Lisa Riley was the surprise star of last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, so impressing judge and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood that he built a new stage show just for her
Strictly Confidential is the show Craig Revel Horwood dreamed of creating for many years, but didn’t, because he’d never met a celebrity contestant on Strictly Come Dancing with the requisite portfolio of skills – and personality – for him to build a production around. Then Lisa Riley shimmied onto the dance floor, cha-cha-cha-ing her way into our hearts in the course of one exuberant routine. Horwood’s oft-quoted reaction was priceless. The normally acid-tongued judge said just three words: “You. Can. Dance.”
Riley and her partner Robin Windsor made it all the way to the semi-finals, losing in an emotional dance-off against Denise Van Outen. The dancing duo toured with last winter’s Strictly roadshow, then Riley went right into panto. Now she’s marshalling all her skills in one place, and we’ll see her dancing, singing, and acting, alongside professional dancers Artem Chigvintsev, Natalie Lowe and Ian Waite in Revel Horwood’s Strictly Confidential.
While the audience loves to hate the judge famed for his acerbic putdowns, if you actually listen, his comments are cogent critiques of dance technique. So what’s he really like? Riley adores him. “He was so supportive. We became really good friends. He’s divine.
“Craig had the concept for this show for a long time, and I’m quoting him: he said he never found anyone who fit the bill, in the sense of the all-round performer. After seeing me this year, he thought I was an obvious choice to take it on the road. It’s taking me back to my roots, because I trained in musical theatre at drama school. After being in Strictly I got a lot of West End offers, but knowing that I had Craig’s show, I thought I’d make it my first public outing. I’d rather do it under the Strictly brand, as it were, and see what happens from there.
“I love the fact that in Confidential, I’ve got to get my steps right for the dancing, I’ve got to get my singing right, I’ve got all my monologues, and there are elements of just being myself. I’ve never done that before. I’m normally a character portraying a role, whereas with this I’m talking to the audience, telling the truth as myself. How lucky am I that Craig’s chosen me! That I get to do a piece for two hours that covers every genre of my career! It’s brilliant!”
Riley and I are meeting in Glasgow, where she’s spending the day fielding back-to-back interviews on radio and telly, so it’s full make-up and several changes of clothes. Nevertheless, I am mesmerised by her gorgeous eyes: even without the glue-on lashes, they’re huge, a beautiful (yet indescribable) colour, and full of twinkle. As windows to the soul go, they’re a terrific advertisement for her lively, down-to-earth geniality.
Being a Strictly viewer, I’ve always wondered if the judges wander around the practise rooms throughout the week offering tips, or instead, keep their distance. She assures me it’s the latter. “On a Saturday you go into hair and make-up from 8am to 1pm, so you’re fully ready for the show. Then we do an ‘as live’ run, with Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly for two hours. We do everything – all the chats upstairs, chats with Brucie. They have stand-ins for the judges, so when they see us for the live show, that’s the first time.
“When we finish the 1pm run, we’ll see the judges walking around the building. Funnily enough, Darcey Bussell’s dressing room was next door to mine. But we keep a distance. Everything you’re practising for is seeking their approval. I think a lot of the public’s voting stems from what they have said about you. Len used to go on about my technique, and that gives you something to work on in the practise room. He was adamant about my foxtrot, and said, ‘You can’t get away with a bad heel turn.’ It literally took me nine hours – my poor calves. But I wanted to nail it, because he kept going on about the placement of the foot. What I didn’t know is that on the actual live show they did a cutaway. Thank god I put the hours in because there was a full-on close up of my heel turn, and I got it right! I was really chuffed.” She joined the Strictly team shortly after her mum’s death, and has spoken often about how gentle and kind Robin was to her, and what good friends they became. Now that she’s facing a change of partner, is she worried about making the necessary adjustments?
“I think it’s really healthy, because that’s their world. They trade pro partners every two years. If you remember Wembley week, I was partnered with Artem as my tutor because Robin was off with food poisoning.” Ah yes, Wembley. The audience’s response actually delayed the show after she and Robin danced. Her voice goes soft, remembering it. “There are moments in your life, I’m 36 now, and I remember saying to Zoe Ball on Tuesday, on the It Takes Two show: ‘If I could have bottled that moment, and sold it to everybody…’ There is nothing like that feeling. Bruce could not do his link. They would not stop chanting our names. You go, Jesus, 6,000 people. It was insane, and all I did was a jump split. But I sold it. I was this little kid from Manchester going to drama school from age nine, thinking I might play at the local theatre to 200 people. I went to drama school because my mum always said I was different, precocious. She says when she went to parents’ night, all the other mums would talk about their kids watching Danger Mouse, and cartoons, but that never did it for me, apparently. I used to have a little guitar and I’d sit in the kitchen window thinking I was Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
But back to the beefcake, how will it be different working with Artem? “Me and Robin were doing nine hours’ practice every single day. You get used to a certain way of forming your stance, and your frame. I have learned all the basics of Latin and ballroom, but it’s readjusting. Our height works together, which is a big part of it. Before we get into the main rehearsals with Craig, me and Artem will have four lots of three hours on our own, just to get down and dirty, because with ballroom there’s a degree of intimacy – which is no problem! We’re going to have to get something called the Body Slot in.”
