Television’s most famous dancing judge reveals why he’s happy to be adored on P&O’s Strictly-themed cruises

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My first cruise was to the Mediterranean, when we sailed with P&O for the Strictly Come Dancing cruise experience in 2012. That first time we were all just making it up, trying and testing it to see whether the passengers would enjoy the experience. I had never been on an ocean cruise before, but that year we also did Norway and I remember opening the curtains in the morning and seeing these huge fantastic mountains. It was amazing.

That was two years ago and it was so popular it led to seven cruises last year and I did all of them, jumping on board for the passenger competition and getting off a few days later. It didn’t feel like the complete Strictly experience, though, so this year we stayed on board a little bit longer and promoted two or three dance professionals from Strictly and some celebrity dancers.

On the first Strictly cruise I got on at Gibraltar but ended up staying on all the way back to Southampton – why would I want to do an early flight from Lisbon when I could stay on board and enjoy myself? They let me do the tannoy announcements in the morning, until they stopped me because they didn’t trust what I was going to say next. I said things like: “BBC Worldwide have kindly let me stay on board to Southampton but unfortunately I don’t have a cabin so I need someone to share with…”

Obviously there have always been dancers on cruises, but I think Strictly adds enormously to a cruise. Not only do you get a real judge from the actual show, you get to see demonstration dancing by professionals. The captain has also been one of the judges on this cruise. I play the straight man and he plays the comic. I feed him all his lines. He’s getting better.

It’s important for me to be able to speak to the fans so they can see that it’s all real, and they get to see me not just as a 30-second judge on television but as a real person. It’s a good opportunity to let people know that I’m a human being and have feelings. I couldn’t believe that nearly 2,000 people would come and listen to me rant about myself at the Audience With Craig show, but I think they wanted to know a little bit more about the person behind the judging facade.

You think you are the most hated person on television but actually it works in reverse, it is quite odd. The great Craig Revel Horwood character, which is what I call it, is a judging one and that is completely different to the person that I am. As a person and a director and choreographer I am very full of love.

Doing the Strictly cruises is a fantastic experience – I really enjoy it. A lot of celebrities might be so far up their own jacksies that they wouldn’t enjoy it – I’m not like that at all. I am not in a VIP section, although I do like The Retreat. But I still use the gym like everybody else. I don’t get any special treatment. If I have breakfast I eat in the buffet. I tend to go to the speciality restaurants for dinner, though.

The beauty of cruise food is you have an enormous amount of choice. If you want to get fat and eat burgers and cream cakes all day you can. If you want to stick to a regime and a diet you can, you just have to be responsible for what you put in your mouth. I think people judge what’s on your plate though. When I was on Azura with Darcey Bussell, people were looking to see what sort of food she ate – or whether she ate or not – but actually she eats for England. People would be quite surprised how much food goes on her plate.

A cruise from the UK is wonderful. People ask “what are you going to do on sea days?” but I find being at sea really relaxing. You can sleep in if you want or watch a movie. There are so many things to do.

I love being with people. If I was shy then I’d be in the wrong business, I wouldn’t come out my cabin. I’d just stay in there like Beyoncé. You have to be approachable. I am, and people get that. At first they are slightly nervous in case I bite their head off, but after that they know I’m just a normal, approachable person. As soon as you bring your mum on board you lose any sense of bark.

All my family live in Melbourne but I can’t imagine going back to Australia unless I buy a holiday house there. I have British and Australian passports so I’m lucky that if I want to live and work there I can, but I left 26 years ago and I have no intention of returning.

Strictly has changed my life entirely, and sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. The bad is being a face that is recognised and you never get left alone on the street, but once you get used to that and use it for charities it’s really good. If you use it in the right way, and it’s not all about self, self, self, then it’s justifiable.

I think it’s good that people come on the cruise just to take part in the Strictly competition. There’s no malice or anything untoward going on, it’s just people wanting to dance and I think that’s fantastic. Backstage they are all very happy, even though I’ve slated them. They know me, and they know their dancing ability and I’m not going to lie to them. And I don’t over-mark.