Millions of viewers will watch tomorrow's final of Strictly Come Dancing - but it is the judges, not the contestants, who have become the stars of the show. And the rows are still exploding.
Flat-footed celebrities, corny Bruce Forsyth gags and the bickering of four middle-aged dance professionals is an unlikely recipe for aural and visual ecstasy. But this is the fifth year that Strictly Come Dancing has dazzled on Saturday and Sunday night television. Up to 12 million people have been tuning in and more are likely to switch on tomorrow, when former Mis-Teeq singer Alesha Dixon takes on EastEnders actor Matt di Angelo in the final. The celebrities come and go (often undertaking compelling personal "journeys" - in Strictly speak - along the way) but the four judges are ever present, sitting in a line from left to right in ascending order of generosity: Craig Revel Horwood, Arlene Phillips, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli. In many ways they are the stars of the show.
As well as their professional judgments, the four serve up a soap opera within the programme, chuntering and squabbling like a family at Christmas. "You've got Bruno, the mad fiery Italian, you've got Craig who talks about the story of the dance, and Arlene who focuses on the physical side and then you get the old fuddy duddy ballroom judge [himself] who is always looking at the heels and the toes," explains Len. "Craig thinks his way of just going for the jugular is the best, Bruno thinks jumping up, gyrating his hips and going, 'Diva diva diva' is, and Arlene is always saying, 'Very musical arms and I love the shaping in your back.' We've all got our little ways."
In the week before the final, the rows they have been having all series are still popping and exploding, even offstage. "They all get on my nerves," moans Len, who is grumpy when I meet him because his groin is playing up. "You've got to understand, nearly everyone gets on my nerves. I don't like anyone really. It's like WC Fields once said, 'I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.'"
Craig, who I meet with Bruno (Strictly's bad and good cops are actually great mates; "Bruno cooks me chicken, don't you darling?" says Craig), is still annoyed with Len for criticising his critical judging style. "Len did go too far with me two weeks ago but he's entitled to his opinion," he says. "It was a major attack on me about my opinion and not being positive. I said it's not my job to do that. I'm not Len Goody Goody Two Shoes."
Len brings this up unprompted. "He calls me Goody Goody Goodman or something. Craig is the sort of person who would tell a child there is a toilet monster. He's got that nasty streak, but I admire him for it. You know the three hardest things in the world to do? Climb a wall that's leaning towards you. Kiss a girl who's leaning away from you. And criticise someone who's looking at you. That's a twist on Churchill's quote," he explains.
Bruno, typically, is emollient. "I have so many rows with Len on screen and it's live and his reaction is immediate and spontaneous and I don't think it is carried any further than the moment. He called me a pillock. Hah huh huh huh HAH! It takes one to know one. The situation creates that. It's the passion for the dance. You care so much."
Like any family, the four were thrown together by powers beyond their control: the BBC's casting folk seemed to trawl randomly through every dance school in the country to assemble the judging panel. Arlene, who made her name as choreographer for dance troupe Hot Gossip, joined ballroom judge and teacher Len in the pilot; then came Bruno, a choreographer on dozens of films and videos for the likes of Elton John and Tina Turner; Craig, who has helped choreograph numerous theatrical productions, including the Olivier award-winning choreography of Martin Guerre, and directed the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, reckons he was the last to be asked on, two days before the first show.
"When I first met them, I thought, blimey this is a motley crew," says Len. He believed the show needed four traditional ballroom judges but admits he was wrong. "That would have been terrible, you would have just had four of me." They all agree on this, at least. As Arlene puts it: "We have different passions. We love different forms of dance. We are very, very different characters. Everything about us is so utterly different and yet we all have one goal when we are together which is to judge Strictly."
None held out much hope for the show before it started but when the first episode was recorded they sensed a buzz in the large live audience. The following week the producers made an interesting tweak: Craig and Bruno swapped positions because it was too downbeat to finish with Craig's critical comments (already attracting boos). The show's warmth and ability to entertain everyone from children to pensioners soon won over millions of viewers and the format was sold around the world. Just don't call it reality TV. "It is a reinvention of the variety show, with competition and entertainment," says Bruno. "It's more connected to the big variety shows from 30 years ago than it is to Celebrity Fuck Off I Don't Know Who You Are."
Craig sniggers. "Any wonder we get gagged, darling?"
Born in Australia, Craig is cheerier and gentler in real life than in judging mode, where he's the pantomime villain. An outraged viewer once slapped him in the street. "She said, 'You bugger!' because I'm so nasty to people." Is he too cruel? "I get booed for giving an eight and in my world that's high marks. But the audience's expectations are higher. I say something nice they think I'm just going to whack out a 10, willy-nilly, but actually I don't."
Arlene thinks she is as critical as Craig, but he "speaks with his head, I speak with my heart," she says.
Craig insists the celebrities get off lightly. "This is prep school in comparison to what you're told when you're a dancer," he says.
Bruno nods. "It is. People used to hit me with a bloody stick." He makes a kerrrswitch! noise. "With a stick! Yeaaah! My Russian ballet teacher had a cane." He jumps up and mimes the swatting of his legs. Craig adds swishing noises. "Pow!" shouts Bruno.
Why doesn't he wield a cane in the final?
"I'd love to," says Craig.
"You'd love to!" screeches Bruno. "It's payback time for Craig. All those years of abuse."
"You've just got to get over it," says Craig. He continues: "All the sports people are brrrilllliant on the show because they can take criticism. They don't ever take it personally. They go, 'OK, that's something physical I've got to work on.' Actors, however, are entirely different creatures. They are so emotional, so blocked; they have hundreds of thousands of brick walls that one has to get through in order to change them."
"You don't like actors, do you?" says Bruno. "Hah huh huh huh HAH!"
