Interview: Arlene Phillips on mining disco nostalgia for Jackie The Musical

Choreographer Arlene Philips. Picture: Robert Perry
Choreographer Arlene Philips. Picture: Robert Perry
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For Jackie The Musical, a fun-filled wallow in the 1970s inspired by the iconic teen magazine, choreographer Arlene Phillips mined the disco moves of the decade to fulfil its feel-good mission statement. In real life though, the former Strictly judge has little time for nostalgia, writes Janet Christie

Did you ever wonder if love bites were dangerous? What your lipstick shape said about you? How to tell if someone fancied you? If you did, you probably also had a Jackie magazine habit when you were a teenager. Maybe you were one of the women in the audience when Jackie The Musical had its opening night in Dundee last month, up on your feet singing along word for word to a score of 1970s hits, doing the hustle, blaming it on the boogie, giving the cast the benefit of your advice by shouting out like Cathy and Claire’s more raucous aunties: “Tell John to get lost!”, and “Go for it Jackie!” Cheering as it culminated in an all-singing, all-dancing all-audience celebration of female empowerment as a snake hipped young male dancer carried around a speech bubble placard bearing the legend “Older women rock!”

Jackie The Musical. Picture: Eric Richmond

Jackie The Musical. Picture: Eric Richmond

“It wasn’t our intention to make it interactive and involved when we set out, but we soon realised there are moments when the audience do join in and want to be part of it,” says Arlene Phillips, show choreographer and former Strictly Come Dancing judge.

Phillips was in the capacity audience at Gardyne Theatre in Dundee, the city where Jackie was produced, and where demand saw extra nights added to the 20-week tour schedule. She’s just witnessed an audience of 400 former Jackie readers, predominantly women in the 40-60 age bracket, but younger too, with a scattering of accompanying kettle boilers (Dundonese for male companion), travel back to a more innocent time. A time before Cosmopolitan with its Position of the Month, Homes and Interiors, mobile phones, revenge porn, the Kardashians, before failed marriages and broken dreams, before clubs, raves and hip-hop, a time when disco and flares ruled.

Phillips is thrilled by the enthusiastic and vocal audience response.

“People were singing along and shouting, responding to the drama. It was just fantastic. They were identifying with all they had to give up with their divorces, and it was very exciting. At first I thought this is just the people who read Jackie or people responding to the drama in the musical, but there were younger people, and men too. And the cast really respond to the audience – they were buzzing and bouncing too.”

Janet Dibley, left, and Daisy Steere in Jackie The Musical

Janet Dibley, left, and Daisy Steere in Jackie The Musical

Jackie The Musical celebrates the magazine that was a regular Thursday date in many a teenager’s week from 1964 to 1993, with a readership of 605,947 at its height in 1976. As well as posters of pop stars like the Davids (Essex and Cassidy), Marc Bolan and Donny Osmond, Jackie turned out a steady diet of fashion and photo strip stories, beauty tips, pop gossip, horoscopes, fun quizzes (That lipstick shape? Flat across the top, you’re cautious; Pointy? Intense). There was life advice, including all-important tips on how to get a boy, keep him, kiss him (no tongues on a first date), dump him, and agony aunts Cathy and Claire dispensing advice that seems tame to an internet generation.

The musical takes all of these elements and throws in a plot – Jackie, a contemporary, disappointed divorcee in her 50s turns to her old Jackie annuals for advice on ‘how to get a boyfriend’ as she dips her toe into internet dating. She is reunited with her 15-year old self and torn between her ex and a married man, all to a soundtrack of hits of the 1970s. Phillips choreographed the dancing and has the cast strutting along to iconic moves you didn’t know you had forgotten. For Tiger Feet there are hands on the hips and foot crossing, Crazy Horses, has mustang rearing and trotting in flares and platforms. And when the musicians at the back of the stage strike up Love Is In the Air, which also happens to be one of the anthems of home team Dundee United, the singalong samba goes stratospheric.

