by Patrick O’Connor
LIKE a cat that got the cream . . .
That neatly sums up the expression of a 64 year old granddad approaching his 40th wedding anniversary who has suddenly found himself a cult figure on British TV.
The man in question is John Sergeant, the BBC’s former chief political correspondent, who in a highly respected career in journalism has grilled many of the world’s top politicians including one famous brush with the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher. But his most recent public encounter has been with a stunning, Siberian Marilyn Monroe lookalike, who also happens to be a superstar in the highly competitive field of ballroom dancing.
Kristina Rihanoff has been paired with Sergeant in BBC TV’s hugely popular Strictly Come Dancing which has just embarked on its sixth series. This is one of the Beeb’s star projects, the idea having been exported to nearly 30 countries worldwide since it began in 2004. It is a massive hit around the globe and in Britain regularly attracts audiences of 10 million for its Saturday evening slot.
Celebrities are paired up with an elite group of professional dancers. Most have no or little dance experience and are trained like Trojans before being exposed to the nation and a team of four judges whose comments can at times be vicious.
It’s a winning formula and the BBC has been very clever in making sure that its selection of celebrities includes that very British concept, the underdog. They are usually male and usually have two left feet.
In previous series, soap actor Brian Capron, TV presenter Quentin Willson and newsreader Nicholas Owen all went in the first week. Presenter David Dickinson and snooker player Dennis Taylor lasted a bit longer and newsreader Bill Turnbull bucked the trend by reaching week seven. Poor Jimmy Tarbuck didn’t even get to be voted off. After week one in 2006, the then 66 year old Liverpudlian comedian pulled out because of health reasons, paying tribute to his partner Flavia Cacace for “being patient in trying to turn this old carthorse into a proper dancer.”
So when a chubby, red-faced John Sergeant was named amongst the 16 celebrities to contest this year’s event he conceded he was meant to be part of this year’s ‘odd couple’.
“I knew from the start that one reason I’d been chosen was to produce the obvious reaction: if he can learn to dance, anyone can,” he was quoted as saying.
But after the first week John and Kristina, everybody’s tip to be first out of the door, were still in the contest.
Showing an amazing lightness of foot he cruised the floor elegantly with a waltz danced to the music of Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me.
Judge Bruno Tonioli was moved to say: “It was so cute and cuddly, it was like watching Winnie the Pooh and Tigger.”
But perhaps this wasn’t such a big surprise after all. To quote Reginald Perrin’s boss C.J. “I didn’t get where I am today without….”
For Sergeant is no fool. Although he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, he also made a name for himself in student comedy revues. After graduation he even featured in a series of sketch shows with Alan Bennett on the BBC before he began his career in journalism.
So behind the serious face lies a showman who acknowledges that there is plenty of public curiosity in his partnership with Rihanoff.
“A great mistake is to imagine that close contact with a professional dancer is full of hidden meaning,” he said.
Sergeant has used a lovely wry sense of humour to cope with that side of their partnership and knows that the ‘cute and cuddly’ tag could work in his favour.
Rihanoff has also shown considerable tact and understanding as she trains this most unlikely of partners and it has paid off.
How far they can progress is anybody’s guess but they are establishing a great public following which is vital in a competition determined by telephone votes.
But whatever happens, this ‘old carthorse’ has already had his moment of glory on the dance floor with a glamorous blonde.