Shirley Ballas: ‘I thought Ranvir and Giovanni were going to kiss!’

Head judge Shirley Ballas looks back on her highlights of series 18 as the grand final approaches...

Shirley Ballas has seen a series like no other – and not just because of social distancing!

Strictly Come Dancing’s most recent run has seen the first ever same-sex pairing, five different couples topping the leaderboard in the first five weeks, and even a CGI elephant invading the dancefloor.

This Saturday sees our final four couples – EastEnders actress Maisie Smith and Gorka Márquez, pop star HRVY and Janette Manrara, comedian Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse, and reality star Jamie Laing and Karen Hauer – making one last bid to win that glitterball trophy. Each couple will repeat a previous routine picked for them by the judges, their own favourite routine, and a brand new rules-free showdance – and the winner will be decided by viewer votes alone.

We chatted to head judge Shirley ballas, 60, about her most memorable moments of the series…

How excited are you for this year’s final? Do you think it’s going to be a good one?

Shirley Ballas: “I’m probably the most excited about this final than I’ve ever been about any final, ever! I feel like the talent is absolutely amazing and off the chart, and it’s very unpredictable. Everybody’s got a different favourite, so it could be anybody.”

What’s your favourite part of the final each year?

SB: “My favourite part is seeing who can go the pace, because they’ve all been on such a journey. A lot of it is not only about talent, it’s about mental strength. Don’t forget they’ve had nine weeks – maybe 11 weeks, if you count the rehearsals – and their bodies have been going morning, noon and night, so their bodies are starting to wear. I love seeing the freestyle [routines] where they can do whatever they want: lifts, drops, kicks, flicks, they can do it all! I always find that the freestyles show me their creativity.”

Shirley Ballas with fellow judges Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse, all holding up '9' score paddles

Shirley with fellow judges Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse (Photo: BBC)

Have you missed having Bruno sitting next to you this year?

SB: “Of course! His flailing arms, my loving buddy off to my left, I’ve missed Bruno for sure. But I enjoyed having Anton Du Beke for those couple of weeks, he’s such a gentleman in every shape and form, I’ve known him over 30 years of my life. And Motsi gives me that bundle of puppy energy, and Craig and I are just like two peas in a pod. I appreciate his work, and he appreciates mine!”

Strictly had to be very different this year because of Covid-19 – do you think the cast rose to that extra challenge?

SB: “I think it was definitely a challenge – we’re all used to that buzzing audience, so we miss that. But I have to say the professionals, with their celebrity partners, have been the audience, and I think they make enough noise – particularly little Janette – for a whole stadium! But audience or no audience, I always see that camaraderie between them – it’s always there, every year.”

Nicola Adams and Katya Jones perform their quickstep in week 1

Shirley was a big fan of Nicola Adams and Katya Jones’ quickstep (Photo: BBC)

Which were your favourite routines?

SB: “Oh, I don’t like to single people out, because I really love them all! I would probably say Jamie Laing and his street dance was one of the ones I loved, and the quickstep that Nicola [Adams] did at the beginning of the series – the way they changed hold, that was really unique. And Bill Bailey does things that just defy gravity, and HRVY, you could see his focus in that quickstep he did. Every routine has been unique and brilliant, more so this year!”

What was the biggest surprise for you?

SB: “When Ranvir [Singh] did that Argentine tango, I thought I was going to lose the plot! That was sizzling, it was chemistry beyond the scale of chemistry – at one point I thought she was going to kiss him! I thought, ‘whoo, this is a turning point for this young lady’ – who would have thought she could have brought that sexual side of herself out? She had to dig deep to do that.”

What was the most shocking exit?

SB: “The most shocking, even though it wasn’t an exit but she had to go for medical reasons, was Nicola – that, for me, was quite sad. I was sad to see her go, and Katya is such a brilliant choreographer, I was really looking forward to seeing which direction she was going to take the same-sex couple.”

Why should we tune in for the final?

SB: “Everybody needs to switch off from the world and go down the fantasy path of the gorgeous Strictly baubles, bangles and beads, and to watch this beautiful, warm show. It will definitely be a huge pre-Christmas treat on the 19th. But do not forget to vote!”

Strictly Come Dancing: The Final is on BBC1 on Saturday 19 December at 6pm.

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