Matthew Amer talks to the Strictly Come Dancing judge and West End director/choreographer about his new version of Sunset Boulevard and his controversial 2008.
Pristinely turned out, surrounded by an aura of tension and critique, hair perfectly shaped into a waxed crown, face giving nothing away; this is how most of the television-viewing public know Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood. His bitingly truthful remarks have marked him out as the show’s Mr Nasty, the panellist we love to hate.
With all the glamour and sparkle of the hit television dance series twinkling in the eyes of millions of viewers, it is easy to forget that Revel Horwood has not always criticised minor celebrities’ foxtrots for a living. Before perching next to Arlene Phillips and trading blows with Len Goodman, Revel Horwood made his name as a Laurence Olivier Award-nominated choreographer on productions including Spend, Spend, Spend, My One And Only, Calamity Jane and Guys And Dolls.
As Strictly 2008 came to its controversial climax, Revel Horwood was balancing his on-screen commitments with his off-screen day job, directing the Watermill theatre revival of Sunset Boulevard as it plays in the West End’s Comedy theatre. Those expecting lavish dance routines from TV’s spiky shimmier should think again. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, which tells the story of an actress pining for a return to the big screen, is short on opulence, luxury and Hollywood glamour. Instead, a small cast of actor/musicians has refined the piece to its core tale.
“I think you can only pare stuff down that will stand up on its own two feet,” Revel Horwood tells me, as we speak on the phone in a rare moment of calm in his otherwise hectic day. “I was slightly concerned about doing an Andrew Lloyd Webber show for that very reason; I didn’t know whether or not the music actually would stand up by itself as an amazing piece of music that you can literally just pare down to a violin playing the melody line and it would still be haunting. It did; as soon as we started doing it I just kept removing instruments, which was brilliant. I think anyone who wants to see a flying house and lavish sets and costumes should avoid it, because it isn’t about that. It’s literally about the characters; it’s about investing time and money into the character, rather than the scenery and the costumes.”
As a production it is typical of the Watermill theatre, which has built a reputation – from productions including previous London transfers Sweeney Todd and Mack And Mabel – on restaging classic musicals in a simple fashion, and always with the employment of actor/musicians who, in addition to the demands of singing, dancing and acting, also simultaneously provide the show’s orchestra.
“Your embouchure around a trumpet mouthpiece is rather difficult if you’re doing a tap dance”
It is the third time that Revel Horwood has worked in such a way, having previously taken the actor/musician option with his productions of Martin Guerre and The Hot Mikado. “In the end, you end up not seeing the instruments, oddly enough, if you get involved in the story,” he explains, though carting around a double bass or dancing while playing a saxophone can prove a hindrance for swift, slick staging. “Your embouchure around a trumpet mouthpiece is rather difficult if you’re doing a tap dance,” he laughs.
It would be no deeply insightful piece of journalism on my part to point out that Revel Horwood does not suffer fools gladly. His onscreen Strictly persona does not pull punches, nor does the fully rounded off-screen human I talk to. I even get reproached, in an entirely good humoured fashion, for being three minutes late with my phone call; Revel Horwood’s time is precious and his schedule is packed at this time of year. Indeed, I fear it is only his PA, the enigmatic sounding Miss Fox, who can “keep [him] in line”.
As an interviewee, he is refreshingly open and straightforward. Of his decision to add directing to choreography, he says: “[As a choreographer] I like working with directors I respect, directors that give me a freedom but also give me a good base from which to work. If you’ve got to create it yourself then you may as well do it all yourself, otherwise the director’s doing sod all, quite frankly.” Though the decision, made after a less than happy experience working on Beautiful And Damned at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, seriously impacted his employment as a choreographer –“everyone thought ‘he’s got above his station’” – he is reaping the rewards now and about to embark on a new phase of his career, building a new production company with Sunset Boulevard’s Musical Supervisor Sarah Travers.
Somewhat surprisingly, his rise to fame on Strictly Come Dancing had a similarly negative effect on his theatrical career. “It was as though I was a new boy on the block. If I brought something into town, if I directed or choreographed something, it was as though they’d never heard of me, so I lost my theatrical career completely. I may as well have just not done it, because people didn’t remember anything I’d done; apparently I was new, ‘the Strictly Come Dancing Mr Nasty turns his hand to choreography’. I thought ‘I’ve been doing this for 15 years’. Producers would not ring; no-one was knocking at the door. Literally I wasn’t offered anything. I think that’s largely due to the fact that everyone thought that I was going to be difficult to work with. I really do believe that.”
