Craig Revel Horwood
PUBLISHED: 11:28 23 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:04 20 February 2013
Craig Revel Horwood, the outspoken Strictly Come Dancing judge, is spending his fourth summer producing at The Watermill, near Newbury. Tessa Harris found he wasn't backward in coming forward
Don't be surprised if you find yourself sitting next to Bruce Forsyth if you go and see Spend Spend Spend! at The Watermill Theatre this month. "The Strictly lot will be coming," says Craig Revel Horwood enthusiastically as we sit in the café of the Watermill Theatre at Bagnor.
The usually acerbic judge of BBC 1's hit show Strictly Come Dancing is embarking on his fourth summer at the picturesque theatre that's won international acclaim for its innovative productions and he clearly feels at home. Dressed in grey sweats, he's just walked out of rehearsals, but he looks fresh and friendly and his trademark spiky hair is bearing up well. He goes on: "I'd love to get Brucie down; plus we are doing an hommage to him in the show with one of the actors playing him in a pastiche of The Generation Game. Yes, I've got to get Brucie down. Definitely!"
So far, so good. I haven't been pulled up for poor posture, but I'm keeping my feet firmly under the table. Now in its fifth year, Strictly has become a global phenomenon and Craig is the "nasty" judge, but he can't hide his delight at the show's success. "It's clean Saturday night family entertainment and that's what we're lacking in this country. That's what we're starved of. Everyone relies on filth to make people laugh on TV these days and it's time that stopped. That's why it's just so nice to have someone like Brucie from the Vaudeville era to bring back and make fashionable again that sense of family fun."
He is also delighted by the show's impact. "It's taught a whole new generation to dance. There are children of five and six who have grown up with it. The world's going mad for it."
At the moment, however, Craig is relishing the thought of directing two shows at The Watermill between July and September. The first is Spend Spend Spend!, the story of Viv Nicholson who famously won the equivalent of £5 million on the football pools in 1961, then blew it all. It starts on July 9 and runs until August 29.
The other is Hot Mikado - an almost unrecognisable, jazzed up version of Gilbert and Sullivan's original operetta. It will run from September 3-19, before going on an international tour.
It played here in 2006 and was such a success that it's back by popular demand. Craig recalls: "It was very funny when we first put it on because we tarted up Gilbert and Sullivan and turned it into a funky and jazzy production. But people were coming up to me and saying: 'It's a very strange production.' They'll know what to expect now."
Craig's unusual vision of the piece is what began his happy association with The Watermill. That year he was introduced to the theatre's artistic director the late Jill Fraser by the now general manager Clare Lindsey while he was working at the Chichester Theatre. "Jill wanted something that was going to lift the roof off The Watermill, something really quite whacky and energetic for that small space." And lift the roof off the theatre it did; not just at Bagnor, but wherever it toured in the UK, too. But Craig has particular praise for the cast at The Watermill. "As you know with productions here, the cast has to sing, dance and play about five musical instruments each. They're amazing."
Ten years ago Craig's production of Spend Spend Spend! won the Evening Standard Best Musical Award and an Olivier Award for Choreography. Despite the accolades, he feels it was underrated and that's why he's bringing it to The Watermill. "It's a musical that lends itself to pairing down like Sunset Boulevard (which he produced here in 2008). The acting stands out, so the play comes to life and you hear all the melody lines."
The production's theme is very timely as there are striking parallels between Viv Nicholson and Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle and Craig is keen to draw comparisons. "It's an interesting subject when you've got someone like Susan Boyle who has suddenly found herself in the middle of all this fame and fortune," he says. "Nowadays there are support groups for these people but in those days there was nothing for Viv and she was just spending and drinking like a lunatic."
Such sympathy for Viv Nicholson, whom he has met and who loves his production, sounds strangely at odds with his recent attack on Susan Boyle which was widely reported in the popular press. Were reports that he branded the Scottish singer a "freak" correct, I ask. He nods. "I said all of those things and I stand by them. Suddenly she has got £6 million, coming from virtually the gutters to this instant fame and stardom, and it doesn't help people on their journey.