What’s that? “A lady’s right thigh, the inner side, has to have a pressure on the male left inner thigh. Then without actually giving you a step, they can lead you around the room and you follow, because you feel the pressure.”
Just in case you’re in the market for another dancing tip, Riley tells me that she had three and a bit weeks of pole dancing training back in 2009, for her role in a play called The Naked Truth. “It was desperately hard. It’s all on your upper body: you have to hold your entire body weight over your shoulder blades. They encouraged us to do an hour’s swimming every day, because it strengthens all your core, where you’re doing the lifting.”
Not content to be a team player, Riley’s their cheerleader, too, and convinces me that the dancers’ stories during Strictly Confidential will be fascinating. “They’re celebrities in their own right, in the most popular show in the country. I want to know how they got there. Why were they chosen to be a dancer? And for example, with Artem, he’s met his girlfriend [former EastEnders actor Kara Tointon], they’ve been together on the show, and they won. It’s romance personified. So you’ll hear all about that, and about Ian, and Natalie coming from Australia. You’ll hear about the pressures of being on the show and how we lean on each other. When we’re about to go live and we’re on that staircase together, we’re all in the same boat. When people left we were genuinely devastated, because it was losing mates who we’ve grown to love.”
Windsor once told a newspaper that Riley arrived that first day already possessing enviable stamina. Where does it come from? She shrugs, saying it’s just the way she’s made. “I’m a never-failing Duracell battery. I don’t lull in the day. People did judge me: ‘Oh, she’s overweight therefore she’s not fit.’ Well you know what, I’m fitter than Robin and that was proved on the show. We’d finish a routine and he was more out of breath than I was.
“When you’re on a soap opera like Emmerdale, as well, you are in make-up at quarter past six, and if you’re in the storyline, you don’t get back to your house till half past eight. You never stop. For example, when they put your character, like they did with me, into the pub, you’re in every single scene of the day, because of continuity. You’ve got to keep going. I’ve always been like that. My mum was a wonderful personality, infectiously full of life, and obviously that’s where I get my character from.”
She tells me several times how lucky she feels doing a job she loves, and reveals that her biggest work-related bugbear is actors’ vanity. “I want to do jobs where you wear a fat suit and look awful. If you’re going to do it, do it right or don’t do it at all. You’ve got to look how the character is supposed to look. When I’m watching something at home, and they’re in bed and then wake up in the morning and they’ve got the full eyes on, it actually makes me talk to the telly: ‘No, you don’t look like that in the morning, no one does.’ Also why, as an actor, would you be so vain that you wouldn’t want to look how you’re supposed to look?”
The trouble, we both agree, is that fatism is the last acceptable prejudice. Everyone’s outraged by racism or sexual discrimination, but call someone fatso and no one bats an eye.
“Please, I’d love to know the answer,” she says. “When someone’s overweight they’re told they can’t do things. I know I’m fit and healthy. They have this idea we sit there and eat pizza and a full tub of ice-cream, but we don’t. People have no idea that some people are battling thyroid. I say if you can look in the mirror and like your own reflection, then you have the right to be anything you want to be. It needs someone like me to be out there to say it’s OK. When I was doing Fat Friends I’d meet these girls who were self-harming. How is that right in a society where we’re brought up to believe in freedom of speech? But there’s a whole stigma – would you want someone who has anorexia? That’s an illness. Why is comfort overeating worse?
“I remember this article that said myself, James Corden and Matt Lucas, aren’t we ‘brave’? Brave? Why? Because we’ll wear something our character needs to wear even if it’s skimpy? We’re professionals. Whereas I’ve seen size ten actors saying, ‘I can’t wear this, it makes me look fat.’ Oh for f***’s sake, get a grip! The Mail got a photo of me on the beach and the caption was ‘Emmerwhale’. It didn’t bother me because I think I gave women confidence. You have a right to get your body out. As long as you know you’re healthy. The medical to go on the BBC, it’s like three hours long. And she was blown away by me.”
Strictly Confidential tours through August, and in the autumn we’ll see Riley in the next season of Inspector George Gently. After that, who knows? The offers, she says, are insane. The same cannot be said for Riley, so I’m certain that once she has five minutes to put her feet up and contemplate the future, she’ll make some shrewd choices.
• Lisa Riley is starring in Craig Revel Horwood’s Strictly Confidential, playing the Edinburgh Festival Theatre 16-18 July, Aberdeen AECC 19-20 July and Glasgow Clyde Auditorium 21 July. For tickets, which range from £19.50-£45, not including booking fee, see StrictlyConfidentialTour.com