Lisa Riley makes no bones about being dealt the ‘joker’ hand in Strictly Come Dancing. What the BBC hadn’t bargained for was that the former soap star was under no illusions as to why she was there. She also knew that she could turn a crowd and have them eating out of her hand in a matter of weeks, all of which proved prophetic. Rather than being patronised, Lisa challenged our preconceptions through sheer hard work, good humour and that winning smile.

“I have a very positive attitude towards life and am a very lucky and confident person who is not fond of being pigeon-holed,” she told me succinctly. “When I look in the mirror I see my face, my eyes and my energy, that’s me all over.”

Instead the 36 year-old strode on to the Strictly Come Dancing set, grin firmly in place, danced her socks off and was immediately taken into the nation’s hearts where she has stayed ever since, bucking the trend and staying true to her own brand of feminism, a great role model in this era of Lisa’s size-zero contemporaries.

The stubborn Northern streak which has helped to see her employed since she left Oldham Theatre School with an agent aged nine, came good again and Strictly Come Dancing was just another notch on her showbiz bedpost.

So while the Bury lass remains grateful and had the time of her life, Lisa is as defiant as ever as she embarks on the resulting spin-off Strictly Confidential, before continuing with her impressive workload.

“I didn’t need to prove myself in Strictly Come Dancing because I was in my element. I adore performing, it’s what I live for, being on stage and having that opportunity. And I knew I had rhythm — I’m always the first on the dancefloor when I’m out with my girlfriends,” she giggles.

“However I also realised I was the John Sergeant/Ann Widdecombe joke act which meant that before the show I was on at 88-1 to win, but the second I danced the odds went up to 6-1. The proof is in the pudding and it’s sad that people judge a book by its cover in this country.”

Not that anyone’s views have ever held Lisa back. “Well, people saw how hard I was trying and that I wasn’t competing but just having a ball, you can’t fake that.”

What did incense her was that instead of concentrating on her dance moves, people became obsessed with her weight loss. “I did lose weight on Strictly Come Dancing purely because of the hours I was putting in, not because I was on a diet. As I’ve said before, its called Strictly Come Dancing not Strictly Come Dieting. “I don’t care — take me as I am.”

Such was her popularity both on and off screen, however, that Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood immediately signed Lisa up to star in his new musical Strictly Confidential, which hits Oxford’s New Theatre next week alongside professional dancers Artem Chigvintsev, Natalie Lowe and Ian Waite. “The best thing about this show is that it’s a musical spectacular which Craig is so good at, making this accessible for everyone.”

Craig’s always had a soft spot for Lisa though, right from day one. “He was onside from the start,” Lisa says. “He saw my passion and dancing and that I never wanted to stop learning, regardless of how hard it got. And as Strictly Confidential has got dancing, acting and singing in it, Craig was waiting for someone who could come along and do all three.”

Being the only ‘amateur’ performing with the Strictly dancers doesn’t faze Lisa in the slightest, “although the professionals only have to look at a dance twice and they know it,” she smiles. Because of her busy work schedule, Lisa could only spare a few months off for this new show. Just back from filming George Gently, she also has “something exciting coming up in October which I can’t talk about. And I can’t talk about the film script I’m reading or my next theatre appearances. So this two-month tour is long enough because we all have other projects to get on with.”

Does Lisa credit Strictly for this packed work schedule then? “No, because I haven’t stopped working since Emmerdale. The only difference now is that before I was always given the downtrodden parts, but recently I’ve been offered roles which are a bit more glamorous. It must have been the fake tan and false eyelashes that did it,” she giggles. “But it’s brilliant. I love it.”

She also loves coming to Oxford.

“I adore Oxford and did Calendar Girls there and Little Voice. It’s so beautiful and the people, shops and restaurants are wonderful. It’s a real testament to the city that it embraces live theatre so much.”

Yet this time around she is coming as a dancer. “It’s been absolutely crazy, but while my lifeblood is acting, this year I’ve done more dancing because it was a great chance to do something I adore. And people are nothing but supportive everywhere I go.”

Which will now include The Duchess of Cornwall, who is attending Oxford’s gala performance of Strictly Confidential next Wednesday in her role as President of the National Osteoporosis Society. No pressure then? “It’s something I will really cherish for the rest of my life,” Lisa smiles, grin intact, “but you know me, love me, love my legwarmers.”


Tuesday, June 18 and Wednesday, June 19
Tickets: 00844 871 3020