Bruno kicks up a storm

The curse of Strictly? It’s great! Same sex dancers? Bring it on! Who will win? I’ll tell you my favourite...

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE - Strictly Come Danc­ing, Bruno’s Bel­lis­simo Black­pool DVD, is out now, €11.20 on ama­

Bruno To­nioli, star judge of Strictly Come Danc­ing, is ma­hogany. Dressed head to toe in an Adi­das track­suit, he has just been to the gym, but is un­do­ing the good work by hold­ing a cig­a­rette in one ges­tic­u­lat­ing hand. I’m wor­ried he’ll set light to my hair.

His flat is like a show home, with lit­tle sign he has lived here since 1991. Apart from the Bruce Forsyth mem­o­ra­bilia — an in­vi­ta­tion to his 80th birth­day party — by the fire­place. I ask if he misses the for­mer Strictly host, who died last year aged 89.

‘I loved Bruce. I used to have the big­gest laughs with him. He would be very naughty.’

Are Tess Daly and Clau­dia Win­kle­man fill­ing the Satur­daynight TV le­gend’s shiny tap shoes?

‘You have the big­gest show in the coun­try and you have two ladies. That’s a first, and the show is big­ger than ever. We are rais­ing the bar and the girls are fan­tas­tic.’

Are they close friends? Tess and Clau­dia are re­puted to party af­ter each show wraps. ‘I don’t have time to go out! I never mix with the celebri­ties, ei­ther.’

I tell Bruno his house doesn’t seem very lived in. Be­cause his time is di­vided between Strictly and Danc­ing With The Stars in Los An­ge­les, there isn’t much hope for even a pot plant. ‘To­day, Fri­day, is my day off, though I have you, and five other meet­ings. I went to the gym, then cooked my own lunch and tonight I don’t go out. Then to­mor­row it is all day in the stu­dio, then Sun­day morn­ing I get on the plane, ar­rive to Los An­ge­les midafter­noon, same thing: get the food, cook a meal. Record the show Mon­day.’

I tell him he needs some­one to clean and cook for when he ar­rives home, spent. ‘If you find a part­ner that cleans and cooks then tell me now. Please!’

So, no boyfriend? He broke up with his long-term part­ner some years ago. ‘I am mar­ried to my work,’ he says, laugh­ing.

He could get a dog with a pass­port? ‘I had a cat who died aged 19, and it was hor­ri­ble. But with my sched­ule, you can’t have a pet, it’s un­fair to them. Get­ting on a plane? It’s not good for them!’

As a dancer, has he ever had an eat­ing dis­or­der? ‘I’ve never di­eted. I’m Ital­ian so I eat ev­ery­thing. I go to the gym, do my stretches, and then I come home and I prac­tise Iyen­gar yoga on my own. I have done it for many years. It is very strict, I rec­om­mend yoga to ev­ery­one. So in all I did two hours ex­er­cise to­day so I can eat ev­ery­thing.’

Hmm. It all sounds a bit too easy, doesn’t it. He says he made lunch just be­fore I ar­rived, but there are no cook­ing smells. There is no mess.

His waist is barely a hand’s span. He says he is re­laxed, it’s his day off, but he’s like a coiled spring. He never watches him­self on TV. ‘It’s be­cause I re­mem­ber work­ing be­hind the cam­eras and you are watch­ing as a critic, like a di­rec­tor: you can say, “Oh God, look at that, the light­ing is wrong.” But as a judge, I don’t have any power to change what has al­ready come out. It’s a con­trol thing.’

Bruno’s ca­reer took off in the Eight­ies, af­ter the birth of MTV. He worked with the likes of Ge­orge Michael, Du­ran Du­ran, David Bowie and El­ton John (ap­pear­ing in the camp video for I’m Still Stand­ing as a traf­fic po­lice­men dressed in leg warm­ers and a leo­tard). He then went on to ap­pear in films in­clud­ing Lit­tle Voice and Ab­so­lute Be­gin­ners but when I ask for more juicy de­tails of the stars, all he will say is that ev­ery­one was ‘lovely; I’m still friends with most of th­ese peo­ple’.

