This weekend marks 10 years almost to the day since one of Strictly Come Dancing’s most infamous – and surreal – moments ever, which saw Russell Grant being fired out of a cannon in front of a crowd of thousands at Wembley Arena, soundtracked to S Club 7’s Reach.
Subtle, it was not.
During Russell’s time on the BBC ballroom show back in 2011, the TV astrologer quickly became a fan favourite with his exuberant routines, as what he may have lacked in technical ability, he made up for (and then some) with enthusiasm.
As the series reached its eighth week, Strictly packed off to Wembley Arena for a special Best Of Britain-themed show in a first for the show. And while Russell admitted he suffered with nerves and self-confidence before signing up to Strictly, he was more than ready to take on the show’s biggest ever stunt.
“The funniest thing with that is, there I was, turning things down, not thinking I could do them, but with the cannon, I couldn’t wait to do it,” Russell tells HuffPost UK. “In fact, I demanded to rehearse it six times!
“I would in no way swap the memories of the Wembley Arena and 6,000 people standing and giving me an ovation – and that was before I had even come out the bloody thing!”
In the latest instalment of our Back To The Ballroom series, Russell relives the joy of his Strictly stint, revealing the unexpected friendship it brought into his life, and why Kylie Minogue once begged to see his botafogo...
I originally said no to Strictly…
In 2011, I was sat quietly at home in North Wales and the phone rang and the question came of if I would be interested in doing Strictly. And I said no, I was too old. I didn’t have the confidence and I didn’t believe in myself enough. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone, which was astrology then, forgetting that my background was not astrology.
The celebrity booker at the time, Daisy Moore, said to come and meet the producers, so I went to Manchester at the Malmaison and met Moira Ross, the then-executive producer, and we got on so famously.
My mum was wedded to Strictly, bless her. She told me I had to go in and do it or I’d regret it for the rest of my life. We don’t want to have regrets – think of Edith Piaf, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
I thank god Strictly came into my life. It taught me that if you really want to do something, just do it.
But I wish I could have done it when I was younger...
I was 60 when I did it and once I’d done it, I thought why the hell couldn’t I have done it when I was 30?! How things have changed.
Strictly brought wonderful theatre back into my life...
I was always a theatre person and I trained in it at drama school, but of course people got to know me more as an astrologer, but Strictly changed things like mega. From 2011 until Covid struck, I was non stop with musical theatre.
Straight after the Strictly contract ended on Boxing Day, I got a call from Andrew Lloyd Webber to take over from Michael Crawford in Wizard Of Oz at the London Palladium… To see your name on London busses and going down the Underground was mind-blowing really, and I’m forever grateful.
From there, I went into Grease as Teen Angel, and then into the West End with Flavia and Vincent with Midnight Tango and so on, and so on. The last big show that I did was Hairspray where I played Edna.
I suppose Tess Daly summed it up when I did the Christmas special with Jo Clifton and said, “Strictly is the gift that keeps on giving for you,” and I think that’s absolutely right.
I always knew I wanted to be paired with Flavia...
I’d not watched Strictly before Flavia danced with Matt Di Angelo in 2007. One day I then turned on to see the show and they were the very first couple I saw and I thought they were the most beautiful couple – stunning to look at – and that got me tuning in for the rest of that series.
I said in a newspaper interview before it all started that I wanted to couple up with Flavia as we had a rehearsal for the big opening number and we were sat on the stage and we found out we had music in common.
At the age of 60, I was never going to be technically amazing, but the discipline Flavia instilled in me with her kindness enabled me to do 8-10 hour days in training.
Each week we had to travel from Snowdonia to Shepherd’s Bush for the live shows...
It was a long journey so I would lose one day’s rehearsal because I would travel down to London when everyone else was rehearsing. Poor old Flavia had to do group dances as well, so she could never get up here until Monday when everybody else had already started on Sundays.
An injury meant I nearly had to withdraw from the show...
Halfway through rehearsals for week four, my knee went. I’d torn my cartilage, but I didn’t want the public to know and vote for me out of sympathy.
At that point, due to health and safety, the BBC said I needed an operation on my knee and that I could come back later. But I thought there’s no way they’d let me back with physio and all of that, so I ended up having the blind cartilage removed in March of the following year.
I was determined not to go because I knew I would not come back. Every week, I had to sign a disclaimer saying that whatever happened to me in any dance, it was my decision, not the BBC’s. I was chased up the gantry one week when they hadn’t got me to sign the disclaimer.
Bosses would schedule our dances up against the start of X Factor...
There’d been speculation in the papers that I’d be out in week two. But what they hadn’t counted on was that I was showbiz, and people that I had rhythm. Unlike John Sergeant and Ann Widdecombe, who had no rhythm but were compelling in their own way. And I think that’s what the public came for.
I know that the scheduler would schedule Flavia and I to go head-to-head with X Factor, which was a tremendous accolade to us.
I had one of the songs changed while I was on the show…
For my second week, I’d been given Baccara’s Yes Sir I Can Boogie, and I hated it with a vengeance and I wrote this pitiful letter to Daisy and Moira. They said, well we don’t usually do this, but come back in an hour and we’ll see. And that’s when we then went on to unveil Dancing Queen.
Strictly brought me an unexpected friendship…
Apart from Anita Dobson, my best friend became Robbie Savage. No one ever expected that. Robbie lost his dad during the series and his mum asked me to be his godfather, and that was so amazing. So very often when we text each other, I’ll ask: “How are you godson?”
Nancy Dell’Olio also had us in hysterics every week…
If Nancy didn’t want to do anything, she’d just say no. She cared about the dances, of course she did, but it was more about how she looked.
When she came out of the coffin with a glass of champagne – she loved that, it was probably her idea! She probably loved the macabre glitter and glam. The day Nancy dies, she will be in a golden coffin with glitter all over it. She is camp, the perfect word.
I would have loved to have danced an Argentine Tango…
Flavia and I had already worked out a routine to the Pink Panther and I was going to play Clueso. It would have been absolutely mental. We were so desperate to do it but we never got to.
The most surprising fact about the show was…
[In the studio] you’re only ever allowed two run-throughs and then the dress rehearsal. There was never any more. Everybody got the same amount and you really wanted to do four or five. It was also the main day when you’d dance with Dave Arch and the orchestra.
If I’d had to have danced with anyone else, it would have been…
Kristina Rihanoff isn’t on it any more but I loved her and Ola Jordan. Oti Mabuse would probably be my choice now. I love her.
I was lucky to have Flavia and Jo Clifton because they were both champions.
The strangest place I’ve busted out my Strictly moves is...
It’s become pretty well-known in Strictly circles that my favourite move is the botafogo. There’s something about it where my arms can go out and my legs can go out, everything is well with the world and I’m a gold medalist.
When we were rehearsing my Samba, we had this gloriously sprung floor, and I walked across the road to the newsagents and Flavia was sat at a bus stop waiting for lunch, and she said: “You really are Samba, you walk like Samba.” She said I had a natural sway. This caught on, so I was in markets or by greengrocers doing the botafogo – I’ve done it in motorway services!
Kylie Minogue set that up for us too because she’d put on Twitter asking if someone could tell her how we got on with our routine to her song Better The Devil You Know. Kylie then replied “Shimmy baby” to one of the tweets.
On Monday, we were on It Takes Two and we got a message from Kylie saying she loved it and said: “It’s about time you give me a botafogo, honey!”.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Strictly Come Dancing airs on Saturday and Sunday nights on BBC One.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.