Written by Richard Barber
When Len Goodman was originally chosen to be head judge of BBC1’s runaway hit, Strictly Come Dancing, back in 2004, he admitted to the producer that he was nervous. “I was concerned,” he says now, “that I might come across a bit wooden. But she gave me the best advice possible – ‘Be yourself and be honest’ – and that’s just what I’ve tried to do. When it comes to TV, if you try to be what you’re not, you’ll be found out.”
He needn’t have worried. Meet Len, 71, today and he’s indivisible from the guy off the telly – a complete natural who doesn’t mind calling a spade a shovel. He’s also clear-eyed enough to know that, if he were eaten by a crocodile tomorrow, someone else would swiftly climb into his shoes.
“The real star is the show itself. If all four judges perished, they’d be replaced straight away and Strictly would carry on. I remember when Barbara Windsor left EastEnders. My dear old mum said it would never be the same again. But, two months down the line, she’d moved on with the story and the new characters.”
Nonetheless, he was saddened when Bruce Forsyth decided to retire although he was realistic about it, too. “He was 86. He’d earned a break. It’s much easier being a judge. But as main presenter, he worked all the hours. Now he can put his feet up. But I do miss him.”
Not that he’s got anything against Tess and Claudia. “They’ve done such a brilliant job. They’re both so natural, which is what I like. Claudia’s really funny and most of it’s off-the-cuff. Tess comes out looking lovely and she’s very professional. Also, she’s not trying to be like Bruce, much as I liked him.”
So, when is it time for Len to ride into the sunset...? “What I’m hoping is that my wife, Sue, who I trust implicitly, will tell me when I start losing my sharpness. I’d take it from her. I don’t ever want to stay on beyond my sell-by date. I’ll continue being a judge for as long as they ask me. Once I start dribbling and dozing off, though, Sue will have a quiet word in my ear.”
It’s all a far cry from that day 11 years ago when Len, then 60, was contemplating winding down to retirement. “I’d cut down to two days a week at my dance school in Dartford. I was gradually easing off. Sue and my son, James, were effectively running it. And then Erin Boag, who I knew from the world of dance, recommended me and I was chosen as head judge of Strictly.”
In the meantime, judges have come and gone. “But I honestly believe the judging panel at the moment is the best ever. I was a bit concerned about Darcey Bussell at first; I wondered if she was going to be a bit of a prima ballerina, if you know what I mean. Too posh. But she’s charming – just lovely – and she certainly knows what she’s talking about.
I don't ever want to stay beyond my sell-by date
“Between the four of us, you get a rounded set of critiques. I’ve come from the world of ballroom so I’m looking at the footwork. Darcey comes from ballet so she’s looking at the fluidity of the dancers. Bruno’s looking at the performance level. Craig’s main influence is theatrical although he does have a bit of a hang-up about thumbs!”
The demands of the TV studio apart, Len’s been busy although always on Strictly business. Such is the success of the show that Sony invited him to pick 100 tracks that covered everything from the foxtrot and waltz to the tango and rumba for a 3-CD music set, now on sale.
“We’ve ended up with 57,” he says. “They’re all original tracks from the likes of Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Rosemary Clooney – you name them. The memories came flooding back. Every time I listen to Shirley Bassey singing Kiss Me Honey Honey, it reminds me of how often I must have practised the cha-cha-cha to it.”
Now he’s also looking forward to the upcoming Strictly UK theatre tour with fellow judges Craig and Bruno and a new presenter in the shape of the very funny Mel Giedroyc, best known these days from Bake Off.
Among the celebrity dancers involved are Ainsley Harriott, Anita Rani, the hugely talented Georgia May Foote and Frankie Bridge from 2014’s Strictly.
“Being on the road together gives us much more time to socialise compared with the pressures of the TV show. It’s a lot of fun.”
No need to ask if Len enjoys this late flowering of his career. “It’s changed my life,” he says. “A car picks me up and takes me to the studio. I say a few things like, ‘Keep your head up’, they pay me and then they drive me home again. What a job! It certainly beats working on the docks, which is what I was doing when I was 17.
“Aren’t I lucky? You won’t tell the BBC, will you?”
- Len Goodman’s Ballroom Bonanza (on CD or download) is out now from Sony Music Entertainment.
- For more information on the Strictly tour call 0844 875 8758 or visit www.strictlycomedancinglive.com
- There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.