INTERVIEW WITH SUE MENHENICK
PansPeople.com has been privileged to interview the legendary Sue Menhenick. She holds a special place in the history of the dance troupes that performed on Top of the Pops: having joined initially as a Pan's Person, replacing Louise Clarke in 1974, she continued on as a dancer with the short lived Ruby Flipper during the middle of 1976, before going on to an illustrious career with Legs & Co, both on, and later off, the TV show.
There was certainly no shortage of questions from our members, and Sue has been a fantastic sport in answering our questions as fully as possible. I'm sure you'll agree this one was well worth waiting for!
Let's begin with a question from member Rusty Carno, who asks about your general impression of your experiences in the troupes, comparing Pan's People, Ruby Flipper and Legs & Co. - "we have heard about the camaraderie of the "original" Pan's People ladies and then how Cherry was protected, being much younger. How did Sue find life joining Pan's compared to Ruby (with the lads and teenage Lulu and experienced Patti) and Legs (being the senior TOTP dancer and with young Gill and Rosie and back with six girls again)?"
"Whilst working in either Pan's People, Ruby Flipper or Legs and Co, the experiences were very different for very obvious reasons. When I first joined Pan’s People, I was 17 years old and couldn’t believe that I had been picked to join this iconic dance group on the equally famous TOTP. The two were synonymous....mention TOTP and you would also think of Pan’s People and vice versa."
"Until I joined, Cherry had been the youngest in the group, so when I joined, it changed and I must say that all the girls and Flick were very protective and kind to me. I remember being very shy and incredibly nervous, having never in my life done anything like this job before. I had a lot to learn. For starters, I was to replace lovely Louise, as well as to try and fit in in with the other five stunning ladies, who had all been together for years. They couldn’t have been more supportive of me, and helped me to grow slowly in confidence as I began to really feel like part of the group, also becoming more familiar and comfortable with Flick's style of choreography....it was daunting at first but, as I say, they couldn’t have been kinder...bit like having five older sisters to help you."
"...there was a lot of fun, teasing and boyish pranks played!"
"By 76, music styles, fashion and dance style had changed and continued to do so. With Ruby Flipper, things were different obviously with the addition of boys in the group! By then, Flick's choreography was able to become more "adventurous" (not that this had stopped her in the past) but in ways of not always having to use everyone all the time, having an odd number in the group made things visually more interesting and then obviously having the boys meant she could create more duets for certain numbers. The group in general were a lot younger than PP, and there was a lot of fun, teasing and boyish pranks played! Even though the group only worked together for six months, we were all good friends and we had a lot of fun as a team."
"Later that year, when Ruby Flipper disbanded, Flick had been told to resort back to the all girl format and so Legs and Co were created."
"Lulu, Patti and myself were included in the new line up, along with finding through auditions Pauline, Rosie and then finally, Gill. Once again the girls were very young, some only 16 years old, and we all had to learn how to work as a team. We did become good friends as time went on and we got to know each other. It was often said that sometimes we could be the noisiest table in a restaurant because of all the laughing! We spent a lot of time in each others' company, mainly because of work and commitments, so I think its fair to say that we were very close."
"All three groups were very different, but I can honestly say that the camaraderie was there, and even if there were disagreements, we all learnt to get over it pretty quickly."
Lee and Mary Fan asks what you thought about the demise of Pan’s People, and how much notice before Pan’s People’s final TOTP appearance were you all given that Pan's People were to be replaced by Ruby Flipper? TOTP Fan asks what were your thoughts on the short lived Ruby Flipper?
"When Pan's People ended, I think it was rightly thought that this was no longer the original PP as some people remembered it. After Babs and Dee Dee left, we did have another change in the line up, and lovely Mary and Lee joined for the last six months, two very good dancers. But, as with everything in life, things change and it was time to move on with something new. It would not have worked successfully to continue as Pan's People: it was the end of an era. The end was planned, not sudden, so Flick and Ruth (who had decided to move to management from performing) used that time, about two or three months, to create Ruby Flipper, of which the BBC were unaware at that time."
"Flick had a very strong idea of who she wanted to use in Ruby Flipper."
Suefan asks why Mary and Lee did not become members of Ruby Flipper?
