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For nine weeks, 79-year-old Angela Rippon has astonished Strictly Come Dancing viewers with her grace and agility, as she produced everything from a Sound of Music quickstep to a smouldering Argentine tango. Last weekend she made a triumphant return to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, where she’d presented the original Come Dancing four decades ago. But Blackpool also heralded the end of the Strictly “journey” for Rippon and her 28-year-old professional partner Kai Widdrington.
One might imagine that Rippon – the BBC’s first female newsreader, who memorably performed a high-kick on a 1976 episode of Morecambe and Wise – is now taking it easy. Far from it. “My life has gone back to pre-Strictly immediately,” she explains over the phone from her flat in Kensington when we speak on Monday.
“Months ago, I was asked to open a new teaching hospital in Plymouth, so I’m going down on the train tomorrow and staying in my old family home, my bolt-hole in the West Country. Then on Thursday it’s The Oldie magazine party – they’ve named me Oldie of the Year – on Friday I’m hosting a fundraising lunch, on Saturday I’m going Christmas shopping, and then next week I’m filming more Rip Off Britain. I was on the phone to Kai this morning: he asked ‘How are you, partner?’, and I said ‘Our training regime was probably less energetic than this!’”
Still, she must be on a comedown from that Strictly adrenaline rush? “Not at all,” she says firmly. “I feel absolutely fine. I haven’t had time to think about anything: the phone hasn’t stopped ringing and the messages haven’t stopped coming in since the results show aired. It’s a tidal wave – I’m just overwhelmed.” She’s also had some rather racy messages about her handsome pro from female friends, she teases. “I wouldn’t dare show them to Kai – he’d blush beyond anything.”
It’s evident that Rippon’s partnership with the gallant Widdrington was one of the major highlights of her time on the show. Their bond transcended a 51-year age gap. But that’s par for the course, she explains. “I’m very lucky to work with young people all the time in my profession. I have dear friends in their 20s, 30s, 40s. There’s no age barrier – we find common ground.” In fact, she’s discovered that Strictly pro dancer Carlos Gu lives nearby. “We’re already planning to meet up for brunch.”
As for Widdrington: “Kai likened me to his granny,” Rippon notes. “It was almost the anniversary of his grandmother’s death; they were very close.” Perhaps that’s why he was so emotional on Sunday night. “I could just see the tears running down his right cheek,” recalls Rippon. “That’s why I said ‘Don’t cry’, because he would have started me off. I love him to bits. He’s a super human being, and we’ve become great pals. I said to [his girlfriend and fellow Strictly professional] Nadiya [Bychkova]: ‘You can have him back now!’.”
Rippon greatly appreciated Widdrington’s patience in the training room. “Every time I would get into a panic about learning something, he’d say ‘Of course you can’t do it – I’ve only just asked you. I’ve been doing it for 20 years; you’ve been doing it for 20 minutes.’ But just watching him was marvellous: his entire body is musical.”
Rippon is hardly lacking in that department herself. The Strictly judges waxed lyrical about her musicality and beautiful lines, not to mention that incredible leg lift in her Week 1 cha cha cha. But how tough did she find the training? Three and a half years ago, Rippon had surgery to replace a shoulder with arthritis. “Doing six hours of exercise a day, it was like boot camp,” says Rippon. “I lost almost a stone in weight.”
She might not have survived it without cryotherapy treatment – a more high-tech version of sitting in an ice bath. “It’s been extraordinary,” she declares. “I never, never had muscle ache, which I was expecting, because the cryotherapy sent blood pulsing through my body, getting rid of any built-up lactic acid. I never had a blister on my feet like the other girls – Angela Scanlon’s feet were really painful at times.”
