PUBLISHED: 11:42 20 November 2013 | UPDATED: 11:42 20 November 2013
Craig Revel Horwood is known to millions as the outspoken judge on Strictly Come Dancing, but this Christmas he comes to Southend as the Wicked Queen
Craig Revel Horwood might be known as Mr Nasty for his acerbic comments as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, but to chat to, he’s as nice as pie.
He talks nineteen to the dozen, peppers his speech with his trademark ‘darlings’, and is bursting with enthusiasm for his role as the Wicked Queen in Snow White – the Cliffs Pavilion panto in Southend this Christmas.
He’s previously played the role opposite Ann Widdecombe – the two became an unlikely comic double act after Ann memorably took part in Strictly three years ago – but this time, he’s co-starring with former Emmerdale star Lisa Riley, who put in her own exuberant performances on Strictly last year making it all the way to the semi-finals.
‘It’s going to be great fun,’ enthuses Craig. ‘Lisa is so talented and this year we’re upgrading the acting, singing and dancing elements, so it’s going to be great, with a lot of laughs. I love playing the Wicked Queen because she’s evil and, of course, she’s a woman and I love doing that as well. People don’t realise I can sing or even act, so it’s good to do and it demonstrates that I can laugh at myself. I’m generally the punching bag in the show and that’s just fine.’
Lisa appeared at the Cliffs earlier this year in Strictly Confidential – the show Craig created for her which showcased her talents while revealing her life story. ‘What I love about the Cliffs is that it has very high standards of production,’ he says. ‘And the audiences are fantastic – they do that wonderful Essex rumble. So I’m hoping we get a couple of those, darling.’
In his new book, Tales from the Dance Floor, Craig describes the ‘Essex rumble’ at the Cliffs as ‘where everyone in the audience stamps their feet to create an explosive deep rumbling sound that feels like it will bring the theatre crashing to the ground.’ Obviously, it made quite an impression on him.
Fiddler on the Roof, which he has directed and choreographed and which stars Paul Michael Glaser, will also be coming to the theatre next April.
But Craig’s ties with Essex are not just theatrical. Although born in Australia, he says his ancestors came from here. ‘I’ve traced them back to the 1700s. I’d love to do Who Do You Think You Are? and find out more.’
I spoke to Craig shortly before the operation to replace his arthritic hip in October. ‘I didn’t want to be in pain during the panto, so this was the best time to do it,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t want to be taking pain-killers for the rest of my life. I have osteoarthritis, which has been caused by all the kick-ball changes and splits during my dancing career. The cancans and high kicks in Paris didn’t help either. But I loved it all and I have absolutely no regrets. I’m so pleased that there is a nice little titanium device out there that will make me feel fabulous and let me dance again.’
After a six-week recovery period, he will be ready to join rehearsals. ‘The role won’t change at all. In fact, it will probably get tougher. They’ll say, “What do you mean, you can’t dance? You’re titanium now, darling.”’
The panto will run from December 13 to January 4. ‘We get Christmas Day off, which is lovely, and then New Year’s Day, but I can’t really go out on the lash because I have a matinee the next day.’
Craig is looking forward to having a lively, traditional Christmas at his north London home. ‘I’m going to do a great big Christmas dinner with absolutely everything,’ he enthuses. ‘The beauty of doing panto is that I don’t put any weight on and I’ll be able to eat what I like.’
Tales from the Dance Floor is filled with gossip – what it was like working with Ann Widdecombe, backstage Strictly romances and Craig’s views on the Arlene Phillips affair. He makes it clear he was unhappy about the BBC’s decision to replace her with Alesha Dixon and that he personally felt let down when Alesha later left to join Britain’s Got Talent. ‘I did feel a bit peeved that she left without even so much as a text or anything,’ he tells me. ‘I was disappointed because I’d defended her tirelessly for three years and I felt that was just thrown back in my face a little. But life moves on and I’m not going home crying or anything.’
Does he feel Arlene was badly treated by the BBC? ‘Well, I do feel there’s a place for five people at the judges’ desk. But it’s not my decision. I don’t do the casting and I’m not running the BBC. But when I cast my own shows I cast talented people and I generally stick by them.’
In his previous autobiography, All Balls and Glitter, Craig wrote about growing up in Australia with his alcoholic father. Home was the backwater town of Ballarat and Craig, born in 1965, was one of five children. His father, a Naval lieutenant, was fine when sober, but could turn into a ranting, abusive drunk. It was while Craig was a dancer in Paris that he learnt his father, in a drunken rage, had run amok with a shotgun. His family had to seek refuge with neighbours while the police were called. He was jailed for a week before being sent to a rehabilitation clinic. ‘He stayed off drink for four years after that, but he’s back on it now and unfortunately it seems he’s going to be an eternal alcoholic.’
