Sunday, November 23, 2008
She’s a tough nut, that Arlene Phillips. As the whole audience rose to their feet at the end of John Sergeant’s last waltz on Saturday night, even fearsome Bruno and latex-faced Craig were smiling. However, the Queen of Mean sat there with lips tightly clenched.
Arlene has always been severe. Sarah Brightman once told me that she was frequently reduced her to tears when she was in Arlene’s group Hot Gossip. Phillips is the “Strictly” in Strictly Come Dancing, and I can assure you it’s no act.
I’ve known Arlene since the early 80’s when, hoping to spice up a dance series I was producing called The Hot Shoe Show, we hired her as a choreographer. There was some opposition to the appointment: this was a serious dance show for BBC1 viewers. Starring Wayne Sleep and Bonnie Langford, we’d managed to attract choreographic greats like Christopher Bruce from Rambert, Derek Deane from the Royal Ballet, and the musical theatre choreographer Anthony Van Laast (who went on to stage Joseph and Mamma Mia).
Some feared Arlene’s hip-thrusting style would be too lightweight for us, and her reputation for being a hard task-mistress was also a worry. However, she actually brought us variety, pace, and some really challenging work. But boy was she serious about her art, and her costumes used up all the red and black PVC in the BBC costume department. She was very into black and red. I once went to her house in Hampstead: the entire floor was “carpeted” in black rubber tiles. She’s not a woman to be messed with, Ms Phillips. In private, she’s actually very soft and friendly, but in the rehearsal room, she can be a tyrant.
It’s not surprising that the dance world is cut throat. You start (as Arlene did) at the age of 3 being dragged to ballet classes by your enthusiastic mother. Then, the better you do, the harder it gets. There’s no summit at the end: the more mastered your technique, the more a choreographer will feel inspired to test it. Pain and injuries, calluses and rejections – the life of a dancer is tougher than any sportsperson.
Despite being unable to put two feet together (my dancing would make Sergeant look like Nijinsky), it was a privilege for me to work as a director with some great choreographers and dancers during the 80s. Spending months with David Bintley creating the film Hobson’s Choice with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, or directing some of Frederick Ashton’s short pieces with Sleep and his troupe, gave me an insight into contemporary dance and ballet which grew to a lifelong passion. I remember the excitement in 1987 when I first saw, and filmed, Matthew Bourne’s nascent company Adventures in Motion Pictures.
However, my enthusiasm for dance has never extended to the ballroom, so I don’t agree with Arlene that Strictly is “all about the dance”. For me, ballroom dancing is all about ludicrous posing and flesh hanging out of skimpy costumes, and an audience waiting to applaud some bit of technical competence they recognise, like in figure skating (another form of dance which leaves me cold). Sergeant’s stiff perambulations around his blond partner have been a ray of sunshine for viewers in the relentless storm of bad news. Frankly, I’m glad he spent his rehearsals reading The Guardian; none of us really wanted him to rise above Level One or it might have spoiled the fun. Arlene’s sense of humour failure simply ensured that the no-hoper became a hero.
Her black mood was understandable: her Britannia High show on ITV is now viewed by only a couple of million diehards, yet on Saturday 12 million sat through the “proper” dancing waiting for Sergeant’s finale. I wonder how many will stay for the rest of the series, now that the real star has quit. Saturday nights will be colder and darker without him.