To be fair, anyone who had seen Revel Horwood on the show would have been met with only one representation of the Australian choreographer. He describes that image as “a cardboard cut-out with numbers ranging 1-10,” but that is what he is paid to be, and in the short time he has to speak, all he can do is comment on the dancing. It is never going to provide a rounded view of a person.
“…everyone thought that I was going to be difficult to work with. I really do believe that”
String a series of 10 second bursts together, however, and it is more than long enough to rile an entire nation. Before the scandal of the semi-final voting – when it became clear that no matter how much the public voted it would be impossible to save the bottom couple from the dance off – there was the eruption surrounding political journalist John Sergeant who had less dancing talent than a half-melted snowman, but endeared himself to the British public nonetheless with his efforts. With the judges repeatedly glum in their summation of his ability, Sergeant quit the show for fear that he should progress too far and oust a talented performer. Cries of bullying and nefarious activity followed from the show’s viewers.
“He was hugely entertaining,” says Revel Horwood, “but he quit. That’s the bottom line. How presumptuous of someone to say that they’re going to win so they’re going to quit. How embarrassing’s that? I can’t believe the world loves him for that. He’s a quitter. If he’d ever seen any other five series of the show he’d understand that it is a dance competition, that’s why we’re here. We’re there to tell them what’s good and what’s bad about the dancing. If I was a bully, I’d be calling him horrendous names, but I didn’t, I just said he can’t dance. He didn’t like it so he sulked and quit.”
I suspect that had Sergeant stood up to the judges a little longer, Revel Horwood may have more respect for him. The idea of quitting seems lost on the choreographer who made some tough decisions of his own to get to this stage in his life.
The son of an abusive, alcoholic father, Revel Horwood’s journey to this point in his career is a bit of a Billy Elliot tale, but with a few more controversial casting couch decisions. It is all recounted in his new book, All Balls And Glitter. While his methods of achieving his goals may seem unorthodox – he received the sugar daddy treatment from a prominent Australian TV figure – he never apologises for using them: “I make decisions and I stick by them. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but I think you’ve got to. I don’t think, in life, you get anywhere by um-ing and ah-ing.
“I think the point of life is to follow your heart and follow your dreams, and if you love something so much then you should do that, because you’ll be good at it. If you really have a passion for something I think you should follow that and not stifle it and not listen to everyone else; listen to yourself and your inner voice.”
“How presumptuous of someone to say that they’re going to win so they’re going to quit. How embarrassing’s that?”
The book was actually written “six or seven years ago,” but his burgeoning screen career saw Revel Horwood try and stifle the secrets of his past. When, as his level of celebrity grew, the tabloids started to run stories about his history, he decided “actually, I could just release the whole lot all at once and get it over and done with”.
This is what is so endearing about the man audiences love to hate; he hides nothing. By all means take a pop at him, the blow will hurt, but he will get up and keep going. He takes dance, but not himself, seriously. For a television baddie he is remarkably likeable.
Like many celebrities, he endorses charities, in his case the Osteoporosis Society and Teach First, but he is quick to quote the statistics without any prompting, speaking at length with real passion. One in two women will suffer from Osteoporosis, he says, one in five men. His mother suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis and is the reason he became involved with the society. Unfortunately for me, at 29 I am too old to properly build up my “bone bank” by performing weight-bearing exercise in the years before 23, but he does challenge me to download his Boogie For Your Bones dance video.
Teach First, another scheme about which Revel Horwood is passionate, aims to help create inspirational teachers. It harks back to his own childhood, when a music teacher took a special interest in him and his abilities. “If it wasn’t for her doing that,” he says, humbly, “then I wouldn’t have had the musicality to do what I’m doing now.”
That music teacher’s impact on Revel Horwood’s life has unknowingly been huge. As he rightly says, without his knowledge and feel for music, he could not choreograph, would not understand the physics of playing an instrument and moving simultaneously, and probably would not have ended up anywhere near musical theatre as a career. Instead, he continues to go from strength to strength as television’s dancing voice of controversy and is investing in his own talent by pushing forward projects with his new production company. It is as though someone sat Revel Horwood down at a young age and drummed into him that if he didn’t believe in himself, no-one else would. The result is a man who is unafraid to speak his mind, but equally unafraid to hear others’ minds spoken; a man for whom confidence is no problem, but who channels that into achieving his goals.
“You’ve got to do it yourself,” he states. “You’ve really got to get out there and put your money where your mouth is. I don’t think you can sit back and complain about life or how bad it’s treating you or how dire the theatre is if you’re not prepared to invest in it yourself.” It is undoubtedly a brave decision to produce his own shows – investing in theatre has never been the safest way to grow your money – but succeed or fail you can guarantee he would rather be trying to achieve a goal than letting life run its course, and he will always have something to say about it.