Craig Revel Horwood: ‘It’s more interesting playing villains’
It is tempting to ask Craig Revel Horwood, scourge of the Strictly also-rans, to rate my interview technique from one to 10, but in the end I just feel quietly relieved to be spared one of those withering looks that says: “I don’t know where to begin, daaarling.”
In person he seems smilier, less camp and didn’t call me darling once, suggesting that his Strictly persona is a clever act. He refers to it as “having my judge’s hat on” and dodges the accusation, saying: “At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment show, and I do enjoy a bit of banter with the likes of Ann Widdecombe.”
It is 11 years since he started doing Strictly and in that time he has gone from being an unknown Australian dancer-choreographer to being one of British TV’s most familiar faces – loved and loathed in equal measure, I suspect – as well as a successful director of musical theatre; his UK tour of Fiddler on the Roof two years ago, with Paul Michael Glaser, was described by The Stage as “triumphant”.
Having come from a musical theatre and cabaret background – he did a solo drag act called Lavish back in Sydney for a number of years – he had doubts at first about his ability to judge ballroom dancing.
“I didn’t really know ballroom or Latin when they asked me to be a judge, so I was sent for lessons at Len Goodman’s dance school. I was partnered by his wife. I wouldn’t say I’m a brilliant dancer now, but I have a very good eye for what’s going wrong. Anyone who thinks they can get to be as good as the professional dancers after a month is kidding themselves.”
A British citizen since 2011, there is no doubt that Revel Horwood’s Strictly profile has helped his career as a choreographer, director and panto star. In addition to Fiddler, he has directed revivals of The Hot Mikado, Spend, Spend, Spend, Sunset Boulevard, Martin Guerre, Copacabana, Sweet Charity, and others. He works like a man possessed, and says he is booked up three years ahead.
Right now he is embarking on a five-month tour of the musical Annie – not as director or choreographer, as you might expect, but in the role of Miss Hannigan, the drunken, raddled orphanage keeper with a pathological hatred of children. If his Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a crowd displeaser, Miss Hannigan is twice as repellent.
“When the producers contacted me I thought they were going to ask me to direct or choreograph the show, so it was a nice surprise to be asked to play Miss Hannigan. Villains are far more interesting to play than nice people. Unlike the Wicked Queen, this is proper acting, which I haven’t done for 20 years. I can’t suddenly start being Craig Revel Horwood. Every time she is on stage, Hannigan is either blind drunk or hung over; it’s all rather dark. I’m about 6ft 5ins in my heels, so all the orphans find her naturally terrifying.”
Luckily for the actors and dancers he employs in his musicals, Revel Horwood does not extend his taste for malevolence to his work as director and choreographer. However you’d be forgiven for surmising that a Revel Horwood audition is an experience to be feared rather than enjoyed.
“It’s true, actors and dancers do sometimes walk into the room as if I’m going to be vile and judgemental because of Strictly. But in fact I make a point of greeting them with open arms and do my utmost to make them feel as comfortable and welcome as possible. I want the best people available, and I always look for the best in people.”
Now that he is a respected director himself, is he good at taking direction from others?
“I like working with directors I respect, who give me freedom but also give me a good base from which to work. When you take on an acting or dancing role, you have to trust your director, and in some ways there is freedom in relinquishing control. I listen to my director, I take his or her notes, I take criticism on board. I need to fit in with what everyone else is doing, that’s the nature of an ensemble. I trust Nikolai [Foster, director of Annie] completely.”
Strictly aside, the big career change for Revel Horwood was appearing in Crazy for You in the West End in 1993, in which he was dance captain. On that show he met the director-choreographer Susan Stroman, who was to have a huge influence on the direction of his career.
“She had worked with Bob Fosse, who was my hero. She helped me a lot, and encouraged me to drop everything and go for it.
“It’s a natural progression for a dancer to become a choreographer. If you really have a passion for something, you should follow it and listen to your inner voice. Stroman said I just had to trust myself to make the right choices. When I get into a bit of bother now, I still ask myself, ‘What would Susan do?’
“Choreography isn’t just about the steps, it’s about how you tell the story and how the step is viewed. Every show is different. For instance, Spend, Spend, Spend had to be very earthy and based around Viv Nicholson’s body language.
“I went to Europe to make the transition from choreographer to director. I struggled financially for the first three years until I began to be accepted as a director in the UK. When I direct now, I tend to employ a separate choreographer so I can concentrate on the overall production.”
When Strictly returns to our screens in October, Revel Horwood will share the role of Miss Hannigan with the diminutive Lesley Joseph, but only on Saturday nights when the TV show is broadcast live. As soon as the tour of Annie finishes in November, he will go into rehearsals for Peter Pan, playing Captain Hook at the Wycombe Swan.
As soon as the panto finishes, he will begin rehearsals for the live UK tour of Strictly, which will take him into February 2016. To we ordinary mortals, the schedule sounds relentless.
But to Revel Horwood, who turned 50 earlier this year, it’s only half the story.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done half the things I want to do,” he says. “I’d love to make films because they’re forever. I’m hoping to produce a TV series called The Ballerina Diaries, looking at older dancers who have had to give up. A lot of dancers have to give up in their thirties and forties. I wanted to see what their lives had become and how they coped with it.”
As for being recognised everywhere he goes as Strictly’s Mr Nasty – the tabloids dubbed him Craig Revel Horrid – he says it doesn’t bother him any more.
“I did get rammed in the legs by a supermarket trolley once, and somebody slapped my face in Newbury, but generally people are very friendly. However, I take the precaution of doing my grocery shopping online.”