Interview: Russell Grant on Strictly Come Dancing and returning to his theatrical roots

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

He set the ballroom alight on Strictly Come Dancing, winning the hearts of millions in the process. He was the resident astrologer on TV AM and This Morning with Richard and Judy. He recently returned to his theatrical roots with a series of critically acclaimed productions. He will shortly be appearing in Aladdin at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Laurence Watts catches up with Britain’s rediscovered national treasure, Russell Grant.

Russell Grant is a man very much in demand these days. His Strictly Come Dancing partnership with Flavia Cacace took him to Wembley and the show’s eighth week. The primetime exposure and his natural showmanship thrust him back into the national spotlight.

“The offers for pantomime flooded in,” he tells me. “I literally got about twenty. I took this one because first of all it’s Milton Keynes, which is where my Mum was evacuated to during the war, and secondly because I love the idea of playing Genie of the Lamp. It’s a role I’ve never played before. I love Aladdin. It’s my favourite pantomime because of the glitz, the sparkle, and that whole feeling of the Orient. It’s always a little bit more sumptuous than something like Dick Whittington.”

Russell will be appearing in Aladdin for five-nights-only in the week leading up to Christmas. I tell him that for me, pantomime is all about the lead up to Christmas and Boxing Day.

“I agree with you totally,” he says, “and you know let’s stretch it to New Years Day, Hogmanay and all the rest of it, but I think once you get past News Year’s Day the atmosphere goes. I love the spectacle of pantomime. I love the fairytale stuff. Pantomime very often saves theatres because of the money it brings in to the box office. It’s fantastic at getting kids into theatres and it can mean they stay and get involved in theatre.”

Aladdin is not Russell’s first pantomime. He’s played a pantomime dame on more than one occasion. With the likes of Danny La Rue and Christopher Biggins famous for playing dames, is it a role that gay men get pigeonholed into?

“Do you know the funny thing about being a dame? I think gay men often don’t play the best dames. I think it is a bit stereotyped these days, isn’t it? When you look at Arthur Askey or Billy Dainty or Les Dawson, they were the most brilliant dames ever. It’s far from being a gay thing. You know as well as I do just how many straight men like to dress up in a frock if they go to a fancy dress party!”

While Russell will undoubtedly enjoy his stint doing pantomime this year, it’s unlikely to challenge him as much as some of his recent theatrical endeavours.

“My whole background is theatre,” he says. “In the past couple of years I’ve very much gone back to it. I’ve been doing things like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I also did a wonderful show called Bliss The Musical where believe it or not I played Dusty Springfield.”

Russell also had a starring role in two recent productions of The Rocky Horror Show, where he played the narrator.

“I toured the year before last and then I took over from Gethin Jenkins this year. It’s the most wonderful show. The music’s great, as is the premise. As the narrator you have to be very quick with the audience because you get people screaming things out and you have to shout stuff back. I actually got rounds of applause for my quick wit. Having to come up with bitchy comments was perfect for me. Now that’s very much a gay man’s thing!”

Aside from acting and singing, Russell is also increasingly being recognised as a talented director. He directed the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream he appeared in.

“I’ve had two critically acclaimed productions,” he tells me. “I love to direct in a very off the wall way. One of my closest friends on Strictly is Holly Valance and I’ve had the idea of doing Romeo and Juliet with her, with her playing Romeo. I’m toying with the idea of making it a lesbian version. It goes dead against form, of course, because in Shakespeare’s time men played all the parts. Being a director and doing that whole big creative thing is very exciting for me.”

Given that he originally trained as an actor and singer, I wonder if he somehow felt typecast following the success of his career in astrology.

“Very much so,” he answers. “It was always very frustrating just to be known as an astrologer because I never meant for it to be my full time job. Astrology kind of took over in 1978 when I presented charts to the Queen Mother. Up until then I’d appeared in the West End and in major musicals. I was in sitcoms like On The Buses and Doctor in The House. Overnight, it all went.”

“A couple of years ago I got quite depressed. At the time I weighed 27 stone. I thought to myself: “I’ve got to get happiness back into my life. How do I do it?” There was a very simple answer and that was to go back to music and drama, which was always my first love. I’m still a chubby-chasers dream, but I’ve lost 11 stone in two years. I lost 7 inches around my waist just from doing Strictly.”

Given the public’s reaction and the doors the show has opened for him, would he describe Strictly Come Dancing as the best experience of his life?

“It’s been the most wonderful, empowering and fantastic time of my life. I’ve never had anything so wonderful happen to me,” he says. “The only time I can think of that can even compare with it, though it’s very different, was when I did the Royal Variety Show in 1984 and first met Princess Diana. Learning to dance with a champion like Flavia was simply amazing. One of her happiest headlines about us was in Dancing Times and it said: “Strictly Legends put the showbiz back into dancing.” You have to remember; when I went into Strictly I was being labelled another John Sergeant or an Ann Widdecombe. So that was lovely.”

“I’m so grateful to the public, because they were the ones who kept us in the show week after week. A lot of the votes we got were from gay men and women. I’m really hoping people come and see me perform live because I want them all to come to the stage door afterwards so I can say thank you to each of them personally.”

Russell Grant will be appearing as Genie of the Lamp in Aladdin at the Milton Keynes Theatre from 20-24 December.