Arlene Phillips has had a hand - or rather foot - in some of the country's biggest stage musicals. Annie Roberts spoke to the Strictly Come Dancing lady who has all the right moves.
From Grease and Starlight Express to We Will Rock You, choreographer Arlene Phillips has had an inspirational hand, or should that be foot, in each theatrical success.
Dressed all in black and a way of walking that only dancers seem to master – elegant and precise – face-to-face Arlene Phillips shows any of the sternest that has ensured her place in Saturday night television history.
The only female on the judging panel of Strictly Come Dancing has earned a reputation for a stern tongue and admits she is no sufferer of fools.
But away from the spotlight, Arlene shows a more relaxed side of her character and chuckles at the thought of scaring people.
“I suppose I can scare people, especially when I am rehearsing but I don’t really think about it,” admits Arlene, with a shrewd smile.
Undoubtedly the current cast in We Will Rock You will have experienced first hand just how scary Arlene can become when the pressure is on in rehearsals. After the press briefing Arlene was heading for the Dominion Theatre, just a stone’s throw away in London’s theatre land, where We Will Rock You is in its seventh season.
“I like to take a look at rehearsals and ensure they are working hard,” admits Arlene.
“I like to sneak in first and make sure they are giving out full out performances. This is particularly important when a company is coming to the end of a one year contract – make sure they are delivering in week 49, just like they were doing in week one.”
Arlene cherishes this opportunity to be hands on and has clearly built up a friendship with Ben Elton, the satirical stand up comedian who wrote and still directs the show now in its seventh year at the theatre.
Arlene says: “It is such a fantastic show, as soon as I heard it was happening I knew I wanted to get involved.”
The show, which has summer dates at the Birmingham Hippodrome, is set in the future with youths battling to find their music and lives in the face of over-bearing corporations. Queen songs from We Are the Champions and Another One Bites the Dust to the iconic Bohemian Rhapsody ensure the show is upbeat and rocks the theatre – literally.
The fast moving plot, interwoven with Queen’s hits, would be demanding on any professional dancer but Arlene cuts no corners and plays an active role in the casting, working alongside Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor.
“I always look for strong dancers while Brian (May) listens to their voice. We can cross swords but in the end we know that the dancers need to be able to sing and vice versa. You can look for someone with a strong voice but if they can’t dance it can get tricky.”
The show has found an audience across the globe from south Africa to Japan, Australia and Spain. Sell out audiences in London mean the already written sequel is still on hold and Arlene believes there is still plenty of steam left in the project.
Not that she relies simply on We Will Rock You to keep her in touch with the spotlight.
The latest series of Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC’s unexpected Saturday night hit, has just started its sixth series and Arlene will once again be in the judging hotseat.
Arlene is suitably diplomatic about who she fancies to be the next champion, only admitting that with weeks to go before the live shows she is not yet had a chance to take a look at all the contestants
“We will have to wait to see who is doing well,” says Arlene.
She adds: “There is no question that Strictly Come Dancing has got the nation off their bums and on to their feet and into all kinds of dance. It has been a revolution and I’m delighted.”
Arlene gracefully accepts that she has been one of the key people spearheading the revolution but then she is no stranger to rocking the boat when it comes to dance.
Children of the late 1970s will recall the first time they saw Arlene’s troupe, Hot Gossip, gyrating on the Kenny Everett Show. It was a revelation and Arlene accepts changed the way people saw dance – a generation could even forgive her for letting loose on an unsuspecting audience the jangly I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper, sung by Andrew Lloyd Webber favourite Sarah Brightman.
Since those day-glow times Arlene has found a niche at the top of the dancing podium.
Her choreography work has enabled her to work with greats from The Bee Gees to Elton John and Whitney Houston. In spite of such a varied career Arlene still remembers special moments like the first time she worked with Freddie Mercury, who died before the curtain first went up on the musical.
His family have been supportive of the show and a letter from his mother, sent after opening night, takes pride of place at the theatre. Arlene recalls: “I worked with Freddie when I was working on his video, I Was Born to Love You. It was a huge affair – there were 350 dancers and it was in Canary Wharf, long before the big buildings had gone up. He (Freddie) was the most extravagant, extraordinary human being.”
When she got the call to work on We Will Rock You there was no holding her back.
“I had no reservations – just working with the music of Queen is fantastic. I love it, from the ballads to the rock,” she says.
The national tour starts in Manchester, Arlene’s home city and she believes audiences will love the musical’s vitality.
While Ben Elton continues to update the script, Arlene admits she cannot resist adding fresh moves into the show – this is one choreographer who likes to keep everyone on their toes.
“I can’t help myself.”
When it comes to dancing Arlene is strictly the leading diva.
* We Will Rock You runs at Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday, July 1st to Saturday, September 5th. Ticket sales: 0844 338 5000 and at www.birminghamhippodrome.com