Lorraine: Arlene Phillips discusses Strictly Come Dancing return
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It’s been a life of sustained success as Arlene, one of the world’s top choreographers, has moved seamlessly from project to project. Now, she’ll be sharing some of her many memories on June 7 at London’s Duchess Theatre for one night only. Following her mother’s death from leukaemia when Arlene was 15, she moved to London and began teaching at the Dance Centre. The gods were smiling on her. Her big break came when she agreed to babysit for director Ridley Scott to earn some extra cash. “When he then discovered I was a dance teacher, he employed me to choreograph a TV commercial he was making for Lyons Maid ice cream featuring Miriam Margolyes as a dancing milkmaid.”
Arlene also choreographed Ridley’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 huge star,” she recalls.
“He was very beautiful but with an iron will. There was a gentleness about him, though. On Sunday afternoons, he’d hold a tea party in the apartment where he was staying.”
By this stage, Arlene herself had become something of a star, the go-to choreographer for TV, videos and films.
In the 70s, she’d noticed all the dancers on TV shows were squeaky clean. “And yet, something quite different was happening on the streets, in the clubs.”
So she assembled a group of dancers who attended her classes and dressed them in dyed lingerie and stretch nylon fitted dresses. Thus Hot Gossip was born. “They were sexy and dangerous and naughty.” But success took a little time coming.
They danced once a week at a club in Jermyn Street although it took a TV director to spot them and feature them in the Kenny Everett Video Show for ITV before their fame exploded – and clean up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse lobbied for them to be banned.
“The fit with Kenny could not have been better. He was already on the danger list when it came to saying risqué things. He used to refer to Hot Gossip as the ‘naughty bits’. On camera, he was out there, outrageous, fearless.
“In private, though, he was quite different – sweet, gentle, shy, always caring to all those around him he felt he could trust. He only flaunted himself on screen.”
As it turned out, Terry Jones was also a big fan of Hot Gossip. “And he was pretty outrageous in his own way,” says Arlene. “He was the first person to take me to a sex club.”
When Terry was asked to direct the Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life, it was to Arlene he turned 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 sell-out shows at London’s O2 arena. “And I got to dance with them in the finale in front of 16,000 people. Amazing!”
As the 80s progressed, Arlene’s video career skyrocketed. She worked with a string of A-list stars and none more so than Elton John for his I’m Still Standing video shot at the Negresco Hotel in Nice. It also featured Bruno Tonioli, already a good friend of Arlene’s and a highly experienced dancer.
“When they made the film of Rocketman, they used the footage from my video, substituting Taron Egerton for Elton. If you look closely, you can see a young Bruno.”
She’s fulsome in her praise of Elton. “He’s the most fascinating, talented, hard-working person you could ever meet. But, as the world knows, his moods can switch just like that. He’s so volatile.
“He can go from joy and pleasure to instant tantrums. And you never knew why. Was it something you said? In the end, you just have to ride out the sudden anger because, just as suddenly, he’ll switch back to being the lovely, generous man he is.”
Talking of flamboyant icons, what was it like working with Freddie Mercury?
“I’ll never forget our first meeting. I was summoned to a basement flat in Earl’s Court, the door opened by a hunky male in leather trousers and straps on his chest.
Freddie was the total professional, wanting to be involved in every detail of the video for I Was Born To Love You, shot in an empty Canary Wharf with 360 girl dancers and me on a megaphone. Freddie was speedy, wild, a powerhouse of energy, offand on-camera.”
And so the stories keep on coming. There was the time Simon Le Bon nearly drowned when, strapped to a windmill for a Duran Duran video, he was trapped under water in a pool at Pinewood.
Then there was Diana Ross. A diva? “Oh, a diva-and-a-half. Call me Miss Ross, all of that. But, although she was very cold at the beginning, she thawed. We were shooting Chain Reaction on a freezing night and she invited me to sit in her heated limousine.”
Tina Turner, by contrast, was lovely from the off. “We were making a video for Private Dancer in the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley and it was literally falling apart. But she happily sat on an upturned box.”
And she won’t hear one word against Cliff Richard. “We worked together on the West End musical, Time, and he is the perfect gentleman, endlessly positive.”
Arlene is inexhaustible. Astonishingly, she will celebrate her 78th birthday on Saturday and no, of course, she has no plans to retire. But she is trying to make more time for her two granddaughters, Lila who’s two, and Emme, five months.
She’s worked with more international stars than you could shake a stick at. If she had to pick one, who would top the charts?
“Whitney Houston. We first worked on the video for How Will I Know? She was very shy. But, when she sang, it was like being surrounded by moonbeams.
“She was exquisite, a beautiful butterfly and yet she confessed she was embarrassed about her feet which were very slim and Size 8. She didn’t want them filmed from the side.
“But, by the time I went to New York to work with her on I Wanna Dance With Somebody, she’d changed. She was bubbly and bright. It was as though she now believed in herself. “She’d embraced becoming a star. It was so tragic that the world lost her so young.”
And who’s been the most demanding? “Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s a total perfectionist. He chose me to choreograph Starlight Express and I was determined to live up to his expectations.
“He makes you raise your game. I’d do anything for that man.”
An Evening With Arlene Phillips, in conversation with LaVoix, Duchess Theatre, June 7. For more information, visit www.nimaxtheatres.com
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