Jeremy Vine meets Len Goodman to talk love, politics, Strictly and Partners in Rhyme
“Totally honest. Some of the celebrities on the show I didn’t actually recognise at first”
Try this. Stand really tall, shimmy your hips and then lip-sync: SHAKE IT OFF. Now squeeze your body in tight, press your arms against imaginary walls and a ceiling, as if you are trapped. Then wait.
Oh, I should have mentioned. You need to do this in front of your family. Hopefully one of them will then shout: “I’ve got it! Taylor Swift – stuck in a lift!”
Welcome to the new world of Len Goodman, the dapper dance judge whose every kind word was as precious as a gold bar when I stood at the end of that famous desk on Strictly Come Dancing. You thought he’d retired, shuffled off with his winter fuel allowance, left Saturday nights on BBC1 to the next generation? Not a bit of it.
Len is back with – well, I’ll let him explain. “It’s the sort of game five-year-olds or 95-year-olds can join in with. For example, there will be a graphic of a cat on a mat, or a hen in a pen, and then it’s just about finding the rhymes. There’s one section called Rhymewatch where you have a celebrity… Anton is one. You see him warming up, then he does a little drawing. Answer?”
I look blank.
“Stretching and sketching!”
Of course. The TV show is called Partners in Rhyme, but as Len speaks – his face lighting up with the enthusiasm of a child – I realise I’m in the middle of one of those peculiar coincidences. Out of the blue, six months ago, the Radio 1 DJ Matt Edmondson messaged me on Twitter to say he’d invented a board game. Would I give it a go with the Vine family?
And so “Obama Llama” arrived in the post in a cardboard box and us four Vines ended up doing cats on mats and hens in pens and, I seem to remember, Mariah Carey Can’t Eat Dairy (try miming that). It’s now my two young daughters’ most-requested board game, a joyfully analogue antidote to Minecraft and Sims, and Len is presenting the television version. Champagne for Mr Edmondson!
The mention of Anton – there is only one Anton in the world, isn’t there? – takes me back to Strictly. Six feet away the press officer for Partners in Rhyme shifts uneasily in her chair as I mention The Other TV Show, but having been a contestant I can’t resist.
The last time I saw Len I didn’t see him. His face was covered by a bushy white beard. He was Santa in the 2015 Strictly Christmas special, and I was a recently-ousted dance clot quietly thinking how much I would miss the show. The experience, I told a friend, was like waking up in someone else’s dream. So did Len not feel the same pang when he waved goodbye to all that magic?
“No I did not, because I had a wonderful time doing Strictly. Twelve years I did Strictly. I got such a wonderful farewell. I would much rather have, ‘Oh we’re going to miss you Len, you’ve been great on it,’ than, ‘Thank God he’s going!’ The majority of people have been very nice.”
I can tell from the publicist’s face that the Strictly mentions have now gone miles past the number allowed, but it seems to be the key to understanding Len’s life.
Hasn’t everything come late for you?
“EVERYTHING I’ve done came late!” he cries. “I didn’t start dancing till I was 21. Which is late. I didn’t have my son till I was getting on for 40, which is late. Strictly came along when I was 60.” And now a brand-new game show at 73.
He’s back on the format. “The hilarious thing is Mime the Rhyme. That’s where you get two celebrities. Say it was ‘Jeremy Vine, drinking wine’. So one of the celebrities has got to explain the character. He will say, ‘He was on Strictly, host of Eggheads, tall chap, lots of fun.’ The other celebrity has to mime the wine. So you get lots of fun.”
Lots of fun, yes. This is a man, remember, whose first memories were watching his grandfather Albert Eldridge rope himself to a wooden cart piled with fruit and veg and drag it a mile-and-a-half to Bethnal Green in east London. Modernisation was the horse he bought one day.
Out of the blue, Len adds that he would have his nightly bath in the water left by Albert. “It was full of scum, he’d probably had a pee.” I can’t help wondering how you would mime that. Probably best not.
Mention of the bath and the cart takes me back to that very modern invention, the “celebrity” – the word rolls off Len’s tongue as easily as fresh concrete. Does Len ever know who these people are?
