Renowned choreographer, director, and television personality Arlene Phillips is making her pantomime debut as ‘Fairy Bowbells’ in Dick Whittington at the New Wimbledon Theatre.
Arlene admits to being quite like her character in the way she goes around ‘do gooding’ and putting things to rights.
But she draws the line at sweetness.
“She’s a good fairy, she’s sweet,” said Arlene, with a hint of amusement in her voice.
“But I tried to make her a bit feisty and a bit funky because I’m not the sweetest of sweet.”
Audiences will probably enter the theatre with their own idea of who Arlene is, a familiarity perhaps bred of the five years she spent on primetime television.
Looking at her now it is hard to believe that she is 73.
She first came to prominence in the 1970s, creating the popular dance troupe Hot Gossip, eventually becoming a regular feature of The Kenny Everett Show.
What followed for Arlene was a successful career working internationally as a choreographer and director of West End and Broadway musicals, arena shows, films, and music videos.
But it is undeniably her judging role on BBC One talent show Strictly Come Dancing with which she secured mainstream recognition and public affection.
Arlene left the programme after the 2008 series but it has taken until now for her busy schedule to allow her to the opportunity to appear in panto.
“I’ve said no to pantomime – I think for six or seven years – because I’ve always been doing something else, I’ve never been available,” said Arlene.
“And then this was the year when I was supposed to be working on something in America and that changed.
“So suddenly it was like: OK, think about it. You have got the time and it’s a new experience.
“And I enjoy new experiences!”
Pantomime is a peculiarly British theatrical tradition that has endured for more than 300 years, something that Arlene admits to being fascinated by.
“Pantomime is such a strange beast to people that do not live in the United Kingdom,” she said.
“It’s extraordinary, it’s crazy, it’s mixed up. You’ve got no idea what’s going to happen next. It just bursts on you.
“Actually, it doesn’t make any logical sense – and yet there seems to be something for every member of the audience.”
That ‘something’ is a traditional blend of song, dance, adventure, colourful costumes, and lavish sets which, in many ways, is the perfect metaphor for Arlene’s long and varied career.
But being on the stage instead of behind the scenes was a different experience for Arlene who is more accustomed to calling the shots.
“As the director and choreographer you have to take control – you’re in charge,” she said.
“But being on the reverse of that and listening to someone else is quite a strange experience.
“I listen in the way I want people to listen to me because the director has a vision and you are there to help support that vision, or make it happen.”
Pantomime is a notoriously tough undertaking for anybody, performing twice a day, twelve shows a week – fourteen shows in one week of the run.
“Everyone said to me: ‘You’ll be surprised how tough it is!’ and I am finding that,” she admitted.
“But I make sure I get rest, I try and exercise, I eat healthily… although I did just eat a mince pie, I couldn’t resist it!
“The interesting thing is that you go out there and, even when we’re all standing in the wings and everyone is half asleep, you hear the screams from the children in the audience and nothing wakes you up as fast as hearing the screams from the kids.”
Despite having achieved so much, Arlene still relished taking on a fresh challenge.
“There’s always something that you’ve not done before, or seen before, or tried before,” she said.
“I always think there are new experiences left, new adventures to discover.”
It is clear though that dance is still her passion and her priority.
“I dance when I choreograph. And I dance to wake myself up and shake myself off with exercise,” Arlene added.
“I love it. It’s what makes me tick – not just dancing myself but watching.
“The thrill has never left me, ever.”
Dick Whittington runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre until Sunday, January 15 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.
Featured image courtesy of Darren Bell, with thanks