Interview: Arlene Phillips

Dancer with some good moves still left to make.


By Lynne Franks, October 19, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter

Lynne franks: You grew up in Manchester in what was quite a Jewish home, didn't you?

Arlene Phillips: We actually were a religious family. We were a huge extended family because my mother was one of 11 children. Her parents were immigrants - Polish, Russian. We were all very close and I had lots of cousins who were even more observant than we were. But when my mother became ill and passed away, everything seemed to go. I realised she was the matriarch, the one that held all that together for us. My sister has continued and is very much more traditionally Jewish than I am. But it just seemed to fall apart.

LF: You came to London, to pursue your ambition to become a dancer, after your mother passed away?

AP: Not immediately. I studied dance in Manchester first because obviously we wanted the family to stay together and support each other. My sister was 13 and my brother was 17. I was in the middle. So we stayed together. We took care of my father who wasn't a well man at all. The shock of it, from finding out she was ill and three months later to her dying, was nothing that any of us could cope with. I didn't come to London actually until I was almost 23 and came for a one-week dance course.

My ballet teacher from Manchester had sent me to the newly opened Dance Centre in Covent Garden where people could go and just pay for a class. It was absolutely a new idea. I did a ballet class in the morning, a different class in the afternoon and one in the evening. There was a teacher called Molly Molloy teaching American jazz and I looked at this way of moving, which was based on a technique in America, and fell in love and that was that. I never went home. I said to my family: "You are big enough and old enough to take care of yourself. I have to do this". I had no money, nowhere to stay, and then Molly said: "I have got a good friend called Ridley Scott [the film director] and he is looking for someone who will do a bit of housekeeping or take care of his kids for a place to stay".

LF: How amazing. Do you think there is something about being in the right place at the right time, some kind of synchronicity that goes beyond coincidence?

Snapshot

Born: Manchester, April 1943 into a traditional Jewish family
Career: Choreographed films and many stage musicals. Gained national fame in the 1970s as the leader of dance troupe Hot Gossip. Became nationally famous again in the last decade as a judge of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing.
Personal life: Partner is set designer Angus Ion. Two daughters

AP: Lynne, my life has been full of synchronicity. So many times, a meeting or a remark to someone that has stuck in their minds, has changed the course of my life radically, and so radically that there has to be something greater than just coincidence.

LF: I read somewhere that it was Ridley Scott who got you to do your first choreography because you were living there and he said: "You are a dancer, aren't you? Why you don't do this commercial I'm directing?"

AP: Yes, it was a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial and it went very well, but it was only a milkmaid and a dancing cow. The next commercial was for Dr Pepper to be shown in America. Ridley said: "You can do it, can't you?" I said: "I suppose so" only to discover that it was 42 dancers and on the Bond stage at Pinewood Studios. It was massive, with all the American executives there.

LF: And how long had you been in London at that point?

AP: Probably four years, struggling, selling overcoats in a department store, doing the worst jobs in the world. It was really hand-to-mouth. I was starting to teach dance classes, so making a bit of money from that. Ridley called me up and he said: "Look, the American producer wants to talk to you because the only thing you have done is one commercial and they have had a very successful choreographer doing all the Dr Pepper commercials for years, but I want you". I was thinking: "What am I going to say? What am I going to say?"

I was teaching a class and it was the first warm-up exercise, which was done to Pachelbel's Canon. The producer rings up and says: " Ridley Scott wants you to choreograph these commercials. What experience do you have?" I said: "I have choreographed a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial but I have choreographed an enormous amount of dance in my classes". And she goes: "Are you in class now?" and I said: "Yes". She said: "What is that music in the background?" I told her what it was and I said: "That is my favourite piece of music. I listen to it all the time", and she said: "So do I. It is my favourite piece of music. You have got the job", and put the phone down. But not only that, she then became one of my closest friends.

I was then asked to choreograph in America a film called Can't Stop the Music by Allan Carr, the producer of Grease. I had only just discovered I was pregnant with my daughter Alana. That was it. My life was over. I couldn't go to Hollywood because I was having a baby and I wanted a baby more than anything. I called Linda, my producer friend, and she said: "In America, you can have what you want. If you've signed a contract no one can stop you. Get on the phone, talk to the producer. Tell him when the baby is going to be due and just say you need some time off". So I plucked up the courage to call him and say I needed some time off. He said: "Sure, tell me what you need".