“When they see those iconic moves the audience cheers and joins in. You forget those things go out of fashion. I haven’t seen that in a long time, where the audience are part of it… everybody getting up doing silly dances and the cast and audience are having a great time, smiling, enjoying themselves,” says Phillips. “Just to see that lifted my spirits completely. That’s the effect of music and dance. To get people on their feet and their worries and traumas are forgotten.”

Written by Mike James and directed by Anna Linstrum, with original choreography by Phillips, Jackie The Musical stars Janet Dibley (The Two of Us, EastEnders, Fat Friends), Olivier Award nominee Graham Bickley (Ragtime, Bread) and Nicholas Bailey (EastEnders, The Archers), with a score that includes T Rex’s 20th Century Boy, The Stylistics’ Sad Sweet Dreamer, Tina Charles’s I Love to Love (But My Baby Loves to Dance), Nazareth’s Love Hurts, David Essex’s Hold Me Close and Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).

Getting hold of Phillips has been tricky as she’s been up to her neck in rehearsals right up until the show opens, teaching a cast of young dancers oblivious to the delights of disco, how to do the hustle, strut their funky stuff, shake their booty and generally blame it on the boogie.

“They all have to be able to do the dances and the younger cast don’t know about disco,” says Phillips, who goes on to extol its democratic virtues as the dance that got everyone up on their feet en masse, partner or no partner, male or female, dancer or carthorse.

“That era was when everybody could get up and dance whether they danced with a partner or in a crowd. It was social, there was a family of dance. It was the first dance not done by professionals and proof that everyone can do it. Nowadays everyone can get up and dance because of disco.”

In the show, Phillips’ favourite number is Tiger Feet, a hit back in 1974 for Mud. The Dundee audience seem to agree with her and there’s a lot of laying it down, hips swinging out of bounds, that’s neat, that’s neat, that’s neat, that’s neat, going down. The musical isn’t a total nostalgia fest though, and just as the device of having a fiftysomething negotiating internet dating chimes perfectly with today’s audience, Phillips stresses that there are modern elements in the dance sections too.

“For example 20th Century Boy is done in a bar and a flash mob springs up. I’m very much in love with contemporary moves, lyrical contemporary dance,” she says.

Phillips herself has moved with the times and doesn’t look 72 – whatever 72 looks like. In her case in Dundee she’s rocking a trendy cocoon coat, leggings and trainers, dark hair scraped back into a ponytail. She has no intention of slowing down or hanging up the Lycra, physically or psychologically. In the past she’s admitted to flirting with Botox and fillers but what about surgery? “I’d love to,” she says, “but I’m a coward.” Her youthful look she puts down to “dancing – and a daughter who’s a make-up artist.

“I won’t stop working at the moment because I have so much coming up, but who knows what will happen,” she says. She just loves to dance. She always has. She can’t even remember a time when she couldn’t.

“In my mind I’ve been dancing since birth. I have gone through my life loving dance. No matter what, it’s never gone away and I love watching it, taking part in it, creating it. I’ve never lost the love for it.”

Such is the effect of music on Phillips that when she’s driving she can only listen to talk radio and news channels, otherwise her feet would be doing a Michael Flatley over the pedals, with disastrous results.

“I’m so involved I wouldn’t be safe. I can have news and words, talk radio’s OK, but not music.”

Raised in Manchester in a family that didn’t have money to lavish on luxuries, Phillips was aware of this from the very beginning. However, she started ballet at the age of three and went on to study tap.

“I remember my first ballet shoes. Bright green, because they were on sale and we couldn’t afford the pink ones. I remember walking into my first ballet class with emerald green shoes and feeling that something was wrong, that I needed a pink pair. It was a tough upbringing,” she says. “My father was a barber and sometimes my mother worked in our school. We didn’t have any money but we still had to put our spending money in the collecting box when it came round. That’s why I’m a big campaigner today about poverty, because I think people don’t understand it. Just because someone might have the latest mobile phone, it doesn’t mean they are fine.”

Phillips’ mother died of leukaemia when she was 15 and after she left school at 16 she moved to London. Not that it wasn’t a wrench to leave her elder brother and younger sister behind, but in the Swinging Sixties, London was where it was at. DC Thomson knew this when they had Cathy and Claire’s letters sent to an address in Fleet Street rather than Dundee.

