John Sergeant: Fancy footwork

If the judges had their way, the former political reporter would have exited 'Strictly Come Dancing' long ago. But audiences love him

He cuts – even he would admit it – an unlikely figure. But John Sergeant, the BBC's former chief political correspondent, has become the improbable star of the latest series of BBC1's Saturday night light entertainment flagship, Strictly Come Dancing.

That was not how it was supposed to be. The formula of the knockout talent show, which pits the judgement of dance professionals against that of the great British telephone-polling public, allows for a little comic relief in the line-up. Thus, amid the dashing manly Adonis figures of the England rugby player Austin Healey, the Olympic swimmer Mark Foster and the GMTV presenter Andrew Castle, viewers were to be entertained by the galumphing efforts of the portly Mr Sergeant. He was to be the Bottom to their Theseus, Demeter and Lysander – the fat clown who can't dance and gets thrown off of the show within a fortnight.

Or as one Strictly aficionado put it on one of the countless web forums devoted to the show: "He'd basically be this year's Kate Garraway except with slightly bigger boobs."

But all of a sudden Britain's newspapers, the qualities included, have become seized with the notion that the old political commentator, at 64, is fast becoming the nation's latest sex symbol. It may be a measure of how desperate everyone is to think about something other than the state of the global economy, or show they are bored already with Obamamania, but Mr Sergeant is the man of the hour.

Not only is the oldest, dumpiest, heaviest, most ungainly contestant still in the competition past the halfway point – it is episode eight tonight – but arbiters of Middle England's opinion such as Esther Rantzen have been penning articles with headlines such as: "Why all women love an ugly man." In part, all eyes are on the podgy political pundit not to see how well he can do the tango or the samba but merely because he's even attempting them. But it is also a reflection of Sergeant's charm and self-deprecating wit that have been in evidence in the interviews and rehearsal shots that intercut the dancing. When asked to describe his tango Sergeant said: "It has all the characteristics people associate with me – passion, rhythm and a raw sexuality." I think he was joking.

At first, the show's judges enjoyed the jest, calling his waltz "warm" and "understated". But Sergeant finished week four with the worst average of the 12 remaining contestants. And his third dance, the samba, was the worst score of week five But despite all that, each week our unlikely hero comfortably survived – thanks to viewers' votes which kept him out of the ignominious "dance-off" in which the judges decide between the two dancers who receive the lowest scores from the public.

This is, it is generally agreed, because the hoofer hack makes female viewers laugh and want to cuddle him and because he makes male viewers of a certain age – whose figure, like his, is not what it was – feel good about themselves. Voting, after all, reveals more about the voters than it does about those who are voted for. But the empathy vote has begun to irritate the judges.

The head of the judging panel, the ballroom adjudicator Len Goodman, became positively acerbic after a foxtrot during which Sergeant made little body contact with his 29-year-old sexy Siberian platinum-blond partner, Kristina Rihanoff. "This isn't Help the Aged," he said, rather cruelly considering that the show's host is Bruce Forsyth.

Not that banana-faced Brucie has been sympathetic. Last week he compared the face of our heroic hack to the even more crumpled phizog of comedian Jo Brand. Sergeant responded, as he does to much of the mild hysteria of the show, with a look ironic surprise.

All this is a far cry from the 30 years John Sergeant spent as a war reporter in Vietnam, the Middle East and Northern Ireland and as a senior political correspondent at Westminster. The son of a vicar, he was educated at Millfield School in Somerset and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read politics, philosophy and economics. Yet even as a politics undergraduate he made something of a name for himself as a comic, taking part in the Oxford Revue and, after graduation, starring with Alan Bennett in the award-winning 1966 BBC TV comedy series On the Margin.

Four years later he joined the BBC as a radio reporter, covering stories in more than 25 countries. Yet through it all he flirted, intentionally and unintentionally, with comedy. His most celebrated moment as a political correspondent came as he waited outside the British embassy in Paris for Margaret Thatcher, in the hope of recording her reaction to the first ballot in the party leadership contest of 1990 which heralded her departure from the political scene. Sergeant was pushed aside by her grumpy press secretary, Bernard Ingham, when the PM emerged from the building. It won him the British Press Guild award for the most memorable broadcast of the year, though he was up against stiff competition in the form of the footballer Paul Gascoigne who was nominated for bursting into tears during a vital match in Italy.

But then the man has never sought to be the unrivalled centre of attention. "When John Sergeant gavottes," wrote Esther Rantzen, "his whole attention is focused on his partner, the lovely Kristina." The judges do not like this, since they feel he leaves her to do all the dancing. But fans such as Rantzen regard this as seemly. "John may be considerably older than her, but there is nothing sleazy about his approach. He treats Kristina with loving respect."

There is a hidden accolade in all this for Kristina Rihanoff, who is an international ballroom champion. She choreographs for Sergeant perfectly, playing up what little dancing strengths he has in a serious of routines which enable him to showcase his avuncular personality. At times he looks like an 1930s butler indulging his employer in a little warm-up in the drawing room before she makes her entry into a grand Hollywood ballroom. There is a wistful irony in his expression as he whirls the bare-backed beauty around the dancefloor.

All this has not prevented some fairly ungallant stuff from being posted in the blogosphere. There fans speak of his "endearingly funny face" which is "a little like a garden gnome". They recorded that "on John's first night, I roared with laughter watching him heaving his tubby chops around the dancefloor". They debate whether he looks more like Jo Brand or the Churchill insurance dog. They mock his Bobby Charlton comb-over. And there is about it all something of the theatre of cruelty. "Keep voting," said one blogger. "Let's make John jive!"

But they also say that, however limited he is as a dancer, Sergeant never makes a fool of himself because he is always completely assured. To his fans his bearing speaks of old-fashioned respect, of self-belief, of trying your best. They use words such as permanence, strength and dignity. They admire his immunity to the programme's tendency to turn celebrities who are relaxed and laconic at the outset into febrile fanatics who develop a steely determination to winning.

There is no doubt John Sergeant is enjoying it all. He has given up drinking and switched to salad for lunch, his partner Kristina has revealed. He has lost 20lb because he has been working so hard and cut out the alcohol. "No wine for me. I'm a dancer now!" he told a waiter recently. This may be a temporary abstention. But it is good to see that there is life after politics. It is something his old adversary Margaret Thatcher never managed to discover.

A life in brief

Born: 14 April 1944 in Oxford. Father, a vicar.

Family: Married Mary Smithies in 1969, two sons.

Education: Millfield School, Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read politics, philosophy and economics.

Career: BBC radio reporter in 1970, BBC political correspondent, 1981; BBC chief political correspondent, 1992; political editor ITN, 2000-2002.

He says: "You have to get caught in the middle of a memorable muddle to become well known."

They say:
"I think by the end of the year he will look like James Bond." – dance partner Kristina Rihanoff

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