The fabulous Arlene Phillips appears at Camberley Theatre on October 12th. Simon Button caught up with her to ask some questions ahead of her tour.
How would you sum up the show?
It’s like a tea party with Arlene Phillips where you can ask me any question you like because you’ll hear about everything. It’s a Q&A format, with lots of footage from things I’ve worked on with loads of famous faces and also many photos from my personal archive. I’m working with Jacquie Storey, who is someone I used to teach at Arts Educational school.
What prompted you and Jacquie to team up?
When I created my dance group Hot Gossip [in 1974] we had a few years of phenomenal un-success because we only had a one-night-a-week gig at a club in the West End. I kept thinking ‘We’re going to be famous’ but every time I brought a producer in to see the show I was told ‘It’s too sexy for television’. We were getting nowhere so after three years I told the group: ‘Look, go off and audition and see whatever work you can get. I’m gonna put Hot Gossip on hold’. Within a week or two of delivering that message I had a call that television director David Mallet had seen a photograph of Hot Gossip. Just from seeing the photograph he said ‘I want Arlene Phillips and Hot Gossip on The Kenney Everett Show‘ but some of my dancers had gone out and gotten other jobs. So I turned to some of my students at arts educational school to ask them to be in the show and I was very lucky because three of them said yes, but the fourth one said ‘Oh no, I’m going to do a summer season and I won’t be able to do it because I’m the lead singer’ and that was Jacquie Storey. I caught up with Jacquie recently and she said ‘We have to do a show’. It all started from there.
What’s the glitziest thing you’ve ever done?
One of the glitziest things I’ve ever done was the Elton John video for I’m Still Standing. We planned to shoot it in the South of France with a big opening scene showing Elton driving in an open-top car down the mountains onto the promenade in Cannes. When he arrived in Cannes he was going to swerve into a plate glass window, which would shatter and then three dancers would step out of it, with the dancers being brought over from England.
However, when we arrived early in the morning and were about to begin filming, health and safety stepped in and said ‘No, no, no, we can’t insure Elton driving down the mountains into a plate glass window!’ So, I had to think on my feet. My friend owned a dance group and school in the South of France, so I called and asked, ‘Can I get your dancers?’ She said yes so we told them to bring swimwear, then we body-painted them and suddenly it was like the South of France opened its doors to us. Nice gave us the promenade to dance on, and we were given the beaches and ballroom and staircases of the Negresco Hotel. I taught the dancers the choreography and we them immediately filmed it, so it was like instant choreography. It took us two days to film and after we finished on the last night Elton took people to dinner.
What’s the most glamorous event you’ve ever been to?
That would have to be the opening night party in New York City for the film Annie. It was a vast and very, very glamorous party. Everything was divine – the food, the wines, the champagnes – attended by the toast of Broadway and the film world. It was very glamorous indeed.
And what’s your juiciest bit of gossip?
It’s probably the little drama I had on Freddie Mercury’s video for I Was Born To Love You when Freddie had to rescue one of our poor dancers after an accident. Off he went with her to Mile End Hospital to get her stitched up, but the big thing that happened is that it introduced me to my partner [Angus Ion]. I had no idea that an argument would end up with me finding my lifetime partner.
Can you elaborate on that?
When Freddie went off to the hospital I went into the green room and while I was sitting there one of the carpenters on the set started blaming me for the girl’s accident – saying that the throw where one of the dancers picked her up and flew her along a catwalk was dangerous and that I just stood back and watched again and again as we filmed it without stepping in and saying anything. This whole argument developed and I was quite put out that someone had come into the green room to tell me the accident was all my fault. He was angry and said ‘I hate violence towards women’ and then I started accusing him, saying ‘Actually you built that catwalk and what you possibly didn’t see was that it was getting shinier and shinier’. Eventually I walked out. It was leading up to Christmas and I seemed to be doing one video after the other, one of which was an AC/DC video at Brixton Academy – which was absolutely filthy, with us all sitting in dust. Again, it was a very long night and towards the end of a long night/early morning Angus, who was on that shoot as well, walked up and apologised. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I really overstepped the mark’. We got talking and we haven’t stopped talking since!
You’re known for being outspoken so will it be a no-holds-barred show?
It is a no-holds-barred show, yes. It’s a Q&A and people can ask me anything they want and I’ll answer absolutely anything they ask.