"It was Flick's decision not use Mary from the last line up of PP, and Lee had already left before the end anyway. She obviously had a very strong idea of who she wanted to use in the new group. The name was created from using letters from Ruth and Flick's name, and Cherry and myself helped Flick with auditions at the Dance Centre to find new members....Lulu, Gavin, Philip and Floid (who wasn’t there to audition originally, but Flick had spotted him in the corridor dancing and waiting for his friend to audition: she was impressed with him and picked him out!). We found Patti separately not long after that....she had worked professionally before with other choreographers, and so the final "look" was in place."
"Sadly the BBC were not impressed by the new look/changes and it's now known that the Flipper days were to be short and numbered before they even started. I’ve always maintained that it was going to be very difficult for any dance group to follow the extremely popular and famous Pan’s People, and especially if it was to be an all girl group. Flick, I think, was quite astute in trying something completely different, but sadly, because of "politics" from the ranks above, Flipper was not given the opportunity to establish themselves and grow as all groups need to do given the time."
"Flick and Ruth found themselves having to restore the old format of an all girl group."
"There were other reasons that were responsible for the early demise of the group, including people not being happy with having Floid as part of the line up. (Totally unfair and outrageous even then.) After six months, Flick and Ruth found themselves having to restore the old format of an all girl group, which the BBC firmly involved themselves with. So, Legs and Co were specially created for TOTP and were Ruby Flipper's replacements. And it was at this point that, sadly, Cherry decided to leave: she went on to appear in the West End musical "A Chorus Line", and then on to other successful ventures of both dance and acting."
You mentioned how RF was doomed from the beginning. How soon after Ruby Flipper started did the BBC tell Flick to start creating another troupe?
"Flick and Ruth, it is now known, knew before Ruby Flipper started that they would only have six months at most. The BBC were not happy at not being consulted over this new group and especially with the mix of boys and, in particular at that time, with Floid's inclusion! (Ruth Pearson mentions all this in the "Super Troupers" radio programme.) No one mentioned to any of us (the dancers) that the group was not going to last very long....we were the last to find out in fact. Pan's People's end was more organised: as the last original members decided to leave (Babs first, then Dee Dee) Flick and Ruth were already planning ahead and had decided that Pan's People had run its course. So, after Mary and Lee joined for the last six months, things were already being set up and in the pipeline as it were. Both Cherry and I had talked with Flick and knew that she wanted us to stay....but sadly not Mary. Lee had already left Pan's People before this point and had not been included in the new line up anyway. Basically Cherry and myself knew of the changes about three to four months before it all occurred."
It was claimed at the time that Ruby Flipper was 'out of step' with the public. Do you think the public really wasn't happy with RF, or was that more of an excuse by the BBC to move on from Flipper? Were you aware of any letters of complaint (!) from the public about RF? (I have a recollection of I think Flick saying she hadn't had a single letter complaining about the end of PP.)
"I can honestly say that I never remember Flick, Ruth, or anyone in Ruby Flipper ever seeing or receiving any letters of complaint about the group or its line up! As I mentioned to you before (and was admitted by Ruth on "Super Troupers") the BBC were determined to revert back to the all girl format, and so Ruby Flipper were never given a fair chance from the outset. It was all down to the politics of the then hierarchy of the BBC and Bill Cotton."
"Legs and Co were named by a young girl from the public, Elaine Coombes, and TOTP had their resident dance group in place from mid August 76 to November 81."
"Ruby Flipper should have been given longer in many ways and, as to be expected, there were always going to be comparisons of Pan's People versus Legs and Co, which was sometimes not fair. Throughout it all, I was very aware of the constant changes in music, dance and fashion that reflect the different eras of entertainment and, if nothing else, the three groups to my mind were all very individual and special, and each one represented that in its own style."
Sue, you're known for the remarkable achievement of being a member of not only Pan’s People, but also Ruby Flipper and Legs & Co. How does that feel? Which troupe did you feel was really you?
