Arlene Phillips doesn’t feel like a Dame. She was informed a few weeks ago she was to receive a DBE in the Queen‘s Birthday Honours. When she shared her secret with her elder daughter Alana, she cried. Her younger daughter Abigail shrieked but Arlene is still part overjoyed and part disbelieving.
‘My PA, Roxie, called and said, ‘I thought I’d come over to the house tonight.’ I said, ‘OK, why not have some supper?’ So, we were chatting away and then, at the end of the meal, she said, ‘By the way, I’ve got some notes for you.’
‘She handed me this letter. It said, ‘From the Cabinet Office.’ My jaw dropped and my eyes welled up. I couldn’t believe it. I was reading and re-reading the first few sentences. I really never expected it. I’m just so honoured and so thrilled.’
Arlene gets emotional now as she talks about it. Her eyes fill with tears. Her voice wobbles.
‘You never imagine it happening and then my reaction, instantly, seeing something like that. I just wonder what Mum and Dad would think.’
Arlene Phillips doesn’t feel like a Dame. She was informed a few weeks ago she was to receive a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. When she shared her secret with her elder daughter Alana, she cried. Her younger daughter Abigail shrieked but Arlene is still part overjoyed and part disbelieving
Both her parents are long since dead, her mother from leukaemia when Arlene was just 15 years old and her father Abraham in 2000 following a desperately sad battle of more than a decade with Alzheimer’s.
‘It’s so unexpected from my background. I came from a place that no longer exists (a poverty-stricken suburb of Manchester). A little street with bombed out areas at both ends of the street.
‘The few houses were two-up and two-down. Toilets outside — just generalised poverty. People didn’t have money. If I had holes in my shoes, I’d pop newspaper inside so I could wear them for as long as possible.
‘I feel like a damehood doesn’t happen to people from my background. I just feel all kind of wrong for something like this. It’s hard to think ‘that’s me’. I feel like, now, there are two people in this room. There’s me and then there’s a Dame.’
She pulls herself up in her chair at a table in an outdoor café next to Southwark’s Union Theatre where she’s rehearsing with some ‘amazing kids’ for the musical Hair In Concert showing at the London Palladium tomorrow night.
Her arms flow from port de bras to first position to second position as she talks. Arlene is never still. Her face breaks into a truly joyful smile as she plays with the word Dame. Will she expect the high-spirited performers — who chatter away in the glorious sunshine on a nearby table — to refer to her by her honorary title?
For many years, Dame Arlene Phillips, now 78, was referred to as ‘Arlene-Phillips-66’ after she was booted off Strictly Come Dancing’s judging panel in 2009 and replaced by Alesha Dixon who was 35 years her junior. (Above, Arlene winning a TV award in 2008 with Strictly’s Alesha Dixon, Tess Daly and Craig Revel Horwood)
‘Never,’ she says. Will anyone be expected to? She shakes her head. Not even Jay Hunt, the former controller of BBC1, now creative director of Apple? Arlene sparkles.
For many years, Dame Arlene Phillips, now 78, was referred to as ‘Arlene-Phillips-66’ after she was booted off Strictly Come Dancing’s judging panel in 2009 and replaced by Alesha Dixon who was 35 years her junior.
Such was our fondness for this revered choreographer that the BBC received more than 1,350 complaints, mostly accusations of ageism, and Arlene emerged as a reluctant poster girl for the wronged older woman.
Even the late, dear Sir Bruce Forsyth said she should never have been sacked. Ms Hunt was at the helm of BBC1 at the time.
It was, Arlene concedes, a desperately low time, particularly given that her manager and dear friend of many years, Michael Summerton, had just died from cancer. The BBC treated her shockingly.
‘There was a phone call from [BBC Radio] 5 Live at 7.05am. I picked up the phone thinking it must be something to do with Michael. But no, it was 5 Live saying do I want to talk about Alesha Dixon taking over from me on Strictly. In shock and trying to compute, I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, I have a bereavement,’ and put the phone down. I knew nothing about it until then.
