Page last updated at 18:43 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Tables turned as press quiz Sergeant

By Fiona Pryor
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Kristina Rihanoff and John Sergeant

"The time to leave the party is before the fight starts."

So says John Sergeant at a press conference set up for him to explain his decision to leave BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing.

Well known for high-profile interviews with political figures during his journalistic career, the 64-year-old admits it's a surreal experience to now be quizzed by former colleagues.

"I've come to lots of these press conferences where ministers have had to resign and it's rather absurd that I'm in this position," he says.

Jeremy Paxman
Are you a man or a mouse?
Jeremy Paxman to John Sergeant

Among those grilling him is Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman - presumably at his first ever Strictly Come Dancing press conference.

Sitting in the front row, Paxman cannot help laughing at the "ridiculousness" of the situation.

Heckling throughout, he asks Sergeant: "Are you a man or a mouse?"

Taking the comment in good faith, Sergeant insists his public support was getting "less funny as the weeks go on".

Paxman responds by declaring his friend's involvement in the show "a brilliant piece of entertainment".

Despite being slated by the show's judges, who felt he should have been voted out weeks ago, Sergeant had been kept in week after week by the public telephone vote.

'Hugely entertaining'

Directing a question at BBC One controller Jay Hunt, Paxman jokes: "Is this what happens when the BBC can't fix the result of audience votes?"

Later, Ms Hunt, perhaps taken aback by the fervent questioning, points out that the show is supposed to be light entertainment.

This is not about winning a gold medal for the foxtrot
BBC One controller Jay Hunt

"I think the key thing is to remember that this is an entertainment show and not the Olympics," she says.

"I think we're in slight danger of taking this a bit too seriously. At the end of the day, the popular vote meant that John was kept in for a long time.

"People found him a hugely entertaining addition to the show and that's a very important part of what Strictly is there to do.

"This is not about winning a gold medal for the foxtrot."

Some of the journalists say they can't believe Sergeant left of his own accord, suggesting he may have been pushed by producers.

Kristina Rihanoff and John Sergeant
John Sergeant has lost two stone since the show started

But Sergeant is adamant it was his idea.

"I don't think I'm actually running the government," he says. "I have actually been appearing in a light entertainment show. You can't force me to dance against my will."

He says he knew the time was right to leave when he "noticed the Times had a leader on me".

He also insists he doesn't have any complaints about the judges whose comments about his dancing have included "that was more ha ha ha than cha-cha" and "it was more Mickey Rooney than Fred Astaire".

Sergeant says: "Craig [Revel Horwood] has hugged me, which I'm not sure is a good thing. And Arlene [Phillips] has apologised.

"They've done their best in extremely difficult circumstances."

He laughs off a suggestion from one journalist that he bowed out of the contest because of a planned holiday, joking: "I do have a contract with a cruise liner to take me to the Panama canal in a couple of weeks, which had nothing whatsoever to do with my decision."

Ultimately, it seems, Sergeant - who lost two stone during the competition - agreed with the judges' protestations that, as a dancing contest, it would be wrong if the show's weakest contestant triumphed.

"In the words of a very nice man in Cambridge who ran a dance studio, he said it would be enchanting if John Sergeant won but it would be wrong."

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