Why do you think audiences are so intrigued by backstage stories?
I think it’s because what they usually only get to see is the finished product. When they watch something they don’t know too much about how it’s made, what you go through to get it made and what the people you work with are like. Are the stars easy or difficult? Do they behave? Do they do what you want? The public only sees the finished product – whether it’s a musical or a film or a music video – so I think they like to go deeper into it. And people are so involved in dance today. Everyone’s an expert. With all these reality shows they’ve been taught that they can be an expert, that they can comment on something. So the knowledge of how things are put together, how the machine works, really intrigues people.
You’ve worked with so many big names over the years. Who have been your favourites?
Oh gosh, I loved working with Elton John and of course I’ve had a very long association with Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is one of the most exciting creative people that I know, no question. And I’ve worked with so many female divas – from Whitney Houston to Aretha Franklin to Tina Turner to Donna Summer. My collection of female divas were stunning and all very different, some demanding and some not, all asking for different things and you just have to be there for them. A choreographer often exposes what you can and can’t do so you need to keep the choreographer on your side and make sure they show you at your best.
Any tough customers?
Diana Ross wasn’t easy at first but by midnight she thawed. [Laughs] She thawed in the freezing cold while we were filming outside. Generally, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything where I’ve finished with a mortal enemy.
You made a name for yourself as director and choreographer of Hot Gossip in 1974. Were you being deliberately saucy?
The group was created at a time where I was not only teaching rock jazz but also going out clubbing at night, feeling the excitement of London and the way people were moving in clubs and discos. Putting those two together with the clothes I was wearing – which was not a great deal – seemed so opposite to the smiley dancers that were shown on television on the likes of Seaside Special and the Saturday night entertainment shows, full of vitality and bonhomie with simple steps and lots of energy. I felt at odds with that. I wanted to put into dance what I was experiencing at night in the clubs, namely a more immediate form of dance and physicality where you connected to it and didn’t always have to smile. It was about using your body and expressing your feelings so it became very sexy. Then there were the clothes, which were really borne out of having no money. Lingerie was cheap and cheerful and you could dye it lots of different colours. Everybody in Hot Gossip was doing part-time jobs and one of the boys was not only driving a taxi but also worked part-time selling clothes in a sex shop. He was given some of the clothes by his manager for us to wear so the whole image visually and physically became very sexy.
What have been your subsequent career highlights?
A big highlight is Starlight Express – trying to get triple threats and having them rollerskate or teaching skaters what a bar of music is and getting them all to stop at the same time on a count of eight. For me that was so thrilling and the show goes on and on, celebrating its 30th birthday in Germany next year. It was a real challenge and I loved it being part of my life. I also loved doing a lot of the music videos, especially Duran Duran’s Wild Boys where I had such great dancers. Gosh, there have been so many highlights.
What did you most enjoy about your time on Strictly Come Dancing?
I loved doing Strictly. I’ll never forget it, especially the excitement in the beginning. I remember being there for the pilot with Len Goodman where we really didn’t know what the show was going to be about. It seemed like it hadn’t quite formed, then gradually it found its feet. We had the amazing Natasha Kaplinsky, who really took to dance, and there was the comedy element where everyone fell in love with Chris Parker when on his paso doble he just ran around the floor stamping his feet with a cape on his back. The format was formed, with these wonderful professional dancers who were going to go on winning and these extraordinary characters who the audience fell in love with.
What is it liking to launch the show at the Edinburgh Fringe?
I love Edinburgh. I’ve only done one show there before, Brazouka, which was a Brazilian dance show. Edinburgh Festival Fringe is so exciting; with the audiences there you almost feel like you’re in your living room with you. They’re all around you and it feels like you’re chatting just as you would to friends.
Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?
I always eat grapes. [Laughs] Don’t ask me why, but I nervously eat them before going on stage. I don’t mind if they’re green or red as long as they’re really hard. I will not eat a soft grape. They have to be crunchy otherwise they don’t pass the Arlene test. I don’t know why that’s my ritual but it somehow calms my nerves. Then after a show I get changed as quickly as possible and get out of the venue while my mind is still fresh, get my notebook out and scribble down what I think worked and what I think didn’t.
When fans meet you what are they most intrigued to know?
The questions that come up the most are about being a mother at 47 and about my time on Strictly. Then many people tell me what their favourite musical is and where they saw it.