There is a potent chemistry when mixing political figures and the BBC’s Saturday evening show Strictly Come Dancing.
In 2008 John Sergeant, the man whom Margaret Thatcher famously ‘handbagged’ live in a news report, just as famously stomped and dragged his dance partner Kristina Rihanoff around the floor ‘like a sack of spuds’ in a paso doble.
In a later series, retired Home Office Minister Ann Widdecombe was the one being dragged around, by her dance partner Anton Du Beke, to the somewhat inapt sound of Wild Thing. The week before, she showily descended to the dancefloor on a wire to perform a tango.
I spoke to her the Monday after her sixth show, just as she started to face the same pressure that was put on Sergeant to resign, on the basis that the public’s love of comedy figures was putting more serious dancers out of the competition too early. (She refused, as Strictly is an entertainment show, and that is what she brings.)
I asked her how she would have reacted if, two years earlier, someone had told her that soon after retiring, she would present a programme about the Pope’s UK visit and be flung across a dance floor on the BBC at prime time.
“I’d have said, ‘It might be worth retiring!’” she answered, in her inimitable unhesitating style. “I wasn’t quite certain what I was going to do when I retired, other than carry on writing novels, but I was delighted to be invited to cover the Pope’s visit, because I thought it needed serious treatment – and it got me into every single papal event!
“That was wonderful, but as for being thrown across a dance floor and flying from great heights, if you’d said that to me before I retired, I would have said, ‘Well, pigs are more likely to fly’.”
Although William Hill had placed her in fourth place to win out of nine remaining contestants, the judges marked her last each week and her days were clearly numbered. Many contestants who exit seem devastated, as if they have lost an eye, but I could not see the one-time member for Maidstone and the Weald bursting into tears when she leaves.
“I don’t think it will be difficult to cope with leaving,” she agreed. “Everybody on that show knows that when the axe falls, it falls, and that’s it: you go.
“But it is hugely enjoyable. For the last two decades, from the way I’ve handled a piece of casework as an MP, to the way I’ve voted in the House of Commons, to the decisions I took when I was a minister, to the policies I formed when I was in opposition: every single thing I’ve done had the potential to affect people for good or for bad.
“If I fall down in a heap on the Strictly dancefloor or get eliminated, it affects absolutely nobody else, and there is a relief there, a joy, which is quite difficult to describe. I’m loving every single minute of it! It really is a very life-enhancing force.”
She denied that the show brought out a new side to her personality, claiming that it simply showed something that was previously inappropriate, “What this is giving me the chance to do is to have some fun. I’ve always had a sense of humour; there’s nothing new about that. I am retired. A lot of people don’t get that; they think you should be terribly serious because you’re a politician and I say, ‘Yes, that was true when I was a politician, but I’m not now’.”
Widdecombe and Du Beke largely trained for eight hours a day, three days a week in Newton Abbot, near her home on the Devon moors, watched by cameras that break only for lunch, and very occasionally have to leave to film another contestant.
The show always exudes bonhomie among the contestants, but I wondered whether there is any under-the-surface rivalry. She was typically positive, “If there is, I haven’t seen it.
“If this were politics and you had somebody who is as bad as I am at the main act, but was kept in because everybody loved her, people would say, ‘I don’t know how she survived; the public must be stupid.’ But up in the pod, where the other dancers are watching the studio floor and can be caught completely unawares by the cameras, they’re always enjoying it; they’re crying with laughter up there! There’s no spite at all.”
One of three Christians in the cast, she has a particular affinity with practising Catholic Patsy Kensit, “Patsy and I both invoke St. Jude, who is the patron saint of hopeless causes.”
But the cheeky Du Beke, with his playful choreography, has been the best colleague. She agreed that only he could make their act work.
“First of all, he’s a complete gentleman; secondly, he’s massively patient; thirdly, he has never tried to challenge the two stipulations that I made right at the start, which is no immodest clothing and no immodest moves. I think other dancers might have tried to press their luck.”