A busy schedule filming Rip Off Britain kept Rippon from doing cryotherapy last week (as well as “drastically” cutting into her time preparing the American smooth, allowing for just two to three hours of daily training), “so my knees are really aching now. I’m going back in the cryo tank on Sunday morning for sure.” She also admits that her famous legs are “a disaster zone: so many bruises and cuts from where my heels dug into them practising the Argentine tango,” she says, referencing the way her spiky dance shoes cut into her calves when she kicked her legs up. “And I sliced a couple of pieces of skin off my right leg right before we performed our rumba. My ribs are rather sore from the lifts as well. But everything’s healing up brilliantly.”
In some ways, Rippon was well prepared for the rigorous demands of Strictly. “Body maintenance is high on my list of priorities, and I have a pretty healthy diet anyway. Every Sunday I would do my shopping and make lots of stews and a proper spaghetti Bolognese to put in the freezer, so I could fill up on good things during training.”
As for the mental side of the process, Rippon says she loved that “every dance is different: you’re learning a new language with both your brain and your body each week. Fortunately I’ve got a good retentive memory – I can always remember scripts – so I could usually learn the routine in a day, and then spend three days learning how to do it properly.”
Did she ever dream of making the final? “I lasted much longer than I’d imagined: I thought I’d be lucky to get to Week 3,” she says. “I have no regrets, just joy and amazement.”
— Angela Rippon (@TheAngelaRippon) November 9, 2023
But she does then admit: “I would have loved to go a bit further, for Kai – for all the hard work he put in. But I’m a pragmatist. The dancers who are heading to the final are just brilliant. This is really a vintage year for the competition. The next four weeks are going to be stunning for viewers to watch: they’re pulling out all the stops. We’re in for such a treat. I know who I want to win…but I’m not going to tell you!” (On last night’s backstage show It Takes Two, however, Rippon revealed that her bet was on Ellie Leach: “she’s magnificent, she epitomises everything that Strictly’s all about”.)
Although Rippon is proud to be Strictly’s oldest-ever contestant, she has previously said that she once asked BBC bosses why they didn’t cast her 10 years ago. Might she then have lifted that glitterball trophy? “I’m not allowing myself those thoughts,” she says now. “I’m not looking back at all – I’m just looking forward. We’ll all be meeting again to do the group dance in the final, and then of course there’s the tour, which I’m so looking forward to. It’s not the end of the journey.”
Rippon is taking part in the mammoth Strictly stage show next year, which begins in January in Birmingham and finishes at London’s O2 the following month. She hasn’t yet seen the tour in action. “Kai said to me ‘You cannot believe what it’ll be like to walk out into an arena with 10,000-plus people.’ I am so, so lucky to be doing this in my 80th year. What a fabulous place I’m in at this time of my life.”
She adds: “I hadn’t danced since I was 17, doing ballet class on a Saturday morning in Plymouth. I’ve been around dancers a lot in my career, working on the fringes as an observer, but actually being part of it is heaven.” Blackpool was a special full-circle moment, since judge Shirley Ballas had been a contestant back in Rippon’s Come Dancing days, “as were around half a dozen or so of the teachers and parents of the current team of professional dancers.”
However, Rippon is keen to stress that, for her, Strictly was always part of a wider mission. For years she’s been campaigning via programmes like the Royal Ballet’s Silver Swans to get older people dancing. “It’s not like going to the gym – it’s such a fun way to exercise. You can work on your flexibility and building your core, while making friendships, so it stops you feeling isolated or lonely.” She aims to continue dancing herself, returning to the Silver Swans ballet classes. “I shall practise what I preach.”
Rippon herself is a glorious retort to our youth-obsessed culture. When she turned 50, BBC director-general John Birt took her aside at a party and told her she’d “had her day”. Recalling the encounter in 2020, Rippon dismissed that as “patronising twaddle” – and she’s certainly been proved right.
Rippon says she agrees “wholeheartedly with our Chief Medical Officer talking recently about how exercise makes all the difference to our physical and mental health – in fact, I must put in a call [to Professor Chris Whitty] to say ‘I’m with you, mate!’”. And Rippon firmly believes that dancing is the key to a long life. “I agreed to do Strictly on the basis that I wanted to get my message across,” she says. “If I’ve managed to do that, then that’s my glitterball.”