You know what they say: it’s not what you know in life, but who. Or, in Arlene Phillips’s case, a bit of both. She’d moved from her native Manchester to London in her early 20s and began teaching at the Dance Centre. The gods were clearly smiling on her. “A choreographer I knew,” she says, “told me a contact of hers was looking for someone to live in, clean the house and help look after his baby.”
That contact turned out to be Ridley Scott who went on to direct a slew of hit films – Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator among them – but, at that point, was shooting TV adverts. She got the job.
“When he then discovered I was a dance teacher he employed me to choreograph a commercial he was making for Lyons Maid ice cream featuring Miriam Margolyes as a dancing milkmaid.”
Arlene Phillips was on her way.
Six decades later, she is sitting in a hotel in London’s Swiss Cottage over a bowl of porridge and an Americano, talking about her latest project, House of Flamenka, with her customary enthusiasm.
Back in the day, Arlene choreographed Scott’s 1985 dark fantasy film Legend, starring a 23-year-old Tom Cruise: “He was very intense, very focused on his work. Even then you got the feeling you were working with a potential huge star.”
By this stage, Arlene herself had become the go-to choreographer for TV, videos and films. In the 1970s she’d noticed all the dancers on TV shows were squeaky clean: “And yet, something quite different was happening on the streets, in clubs.”
She assembled a group of dancers and dressed them in dyed lingerie and stretch nylon fitted dresses.
And so Hot Gossip was born.
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“They were sexy, dangerous and naughty.” But success took a little time coming. They danced once a week at a club in London before a TV director spotted them and put them in ITV’s Kenny Everett Video Show. Their fame exploded, with TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse calling for them to be banned.
“The fit with Kenny could not have been better,” says Arlene.
“He was already on the danger list when it came to saying risque things. He used to refer to Hot Gossip as the ‘naughty bits’.
“On camera he was out there, outrageous, fearless. In private he was quite different – sweet, gentle, shy, always caring to those around him he felt he could trust. He only flaunted himself on screen.”
As it turned out, Terry Jones was a big fan of Hot Gossip. “And he was also pretty outrageous in his own way. He was the first person to take me to a sex club.”
When Terry was asked to direct Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, he turned to Arlene for the choreography. “He, Eric Idle and Michael Palin were passionate about the project. Only John Cleese held back. He was perfectly polite but always rather distant.”
She choreographed the Python crew again in 2014 when they played 10 sold-out shows at London’s O2 arena. “And I got to dance with them in the finale in front of 16,000 people. Amazing!” In 1984 she was invited by Andrew Lloyd Webber to choreograph Starlight Express, his musical on roller skates.
“I’d do anything for that man,” says Arlene. “He’s a genius who took my career to another place.”
He famously has a short fuse.
“Oh my God! He’d erupt a hundred times a day, but then he’s passionate. His emotions turn on a sixpence. I became quite good at talking him down off the ledge.
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“And no one has achieved more in the history of musical theatre.
“Think Phantom. Cats. They’ll last for ever.” Starlight Express will return to the London stage next year in a new production.
Arlene has similar admiration for Elton John for whom she choreographed many videos. Look carefully at the dancers in the video for I’m Still Standing, filmed at the Negresco Hotel in Nice, and you’ll spot a youthful Bruno Tonioli.
She has been involved in a range of productions. Director Nicholas Hytner, for example, invited her to choreograph the music and movement scenes in Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah!, set in a hospital and care home.
“That was an interesting challenge. I chose the Palais Glide, a dance sequence from the 30s, which made me cry it was so moving. It made Alan cry, too, but then he loves music.”
She worked more recently with Hytner again, on the hit revival of Guys And Dolls. “It’s a thrilling show. Someone said to me recently it’s better than medicine. They’re right – it should be on the NHS!”
Next up is House of Flamenka… After a successful short run last year it is returning to London’s Peacock Theatre. Arlene first fell in love with flamenco many years ago when she was choreographing the non-flamenco sections of a show called Matador.
So when producer David Shepherd asked her two decades later to devise a show based on the famous dance, she didn’t hesitate.
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This one has renowned dancer Karen Ruimy as a feisty nighxtclub owner surrounded by 16 male dancers – eight English contemporary, eight Spanish flamenco – around which the sliver of a story revolves. “This time round,” says the inexhaustible Arlene, “there’ll be more sass, more sex, more style. It’s terribly exciting. I call it beautiful nonsense.” She passes seamlessly from one project to the next, totally oblivious, it seems, to the fact she celebrated her 80th birthday in May.
She certainly doesn’t look it: a pretty, petite woman with seemingly boundless vitality.
But, for all her acclaim as a choreographer, she is still best known for those years as a judge on Strictly before her controversial sacking in 2009. To this day, she says, people still stop her in the supermarket and tell her how much they minded her removal from the panel.
So, how does she feel about it?
“Oh, it’s fine. That was then and this is now.” And does she still watch the show? “I dip in and out. I think Anton Du Beke has really found his feet as a judge.”
A great sadness for Arlene, as for many, was the unexpected passing in April of Len Goodman, Strictly’s former head judge.
“He was a dear, dear friend and I still talk to his wife, Sue, a very special person.
“I didn’t know he was ill. Bruno knew because they worked together judging Dancing With the Stars, the American version of Strictly. So, it came as a terrible shock because he always seemed so strong and fit.”
So, what’s next? “I love working. It’s part of my DNA. But I’m soon going to do something I haven’t done for years and years.
“I’m taking time off over Christmas to enjoy being a grandmother to my two granddaughters.”
- House of Flamenka, Peacock Theatre, London, October 17–28. Visit sadlerswells.com
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