It is just a shame that he is twice her height…
“That was the reason I thought I wasn’t going to get him,” she replied, “although, my height being what it is, only a couple of professionals would have matched it anyway. So I was delighted when the BBC probably thought that just added comedy value!”
Her recent documentary on the beatification of Cardinal Newman was a more dignified programme, and one that suited her entirely.
“Newman’s journey was extremely similar to my own, except that his was in far more dramatic circumstances, in a very different age, when there was less tolerance. I’ve always admired Newman and when they asked me to make a documentary, I could hardly believe I had been so blessed.”
She may be a novelist, but there are different sorts of writing and she felt too close to her subject to write the script entirely on her own, letting the team shape the script.
“I may know about Newman, but out there, most people don’t know what a beatification is and don’t have a clue who Cardinal Newman is, and it had to be explained in one hour flat. The professionals do that very well. Excellent teamwork.”
Writing and presenting the project was part of the BBC’s coverage of Pope Benedict’s visit, and she was delighted with its success.
“Everybody was expecting a huge negative before he came. He himself changed that: his personality came over. Unlike his predecessor, he’s not that good at projecting a personality from Rome. He needs to be seen and heard for that to come over. I think that was a huge plus and a lot of people then started to question: what is this thing that gets 125,000 people out to greet the Pope on his arrival? What is this religion that fills whole arenas? People were asking questions and that, of course, is the precursor to faith.
“I loved his address to both houses of Parliament. I actually met him, so I’m going to remember that.
“I tell you something else that really stands out in my mind: outside Westminster Abbey, when he and the Archbishop of Canterbury were doing a joint service, were two people with banners. One said, ‘The Pope is the anti-Christ;’ the next said, ‘We love you Papa, more than beans on toast.’ Those two people were side-by-side and they weren’t fighting each other and I thought, ‘That’s a wonderful picture of Britain!’”
Widdecombe is no stranger to television and now prefers light entertainment to Question Time-type programming. Maybe if the offer to film an advert with Alice Cooper were repeated, post-retirement, she would take it this time.
In the early days there were tensions. She was clearly defensive in Louis Theroux’s documentary about her, and one early visit to Have I Got News for You looked like a set-up, with her as the target.
These days she looks more comfortable on screen, knows which offers to accept and how to play them. As she pragmatically put it, “If you want to decide to use the media, as I did fairly early on, you have got to make judgements about programmes and you’ll get some right and you’ll get some wrong.
“If you don’t take risks, then you won’t have any successes. If I hadn’t risked Strictly, I wouldn’t be having all the fun I’m having now.”
With her forthright style and comments about fellow minister Michael Howard having “something of the night” about him, she was a gift to the media in the early days, and it did not seem like fun then. She showed little of the softer side of her character that tends to come across one-to-one. But she refused to let that portrayal frustrate her, recognising that the media’s strength is not doing shades of grey.
“You have to be left or right; you have to be this or that; they absolutely pigeonhole people and they themselves get quite offended when people act outside the box that they have set for them. That has always been so.
“I can remember back in the days of Enoch Powell. Because of his views on immigration, everybody just assumed that he would be in favour of capital punishment and, of course, when that debate came on, he was one of the most outspoken opponents and the media could not handle that. They can’t handle the fact that most people are multi-layered, that very, very few people have views that are always going to be predicted and people are not just, as you rightly put it, black and white characters out of a piece of fiction. I mean, the human condition is more complex than that.”
I couldn’t let her go without asking about losing her principles and she kindly obliged.
“During one of my earlier elections, I’d produced a leaflet called ‘Standing Up for Christian Principles’. I was in the centre of Maidstone one Saturday and the town was packed. My agent had just finished transferring a whole lot of election literature from my car to his and was driving away. I suddenly realised he hadn’t left me any of this particular leaflet, whereupon, the whole of Maidstone heard me hail on my loudspeaker, ‘Brian, come back! I haven’t got any Christian Principles!’”