"I would like to think that whichever group I was in at the time reflected me as to how I had progressed at that point. Having been fortunate to be involved with all three groups, I am aware of how I developed over time to the performer I became with Legs and Co, and a lot of credit also goes to working with Flick, who taught me so much over the years. Legs and Co was the last group, and survived for a long while even after TOTP came to an end for us. It was also the one group that really did return to dance in all its styles, particularly as disco was big in clubs everywhere and audiences wanted to see "real dancing" again. So Legs and Co rose to the challenge, whether it was classical, balletic, contemporary, raunchy and even comedic numbers, we could do it."
"The black dresses were the ones Mary Whitehouse complained about as they were very revealing!"
Suefan also asks how much fun was it making the single "You Can Really Rock and Roll Me" (mp3) and "where the sleeve picture was taken of you and the other fours girls leaning back against that brick wall looking all sexy in those low cut black dresses", which was used for the record sleeve cover?
"The picture that was used for the PP single, Rock and Roll Me, was taken in a back street in north London....the black dresses were the ones Mary Whitehouse complained about as they were very revealing! It was very cold that day on the photo session....we were freezing! The making of the record was fun, and Cherry was definitely the best singer!"
Lee and Mary Fan wonders who was in those animal suits in the routine for Jungle Rock - was it Pan’s People or just extras?
"When PP did Jungle Rock, we had the studio techs and floor assistants dress up in the animal costumes!"
I guess that would certainly prevent Equity identifying unsigned performers! Both TOTP Fan and Cornershop15 have similar queries, asking if you've stayed friends with and still get together with your colleagues from Pan's People, Ruby Flipper and Legs and Co?
"Even after all this time, I still stay in touch with almost all the girls and guys (!) that I have worked with: Ruth, Mary, Floid, Philip and all the Legs ladies. Just before Xmas last year, Lulu, Patti, Pauline, Rosie, Gill and myself met up for a get together, and as usual we were the noisiest bunch with all the laughter!"
"...the Smurf song... and the Birdie song, have to rate as not the best!"
Jez and Cherry’s Eyebrows ask which were your favourite and least favourite routines as a Pan’s Person, Flipper and Legs dancer?!
"It’s almost impossible to list the worst and best routines that I can remember from 74 to 81! So I will just mention a few favourites, if I may!"
"PP routines: 'Down Down' (Status Quo), 'One of these Nights' (Eagles), 'Do you know' (Diana Ross) and 'Summer Breeze' (Isley Brothers) - my first TOTP appearance."
"RF: 'Heart on my Sleeve' (Gallagher and Lyle), 'Love Hangover' (Diana Ross), 'Morning Glory' (James & Bobby Purify), 'Rubberband Man' (Detroit Spinners) and 'Play that Funky Music' (Wild Cherry)."
"Legs: 'Alright Now' (Free), 'Enough is Enough' (Barbara Streisand and Donna Summer), 'I Feel Love' (Donna Summer), 'Woman in Love' (Barbara Steisand), 'Ai no Corrida' (Quincy Jones), 'Annie's Song' (James Galway), which shows more of Flick's classical side, most of the Chic songs, Michael Jackson songs. I could go on! .....there are so many good routines from 78/81."
"As to the not so favourite....the Smurf song, 'Born to be Alive' and the Birdie song, have to rate as not the best! And Plastic Bertrand's 'Ca Plane Pour Moi' - I think Flick may have misinterpreted the lyrics as she made us dance with french bread baguettes! Don't think he was referring to bread somehow!"
Bougeac says he loved your different hairstyles over the years, especially around 76, and wonders where you got your hair cut?
"In PP days my hair was long, and in 76, Ruth’s mother used to cut my hair as she was a brilliant hairdresser...then in the Legs days I had it cut and styled at Vidal Sassoon’s."
Lee and Mary Fan again: Do you have any of your Pan's People costumes? Or anything from those days?
"Costume wise, I still have my silver knee length boots from PP days, as well as my string top(!) from the Down Down routine! I also still have a beautiful long blue sequined dress that was used for Legs and Co cabaret, and was worn for TOTP's 'You’ll never know'."
"I also have sequined tops and silver trousers that I wore when Legs and Co appeared in the film The Stud!"
Lee and Mary Fan asks what music you enjoy these days?
