The public adored him, but the judges hated him. One called him a “dancing pig in Cuban heels.”
In the latest twist, retired British Broadcasting Corp. political correspondent John Sergeant announced Wednesday he is quitting television dance contest “Strictly Come Dancing” because he is afraid he might win.
“It was always my intention to have fun on the show and I was hoping to stay in as long as possible,” Sergeant said in a statement. “The trouble is that there is now a real danger that I might win the competition. Even for me that would be a joke too far.”
Sergeant has been this season’s surprise star on the BBC show despite being labeled the program’s worst-ever competitor by judges. Viewers have consistently voted for the portly Sergeant above more accomplished dancers — the latest example of the way TV producers’ best-laid plans can be upset by viewers’ mischievous love of an underdog.
Like its American counterpart “Dancing With the Stars,” the BBC show pairs celebrities with professional dancers for sequin-drenched dance routines that are judged by an expert panel and by public votes.
Week after week, the judges excoriated 64-year-old Sergeant, whose ungainly moves — including a galumphing paso doble in which he inelegantly dragged partner Kristina Rihanoff across the floor — gained him the nickname “the dancing pig.”
Ballroom instructor Len Goodman told Sergeant his popularity “makes a nonsense of the show.” Choreographer Arlene Phillips called him “more Mickey Rooney than Fred Astaire.”
“His posture’s wrong, his feet are turned in, he hasn’t got the rise and fall, his head’s on one side,” she said. “In terms of dance, everything is wrong with it.”
In TV terms, though, it was pure gold. Week after week, Sergeant came last in the judges’ rankings, only to be saved by public vote.
On the program’s Web site, viewers praised Sergeant as funny, gallant and gentlemanly — old-fashioned qualities for an old-fashioned show.
Cheerfully cheesy and hosted by 80-year-old vaudevillian Bruce Forsyth, “Strictly” is a throwback to the kind of “light entertainment” show that went out of fashion in the 1970s. It has become one of the BBC’s most successful shows since it began in 2004, regularly drawing 10 million viewers a week.
There are versions in 38 countries, according to industry magazine Television Business International, making it the world’s most successful TV format.
Rupert Adams of bookmakers William Hill said the odds on Sergeant winning had shortened from 33-1 at the start of the series in September to 6-1 just before he announced his departure.
Adams said it’s an increasingly common phenomenon — viewers backing amusing underdogs over more talented contestants
In 2006, talk-show host Jerry Springer proved a surprisingly popular contestant on the U.S. “Dancing With the Stars.” Last year, 17-year-old Sanjaya Malakar had a long run on “American Idol,” as viewers decided his winning smile and ever-changing hairdos outweighed his erratic performances.
Adams said such contestants reveal a tension at the heart of reality-based competitions.
“For the producers it’s a dancing show, whereas for me it’s an entertainment show,” he said.
The show brought Sergeant a new level of fame. Previously, his best-known TV appearance was a clip, often used in documentaries, of Sergeant being dragged aside by an aide as he tried to get a comment from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
Sergeant’s many new fans have one more chance to watch him at work. The BBC said he and Rihanoff would perform a final dance on Saturday’s show.
It won’t be the routine the pair originally planned, though.
“The dance we were going to do on Saturday was called ’Murder on the Dance Floor,”’ Sergeant told a news conference Wednesday. “It would end up with me firing imaginary bullets at the judges.”