Dance offered an escape for Craig, who hated school, except for music lessons, and was taunted by fellow pupils for being fat and effeminate. He has struggled much of his life with his weight and has suffered from anorexia.
‘Dance was something I could do and felt competent in,’ he tells me. ‘It made me feel free and let me be what I wanted to be.’
He left home at 16 and soon after was performing as a drag queen, Lavish. By now realising he was gay, he then pragmatically accepted an offer from an older man to accompany him on a trip to Europe and the States, in return for certain favours. The trip allowed him to see the world and the stage shows he saw in London and New York convinced him he wanted a career in the theatre. He moved to Paris and later London, where he went on to appear in West End shows such as Cats, Miss Saigon and Crazy for You. He went on to become a highly-regarded choreographer and director both here and abroad.
He was the last of the four original judges to be cast in Strictly Come Dancing when it launched in 2004 and quickly became known for scathingly honest criticism. His acid-tongued comments have landed him in trouble – he’s had to apologise to Julian Clary and EastEnders actress Patsy Palmer after calling her a ‘two-bit actress in a second-rate soap’.
‘I had to apologise profusely for that,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t nice and it was personal. I regretted that completely. I took a lot of flak and I understand why. But that was early on in my career on television. You have to remember that I wasn’t a celebrity at all and you’re not trained to walk on a red carpet or to do interviews, or not to say this and that. You don’t really know that the press are going to completely make things up and lie about stuff, and embellish every word that you ever said.’
These words are heartfelt and it’s clear he’s been hurt by some press reporting. The public, though, have taken him to their hearts – he’s the judge they love to hate.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that he’s playing the Wicked Queen, as his role on Strictly is akin to a panto villain? He pretends to be offended. ‘How very dare you. Of course it’s not.’ he retorts. ‘I’m myself up there. I don’t put anything on. I see people dancing for one-and-a-half minutes and I tell them the truth. Then I take my judge’s hat off, go to the bar and have a bloody good time.’
Strictly catapulted Craig to celebrity status and it’s not something he has always found easy. ‘I never wanted to be famous. I liked sitting in the dark directing and choreographing. I liked being anonymous. Now I can’t even go down and get a pint of milk without someone stopping me. I don’t like it, but what I do like about it is that I can represent good causes such as charities like the Osteoarthritis Society, which I support with the Duchess of Cornwell, and the Macmillan cancer charity. That’s the only real use I can see to any type of celebrity.’
Strictly only takes up a fraction of a packed schedule. ‘If I were only a judge on television who holds up paddles from one to ten, I don’t think that would be much of a career. My real passion is my career as a director and choreographer.’
Craig thinks the success of Strictly is primarily because it has reacquainted the public with the joys of ballroom dancing. ‘Everyone’s gone dance crazy and it’s all largely due to Strictly. It’s won the hearts and minds of the nation. Ten years ago, children didn’t know anything about dance, but now they’ve grown up with it and they’re wanting to learn salsa, ballroom and the Charleston. When you consider 49 countries worldwide have taken it on board and it’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the most produced format in the world, that is a pretty large flag for the BBC to wave.’
The show appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds. ‘You can sit down to watch it with your whole family. I went to the rugby recently and everyone knew me. The whole stadium was cheering. I felt like the Queen. You would never imagine rugby fans watching Strictly, but they do. It’s brought the whole community together.’
Craig thinks the urge to dance is ingrained in all of us. ‘Cavemen used to jump around fires for fertility and rain. Dance is in our blood and it produces endorphins which make you feel happy.’
The show has had its fair share of Essex contestants, from Countdown’s Rachel Riley this year to last year’s runner-up Denise Van Outen.
Craig was rather rude to Rachel earlier in the series, describing her as ‘wriggling around like a slug in salt’. However, he says he’s actually a big fan.
‘I think she’s fantastic. She had a very good chance of reaching the semi-finals, but it was her Latin that let her down.’
And does he think Denise should have won it last year rather than Louis Smith? His reply is unhesitating. ‘No. You know why? It’s up to the audience. I don’t get the final say. My job is to educate the audience so that they make informed choices when they’re voting, but they’re quite entitled to vote for whoever they like.’
And with a ‘Thank you, darling,’ he’s off. He’s a very busy man. And also a rather charming one.
Find out more
Snow White is at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, from December 13 to January 4. Call 01702 351135 or visit www.southendtheatres.org.uk.
Tales From The Dance Floor, by Craig Revel Horwood, is published by Michael O’Mara Books, RRP £20