"I love all kinds of music, which is hardly surprising as a dancer....classics like Zepplin, Frank Zappa, Rolling Stones, Free and Bad Company, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, Beach Boys, Peter Gabriel, Cars, Steely Dan, Scritti Politti, Roxy Music, Stranglers, Depeche Mode (not early years), David Bowie, Chemical Brothers and then at the other end of the scale, all classical music from Tschaikovsky, Prokovief, Rachmaninov amongst others....I just love music!"
Jez asks if you could possibly remember what song you all performed to on Babs' last TOTP?
"I think that Babs' last number on TOTP was 'One of these Nights' by the Eagles."
Lee and Mary Fan asks if you have any photos of the final line up?
"Yes I do still have some special photos of various groups that I have been in, but they remain as my "private" collection!"
"I was the front end and Lulu the rear.....wherever I went, she faithfully followed!"
SueFan says that one of his favourites is 'Egyptian Reggae': "when Lulu and yourself do a great job in the camel outfit; that last step at the end of the dance is spot on. However, ever time I watch the clip I'm always aware of that rather frayed carpet in the middle of the set and hoping neither of you will trip up on it which is where my question comes in. Just how good a view did you have under that skin?"
"The view under the camel skin in 'Egyptian Reggae' was not great! A small piece of gauze, that was all. I was the front end and Lulu the rear.....wherever I went, she faithfully followed! It also got a little warm under that camel skin!"
Suefan again: other than when Legs & Co Mark 2 danced on the ITV show "The Video Entertainers" did you make any other TV dancing appearances as a group either here or abroad? Did you continue to dance after Legs & Co Mk 2?
"As well as TOTP, Legs and Co did TV shows for Germany, Ireland, Italy and some other networks in the UK. All three groups appeared in cabaret in the UK and in Germany, often for the Forces. Post TOTP, Legs were able to travel more extensively as the TV commitment had gone....so we did cabaret in Cairo, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and also a couple of mini tours of Ireland. The group continued with a couple more changes to the line up. The first change came in 81, with original Pauline Peters leaving and Anita replacing her. Then, later that year, Rosie Hetherington left to pursue a singing career with Guys and Dolls. After TOTP, Anita joined the Tote Coella singing group and Gill Clarke had also left. Patti, Lulu and I continued with the group until the end of 1984, and then we finally disbanded Legs and Co."
"I continued to work as a freelance dancer doing a variety of shows as well as some choreography. I was fortunate enough to be asked to work briefly with Michael Ho from Rambert for their workshop, which took me back to my original classical ballet and contemporary dance training. I also worked with him and another dancer Ikky Maas on a piece of music written by the late Mick Karn from the band Japan, for "Riverside " BBC2. [PP.com: Passion in Moisture, which you can watch here.] Amongst other ventures, I worked with a company that produced Walt Disney road shows that toured the UK."
"Choreographically, I helped put on various fashion shows and Vidal Sassoon Hair shows. The very last time the original Legs and Co performed together was in 2006, when we appeared on the very first Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Take Out, as a very belated Jim’ll Fix it for someone in the audience....we danced to Sister Sledge's "We are Family". We also appeared on TOTP: The True Story."
You previously explained how, after PP, Flipper and Legs were under contract to Flick and Ruth via Ruby Flipper Management. I just wondered if this continued after Legs (Mark II) left TOTP, or did you branch out on your own?
"Post TOTP, Lulu , Patti and myself continued with Legs and Co, and as we were no longer under Ruby Flipper Management (which had been created by Ruth and Flick after Pan's People, for the Ruby Flipper dance group and Legs and Co, during the TOTP years). We decided to "manage" ourselves, similar to the way that Pan's People had previously worked. They sometimes used an agent called Dick Katz. We also used an agency for some bookings, but were never contracted in the same way as before. We were responsible for our own contracts and were self sufficient."
Which pop act did you enjoy meeting the most, and which did you wish you had met but didn't?
