John Sergeant, the rotund 64-year-old who became one of the favourites to win this year's Strictly Come Dancing, despite being labelled "a dancing pig in Cuban heels" by one of the judges, has quit the show, sparking yet another debate about television phone-in shows.
Viewers have regularly voted to keep the former ITN political editor on the hit Saturday night show, despite professional judges pouring scorn on his performances. But yesterday, Sergeant said the possibility of his winning the show, was "even for me... a joke too far".
At a press conference attended by BBC heavyweights including Jeremy Paxman, Sergeant said: "I know a little bit about voting and the problem was that there was no viable stop-Sergeant candidate".
"The idea that we would carry on doing this week after week – irritating and annoying people and causing controversy – that is not what I'm about and that is not why I wanted to join the show, which is to entertain and give people a good reason to stay in on a Saturday night and not spend too much money," he added.
But last night, inevitably, calls were pouring in asking him to reconsider. The avuncular broadcaster will perform a "farewell dance" with his glamorous Russian partner Kristina Rihanoff on Saturday. He came consistently bottom of the judges' rankings over the past few weeks, only to be rescued by a sympathetic public each time.
As a result, Sergeant was subjected to increasingly personal attacks from judges who grew frustrated with public disregard for their views.
One of the judges, Arlene Phillips, followed her description of Sergeant as "a dancing pig" by telling him: "You are outstanding – at dancing badly." Craig Revel Horwood, another judge, exclaimed: "This is a dance competition. It's not Strictly Come John Sergeant."
And Len Goodman, the usually affable lead judge, told Sergeant after a performance: "That was more ha ha ha than cha cha cha" and said his success in reaching the latter stages of the competition "made a nonsense of the show".
Tensions between the genial Sergeant and his surly examiners seemed to reach a climax on Saturday when he and Rihanoff attempted to walk off after their performance without listening to the judges' verdicts. The actress Cherie Lunghi, who had been tipped as a possible winner but lost out in the public vote, derided Sergeant's contribution to the show, saying he was reducing it to a "soap opera".
Speaking on Tuesday night, Rihanoff condemned the judges for their personal attacks on the veteran broadcaster. "They can talk about his dancing, as it is a dance contest. But their comments are becoming personal. Why do they have to talk about his age?"
Reacting to Sergeant's decision yesterday, Phillips sounded somewhat contrite. "I'm always sad if a contestant leaves by choice, because you are always expecting to let the public vote them in or out – but John is his own person and he has his own reasons for doing this," she said.
Asked if she felt responsible for his decision, she said: "Not really. If you look back, we've actually been quite nice on this programme."
Bruce Forsyth, the show's co-host, described Sergeant's departure as "a bit of a shock" and said: "I feel sorry for John because he was put in the most awkward position. He looked at all the other dancers and knew they were better than him."
Further – and perhaps unlikelier – support came from the lips of Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, who said last week that he watched Sergeant dance with a "degree of envy".
Borrowing a line from himself and Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson said: "John Sergeant should not bow out. He has become the people's John Travolta and he should be a fighter, not a quitter" – a reference to Lord Mandelson's victory speech in his Hartlepool constituency at the 2005 general election.
Others, such as the TV presenter Cilla Black, went further. She expressed a desire to see him reinstated, and said to him : "We love you... I think it is an outrage."
BBC1's controller, Jay Hunt, said that the BBC had "every intention of reimbursing people" who had voted for Sergeant in last week's show.
The people's verdict: View from the BBC blogs
I am very sorry that John is leaving the show. He should stay and keep the flag flying for all of us who love to dance but who are really not that good. This is an entertainment show after all, not the Olympics.
Andrew Watson, Mayfield
Once again the BBC has effectively put two fingers up to the licence [fee] payers. If the public has been voting for John Sergeant it follows that they want him to continue.
What has John Sergeant done but give the public fantastic entertainment? It was the public's decision to keep John in the competition.
Rebecca Baxter, Nottingham
John does his best and surely that's what the competition is about. If they only want young agile people to compete, why invite the likes of John to participate?
Tracey Baker, Chard
From John I have learnt that practice does not always make perfect. Thanks.
Les Woods, Lincoln
I have finally lost my grip on reality... A man resigns from a dance competition and it causes a public outcry. An innocent Brazilian is gunned down by the police and no one resigns.
He has consistently been the worst dancer and it is a dancing contest.
Lesley Emery, Kenley