LF: So it started with an ice cream advert and ended up with you doing a movie, and you choreographed Starlight Express for Andrew Lloyd Webber, too. But, there was something else in-between, wasn't there?

AP: Hot Gossip.

LF: Your dance troupe - it was a huge success in the late '70s and '80s. They were like pop stars. .

AP: Yes, they couldn't go anywhere. They were on the front pages of the papers all the time.

We toured constantly. We did the Kenny Everett show, and every other show. I don't know why I called them "Arlene Phillips's Hot Gossip". I didn't even think about it at the time. It was just the way the name was written. And that's how my name became known. I was asked to be on every TV show, commenting on something. People always used to ask me "What makes a celebrity?" and I used to say: "Being asked to comment mostly on things you know nothing about".

LF: Have you enjoyed it, all the celebrity stuff?

AP: I have really, really loved it. But you have to stay grounded and that's the hardest thing.

LF: How did you manage that?

AP: I think I stay grounded partly because of my age, partly because of when it was Hot Gossip it was such a shared thing - it wasn't just me. But it was so funny how serious I was at the time. I remember having a meeting with a product company who wanted to do Hot Gossip lingerie and Hot Gossip lunch-boxes. I was thinking: "I don't want this…" I thought: "We are not a product. We are dancers". But attitudes changed later with the Spice Girls and Pop Idol. If we had had that success today I would have said: "Put Hot Gossip everywhere".

LF: You have got products now. You have got jewellery and lingerie.

AP: And clothes and make-up, books. I want to do all of that and reach the people who are my audience. I know I am reaching women of a certain age, so I'm content to be a voice for them.

LF: And do you see yourself still as a choreographer first and foremost?

AP: I have always seen myself as a choreographer first and foremost.

LF: Moving on to Strictly Come Dancing, many people were very angry that you weren't on it any more [Phillips was replaced as a judge in 2009 amid allegations that she was the victim of age discrimination by the BBC]. I remember a comment you made about your sister saying your name was now "Arlene Phillips 66" because your age always followed your name when you were written about.

AP: It is very strange, I suppose. I guess this is the first year I have ever even thought about it. Michael Summerton, who had been my agent for 30 years, passed away the day before I found out I was no longer on the show. My grief for him was so big that my silence [about being removed from Strictly] was based on that. At the time, people were coming up to me and hugging me in the street and there were these huge outpourings.

LF: How would you like to go forward now? You have just been working Loose Women and on the musical, The Wizard of Oz. If it was a choice between TV and choreography, what would you decide?

AP: Well, at the moment I am doing quite a lot of charity work and I am really loving that. I am trying to use some of the profile I've gained from the Strictly thing, by putting it to good use, to speak out. I've recently hosted the annual awards for Sense, which supports death/blind people. I also do a lot for Alzheimer's because my father had dementia.

The scary thing is how quickly everyone's star fades. Therefore, to be a voice, you need to do television. You need to stay in the public eye for the public to care about you, to be a big enough voice to help where it is needed.

But I do know that, if I do get a television programme, I want it to be something I am passionate about. I think that is what I really do need to think about. I was passionate about Strictly. I was passionate about it in every way, but the one thing that I always felt I did was give good advice as to how the contestants could improve. I had people going off to ballet classes and doing Pilates and seeing Paul McKenna… I would love to do a television show but I want to find something I am passionate about and I don't think I have.

LF: To bring it full circle, do you still feel connected to your Jewishness? Do you ever go to synagogue?

AP: I do sometimes. I go with friends but not as much as I used to do. I would say it has diminished. I feel like I am my own best guide. Whatever is going on in my life, I am always helping people, not analysing them. People always come to me for advice, from young friends of my daughters, right across the age range. My girls laugh because their friends always want to come and see me.

LF: Did you think you would still be working as much as you are at this age?

AP: I just feel the same as when I was younger. I feel like I can do anything.

Arlene Phillips's latest book, 'Dance to the Musicals: the Fun Way to Fitness', is published on November 3 by Kyle Books. For details of Lynne Franks's women's retreats, visit 'www.lynnefranks.com'

    Last updated: 10:26am, October 19 2011