He looks fan­tas­tic for some­one who turns 63 to­day with a thick head of black hair. His eye­brows do the paso doble each week, so would he ever med­dle with that face?

‘I stopped wor­ry­ing about

‘I’m Ital­ian, I eat ev­ery­thing. I go to the gym and prac­tise Iyen­gar yoga on my own’

‘My par­ents knew I wasn’t your stan­dard foot­ball play­ing ma­cho...’

age­ing long ago, it’s just a fact of life. I’m so ex­pres­sive, so no, I can’t mess with my face, though I al­ways look a bit podgy, I think.’

He grew up in the sub­urbs of Fer­rara, north­ern Italy, the only child in a work­ing-class fam­ily. He was looked af­ter by his grand­mother while his par­ents were out work­ing: his fa­ther, Werther, who died aged 70, suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s, was a bus driver; his mother, Ful­via, who died aged 63 from heart dis­ease, an up­hol­sterer and seam­stress. As a tod­dler, his un­cle would put him on a ta­ble, turn on the mu­sic and Bruno would start danc­ing. He never trained pro­fes­sion­ally, but learned by watch­ing Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals in his lo­cal cin­ema.

His par­ents never ac­knowl­edged openly that he was gay. ‘If you think of the card I was handed at birth… I mean, my par­ents wanted me to be an ac­coun­tant, so you can imag­ine the fights.’

Was it like Billy El­liot? ‘It was worse be­cause I never had any­body sup­port­ing me, I didn’t have Julie Wal­ters. My par­ents knew I wasn’t your stan­dard, foot­ball-play­ing ma­cho...’

Was he bul­lied at school? ‘They were do­ing the usual, “Oh, look at him, queer”, that stuff, but I think at the time it was, let’s say, provin­cial, and it prob­a­bly still hap­pens. So I said, “OK, I’m not stupid, I’m a great dancer.” I be­came very pop­u­lar in the clubs — all the girls wanted to dance with me. In­stead of tak­ing it I started giv­ing it back: repar­tee, not in a nasty way but with a sense of hu­mour. I be­came the most pop­u­lar boy in the school. I used to run the stu­dent union, they used to give me roles in the end-ofyear play, I turned it around by not at­tack­ing back but by be­ing funny.’

He has an of­fi­cial let­ter, dated 1976, from when he first ob­tained a visa to work in Lon­don. ‘When I ar­rived I didn’t speak Eng­lish, and learned it by read­ing the pa­pers. I only knew how to say yes or no, so you can imag­ine the trou­ble I was in. I used to rent a room in some­body else’s apart­ment and do a show every night.’

As well as ap­pear­ing in God­spell and on stage with the late, great dancer Lind­say Kemp (‘an­other one, gone,’ he says with sad­ness), he sup­ple­mented his earn­ings by teach­ing at a dance cen­tre which paid for classes at Pineap­ple Dance Stu­dios. What’s his take on Brexit? Is he wor­ried he will be repa­tri­ated? ‘I’m not British. I’m not al­lowed to vote. Hope­fully they will al­low me to stay.’

Did he ever ex­pe­ri­ence the cast­ing couch? ‘I’ve never been sub­jected to that kind of abuse. I’ve never had peo­ple tak­ing ad­van­tage be­cause I’ve al­ways been very strong about who I am and what I want. But as a chore­og­ra­pher, I worked with di­rec­tors who have been a bit harsh, but I had the strength to say, “Sorry, this is not fine.’

Where does that strength come from? ‘I am a peas­ant!’ he shouts. ‘It’s my earthy... I have cer­tain things I can­not over­look. It’s a very Latin thing. If I have an is­sue, I will say, “Right, let’s get this clear” and it’s done. I’m not the schem­ing, be­hind-the-scenes type. I’m straight­for­ward and if there is some­thing that I feel is wrong I will be straight on, face to face.’

