Ann Widdecombe talks Strictly Come Dancing with Len Goodman

After taking his criticisms on Strictly, Widdy puts the head judge on the spot about the nation's favourite dance show

‘You’re like haemorrhoids, you keep coming back more painful than ever.’

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Those were the words of a Strictly Come Dancing judge after Anton Du Beke and I had lit up the ballroom at Blackpool with our bright yellow costumes and eccentric samba. The judge was Len Goodman. Craig Revel Horwood may give the meanest scores but he has nothing on Len when it comes to biting put-downs. Interviewing him seemed less a question of “ ‘Come into my parlour,’ said the spider to the fly” and more a case of a temerarious fly inviting the spider along for a cosy chat.

Yet I was curious. Here is a man who went almost overnight from teaching at a dance school to being a central figure on primetime television, a man who predicted that Strictly would fail as a concept but who was prepared to hitch his fate to its. Here is a man of 67 who flies back and forth across the Atlantic each week as he combines Strictly with Dancing with the Stars and who then goes out on tour for another six weeks. He doesn’t need the money but just has a zest for life that would do credit to someone half his age. He lambasts contestants but awards generous scores.

In an unguarded but televised moment, Len Goodman referred to me during Strictly as “a game old bird”. I could return the compliment but, so long as Brucie stays in the frame, Len probably thinks of himself as a spring chicken.

You’re a judge on Strictly Come Dancing for 12 weeks, you’re a judge on the Dancing with the Stars series twice a year in the states, and then you are going on the tour. Bit much for an old man, isn’t it?

“Not at all, I’m physically perfect. You know, you’ve never seen me fully stripped off, Ann. I’m in lovely condition and I can’t wait!”

I will absolutely trust you on that. What is it about dancing that excites you?

“What excites me about Strictly is that the yearly intake is a bit like a menu at a restaurant. Some things sound more appetising than others and sometimes when the meal does turn up, it’s not quite as tasty as you think. How’s this one or that one going to perform? And I must say, last year when you were on, you were the one that I waited for with so much anticipation.”

You were anticipating I would be awful!

“Not at all. I may have been slightly critical of you, but I was critical in a kind way.”

You were critical in a highly amusing way. But despite your criticisms, your scores are quite generous.

“The bottom line is that I admire all the celebrities on the show. To try to master a skill that you have never done before, live in front of millions of people, is impressive. And if to the worst dancer I give a seven and to the best one I give a nine, it’s no different than if I give the worst a two and the best a four. Now, my lowest mark might be a five and Craig’s lowest mark might be a two.”

It’s one. I can testify. When Strictly was first conceived, did you think it was going to be a runner?

I didn’t think many people would be interested in watching ballroom dancing and I didn’t think the professionals would be able to teach the celebrities to any standard whatsoever. That proves what
I know! And as long as Strictly gets interesting celebrities, it will go from strength to strength.”

Why do you think celebrities do it?

“Some people do it because they genuinely would like to learn to dance, others…

…want to revive flagging careers!

“I was going to say it’s a bit like a celebrity job centre. They don’t really do it because of the actual dancing, but work does come your way from appearing on it. You are doing panto this year aren’t you? That would never have come about if you hadn’t done Strictly, although I don’t suppose you went on it specifically because you wanted to play an ugly sister in Dartford [she’s actually playing the servant to Craig Revel Horwood’s Wicked Queen].”

I think if you’d have said that to me I’d have said, ‘Have a lie down!’ Which celebrity taking part has most surprised you?

“I was surprised when I got the list of runners and riders last season and saw Ann Widdecombe on there.”

Ha! I asked for that one!

I was just fascinated. It’s the same for this series — people like Lulu and Russell Grant and Nancy Whatnot.”

She’s called Dell’Olio.

Dell’Olio. Yes. You always expect the younger, fitter ones to prevail, but that doesn’t always turn out to be the case. They don’t necessarily have the entertainment factor, which was the reason people wanted to see you come back.”

It definitely wasn’t my dancing. Is it an entertainment show or a dance competition?

“It is a hybrid of both. The judges, by and large, judge the dancing, and the viewers vote for the celebrities they want to see again. And that format works lovely. If all the celebrities were in their 20s and thin as a biscuit it wouldn’t be the same.”

Are the professionals disappointed when they end up with someone who has three left feet?

“No, let me tell you this: as much as I admire you, I’ve got to say that Anton did the most fantastic job to get you to the quarter-finals. If you’d have had anyone else it wouldn’t have been as entertaining and you wouldn’t have lasted as long.”

But doesn’t he deserve a really good dancer?

“Well, it’s the luck of the draw, isn’t it? Can you imagine if you are one of the pros, waiting on Saturday night for who you are going to dance with, and there’s a young, hunky guy over there with a six-pack and they say, “You’re going to be dancing with…”

… Russell Grant! Do you think he has predicted the final already?

“I read once that Kelvin MacKenzie, when he sacked him from The Sun, started his letter of dismissal with, ‘As you will know…’! So let me ask you something: how do you feel Edwina Currie is going to fare?”

Put it this way, she doesn’t have the same hang-ups I had. She won’t worry about modesty; she will enjoy the sexiness. I don’t think you will find her wearing leggings under every dress.

“But part of the charm with you was the modesty. I liked the fact that, after Strictly, people’s opinion of you changed totally because they realised that you were a game old girl.”

Who would you like to see on the show?
“Simon Cowell. We could do a swap. He could come and dance and I could go on The X Factor and sing.”

Len Goodman on The X Factor!

I watched it last week and I don’t mind it. Do you know what I hate? And it really gets me a lot with politicians. If you are a Conservative and a Labour government are in, nothing they say or do is right. I just wish, occasionally, they would say, “Do you know what? That’s a bloody good idea.” And I hate it that people from The X Factor slag off Strictly and vice versa. I am so glad that they don’t clash now and viewers can see both.”

Do you miss dancing?

“I miss everything about it. Up to the age of 60 I had been a dance teacher, a competitor and so on. I danced every day and I gave that up to become a judge on a television show. You know, Chuck Berry was once asked what he thought of Elvis Presley and he said, “He got what he wanted, but he lost what he had.” And that’s me. I got what I wanted, in a way. I have enough money to buy my son a house and a little pension plan, but I miss going up to my little dance school in Dartford and teaching people to dance.”

We are all living longer, we have got to be more active in the third age, so isn’t dancing also a wonderful opportunity for older people?

It’s the most marvellous thing. If you’re married, it’s something you can share with your other half and if you’re single it gives you an opportunity to meet other people, and the main thing for older people is that it gets you out of the house.”

What about Bruce? He looks like he’s going to go on for a couple of decades.

“I think he does that job marvellously well. When people tell me he should retire, I say, ‘OK then, who would you get to take his place?’ ”

But the day will come when he decides he has done it for long enough.

“Do you know who I think would do a good job? Anton.”

Anton would be splendid.

“There you go, we agree on something! Let’s hope he gets the job, when the day comes. But who could take over from head judge Len when I hang up my dancing shoes, or get the elbow?”

You won’t get the elbow.

“I hope not because I feel blessed, I really do, to be one of the judges on a show that has just got such a charm and innocence about it.”

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I share your view entirely. Shall we give Strictly a 10?
I’ll definitely give the show a 10.