
Craig is the only judge to have appeared in all 20 seasons and he’s seen it grow into the biggest show on British TV. ‘Strictly was a bit of a joke to begin with: people learning to dance and having a laugh and the audience at home humiliating them.’ So what happened? ‘People fell in love with dancing.’ The game-changer came in season two, he says, when soap actor Jill Halfpenny won the final with a perfect 40 for her jive. ‘That was the first ten I ever gave and it was when I thought, “This can work!”’
Craig was the one the audience loved to hate, booing at his catchphrase, ‘It was a dis-ah-ster darling!’ Not everyone played along though. ‘I’ve been pushed around. The husband of one contestant slammed me into the BBC bar, it was outrageous,’ he says, talking about the partner of impressionist Jan Ravens. ‘I found it funny, but then thought, “There’s a darker side to this, people are taking it seriously.”’
Then came a former Tory minister in season eight who answered him back. ‘Ann Widdecombe was the worst dancer we ever had. No technique, she really didn’t dance a step. Anton was throwing her around like a mop! But she was so entertaining.’ She made him laugh for the first time on the show. ‘That was when people began to say, “Oh, he’s not just the nasty judge.”’
These days he even gives the odd compliment. ‘I have a glint in my eye when I’m passing comment. I do it with a wry smile. But the dancing has got a lot better, it’s chalk and cheese compared to series one.’
Last year’s glitterball was won by deaf actor Rose Ayling-Ellis and her partner Giovanni Pernice, who in one breathtaking moment stopped the music and continued to dance in silence. ‘Rose wasn’t the best dancer but her story was fantastic. The courage was amazing. And being let into her world was gorgeous.’
Covid meant he had to watch from home one week, which surprised him. ‘I realised the routine we see as judges is very different to the dance you see on screen. We see the whole body and watch the footwork, while the viewer might see close-ups.’
He also got to watch the little films that introduce each dance for the first time. ‘I became emotional. I saw Dan Walker’s back story and started feeling sorry for him then falling in love with him. It was crazy.’ What happened when he returned to the studio the following week? ‘I went back to looking at the mistakes.’
Craig has played the nasty(ish) one for 20 seasons of Strictly, but in real life he’s a lot nicer than people know, isn’t he? ‘Yeah. Don’t tell anyone darling, it’ll ruin me!’ Pictured: The Strictly Come Dancing 2022 female professional dancers
Talking of falling in love, some have been surprised to learn Craig married a woman called Jane when he was 25. The marriage only lasted two years, but they’re still friends. He’s preparing to get married again, to horticulturalist Jonathan Myring. ‘We’ve had to put it back two years because we want the wedding to be in a marquee in our garden and we need it to be beautiful,’ he says. ‘I’m getting a designer in from the Chelsea Flower Show. The only way the garden will look spectacular is if we plant now and give it two years to grow.’
They live in a big Victorian home in a Lincolnshire village, closer to Jonathan’s family in Leicester than their previous home in Hampshire. ‘I’m away so often – touring with Annie next year, then in Bristol doing panto – that Jonathan didn’t want to be far from his family,’ says Craig. ‘It’s beautiful, with a lake and a river, mature trees, no noise. All we hear is the birds.’
He recently became patron of a charity supporting NHS staff in the Midlands. ‘Their conditions at work are dreadful. We do what we can to help,’ he says. ‘I visited recently and 400 staff queued up for selfies.
‘So I did them patiently, one by one. It took a few hours, but it made their day and just reminded them that other people are thinking of them. I’ve never refused a selfie. There was one where I had a mouthful of sausage, so I did say, “Can I just finish my sausage?”’
Craig has played the nasty(ish) one for 20 seasons of Strictly, but in real life he’s a lot nicer than people know, isn’t he? ‘Yeah. Don’t tell anyone darling, it’ll ruin me!’
Strictly Come Dancing, Saturday, 6.45pm, BBC1. For tickets to see Strictly Ballroom The Musical, visit: strictlyballroomtour.co.uk.