Dancer Flavia Cacace always was a whizz with the choreography. She needed to be. When she was one of the Strictly professionals, she had quite the range of celebrity partners, some more naturally nimble than others.
She only lasted a week with comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, who had to bail out early because of ill health, but went all the way with gymnast Louis Smith, winning the glitterball in 2012.
Previously, she had quite the result with EastEnders actor Jimi Mistry. They might not have reached the finals in 2010, but they did end up as a couple, waltzing off in real life. They have been married since 2013.
Today, in deepest, rainy Devon, fearless Flavia is having her patience tested again, though with a quite different set of characters. She is corralling chickens, not celebrities. Chickens are less eager to please, it seems. Jimi is trying gamely to help, but one bird in particular is a devil to coordinate.
‘It’s the rain,’ she says. ‘It’s the first big storm we’ve had since we got chickens, and they aren’t dealing well with it.’
Still, it’s a ten from us for tenacity. She perseveres and in no time at all, the errant bird is neatly trotting back into the coop.
The couple blamed lockdown for manifesting a ‘mad life dream’ as they left showbiz behind for a life in the Devon countryside
What are Flavia and Jimi doing with a load of chickens and sheep, you may well ask? They are, in effect, living The Good Life, à la Barbara and Tom Good in the 1970s sitcom, after buying themselves a farm and leaving the showbiz world behind them.
They blame lockdown and a ‘mad life dream’ for their big change. After becoming disillusioned with acting and dancing, they had ditched their respective industries, with the plan of concentrating their energy (and finances) on a fledgling business offering health and fitness advice online — and were just getting going when the pandemic hit. It soon became clear that their timing was terrible. Suddenly, every Tom, Dick and Joe Wicks was offering online fitness advice, and for free.
They were living in Guildford, Surrey, but had been planning to ‘one day’ move out to the country, to a house with a proper garden. Flavia dreamt of having enough space for a horse.
That day arrived sooner than anyone imagined. They went house-hunting last spring, expecting, says Jimi, to find a nice house by the sea, ‘possibly with some land so we could have a cottage garden’.
They humoured the estate agent who wanted to show them something bigger, and ended up falling in love with a converted barn set in seven acres of the most idyllic Devon countryside. They wrote a list of the pros and cons of, effectively, becoming proper farmers. The cons far outweighed the pros, but as Flavia says, ‘sometimes in life you have to let your heart overrule your head’.
They moved in, in January of this year, on the day that Storm Christoph hit. ‘Yes, we did wonder what on earth we were doing. It was terrifying,’ admits Flavia. ‘We arrived in torrential rain. We couldn’t find the front door key, and when we did get in the boiler wasn’t working, nor was the Aga. Somehow our overnight bag got mixed up with the rest of the removal stuff, so we ended up spending the first night on the floor, with our coats over us.’
They might not have reached the Strictly finals in 2010, but Flavia Cacace and Jimi Mistry did end up as a couple, waltzing off in real life.
Jimi remembers their first trip out to the fields. ‘The place hadn’t been touched in a year and it had been eight months since we’d seen it. Everything was overgrown. Flavia’s face was a picture.’
Nine months on and they have found their feet (which are mostly in wellies). The glamorous dresses of the ballroom dancer have been largely abandoned, and Flavia wears layers, and more layers. A lot of their jumpers have holes in them now, they admit. And yes they have acquired the DVD of The Good Life, for research purposes.
I manage to arrive at their converted barn on one of the wettest days of the year. It is blowing a gale on the hill up to the polytunnel, where they grow vegetables. Their mission is to become as self-sufficient as possible for starters. After that, they hope to sell their produce. They are producing way more eggs than they can use themselves. Some of them, Jimi says excitedly, are ‘double-yolkers’.
Aside from the troublesome chickens, Flavia, 41, tells me that sheep are even more tricky to herd. They only have three (all rare breed specimens) so far, and she confesses they are ‘more like pets’ than livestock.
‘We are learning that if you are doing anything to them, you have to be quite brutal and just manhandle them. At the start we were all gentle. Too gentle. We have a lovely farmer neighbour who came over to show us the ropes.’
Underlining just how naive they are about countryside matters, they admit to naming all their livestock, ‘which proper farmers tend not to do’, says Jimi, 48.
Nine months on and they have found their feet (which are mostly in wellies). The glamorous dresses of the ballroom dancer have been largely abandoned, and Flavia wears layers, and more layers
‘It’s a very physical life now but that suits me. Dancers are strong. It might look glamorous and lovely, but it’s very physical, and you need brute strength for it,’ says Flavia
The sheep are called Enzo, Freddie and Flash, while their chickens are: Gloria, Betsy, Bronwyn, Marilyn, Amber, Sparkle, Annie, Julia, Sylvia, Lily, Roxy and Chiara.
One latest triumph is the gala melon seeds they planted just after moving in have produced a lone melon. ‘An actual melon,’ says Jimi. He has taken a picture of himself with it. I’m not sure he could be prouder if he were cradling an Oscar. They’ve also managed to grow — deep breaths here — tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, runner beans, beetroot, courgettes, sprouting broccoli and lettuce.Their learning curve has been steep. They knew nothing of ‘planting things’, as Jimi puts it, before they moved here, but they bought three books on Amazon (‘one on chickens, one on small-holdings and one on polytunnels’) and Jimi’s mum gave them some old books she had on growing vegetables.
