Arlene Phillips : Super trouper

She has been involved with many of the biggest musicals; now, she's directing Starlight Express. But as Arlene Phillips tells James Rampton, she owes it all to Mary Whitehouse
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The Independent Culture

Arlene Phillips says she owes her entire career to Mary Whitehouse. Until the late 1970s, the choreographer, now in her 60th year, was barely a household name in her own household. All that changed in 1978, when her dance troupe, Hot Gossip, started performing the most outrageously sexy routines on The Kenny Everett Video Show. Their unambiguously erotic gyrating soon got clean-up-television campaigners hot under the collar.

Arlene Phillips says she owes her entire career to Mary Whitehouse. Until the late 1970s, the choreographer, now in her 60th year, was barely a household name in her own household. All that changed in 1978, when her dance troupe, Hot Gossip, started performing the most outrageously sexy routines on The Kenny Everett Video Show. Their unambiguously erotic gyrating soon got clean-up-television campaigners hot under the collar.

Phillips takes up the story. "We did a dance to Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side' that went out at 6.15pm, and Mary Whitehouse famously complained that it was too sexy for teatime television. What was my response to her complaint? 'Thank you very much - we've made the front page of all the papers'. Before that, we were an obscure dance group. One moment, we were spectacularly unsuccessful; the next, Mary Whitehouse made a complaint about us and journalists were camping outside our door - we couldn't do enough press. It was an instant success that turned my life around."

The eternally mischievous Everett, of course, revelled in the hoo-ha. "He called us The Naughty Bits," Phillips recalls with a fond laugh. "He encouraged us. As far as he was concerned, it was a case of 'the naughtier, the better'. He wanted it to be sexier - we couldn't do enough." Money can't buy you that sort of publicity. On the back of the furore, Hot Gossip went on to record a hit single, "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper" and attract the attention of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And from that moment, Phillips has never looked back.

Over the past two decades, she has established herself as perhaps the premier choreographer in British musical theatre. She has choreographed or directed shows as diverse as Saturday Night Fever, We Will Rock You, Grease, Lord of the Dance, Matador, Time and A Clockwork Orange. Her skills have been in demand for such events as the Brit awards, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and Donna Summer in concert. Having choreographed more than 100 TV commercials and music videos for the likes of Robbie Williams, George Michael, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Queen, Cliff Richard and Tina Turner, she is now working once again with Lloyd Webber, directing a touring version of Starlight Express.

Small and lithe, and encased in a knee-length black cardigan, Phillips looks completely at home among the absurdly athletic performers rehearsing for Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe's durable "roller-skating" musical about a station full of different trains preparing for an epic race - which hit the buffers two years ago after an 18-year run in the West End. She doesn't bat an eyelid as, all around her, impossibly fit young singers and dancers warm up by casually doing the splits and pirouetting on the spot a dozen times. Did I mention that they're doing all this in roller skates? To underline their all-round athleticism, six cast-members spend their entire lunch break jogging on the spot in a circle and performing the sort of extended keepy-uppy routines that many a Premiership footballer would envy.

During a full run-through on a custom-built set in an east London warehouse, the director-choreographer leans forward intently, smiling beatifically and tapping her foot along to the energetic work of the rehearsal pianist. Occasionally, she sends an assistant across the shiny warehouse floor to give an individual cast-member a discreet note. In a splendid show of solidarity with the cast, the assistant is also wearing roller skates (it doesn't half help him traverse the rehearsal space swiftly, either). Phillips is clearly in her element.

At the end of the morning's work, we retire for our interview to a spartan, formica-clad ante-room - no frills here. Plonking herself down on a decidedly unglamorous plastic chair and wrapping the cardigan even more tightly around herself to ward off the cold, Phillips starts by declaring herself an "evangelist" about dance. "People frequently ask, 'Why do we need choreography?'" she sighs. "Very often, in plays with music, choreography is considered the last element that's needed. People think it just happens, but it's absolutely key to a show like Starlight Express because dance speaks a universal language. You can express so much in dance without having to use the spoken word."

But isn't dance just a fancy way of conveying sexuality on stage? Isn't all that cavorting around in couples just thinly veiled erotic code? Far from it, says Phillips. "Dance is not just about sex," she asserts in a "how could you be so shallow?" tone. "Admittedly, sometimes people think that's all my choreography is about, but all human emotions - tragedy, comedy and drama - can be expressed by the most apparently insignificant dance step on stage. Look at the work of Matthew Bourne - he manages to express every emotion there is through movement. He completely tells the story through dance."