‘I got up, opened the blind and my whole street was flooded with reporters. Reporters, cars — it was like a crime scene outside my house. The BBC must have known it had been leaked. Somebody should have been round to my house but I didn’t talk to anyone from the BBC until almost 1pm. They just said, ‘Put up a notice on the door to tell the reporters they’re trespassing.’ ‘
Arlene, for all her sparky spunkiness, is a deeply feeling woman. She looks pained as she recalls the BBC’s ‘unacceptable behaviour’ (her words) now.
‘My manager had just passed away so I had no ally, no one to talk to. I was grieving so I didn’t fight — not that it wasn’t going to happen anyway. I felt I didn’t have the strength to stand up to say, ‘I understand but I would like the reasons.’
Facts like ‘we need change’ or ‘we don’t think your performance fits in with the other boys’. If it wasn’t that, what was it?
‘Why didn’t anyone tell me? There was nothing — just that phone call from the radio at the crack of dawn.’
Arlene contacted a friend who was an agent, who spoke to the BBC on her behalf.
Above, Arlene leads a health campaign in 1983. Right now, Arlene is working on four productions — What’s New Pussycat? with the songs of Tom Jones, Hair at the London Palladium, Grease The Musical with Peter Andre, as well as The Cher Show
‘There were all kinds of there and back conversations. The BBC said they might have five judges and that nothing had been signed.
‘I don’t think there were really any answers. I wasn’t in a fit state to even try to understand it. I was just all over the place and trying to arrange a funeral.
‘But I don’t want to open old wounds. I love the programme. I love the dancers on the programme. I’m proud I was there.’
Her arms have continued to flutter like a prima ballerina’s throughout this revelation. Dance is part of Arlene’s DNA. It is, she says, her ‘passion’.
‘I quickly had to pick myself up again because I had to be in a rehearsal room for The Sound Of Music tour with Connie Fisher. You have to deliver. You have to step above your personal sorrow and get on with the job.
‘I put it aside because you have to get on with life. I found that when my mother died. There was nothing I could do that would bring her back. The pain was my pain. I felt that pain again mourning Michael. I needed to step out of it. Dance has always been my salvation.’
Right now, Arlene is working on four productions — What’s New Pussycat? with the songs of Tom Jones, Hair at the London Palladium, Grease The Musical with Peter Andre, as well as The Cher Show.
She has four notebooks, one for each, and a brain that’s in overdrive. The thought that Prime Minister Boris Johnson might delay Freedom Day and the opening of our theatres on June 21 is ‘unthinkable’.
So much so that she says if there isn’t a jolly good reason for doing so she will walk beside her long-time friend and ‘hero’ Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has said he will open his theatres come what may and risk arrest.
‘Yesterday I got on to a packed, crowded Tube train and was almost in tears at the number of people not wearing masks,’ she says. ‘When I say packed I mean packed. There was no breathing room. I had my head buried in a corner. Tell me how that is safer than sitting in a theatre?
‘If there isn’t a good enough answer I’ll join Andrew and walk with him to prison. I don’t get it any more. I feel like we’re being led a merry dance but we’re not joining in and dancing. Everyone I know has been living for theatre day.
Arlene has four notebooks, one for each, and a brain that’s in overdrive. The thought that Prime Minister Boris Johnson might delay Freedom Day and the opening of our theatres on June 21 is ‘unthinkable’. So much so that she says if there isn’t a jolly good reason for doing so she will walk beside her long-time friend and ‘hero’ Andrew Lloyd Webber (above together), who has said he will open his theatres come what may and risk arrest
‘There’s a life-giving force when people go to see a show and it inspires them. That final moment when you stand and applaud — every part of your body feels alive. This is something that is vital to us as human beings. To have it cut off is really hard on the soul.’
Arlene’s soul has been overflowing with music and dance for as long as she can remember.
It keeps her looking a good few decades younger than her 78 years, so much so that when she walks to our table she still turns heads.
‘I’ve also had a little Botox and fillers,’ she says with a new-found candour that seems to go hand in hand with the honorary title she can’t get used to.
‘I absolutely want to do a facelift but there are two reasons I haven’t: one, I don’t like pain in any form and, two, while wanting to look kind of young I don’t want to pretend I’m younger than I am.