“I was always determined to do what I do, but my mother dying made it harder to step away from the family. I had to fight harder to do what I wanted because it was a very tough time. When you lose a family member that’s the centre of the family, you have to work very hard to create structure, not just for your own life, but for everyone else’s and within that, care for the family situation. Eventually I struck out and moved away to London. I don’t know whether her death made me step out from the family, but for me it was the right thing to do at the time.”

Arriving in London, Phillips developed her contemporary jazz influenced style of dance and began teaching at The Dance Centre, Pineapple Dance Studios and the Italia Conti Stage School. Her choreography career took off, especially when she founded the raunchy dance group Hot Gossip in 1975.

“Hot Gossip were revolutionary in some of the dance they did in the 1970s. Disco and hustle and 1970s dance, and I have used that in the show. That kind of dance hadn’t been seen on TV before because it was quite sexy. The Jackie mag wasn’t, it was very sage and caring and protecting of teenagers. But Hot Gossip were on the cover and some of the dancers read it so I read their copies. I was older but loved comics when I was younger. I used to get the Girl comic and loved speech bubbles.”

Phillips went on to choreograph numerous musicals, TV shows and films, including the film Annie in 1982, Starlight Express in 1984 and Saturday Night Fever on Broadway in 1998. Videos include the Duran Duran song The Wild Boys, which was named best British Video at the 1985 BRITS Awards and she also worked with Whitney Houston on How Will I Know and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).

Dance even brought her a husband; Angus Ion, 17 years her junior, who she met 20 years ago when he was a set builder on a Freddie Mercury music video.

“We are very different and have different interests that we both enjoy, but we have lots of things we love to do together too. We have a family and I just love being home and being part of that.”

The couple have two daughters, Alana who is a make-up artist and Abi who works in designer menswear.

“I have always wanted them to love whatever they have wanted to do. Abi was a florist for a while and did photography and then went into fashion and Alana worked in musical theatre and was a performer and now she’s a make-up artist.”

Her daughters may have inherited her creativity, but Phillips laughs when I ask if they’ve inherited her strong work ethic.

“I don’t think they want to work the way that I do! They think there’s more to life than the way I do it.”

Perhaps Phillips’ most public role was as a judge on So You think You Can Dance and Strictly Come Dancing, where her wagging finger and equilibrium were a fixture of Saturday night TV for five years. Then in 2009, aged 66 she was replaced by the 30-year-old and much less experienced former contestant Alesha Dixon. The resulting furore over ageism in broadcasting went all the way up to the House of Commons with Harriet Harman wading in, and the BBC was deluged with complaints, but the decision stayed.

Phillips isn’t keen to talk about Strictly or the ageing controversy that ensued, simply saying: “I have so moved on from that. I don’t stop and think back about it. That’s one of the most dangerous things I can do. I’m still working, so I don’t think about it.”

Any looking back is purely on musical terms, in a jukebox memories kind of way. “I do have nostalgia for music and dance because music affects me and I listen to it with a great deal of pleasure.”

She might not do nostalgia but she does admit that the happiest time of her life was in the late 1970s after her first daughter was born in 1979.

“For me just having a baby was incredible. I loved it, but so many times I have had extraordinary things happen in my life, and every decade has brought something new. I didn’t think my life would be like this. When I was standing in front of the Queen, collecting a CBE, I thought ‘how did a small girl from Manchester get to be in a place like this?’

“But I spend my life trying not to look back, to look forward, to keep on moving. I don’t know what would happen to me if I stopped and decided to think back. It’s moving forward that I need,” she says.

True to form Phillips begins to talk about her next project which is working with Candoco, a company of disabled and non-disabled dancers, with a production they will be performing at various festivals this year.

“I’m creating a contemporary dance piece and it couldn’t be more different to Jackie The Musical. It’s completely different, we’re working in a different way. It’s music I haven’t worked with before too, country music, and I have been creating the narrative and preparing the dancers. They are extraordinary, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

As Cathy and Claire might have said, ‘Looking back is fun, but you’ve got to keeping moving forward too.’ And Arlene Phillips knows how to move.