"I said what I did because it's to do with the audiences wanting and encouraging that sort of behaviour. She could have been kept quite classy but that show shows people in a certain light. They certainly built her up to look stupid. I actually said she was a freak of nature in that way. To me she sings like she looks. Her first appearance, I thought, was good but then she tried to sing something else and she's not an all rounder. She quite clearly demonstrated she could not sing Memory at all and the fact that the judges stood up and applauded her and said that was absolutely brilliant just flabbergasted me. Why weren't they honest enough to tell the truth, that actually it wasn't a great performance that night and she really has to buckle down and get control of her nerves if she wants to stay in the game? Our industry is not easy and you have to put up with a lot of critics. You can relate that to Viv Nicholson in a way. Just like Susan Boyle she was on the front page of every newspaper. She was clueless. You need to be nurtured and looked after and I think that happened too late for Susan Boyle and she had a massive meltdown."
Such forthrightness has earned Craig a reputation for being Strictly's equivalent of Simon Cowell, but he takes it as a compliment. "I'm honest and I'm not going to fabricate an answer for the delight of my audiences and for my own personal gain. I am asked on the show for my professional opinion and I have to maintain standards in the profession. When you have 30 seconds to say what is wrong with a celebrity performance you have to be frank. Besides, they are used to that sort of criticism. They know it's entertainment and I am part
of that entertainment."
Yet while speaking his mind comes very naturally to Craig, it's clear that he doesn't like being constantly portrayed as the 'Mr Nasty' of dance.
His other passion is cooking - he was an apprentice chef in his native Australia but left after a few months because he "couldn't stand" the head chef. In 2008 he was runner-up, along with musician Midge Ure, in Celebrity Masterchef. "I love cooking, but that was a real battle with my nerves. I thought it was a good programme to do because it showed the country that I am actually human. I'm not just a bitchy queen with vile answers and quips. I am a human being and I do face challenges. I think it was good for everyone to see that I was a wreck and sweating like a pig. I was a complete disaster, except the food was great."
So has he had a chance to try out any eateries in Berkshire? "The Bell at Boxford. The food is excellent and everyone's really friendly - so different from London," he says. During his first summer working at The Watermill he stayed at Boxford, taking a taxi to work each day. He explains: "I don't drive and I thought what I might do is bring my bike down here and explore all the country lanes."
In the meantime, he is staying at beautiful Bagnor Manor, next door to the theatre. "It's gorgeous and literally through the hedge."
Finding accommodation for the huge cast is always a problem for The Watermill and Craig is seriously thinking about buying a home nearby and letting actors use it while he is away. "I would most definitely consider buying a house around here. I think it's gorgeous. I could easily have a lovely country property here. I wouldn't want anything as big as Bagnor Manor, but I'd love a cottage. There are so many actors who could use it. It would be a perfect compliment for The Watermill. Actors are always looking for somewhere to place their weary heads."
Between now and the end of September there isn't much chance of Craig being able to rest. In between rehearsals, he's promoting his charities. He is a keen supporter of The National Osteoporosis Society and meets regularly with the Duchess of Cornwell, who is its patron and of Teaching First, a project that recruits inspirational teachers for under privileged children. (He is the son of an alcoholic father.) "I'm very lucky that Strictly has given me a profile so that I can promote all the causes and charities that I believe in," he says.
He also feels very lucky to be associated with The Watermill. "What I love about it is that Hede Bebbe, who runs it, gives me free reign. We throw ideas into the pot and great things come out."
Indeed, such is the reputation of The Watermill that many West End theatre critiques will make the journey, and they'll be looking to find fault, purely and simply because he is behind the shows. "They want to slag me off and they look for faults. I don't think I'm perfect but you just have to be very thick skinned in this business. I do dish it out on Strictly, so I've got to expect it back," he concedes.
Not that he's expecting poor reviews. "The Watermill has become famous not only for transfers to the West End but for doing really good quality work here." He adds: "The people of Berkshire are really lucky to have it."
Finally, I ask Craig if he'll have his picture taken for Berkshire & Chilterns Life. He smiles obligingly and without warning takes my hand, puts his arm around my waist and strikes a dance pose for the photographer. Now that's what I call showbiz! Mr Nasty is really very nice.
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