“Totally honest. Some of the celebrities we had on the show I didn’t actually recognise at first.” (I love the candour of this. I think Len finds it impossible to lie.) “There are so many now. So many celebrities! There was such a lovely looking girl and she was in the England women’s hockey team. Something Quek [he means Sam Quek]. The only reason I remember was because it rhymed with Anton Du Beke.”
We seem to have found our way back to Strictly, and I admit I was moved when I watched the huge send-off the programme threw for Len in 2016, where he even managed to upstage Ed Balls.
“Well,” he says thoughtfully, almost as if talking to himself. “You have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”
This is a man who lives by a dozen mottos. “Life is like driving a car,” he says at one point. Len’s love of the pithy phrase might be why Partners in Rhyme excites him. On Strictly it was “It’s a ten from Len” and “Pickle my walnuts”. He has a whole theory about love. “It’s all about the metronomes.”
Go on, I say.
“Everyone has got ten metronomes ticking. The perfect partner is the one who’s got the exact same ten going. You might have nine going, but you might love poetry and they don’t love poetry. And you’re sitting on a train going to work and there’s a woman on the train opposite you reading Robert Browning and you say, ‘I love Browning’s poems.’ And this metronome that’s hardly been used is suddenly racing…”
“You know. It’s usually the sex one that does it, but I use poetry as a good example. It’s what can happen.”
I think he’s referring, in the most gentlemanly and indirect way, to his first marriage to Cherry. He had been a welder. He discovered dancing and then he discovered Cherry, the dance school owner’s daughter. “He gave us free lessons.”
Jeremy Vine on Strictly
There was marriage but it sounds like the welding was a little fragile. Somewhere a metronome stopped ticking along the way, and I’m not sure it was a problem with poetry. When Len hung up his dancing shoes, their relationship faltered.
“With dancing partnerships, when you become professional, you know how hard you work.” (By the way, I love that he addresses me for a second as if I’m a fellow pro.) “And you have to work equally hard in the competitive world.” (I nod seriously, as if this was exactly my experience.) “Invariably you end up marrying. When you retire from the dancing you realise the big connection was the dancing and that’s gone. So she’s looking at me and thinking ‘I don’t know what I’m stuck with you for.’ And that’s what happens.”
The stock photos of Len and Cherry are all in black and white, a reminder of how long ago it was. Life moves on. After Cherry there was Lesley. They had a son, James. And now Sue. Have you found your ten metronomes with Sue?
“Near enough. If there are any not ticking, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s just lovely.”
Sue Barrett married Len in 2012. I try to construct a Partners in Rhyme-style summary: “Strictly’s Len – happy again,” but it would take me back to dancing and it’s time to move on. So I try politics. The unlikely star of the recent general election was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. So what did Len make of it all?
“You vote for who’s going to help you the most. Obviously I’m not going to vote for Corbyn. Because of Strictly I’ve earnt a few bob. So I’m certainly not going to vote for someone who’s going to stick up income tax to 60 per cent, or whatever he’s whittling on about, for anyone who’s earnt over 70 grand. So it’s just little things.”
He adds that Theresa May’s campaign was awful. If it had been a dance on Strictly he would have scored it low. “I couldn’t give it much. Maybe a three or a four. It was a tango – jerky, sharp. It lacked content, poor technique, and absolutely no personality or performance skills.”
I’m giggling. And I suddenly realise I know what Len’s next job should be. After Partners in Rhyme we need him beside David Dimbleby in the 2022 election studio, doing the analysis and pickling some poor politician’s walnuts.
He breaks into a jaw-dislocating Goodmansmile when I ask if he’s genuinely happy.
“Listen, Jeremy. When you get to a certain age you think, ‘I haven’t got too long to go’, and I promise you I don’t care. Because I’ve had such a fantastic life. If I died tomorrow my last thing would be, ‘Thank you God, what a brilliant life you’ve given me.’”
Interview by Jeremy Vine
Len Goodman’s Partners in Rhyme begins on Saturday 19th August