Len Goodman: why I worried about saying yes to Strictly

Strictly host Claudia Winkleman talks to outgoing head judge Len Goodman about the contestants he'll remember, his favourite dances and why he almost turned the job down

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Was there an absolute moment in your life when you just KNEW you could dance? Properly brilliantly, not like the others… 

I knew I could dance long before I knew I could ever do ballroom dancing. In my teens I was a good Jiver, then when I was 21 I decided to go to the local dance studio because there were girls there – there was no thought in mind about taking it up seriously.

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The owner was a man called Henry Kingston and I started dancing with his daughter because I fancied her. One day Henry said he’d be prepared to give me some private tuition for free, so we could start entering competitions together. That’s how it all started…

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Goodman alongside fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood

Which is more satisfying – perfecting a great move with your partner or teaching someone to really fly round the room?

Well initially it was all about Me, Me, Me! But when I retired from competing when I was 28, I found my true love in teaching people to dance. And although I’ve taught world champions, my favourite is teaching people off the street in the hope they will discover the joy of dancing. Seeing them progress – it’s lovely.

That’s what I miss the most. With Strictly, I got what I wanted – a bit of fame and fortune – but I miss going up the dance school and teaching people how to dance.

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Darcey Bussell and Len Goodman on the Strictly red carpet

My wife and son run the dance school now. I used to go up a bit but I was always poking my nose in and saying, ‘What you teaching them that for?’ and that used to get on all our nerves! I sometimes pop in and surprise everyone on a Saturday morning when all the children are learning to dance, that’s my favourite – I feel like Justin Bieber when I walk in the door! 

Which is your favourite dance and why? (p.s. why isn’t it the Paso)

To be honest, I do love the paso doble as it’s a good way of venting any anger that you have in your body, it’s such an aggressive attacking sort of dance, stamping your feet and flying about. But my favourite is the foxtrot – I love the smoothness. There are so many beautiful songs that can be used for the foxtrot, like Sinatra and Nat King Cole. I remember Ricky Whittle’s foxtrot – it was incredible! 

When the BBC said “look, we’d like you to be a head judge on a show where celebrities learn to dance” did you think “YES” or did you have qualms?

I had lots of qualms, lots! Firstly I was very worried it might be a mickey take of my little world of ballroom dancing, which of course was totally wrong. I also didn’t think the professionals would be able to teach a non-dancer celebrity in a few days to any high standard.

And I didn’t expect ballroom dancing with celebrities would be a success. So it took me a few days to decide. Thank heavens I did say yes, because it absolutely changed my life. Never ever have I regretted doing it, I’ve been so privileged to be part of the show. 

Are there some celebrities that you just love immediately, even if they can’t dance?

I’m not very celebrity savvy – I know the odd sports person but not the others. I’m a keen golfer, so it was great to shake hands with Tony Jacklin when he was on the show – unfortunately he couldn’t dance and was out week one.

I very clearly remember Ann Widdecombe but I can’t remember who won it that year. I very clearly remember John Sergeant but I couldn’t tell you who won it that year. And in five years’ time, I will very clearly remember Ed Balls but I probably won’t be able to tell you who wins – so what does that say about me and most of the people watching?

The overriding thing about Strictly is, as much as we love the dancing, it’s about entertainment and the people watching tend to remember the entertainers way more than they do the dancers. I was sad when Ed Balls left, he was the cat with nine lives but of course he went in week ten which is quite funny! 

What has been your highlight of being on Strictly?

The absolute truth is, my highlight – and you’ll think I’m just saying this but I’m not – was doing It Takes Two when you were the presenter and I used to go on each week to try and teach you to dance. I had more fun and laughs than ever, it was just a joy to do it!

Aside from that, I look forward to Strictly every week to see who’s improving – that’s always an exciting part of it for me. Seeing the celebrities improve and develop, it’s blooming marvellous and it does my heart good, it really does. 

How much do you hate having the casting vote? Is it a hideous amount of pressure? Or do you quite like it?

I hate having the casting vote! As far as everyone is concerned it’s me that’s kicking them off. Sometimes I don’t mind as it’s obvious to me but other times it’s really difficult – I still remember when I had to vote off Pixie Lott. 

But an old dance teacher once said to me when I was judging competitions that you must never look back, whatever decision you make at the time was the right one.

I’m not suggesting that I’ve got it right every time because judging dance isn’t an exact science, and I’ve probably got it wrong sometimes but at the time, it was the right decision. I do prefer it when the decision’s been made by the other three judges and I don’t have to do anything! 

Are you going to miss us? (say yes!)

Of course I am! I’m sure when the next series comes round and I’m sitting indoors I’ll miss it… I know I will. I’ll miss getting to the studio, having a cup of coffee and having a chat with Bruno, Craig and Darcey.

As I’ve said before, the decisions you make are the right decisions at the time and that’s it. I’ve been on the show for 12 years and it’s been fantastic, I’ve loved doing it and being part of it but I’d much prefer to leave the show with people saying, ‘Oh what a shame Len’s going!’ Rather than, ‘Thank heavens he’s off!’ It’s the right time. I will be watching the show next year and I’ll come down and visit everyone… If they give me a ticket! 

Any chance I can change your mind about leaving?

Erm… I’d like to say yes! But if I’m being totally honest and serious then I won’t change my mind. I’m 72 and I want to enjoy myself and go to places that I’ve never been before. I want to go out and live my life a bit more. 

I want you to know how much people love you – both on and off screen. We will be so sad next year. What’s your closing message to the viewers who adore you?

I would like to say thank you so much for your kindness towards me, it’s flattering more than anything. I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘Len, it won’t be the same without you!’ But of course it will be. Strictly is far bigger than any one person. No-one is irreplaceable.  But I’m so flattered that people have enjoyed having me in their living rooms on a Saturday night – it’s been lovely! 

And Claudia – my plan after the show is to go to New Zealand for a couple of months, if you can find the time and would like to come, you would be more than welcome to join me!

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Strictly Come Dancing continues tonight, 7pm BBC1