Page last updated at 07:28 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 08:28 UK

'Fame' recalled in Britannia High

The students of Britannia High
The students' stories are played out dramatically - and musically - each week

By Michael Osborn
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

A drama about performing arts students complete with musical numbers may revive memories of 1980s US TV hit Fame.

But the updated setting of new show Britannia High is contemporary London, and there is less emphasis on luminous leg warmers and jazz hands.

While six fresh-faced young performers have been cast in the principal roles, the team behind the programme is bristling with credentials.

Take That star Gary Barlow is the chief songwriter of the show's songs, with bandmate Mark Owen and Robbie Williams' former musical partner Guy Chambers also on board.

The cast of Fame, 1984. Photo credit: Rex Features
Fame ran from 1982 to 1987 and spawned four UK hit singles

Britannia High is the brainchild of choreographer Arlene Phillips, best known to TV viewers as one of the judges on Strictly Come Dancing.

She says one of her inspirations was Georgina Hagen, a friend of her daughter, who was "forever singing and dancing around my house".

Hagen went on to be cast as Lauren, whose story is the focus of the opening episode.

Some 3,000 young people were auditioned for the show in a process that "went on and on and on and was very difficult," according to Phillips.

Two of the other characters were plucked from Phillips' BBC talent show Dance X, but she admits to being "cautious" about taking them on.

"I had no idea if they could act," she says, given that it is essentially a drama containing singing and dancing.

Quintessentially British

"Matthew [James Thomas, who plays Jez] came in and I thought I'd found God, as he could sing, dance and act," explains Phillips. "He set the bar for everyone else."

While TV and chart success Fame will be on more mature viewers' lips, Britannia High is attracting comparisons with squeaky-clean Disney sensation High School Musical.

Arlene Phillips with Strictly co-judge Craig Revel Horwood
Britannia High is my passion and what I've always wanted to do
Arlene Phillips

Its makers say the new show is quintessentially British, and the stars have a "legitimate" reason to burst into song - three numbers in each episode - as they are at a performing arts academy.

Phillips is quick to dismiss any similarities, and says the show's musical performances are more akin to lavish pop videos.

"This isn't for three-year-old kids. It has some really intriguing, emotional stories which aren't for them," she explains.

Indeed, each episode is set to reveal the back stories of each of the six academy hopefuls, while romance buds between at least two of them.

The series is poised to climax with a live performance of the Britannia High showcase, interspersed with dramatic scenes.

Phillips already has plans to expand the show's concept, which already includes releases of its music and behind the scenes footage of the audition process.

Mark Benton
Mark Benton plays Britannia High's principal Mr Nugent

"I'm not letting this lot get away - they're mine!" she jokes.

"I'd like to do a live tour with them and demonstrate what they can do. There are no tricks in their performances anywhere."

Phillips, meanwhile, insists there is "no conflict" between this project and her regular commitment to Strictly Come Dancing.

"That's the best hobby in the world and the best gift I could have been given. Britannia High is my passion and what I've always wanted to do. But it's an equal for the two shows."

Fame may have come off our screens in 1987, but it set the benchmark for shows about performing arts schools.

The ratings winner spawned four UK hit singles - a feat that its up-to-date British successor will hope to emulate.

The first episode of Britannia High goes out on ITV1 on Sunday, 26 October at 1815 GMT.

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Take That star pens songs for 'UK Fame'
24 Sep 08 |  Entertainment
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