IT takes a lot to silence the most hyperactive talent show judge on telly – but Darcey Bussell’s decision to quit Strictly left Bruno Tonioli speechless.
The Italian, 63, claims he had no idea the former ballerina was about to end her six-year stint until he received a text from her while he was on holiday.
Darcey, 50, maintains her family and determination to focus on her ballet roots were the reasons behind her shock departure from the BBC1 show in April.
But speaking for the first time about her exit, Bruno reveals there were other notable factors including Darcey, her husband Angus Forbes and daughters Phoebe, 18, and Zoe, 15, moving house.
He told The Sun: “I was in total shock. When she texted me I didn’t put two and two together. I wasn’t expecting her to leave.
“She told me she just needed to get out. She has all these projects, like her house, and this show just takes over. You lose three months of your life to Strictly.
“She just needed a breather. Her daughters are growing up, she’s moving home, she has a family. It’s very different for her compared to myself and Craig (Revel Horwood).”
Asked if the growing profile of the series also contributed, Bruno added: “I compare it to a band. Sometimes a member needs to pull out, because it is a big thing.
“You get a lot of attention, you are under a magnifying glass for weeks, then you tour.
“But I adore her and you never know, she may be back. I say the door is always open.”
Bruno is speaking from his London home, where he has just returned after a trip to LA, ahead of Saturday’s first competitive Strictly show.
He enjoyed his summer off, telling me he consumed himself in art in London, and kept the holiday weight off by “gyming it” rather than going vegan like his health-conscious old pal Simon Cowell.
Bruno said: “I saw Simon in Barbados at Christmas and next time I saw him I said, ‘you’ve vanished’.”
Dressed in pink jeans, a white T-shirt and wearing white sliders over black socks, Bruno promises to open the Chablis at his “alcohol time” of 6pm, which he does bang on the hour. He then asks if I have any idea how to fix the leak in his roof, which has left damp marks on the ceiling of the hallway.
He is bracing himself for a repeat of his gruelling September to December work schedule, when he travels back and forth from America each week to film Strictly and the US version of the show, Dancing With The Stars.
The hardcore commute took its toll two years ago, prompting Bruno to ask for a week off halfway through the last series.
It is a move that will be repeated again this year, as Bruno admits he was in danger of doing serious damage to himself.
He said: “Pilots were telling me they would not be allowed to fly that much. That put it in perspective.
“There was a time when I felt like somebody else. I was talking to people and I didn’t know where I was or who they were. I was going mad, so I had to do something.”
Yet despite the prospect of an epic air miles collection, he can’t wait for this year’s contest to get started — and lock horns once again with old sparring partner Craig.
Bruno admits he is closer to the 54-year-old than anyone else on the show. After all, they are two of only four originals from the first series in 2004, along with host Tess Daly, 50, and professional dancer Anton du Beke, 53.
Away from all their on-air squabbles, the pair are tighter than Bruno’s trademark Speedos — but would never consider living together. He said: “I’d do all the cooking and he would stay up all night drinking. We’d end up killing each other.”
They haven’t caught up properly since the Strictly tour earlier this year, aside from on the day of the recent launch episode, when a shopping trip turned into an accidental comedy sketch.
Bruno said: “Craig is obsessed with the sales. He bought a pair of purple shoes, that a woman would wear, for half price, even though one of those shoes was two sizes smaller than the other. He then took me to a shop and said, ‘look at these shoes, they’re a quarter of the price’.
“I’m a seven and a half and these are a six and a half. He told me to try them on. It ended up being like a scene from Absolutely Fabulous.
“I was tottering about and I couldn’t take them off.
“We needed three shop assistants to pull them off.
“Then he said, ‘you must buy them, they’re 75 per cent off’, and I said, ‘that’s because nobody wants the f***ing things’.”
After Darcey’s departure, they will be joined by a new judge on the panel — Motsi Mabuse.
Bruno, now in his 18th series, claims he found out about her appointment at the same time as everybody else and does not think it is a big deal she will be judging her sister, pro dancer Oti.
But he did concede her sibling might find it tough. Bruno said: “Motsi is very successful. She’s a champion dancer and she’s done the show in Germany for many years, so she knows how to do it.
“It’s not like she’s been plucked from nowhere. You do your job regardless of who is in front of you.
“If anything, she could be even tougher to Oti, like when you are a kid you say, ‘don’t you touch that’.
“It’s sibling rivalry. She is going to go for her throat.”
He hopes she will bring her own personality and style to the panel, which is completed by head judge Shirley Ballas, because there is nothing that annoys Bruno more than talent show judge imitations.
Bruno said: “I watch all these other shows and I’m like, ‘f*** off — they’ve tried to cast a Bruno and a Craig’.
“You see it and I say, ‘darling, just do something else because it feels phoney, you’re not a good enough actor to sustain it, don’t do it. Find your own way’.
“You see things like Craig and I did five years ago, like crawling on the desk or falling off chairs, certain turns of phrases we say, and we go, ‘done that’. But of course, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.”
Assessing this year’s Strictly contestants, Bruno believes the series is incredibly open and he has trouble picking out an obvious favourite.
But what he is well aware of is show favourite Anton finally being paired with a celebrity who has a chance of winning, in the form of EastEnders actress Emma Barton.
Bruno said: “He’s got a good ’un. She’s not a dud and looks great. It’s so exciting. I actually told him, ‘don’t mess this up’.
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“He’s going to be competitive now. He can’t get away with dragging her around the floor like a mop.”
Bruno is showing no signs of slowing down and has not even thought about retiring, believing he can stay on TV as long as former head judge and current Dancing With The Stars co-star Len Goodman, who turned 75 in April.
Bruno said: “As long as I feel the spark is there, when I can just turn it on in an instant, then I’ll carry on.”