Who’d have thought, the campest man in show­biz is re­ally made of steel? Like his beige apart­ment, which is in fact his sanc­tu­ary, ap­pear­ances can be de­cep­tive.

And his feel­ings for his fel­low judges? Is Craig Revel Hor­wood as can­tan­ker­ous off screen as on? ‘He is more laid-back than me off screen. I think the evil queen comes across in the show, but ac­tu­ally we get on very well.’ Does he ever think he takes the put-downs too far? He did, af­ter all, com­pare Ann Wid­de­combe to ‘a Dalek in drag’ and say of John Sergeant: ‘He looked like Mother Courage drag­ging the corpse of his child.’ ‘An image comes into my mind and I think, that’s what it looks like. It’s not pre-planned, it just comes out. At the end of the day, it’s never per­sonal.’

I bring up this year’s Strictly scan­dals. Ac­tor Danny John-Jules, who is black, was voted off, de­spite be­ing a ter­rific dancer, which led to ac­cu­sa­tions the show wanted rid of him, af­ter he was ac­cused of a ‘foul-mouthed tirade’ di­rected at his danc­ing part­ner, Amy Down­den, dur­ing re­hearsals. Un­likely, given the con­nect-the-dots, highly PC BBC th­ese days and the fact there have been four non-white cham­pi­ons in the past. For the first time in our talk, Bruno looks a lit­tle tired; I guess he is pale be­neath the air­brush tan. He is far too pro­fes­sional to ac­tu­ally yawn, but his eye­brows come down a notch.

So, I bring up the se­cond scan­dal. Co­me­dian Sean(n) Walsh was pic­tured kiss­ing pro­fes­sional dancer Katya Jones, who is mar­ried, on the night of his live-in girl­friend’s birth­day; she sub­se­quently went on so­cial me­dia to crit­i­cise Walsh’s con­trol­ling be­hav­iour, and his pre­ten­sion at adding a con­so­nant to his name. Bruno rolls his huge, dark eyes. ‘I love it that peo­ple are so in­volved, but it could hap­pen in any sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple work close to­gether. It could hap­pen in a fac­tory, it could hap­pen in an of­fice. Chem­istry is a huge part of how you’re go­ing to per­form. It doesn’t have to be for real: Fred and Gin­ger hated each other, but the chem­istry was off the charts.’ It’s when I ask whether there’s a Strictly curse that his more Latin side comes to the fore, and he for­gets toe­ing the BBC line, and sits for­ward on the sofa, as an­i­mated as he is on TV. ‘I think it’s been cre­ated: some­times it could be a bless­ing? I mean, peo­ple to­gether and pas­sion is a won­der­ful, won­der­ful thing!’

Did the judges talk about it? ‘We haven’t time to gos­sip. We turn up and it’s such an in­tense day when we get there. If the foun­da­tions are strong, usu­ally houses stand still. Re­la­tion­ships are the same.’

I ask whether he earns more than the fe­male judges. ‘I think peo­ple should be paid what they de­serve, and I think it should be equal.’

Is Strictly a lit­tle too safe? We’ve had big­ger con­tes­tants, older con­tes­tants, dis­abled con­tes­tants, but why still no cou­ples of the same sex? ‘It’s not for me to de­cide. We don’t know who the con­tes­tants will be, we don’t know who they dance with up un­til the time they are an­nounced.’

Maybe next year? Again the steely Bruno that lurks be­neath the fluff and the glit­ter and the camp hu­mour emerges, and he fixes me with a de­fi­ant stare. ‘For me, it would be ab­so­lutely fine.’

Fam­ily: Bruno as a baby with his par­ents in Italy

Clock­wise from left: To­nioli with Strictly judges Darcey Bus­sell, Craig Revel Hor­wood and Shirley Bal­las; To­nioli with Mick Jag­ger on the set of a Rolling Stones’ video in 1986; on Danc­ing with the Stars

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