‘In spirit I’m not pretending. In spirit I am a younger woman. In spirit I think I can do anything. In spirit I love being surrounded by the young people I’m surrounded with.’ She nods to the table of lively singers.
In truth, Arlene, who is now a grandmother to two-and-a-half year-old Lila Primrose and six-month-old Emme Bow, is more at home with these vibrant young things than her fellow septuagenarians.
She celebrates the freedom today’s youth have ‘to be who they are and to be who they want to be.
‘I’ve always been searching for what goes on in the world that you can make mainstream and open people’s minds through dance,’ says Arlene who broke the mould when she founded the risqué, diverse hit dance group Hot Gossip in 1974.
‘I will never forget arriving in London in my early 20s, walking down the King’s Road, looking at the world around me and thinking, ‘This is the new world. This is a world of adventure. This is a world that’s changing.’
‘It was the 1960s. There was Biba, Mary Quant, open cars with glamorous young guys. Then I started clubbing in the early 1970s in clubs with pop stars and where the music, rhythm and drive of life was very different to the pretty kind of seaside specials dance that was on television.
‘I wanted to capture this outside world that young people were living and bring it to our television. It wasn’t about my own sexual liberation. It was about what I saw and what I could make of it. It was a creative thing.’
Arlene was married at the time to her first husband, fashion designer Danny Noble. The relationship foundered after seven years because, she always thought, of her drive to create.
‘I was building Hot Gossip and so much went into my work that I didn’t take enough time or care over my marriage,’ she says.
‘Hot Gossip was about women empowering themselves. If they wanted to be sexy, they could be sexy.
‘Now, young people live in a world where they can change who they are daily and it doesn’t matter. It’s just about enjoying who you are. It wasn’t always so. There were terrible, terrible times.’
During lockdown, which she found tough ‘because everything stopped’, Arlene watched It’s A Sin [the critically acclaimed TV series by Russell T. Davies about the Aids epidemic].
‘It brought back memories that I’d buried away and couldn’t bring out because of the hurt and the loss. There were so many friends who died, here, in Germany, in New York, in Los Angeles. It was just endless, endless.
‘I lost one of the dearest loves of my life to Aids — a beautiful French dancer called Alain Deshayes who I will never lose from my heart.
‘I was teaching my little jazz classes when I first met him. He was always with me right through Hot Gossip. He was my boyfriend for a while, which ended pretty quickly and we became best friends.
‘I must have been around 32. It was a wonderful time. It felt like life was a life of pure joy. It was heaven.’
Her face glows as she talks about those days. ‘When he was diagnosed he wanted to keep it a secret. He didn’t want anyone to know.
‘There were a good few months when he wouldn’t pick up my calls. Eventually, I went to his house in Primrose Hill in North London and just rang the doorbell until he couldn’t bear the sound any more.
‘For the next year and a half I was by his bedside. The pain. The suffering. The agony of knowing there seemed to be no cure.
‘The dreadful effect of the illness on his body and hoping every day for something to come along that will take the pain away.
‘I don’t think anyone has any idea of the kind of pain they were in. Even the gentlest touch to the arm racks the body.
‘At that time if somebody had Aids, everybody ran away. They didn’t exist. People didn’t want them to exist.
‘That television series opened people’s minds to what happened and it’s only by opening minds that we can go forwards.’ She sighs. Pulls herself up in her chair again.
‘It was awful. It truly was,’ she says. ‘It has been hard to open that box [of memories] but I am slowly opening it.’
She smiles brightly. Arlene can’t stay sad for long. It isn’t part of her make-up.
Today, she is with her partner of many years, set builder Angus Ion, 65, whom she loves dearly. He put up with her moods and ‘grumpiness’ during lockdown and laughed out loud when he learned she was to be a Dame.
‘No one in my family will see me as a Dame,’ she says. ‘They just won’t. I’m a choreographer first and foremost. Always, always, always. That’s where my heart is.’
With which Dame-Arlene-Phillips-78-going-on-48 is up and off with her vibrant young things for the afternoon’s rehearsals.