"Having worked on TOTP over the years, we all got to meet and mingle with various pop stars and bands. By and large, the majority were all good fun and friendly. Some of the names that come to mind and that I remember meeting are...David Bowie, (very interesting guy, easy to talk to and one of my real idols!), Lemmie from Motorhead who was always so polite and charming, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) such a talented pair, Errol and Hot Chocolate who were always great fun. Sham 69 and the Stranglers who again were always polite and friendly, Bill Wyman (Stones) very droll and amusing and Cliff Richard who I met on my first TOTP and in spite of what some folk think of him, he really is one of the nicest people around.....no starry affectations. Then there were The Osmonds, who were great entertainers! There were quite a few over the years, it's hard to name them all! Again, it's a tough one to say about artists that I would have liked to have met, there are still so many that I would still like to meet.....but some of them are Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder...all great song writers; Tina Turner, Beyonce and Michael Jackson (especially in his hey days) all great visual performers and I’m sure if I think about it, more would come to mind."
When creating a routine, you no doubt have a core repertoire of moves you could readily draw on. Can you describe a few common ones (I guess they have names)?
"A lot of dance terms surprisingly enough stem sometimes from the classical ballet glossary as it were...i.e. plie (knees bend !), pirouette (turn/spin) jete (big jump!) saute (little jumps!.. No! not quick shallow frying!!!) and many more. Jazz and modern dance have similar moves, but actual terms are not used so much in the same way. I think that in "Street" dance and "Body Popping" there are actual terms for specific moves. The same applies with Ballroom and Latin styles. When Flick choreographed, it was more of a process of "look and follow " than by specific dance moves and names...ok, there may have been....."Shimmy!" (move involving either just shoulders or whole body!) "Hips !" (self explanatory !) or "Head rolls " (which sounds really odd, but isn’t!!) It's actually almost impossible to be more precise ....with Flick it was her own unique style that was very much, if it felt good, looked good and worked.... it was part of the routine."
You say that Flick's choreography was more of a "look and follow" approach - I just wondered to what degree were the dancers themselves involved in creating, or suggesting moves for a routine. I imagine people were always able to make suggestions - "what about if we tried this", etc?
"When Flick choreographed our routines, whether it was for TOTP or our cabaret shows, it was her work and hers alone. We never added or contributed any ideas or suggestions of our own to the choreography....there was no need to, as she always had a precise idea of what she visualised and wanted. She could be a hard task master to work for sometimes, but it was because she had definite ideas of the result she wanted to create and achieve. It would begin with her "dancing the routine" with us as she choreographed it, then with constant rehearsals, she would make changes to the number if they were necessary. You must also remember that, at the same time, Flick would be creating "scripts" for the cameras.....starting shots, close ups,different angles and panning shots etc....whatever she needed to complete her interpretation of the song and routine. The choreography was always her own work and area, as was the camera direction...it just reiterates for me, the incredible artistic talent Flick possessed."
Were the troupes given any choice of which song to dance to each week, even if two, or was it just the one that was given?
"When it came to picking the routine or routines for the week, that was always selected from the Top 30 of the charts by the producer and Flick."
"The choice was determined by certain factors...the artist had no video or would not be available to appear on the show, it was a song that, unless it was number one, had not been on the previous week, and it had to be looking as if it would go up in the charts that week of the show. If it dropped, the routine would be scrapped and Flick would have less than a day to produce something different....new dance routine, costumes and sets sometimes. The dancers were never consulted or allowed a say on the matter! (Hence the Birdie song!!)"
How did the end come about for Legs on TOTP - did the BBC just tell you, or was there a growing realisation that Legs' time was coming to an end?
"TOTP as a show was also changing over the years: with the new groups and music that were emerging, the programme also tried to change its image to keep up with fashion and times. As different producers came in to preside over the show, they all tried to put their own mark on it. Flick found some easier to work with than others. Most still favoured, understood and respected the appeal and part that the dance group Legs and Co played in the show's viewing figures and considered the group as an important part of the popularity of TOTP."
"However things changed when Michael Hurll was brought in to make his personal sweeping changes.....he was the one who thought the dance group was unnecessary and it was his decision to relegate us to "backing dancers". I did say on "Super Troupers", that I didn't think it worked after having been an act in our own right, and also some of the bands didn't actually like having us dancing behind them ....totally understandable really."
