ARLENE Phillips is no stranger to the stage. Having begun her career as a choreographer she has directed, devised and choreographed countless hit shows not to mention having sat on the original judging panel for the BBC TV show Strictly Come Dancing.
But now she has decided to step out from the shadows and into the spotlight in her pantomime debut at the New Wimbledon Theatre.
I caught up with Arlene as she started rehearsals for the show, Dick Whittington, which opens on Friday, December 9, and in which she plays Fairy Bowbells.
“I’ve been asked to do panto every year for ages,” she laughs when I ask why she’s finally decided to take the plunge.
“I’ve always said no in the past because I work on the other side of the stage, shouting out to people and telling them what to do.
“But earlier this year I thought I should do things I’d never done before. I ended up working with Candoco Dance Company, a contemporary dance company of able and disabled dancers. It was different to what I normally do and I loved every second of it.
“It was a great experience so when this came up I thought it was something different again and I thought I would take that challenge and see what it was like being on the other side of the stage.
“Also when I was young we didn’t really go to a lot of theatre. We went to the panto a couple of times and occasionally we went to see a musical but it wasn’t such a big thing for us as we didn’t have a great deal of money growing up to spend on theatre. It was mainly films we went to see.
“But panto is such a tradition in this country, it’s a very British thing so I thought I should give it a try. Besides, I know the New Wimbledon Theatre very well and just about every show I’ve ever done has been there. It’s a beautiful venue, I know all the dressing rooms, it’s very comfortable and I love it there.
“So here I am!”
Arlene plays Fairy Bowbells alongside Matthew Kelly as the Dame and Tim Vine as Idle Jack and she tells me her character is very different to anything she’s done before and as a result she admits to a few nerves.
“It’s very unusual for me to be asked to play a fairy as I’m so un-fairy like,” she laughs. “Normally I shout a lot and am quite exuberant whereas fairies tend to be delicate creatures and etherial, so it really will be a challenge.
“But then why not? I think it’s great! Besides I get to wear a beautiful dress which will transform me. It’s a big pinky red merengue creation with glitter and sparkle and I have a big fairy wand.
“I’m nervous of course but I’m actually really excited as it’s so far removed from my comfort zone. Should I be a feisty fairy or gentle - when gentle doesn’t come so easily to me?
“I’m going to have to try and imagine how I would speak to my children if they needed comfort when I’m trying to comfort Dick Whittington and his lovely lady.
“I think as long as the words are said with the right sentiment our director is all about making the character our own so I think she’s going to be tough and boisterous.”
Hearing all this tough talk is a surprise because Arlene comes across as both gentle and warm although I detect a steely determination and a rock solid work ethic, something which has seen her rise to the top of the tree in her chosen career.
Indeed, her career is the stuff of legend. She had hoped originally to become a dancer but when she was 15 her mother died and she says she wanted to stay at home to look after her brother and sister.
She became a dance teacher in Manchester teaching all genres of dance and when she was 22 moved to London.
“I was like Dick Whittington,” she says warmly. “I felt London’s streets must be paved with gold so I decided to come and find out. I was lucky though because I got a job with Ridley Scott who wasn’t well known then. He needed someone to take care of his younger son who was a baby at the time. I helped him and then he asked me to choreograph a TV commercial.”
That led to Arlene teaching dance classes which in turn led to the formation of the famous dance group Hot Gossip and the rest as they say is history. Initially they performed at a London nightclub but were then spotted by TV producer David Mallet and soon they were a regular feature on the Kenny Everett Video Show in the 1970s. With their risqué costumes and saucy dance routines they helped ensure Arlene’s superstar status as a choreographer.
After the success of Hot Gossip Arlene’s future was assured and she has rarely been out of work since. Indeed in the years following there aren’t many in the business who she hasn’t worked with and looking at her CV, her extensive body of work on both stage and screen is impressive by anyone’s standards. Her canon of work includes films such as Monty Python The Meaning of Life and Annie, as well as musicals such as The Sound Of Music, Grease, We Will Rock You and Flashdance.
As if that wasn’t enough in the 1980s she became the choreographer of choice for the pop stars of the day and found herself working on music videos for the likes of The Bee Gees, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Elton John, Freddie Mercury and George Michael to name but a few.
In 2004 she was given one of the judging roles on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing Show and although she departed in 2009 after a shake up of the programme, there are hints she could return once head judge Len Goodman retires from the hot seat after this current series - although she remains tight lipped about this when I broach the subject.
And in recognition of her services to dance she was awarded an OBE in the 2002 New Year’s Honour’s and a CBE in 2013.
Just looking at her body of work is exhausting but Arlene is nothing if not enthusiastic and fizzing with the energy of an 18 year old and charming to boot.
“I’ve been really lucky and had the most amazing experiences throughout my working life,” she says.
“I’ve done so much, musicals, films, TV and theatre and life couldn’t be better.”
And she tells me she’s enjoying the rehearsal process and working with co stars Tim Vine and Matthew Kelly although she’s steering clear of adding choreographer to her list of credits in the show.
“Panto is quite strict and requires a lot of energy,” she says warmly. “You think it’s going to be a good laugh and a bit improvisational but actually it’s really tightly scripted.
“We’ve just started rehearsals and I’m loving it - I’ve learned my first dance already as well as most of the scenes in Act One.
“It’s hilarious working with Tim and Matthew though. When I found out they were in it I breathed a sigh of relief because they know everything about panto so I’m in very safe hands. Tim is so quick and there is nothing he’s not got an answer for. They are both so kind and lovely so it’s great to be part of this show.
“It’s also nice to work with our choreographer who I first met when he was a dancer in We Will Rock You, although it’s a challenge to listen to what I’m being told to do rather than do it myself!
“But I can’t wait now to get out there - I’m so excited!”
Dick Whittington is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Broadway, Wimbledon between Friday, December 9th and Sunday, January 15th, 2017. Visit www.atgtickets.com/newwimbledontheatre or call the box office on 0844 871 7646 for full listings.