Strict while the iron is hot - stars hit the road

AS a TV presenter Matt Baker has been stuck to things with glue on Blue Peter and up to his pants in peat bogs for Countryfile - but he never expected to get into quite such a tangle with the tango.

The amiable north-easterner made it to the finals and second place during the most successful run of the hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing. And now the father-of-two admits he's actually been missing the testing routines since the show finished.

"It was very odd for me, quite strange," he admits during a flying visit to Sheffield. "I felt a bit lost because it's so intense and mentally and physically you're pushing yourself. The levels that you're working on are quite ridiculous and then suddenly it stops and your body is just craving.

"I went off for a few runs, had to keep moving in some way, but you have in the back of your mind that you're going to be doing the tour.

You know you're not just going to stop dancing."

Matt admits he came into the show without expectation - certainly not one that he would become a sex symbol among female viewers - but wanted to succeed.

"I'm one of those people, when I get a challenge and set my mind to it I'll go hammer and tongs at it," he says.

"I won't stop until I've absolutely achieved what I think is do-able.

"Every week you work to the Saturday and give everything to try to make it happen.

"And then it starts again when you get voted through. It's just constant.

"I did surprise myself. I'd watch it back and think 'Wow, I don't know that's me doing that'. It's like a dream state. When I think back to the experience of Strictly it doesn't really feel like it happened.

"It's a crazy planet the whole Strictly world anyway, not just the outfits and the fake tan, it goes a lot deeper."

With a couple of the professionals leaving the show after the 2009 run, Matt and Kara were paired with incoming Russians Aliona Vilani and Artem Chigvintsev respectively. Matt believes they made a difference to their progress.

"You don't know what you're capable of and we were, in a very nice way, stitched up with two Russians who have an incredible drive, but I wouldn't have changed a single thing, especially with Aliona and the way she worked and pushed me.

"The stuff we did was brilliant. We didn't have a huge amount of time and it must be really stressful for them as well because they have no idea what level you can go to and they've got to keep pushing and pushing. It sounds ridiculous because it is a dance competition but you're going through it."

Kara agrees, not least as she scored more than points with Artem. "At the time you're thinking they're so hardcore these Russian dancers but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way because you probably did better because of it.

"Aliona and Artem used to talk to each other in Russian, probably not to hurt our feelings too much. Artem would give tips to Aliona to tell Matt and vice versa and it was really nice they were helping each other like that."

Certainly it is clear the rivalry was friendly between celebrities that ranged from magician Paul Daniels and former TV comedy star Pamela Stephenson to fellow former Albert Square resident Jimi Mistry and Holby actress Patsy Kensit, who will also be on tour.

"You wanted to just keep going and you wanted all your mates to keep going with you," recalls Kara. "It was horrible losing someone or the thought of going home. Goldie went in the first week.

"It's about having fun. That's why I didn't think about getting very far. I thought 'just enjoy it for however long it lasts'. All of a sudden you want to stay in so much more. The thought of going home is so horrible, of having to watch it from your sofa – I'd have had to have left the country.

"Getting to the final almost didn't matter - it meant we didn't have to watch it at home. Winning was getting to the end."

Kara admits now she wasn't sure she'd done enough, even though Matt still had his filming schedule to maintain between training, and she was getting ready to do her 'well done' face.

"I was hearing where he was going each week. As much as I loved winning I was choked because he worked so hard."

A COMMON theme among Strictly battlers is how much training is involved.

"When you watch the show, and I am a big fan, I just had no idea of the work that goes in," admits Kara.

"I thought 'this will be really enjoyable, a piece of cake'. What could you want more than to train every day, like going back to school and feeling really young again'. Then you're thinking 'We're taking this way beyond seriousness'.

"But you knew you had to go out in front of millions of people and didn't want to make a fool of yourself. It would be horrible to go out there and go blank, which did happen a few times. In my job I can say 'Can we go again?' In the first week of Strictly when I fell over I realised I couldn't do it again, 'It's on now'.

"The tour is a whole new experience, all the great things about Strictly. It's a celebration of all the good things, doing our favourite dances."

Matt echoes the relaxed vibe, after the stress of learning four routines in a week towards the series end.

"You set yourself so many goals: you don't want to be the first one out, then you want to get to Blackpool. You don't want to go out in the quarters, definitely not in the semis.

"Of course we were disappointed at the finish, but that last night, as bizarre as it was, encompassed everything Strictly is about. It's a dance competition but you keep going like your life depended on it."

Unless you were the Rt Honourable Ann Widdecombe, pictured, that is.

Although the public vote kept the hapless MP in she was subjected to terrible remarks from brutal judge Craig Revel Horwood.

Not only is he directing the tour, he will dance with the heavy-footed politician in Sheffield, although exact details are under wraps.

Matt admits to knowing some details but won't confirm whether a skateboard is involved.

"I had breakfast with Ann this morning and she let me in on a secret," he teases. "She's not hanging from the roof, I can confirm that."Kara enjoys the feedback

ONE thing Kara is grateful of as a result of Strictly is having fewer people pulling her over about her EastEnders antics.

"Comments from the public have been positive," says the actress, whose exit from the soap was left open. "With people who recognised me from EastEnders it was more 'Why are you having an affair with that man?

You're character is horrible'.

"Now it's been more 'Your dance was lovely last week' - positive feedback rather than what I'm used to."

And Kara, now looking to take up salsa classes, says she is planning to enjoy her dancing more on tour. "We never had that much time to before - it was more 'on the edge of your sanity'."

Strictly connects

WHAT is clear ahead of Strictly's lengthy tour of UK arenas is both Kara and Matt are looking forward to strutting their stuff in front of large live audiences as opposed to TV cameras and a studio crowd.

"What I learned throughout was there's an incredible connection between you and the audience when you're dancing," says Matt.

"There's this strange energy, even with the 200-300 in the studio.

"It's the most fabulous feeling out there.

"You know when it's happening or things are a bit rusty.

"To be able to have the opportunity to perfect our dances and get that feeling in front of 10,000 people... I can't imagine what that connection is going to feel like.

"On the show it's just constant panic you're going to forget your routine.

"Now we won't have that same worry and the stress - or that pressure to have achieved it by Saturday. It's going to be lovely."

One upshot has been viewing figures for Countryfile soaring alongside Matt's profile.

"It was a great opportunity for me to show there's more sides and there are lots of different sides to me," he says, confirming he has had male strangers revealing how he's inspired them to take up ballroom.

"It's such a lovely thing to get hold of somebody and just have a whip around the dancefloor.

"Back in the day they'd have ballrooms in factories. All that's gone but it's such a basic human thing just to hear some music and have a connection.

"Get out there and have a go."

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