Viewers vote with their feet for Sergeant's last dance

Audience gives 'dancing pig' a standing ovation as 11 million watch at home

Perhaps never again – not even late night at weddings, when drunken uncles throw shapes – will the paso doble be massacred quite so ignobly; the female dance partner dragged across the floor like a sack of coal.

A record audience tuned in on Saturday for one last chance to catch John Sergeant, the former political journalist, execute a last waltz on BBC1's ballroom contest Strictly Come Dancing.

The "dancing pig in Cuban heels", as one newspaper critic called him, has captivated viewers for 10 weekends as he stumbled his way through routines.

Some 11.1 million people saw Saturday' show – the highest figure so far this series, up 300,000 on the previous week – and the 64-year-old was clearly the star, taking a tumultuous standing ovation from the studio audience.

The judges – much criticised for the harshness of their remarks about his dancing – remained firmly seated. Despite receiving appalling scores each week from the judges, Sergeant kept being saved by the public's votes. It is unclear if his resignation on Wednesday has undermined the show – the BBC's flagship interactive programme – or strengthened it as a dancing contest.

A pact of omerta appeared to have been taken by the BBC's publicists, who refused to disclose whether phone voting was up or, as expected, down following Mr Sergeant's withdrawal.

According to unconfirmed reports yesterday, 1.7 million people voted for Sergeant and partner Kristina Rihanoff in their last competitive dance nine days ago – almost a third of the 4.9 million votes. His departure failed to save Jodie Kidd, the model who last night became the latest contestant to leave.

The choice of music for Sergeant's farewell dance with Rihanoff – Norah Jones's "Come Away With Me" – could be seen as a typically wry dig. In an interview yesterday, Rihanoff said Sergeant had been "slowly broken by the judges' cruelty" and that the BBC should have reined them in, particularly over remarks about Sergeant's age. "I was really shocked when, in week seven, one of the judges said something like, 'This isn't Help the Aged'," she said.

But on Saturday, Sergeant thanked the judges for the way they "whipped up public support" in his favour and insisted he had had "a marvellous time ... it has been strictly fantastic." The BBC has announced it will refund anyone who voted for Sergeant for the show on 15 November. A free telephone line will open today.

If half of the voters called from a mobile phone and half voted from a landline, the BBC would face a payout of more than £2.3m, although it remains to be seen how many people will apply. John Tilley, the man who set up the internet site bringbackjohn.co.uk, said 47,000 people had signed the site's petition and he expected to present it to the BBC today or tomorrow after it had reached 50,000 names.

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