"I personally think that yes, the show did have to change and update itself as a lot of comments and criticisms were often voiced, and we all knew that change had to happen. It would have been nice in an ideal world and also as a bit of respect and thanks to Flick, especially for all her years of working for the show, to have maybe drawn a "positive" line in the sand and announced publically that changes were being planned with a different look to TOTP. It was time to say "Goodbye" to the resident dance group Legs and Co after all this time.... and then maybe we would have been allowed to do a final, last fantastic dance routine (perhaps not even a chart dominated song) ending our era on the show on a "high" rather than in dwindling occassional "fill in" backing routines or even the "Birdie Song"! (No offence intended!) A clean ending for everyone maybe?"
"Flick and Ruth spoke to all of us about four months before the end, so we knew that our time was over. The last show was sad in a way....only a few of the studio and show techs, VT teams, make up and design crews came to say "Goodbye". I don't recall Michael Hurll being around at the time, though I think there was a bunch of flowers left somewhere. In retrospect, the end could have been handled differently, but sadly it was not meant to be."
Who choreographed Legs Mark 2 (after TOTP) - was it a collective effort, or did someone step into Flick's shoes?
"The final line up of Legs and Co had changes made to the cabaret show: it was still a non stop performance of about 45 minutes, but some of the routines were changed. We used a couple of different choreographers for different routines. In fact, Floid was drafted in to do two or three new routines, as well as a friend of one of the girls who had also worked with Nigel Lythgoe and on the Brian Rogers team (can't remember his surname now, but his first name was Jeffrey!). He also contributed a couple of numbers for the act."
"I have never forgotten the routine since....
it haunts me!"
After dancing for so long, do you find that even today you can't listen to a piece of music without imagining what moves would best go with it? (Maybe even with your fave Rachmachmaninov and Prokofiev?!!)
"Because my taste in music is so varied and a "mixed bag" of types, I must admit I do like to imagine (even now) in my mind's eye, dance routines and performances. The music can be either classical or modern....it doesn’t matter."
"Over the years there have been some songs and music that I remember so vividly, that I can still remember the original dance routines! One example is Led Zepplin’s 'Whole lotta love' (TOTP theme tune) which Legs and Co did as our opening number in our cabaret show. The middle section of the track goes to more percussive/sounds than regular music, and when Flick was choreographing it, we had real fun and games trying to count the beats and bars so that we were all still moving in time with the sounds/music and each other! I remember trying to find a way round it for us all.....I have never forgotten the routine since....it haunts me! Then there are ones I also remember because they marked certain times in my life...'Summer Breeze' because it was my first TOTP, 'Find My Way Home' as it was my last TOTP and quite a few other routines that were also special."
And so to Richwood1: Would you cast off the zimmer frame, put WD40 on the joints and do Strictly Come Dancing ? (Felicity Kendal was years older than you when she did it!.) Ssol1986 adds: how about as a judge instead of as a contestant?
"It would be fun to be considered as a judge for either Strictly Come Dancing or So You Think You Can Dance.... as to participating with a zimmer frame(!): if it was needed, that is something else! Though I’m sure that if Flick was still with us, she would choreograph the frame into the routine!!"
"She taught me a lot, and I personally owe her a lot. 'Thank you Flick'".
Finally, if you could go back and do it all again, what would you have done differently?
"'Would I do anything different if I could do it all again?' No, I certainly wouldn’t. I consider myself to have been very privileged and fortunate to have worked with some very special and talented people over the years and also had the fantastic chance to work in a profession that means the world to me and that I love....how many people can say that at the end of the day? I am especially grateful to Flick Colby who gave me the opportunity in the first place, all those years ago and who also enabled me to continue working with her all that time....she very kindly, in November 81, gave me a final solo for my last appearance on TOTP...Jon and Vangelis....'Find My Way Home'. She taught me a lot, and I personally owe her a lot. 'Thank you Flick'."
And "Thank you, Sue", for a truly fascinating interview, which has provided a fantastic insight into your career and the life and times of the TOTP dance troupes.
On behalf of all our members, I thank you so much indeed for all the time you have taken to help the website and wish you a very Happy New Year, 2012!
"Happy New Year to everybody on the Pan's People website.....Wishing you all an exciting and positive 2012!!
Very Best Wishes Everyone......Sue Menhenick!"
[Acknowledgements: Thanks also to mishmash for providing the majority of images here, and cornershop for the press article on Ruby Flipper.]
Interview © PansPeople.com / Sue Menhenick 2011