The judges insist they are impartial but happily admit they have favourites based on ability. "Everyone said last year I was Emma Bunton mad but the only reason I was Emma Bunton mad was because Emma Bunton could bloody dance," says Craig. "And the only reason I'm Alesha mad is because she can dance. I don't favour them in my scoring but I do champion people who are good. As if I'm going to champion someone like Fiona Phillips or Kate Garraway for goodness sake. I'd be ridiculed for the rest of my life."
Poor Phillips is mentioned by every judge as one of the worst dancers they have ever seen. Her apparent failure to improve is an exception, however, because Strictly does visibly change people. Leaden-legged elephants discover their inner gazelle; tortured introverts unleash the expressive performer that was always screaming to get out.
Last year, cricketer Mark Ramprakash looked like a man finding himself for the first time when he won the series with some spine-tinglingly passionate dances. Arlene admits Ramprakash is her favourite ever celebrity dancer. "Everyone teases me about Mark but he was very softly spoken, very shy, very inward-looking. He would get out on the dancefloor and he said a million words through his dance, and the excitement of watching somebody so quiet just explode on the dancefloor was thrilling," she says. "Everybody says it's changed him. He's so much more outgoing now. Dance can change your life in lots of ways."
This year, the main journey has been taken by Gethin Jones, the wholesome Blue Peter presenter. After he enlisted an acting coach to inject some sexiness into his dancing, he moved like a new man. In the semi-final last weekend, however, he was eliminated as Di Angelo earned four 10s from the judges and, in the "dance off", was voted through by the judges. Are the two best dancers in the final? "No. Probably not," says Len. The viewers may complain the judges took that decision but Len says the audience (whose telephone votes usually decide who stays on) should have "kicked off" Di Angelo after he suffered a disastrous attack of nerves and forgot his steps two weeks ago. "The viewers come to people's rescue thinking they are doing them a favour and then moan at the judges because Gethin is gone," he says. "Gethin shouldn't have gone. Matt should have gone two weeks ago, when the judges had him 20 points below anyone else."
The newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and actress Jill Halfpenny won the first two series but cricketers Darren Gough and Ramprakash were victors in 2005 and 2006 as excellent women dancers such as Zoe Ball and Emma were knocked out. What Craig calls the "emotionally challenged" voting public appear to favour the men over the women - which could make Alesha ("Manchester United" to Matt's "Watford" according to Len) vulnerable in the final.
Strictly voters "go on emotional journeys with these people because they can't see the technical faults," says Craig. "If I say something really bad about someone you can guarantee a million people will be on the telephone saying, 'I'll get him back.' It's really bad. They should be voting on dance ability."
Are viewers tougher on the more gifted women dancers? Len sees a "scenario" he says. "I would imagine far more middle-aged women than middle-aged men vote. I imagine them looking at Matt [and thinking] 'a bit of eye candy, a hunky young dude'. And they look at Alesha and they are sitting there eating their fourth KitKat and they've just had three square meals and a fish supper, all bloated out, and they go 'Bugger her, I'm not voting for that.'"
With his immaculate shoes and bow tie, Len is very old school and he and Forsyth often direct sexist jibes at Arlene, teasing her when she praises the young male dancers. Does she ever feel ganged up on? "It does get to me, it really does," she says. "It's outdated. It's not correct, the 'little woman' thing. What do you want me to do, go and get you a cup of tea, guys? I just smile and go along with it," she says.
But she says nearly stormed off the set two weeks ago. She was praising a dancer and wanted to add a caveat. "I said, 'Can I have a but?' and Len was going, 'Yeah, you've got a big butt.' That is so in bad taste. But I don't want to start on a Saturday night. That's not entertainment for the audience. If I start on any of them, and go, 'You can't say this or you can't say that' I'd be wiping the floor with them but it would take a hell of a long time."
Len laughs off the row. "It meant nothing. It was a joke. She can hold her own, don't you worry." Is she picked on in a sexist way? "I don't think so at all. We are all friends." He turns to the (slim) BBC press officer, who is sitting nearby. "In the same way as I might say to Carly, 'Your arse looks big in those jeans Carly.' Do you know what I mean? I'd say to Bruno, 'What the hell have you got on there?' He wears these little black leather jackets. It's not the fact that Arlene's a female or Bruno's a male, it's just my way of talking."
Another reason for Strictly's appeal may be that the judges all have an attractive, everyday eccentricity; none of them has been famous for most of their working lives. For decades they have quietly worked behind the scenes and when Strictly finishes, and they have enjoyed their traditional end-of-season meal out together, they return to their day jobs. Arlene is doing new stage versions of Sleeping Beauty and Flashdance next year; Craig is busy with the Ballet Boyz; Len still runs his dance school in Dartford. But Strictly has changed their lives. Bruno is on TV all the time now, judging the US version with Len and beginning a new American dance show in January. "When the tide arrives, it's no good trying to swim against it," Bruno says. "I can't believe my luck. We've been working 30 years in the business and all of a sudden these things do change your life. I'm very grateful. Thank you."
The judges are generous to a fault about Forsyth even praising his "no business like showbusiness dancing" style, as Craig puts it. Len reckons some of his one-liners are a "little bit corny" but they love his improvised stuff. Craig chuckles. "There was one time when I said, 'That was painful to watch' and he said, 'You know what Craig, you're painful to listen to.'" Bruno and Craig collapse with laughter.
"I've heard people say he's getting on a bit now but who would you have instead?" says Len. Could the show continue without him? Len meanders off on another of his "scenarios". "If all the judges, producers, Bruce and Tess, the whole lot of us, were going down to Brighton in a coach and it crashed and we all got killed, Strictly would be on next year. None of us are bigger than the show. The show will go on, I'm sure."