‘Some things haven’t done as well as others,’ says Flavia, who is arranging her wares in a basket. ‘Our first lot of leeks didn’t grow, and the aubergines have been tricky.’
What with all the glee around his melons, I assume it has been mostly Jimi doing the hard labour. Ha! Quite the opposite. Jimi reveals Flavia does most of the physical work.
‘She is the brute force. I’m the one who is more likely to be in the kitchen baking a Victoria sponge and she’ll be out there drilling or banging. She’s the one going past the window, with half a tree, shouting in, ‘What’s for tea?’.’
Dragging trees? Flavia nods. ‘It’s a very physical life now but that suits me. Dancers are strong. It might look glamorous and lovely, but it’s very physical, and you need brute strength for it. When you think of it, dragging a tree isn’t that different to dragging someone round the dance floor.’
Well, that rather depends on the dance partner, but we get the gist.
It all sounds quite mad, though, giving up showbiz careers to become farmers. Inside, at the huge refectory table they had to buy (‘our previous place was a 1960s bungalow. Nothing fitted in here!’ says Jimi) they admit that in their previous lives they were away so much, they couldn’t even be trusted to look after a plant.
‘We used to joke about that,’ says Jimi. ‘We’d tell friends ‘don’t bring us plants, because we can’t keep them alive’.’
As they talk, though, it becomes clear they were tired of their previous showbiz lives long before lockdown hit. In particular, both had resolved not to be away from each other as much, after learning the hard way that constantly being on the road is not conducive to lasting relationships.
‘I’d worked my whole life in the acting business where planning is impossible,’ says Jimi, who, as well as acting roles in EastEnders and Coronation Street, has starred in a string of films from East Is East to Blood Diamond and The Guru. ‘A lot of my film work was abroad, so you’d have that thing where you’d be told the job would be in Morocco, for six weeks, which is a case of ‘See ya later, babe’.’
His first marriage (from which he has a daughter, Elin) floundered, partly under such pressure. He looks at Flavia. ‘When we got together, I said ‘I’m not to mess this one up.’ I wanted to make it — us — a priority.’
Their meeting on the show, in 2010, caused huge controversy at the time. They were one of those couples caught up in the infamous Strictly curse, although Jimi quibbles about whether it should be applied to them. ‘For us it wasn’t a curse,’ he says. ‘It was a blessing.’
Flavia had form for getting romantically involved with her dance partners, of course. When she joined the show, she was in a relationship with her then professional partner Vincent Simone, but she started dating celebrity Matt Di Angelo when she was paired with him. She was still with Matt when she and Jimi were partnered up. Quite the tangled tango, then!
They are quite candid about what happened, explaining how their friendship tipped into something else when Jimi injured his foot, and they ended up going for a walk (instead of an intensive training session) on Hampstead Heath.
‘I shouldn’t have been there,’ admits Flavia. ‘I was supposed to be going home, but we ended up on this walk, then going for something to eat.’ Love had blossomed, she says, despite the fact she did not want it to. ‘We were just talking all the time, about rubbish,’ she says. However, she says she worried it would look bad, and unprofessional, if they were to become an item. Yet they did.
‘In an ideal world we wouldn’t have met through Strictly,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t want it, not just because I was in a relationship, but because I didn’t want it to be like that. I was asking myself, ‘Why, why me?’. It became this big story. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.’
Jimi nods. ‘I was more going-with-the-flow about it, because my situation was less complicated, but you did not want to get involved.
‘It’s ok now, because we are still together so it was the right thing, but it could have ended after a year or two and you could have been thinking, ‘Why did I do that?’.’
That they are still together, still happy, proves they made the right call, they say.
‘It’s like with buying this place. Our heads were saying ‘It’s too much’ but we let our hearts go,’ says Flavia.
Staying together, in showbiz, is another matter. They concede their attempts not to be constantly away from home has perhaps cost them roles. It sounds as if Jimi became jaded with the industry.
‘Acting is a job where it doesn’t matter what you have done previously, you have to prove yourself every time. It just got tiring.’
After his acting work slowed down, he did a cookery course, so is now a qualified chef.
Similarly, Flavia has some surprising strings to her bow. After Strictly, which she left in 2013, she toured in a variety of shows, taught at her own dance school in Guildford and, more leftfield, also did a course in dog grooming (for which her cockapoos are grateful).
She admits to suffering a tricky period when she stopped dancing professionally. ‘We call it my crying-into-my-porridge period,’ she says. ‘As a dancer, you have such structure to your days. When I didn’t know exactly how the day was going to pan out, I got down.’
Yes, she did have a period where she wondered if she had done the right thing bowing out of Strictly. ‘Ultimately, it was the right time, though, and I’ve been able to watch it again without regrets.’
They insist their farm project was designed as an escape, but since they started posting on Instagram about their country life, there has been interest from TV companies.
There are other plans afoot, too. They bought a couple of derelict cottages beside their barn, and hope to convert them into living accommodation and perhaps offer dancing and cookery mini-breaks.
The locals seem intrigued by their arrival. ‘We have been giving a few dance classes at the village hall,’ says Flavia. In return for farming lessons, we hope.