Herein lies the significance of dance - it helps to further and enrich the drama. "It has to work for the book," continues Phillips, who was brought up in Manchester and has two daughters. "It can't just be a case of, 'Oh, let's throw in another dance number here'. When it helps the story along, it's absolutely invaluable." Audiences, she reckons, get a particular buzz from watching dance. "Everyone can speak, so however challenging and brilliant the actors in a play are, it's not that great a leap for people to see them doing it," she says. "In the same way, everyone has some sort of singing voice. But people love choreography because they watch people dance and think, 'I could never possibly do that without a lifetime of training' - particularly on roller skates."

Starlight Express, despite being seen by eight million people and taking an eye-watering £140 million at the West End box office, has not been without its critics. The London Evening Standard once described it as a "fun if utterly brainless musical for trainspotters". In particular, it has been suggested that the whizz-bang pyrotechnics of the show obscure the storytelling - as the 29 dancers of the company glide around the auditorium like so many Torvill and Deans, narrowly avoiding major pile-ups, the skating certainly takes the breath away. But Phillips is quick to rebut that accusation. "The heart of the show is always clear," she contends. "The stunt-skating is thrilling and fashionable - it really reaches out to the MTV audience. But for all that, the technology is only used to enhance rather than take over the story. Starlight Express is a story that appeals to everyone from four to 84. It champions the underdog, who wins in the end - and that's a story dear to everyone's heart."

As you might expect, the choreographer is keen to leap to the defence of Lloyd Webber, a colleague for the past 20 years, who, she believes, has not always been justly treated by the press. "There is a time for everything," Phillips maintains, "and when Andrew wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita and Starlight Express, they were extraordinary, groundbreaking musicals. The shows that followed were as interesting, but they weren't as flashy. But you don't get the chance to do something smaller - the critics won't let you. They want something equally flashy. So, if you create something from the heart, you almost don't get fair criticism. You're scrutinised and asked, 'Can this match up? Is it groundbreaking?' I think Andrew gets criticised because people want continual extravagance, and I don't think that's fair."

Phillips goes on to argue: "If today's musicals are being revived in 100 years' time, they won't bother with a whole lot of other shows, but Andrew's will definitely be seen again. His smaller musicals will have a rebirth - in certain quarters, they've been seriously underrated."

As if she wasn't busy enough already, Phillips has been overseeing global versions of Saturday Night Fever and We Will Rock You. "I've just come back from preparing the production of We Will Rock You in Las Vegas," she says, breathlessly. "It also opens in Moscow tonight and Cologne in December. Next year, it will be opening in Japan and Canada, as well as going on a US tour." Does this woman never sleep? She clearly doesn't need to. She is fuelled by a sheer love of what she does. "I still possess the same passion as ever," she enthuses. "It never fades. When I hear music, I just want to dance to it. I only wish my body still worked in the way that it used to. I think it does, so I'll get up and dance to demonstrate a routine. But then I'll see the look on other people's faces and think, 'My body is not doing what my mind is telling it to'."

Phillips has recently become known to a mainstream TV audience as one of the judges on BBC1's surprise-hit reality-TV show Strictly Come Dancing. Was she worried that it might prove tacky, like some of the other products that have recently plopped off the end of the seemingly inexhaustible conveyor belt of television talent shows? "No, I had no doubts beforehand," Phillips says. "I didn't think the programme would cheapen dance. I knew it was designed to encourage the contestants and not to take the mick out of them. If the aim had been to laugh at people, I wouldn't have taken part. But this was a serious challenge which underlined to the audience just how difficult ballroom dancing is. These phenomenal people demonstrated that dance is the study of a lifetime. Viewers enjoyed watching the competitors work hard and progress."

So, whatever Mary Whitehouse would have had us believe, there is more to the art of dance than writhing around provocatively wearing little more than a come-hither smile. "As Strictly Come Dancing shows," Phillips concludes, "dance really is a business of blood, sweat and tears."

'Starlight Express': Opera House, Manchester (0870 401 9000; to 4 December; Empire, Sunderland (from 8 Dec); Hippodrome, Bristol (from 26 Jan); New Theatre, Oxford (from 9 Mar); Playhouse, Edinburgh (from 30 Mar); Mayflower, Southampton (from 11 May); Empire, Liverpool (from 22 June)