In the beginning
Growing up in the North East of England in the early 1980s was a very mixed experience. My abiding memory of my first year in secondary school in 1979 was the teachers’ faces the day after Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. There was a real sense of despondency which I did not understand. But for the next ten years the legacy of that day made an indelible stamp on my childhood. On TV, we heard of exotic characters such as Yuppies who worked in ‘the City’ who did deals on mobile phones whilst quaffing champagne, but in the North East it felt like we were somehow under siege. Unemployment was exploding, Thatcher seemed to attack everything that the North East was most proud of: its industrial heritage, its sense of a common purpose, even the robust humor seemed to be under attack from the middle class snobbishness which she represented. All of the images which made sense of this seemed to hark back fifty years to the 1930s, of two nations divided not only by prosperity but by a way of looking at the world.
Miners' Strike - 1984
Things seemed to hit crisis point in 1984 when the Miners’ Strike focused all of these issues. Living in the North East where coal mining had been the life blood of the economy, and a certain way of life for hundreds of years, this seemed less like an industrial fracas and more akin to a civil war. Quite quickly the police were donning riot shields and pitched battles were taking place with the shabby pickets who met the full might of the State. Whichever side you were on, no lives in the North East went untouched by the events of that desperate year. But for me personally the 1980s were not bleak.
I was a young teenager discovering all the things I would pursue for the rest of my life. I discovered poetry in the bowels of Newcastle Central Library, I bought second-hand Elton John LPs at the Handyside arcade, played in bands, joined the local drama groups and dreamed of living a creative life even though I knew this was probably an unattainable dream. Up until that point I had always assumed I would go to work with my dad, cleaning carpets, and had no idea that I might actually be able to do something different. But with the encouragement of a couple of the enlightened teachers who had been so despondent in May 1979, I was encouraged to find another way. As I wanted to be a writer I decided I needed to go somewhere that writers went and so I set my heart on going to Cambridge University. And like the Royal Ballet School for Billy Elliot, it became my idea of salvation.
Despite many odds I proceeded to get in, but when I was there I realized that Cambridge was not necessarily the answer and that what was most important about being creative, what was richest and most inspiring, I had already discovered in Newcastle. Cambridge was a great experience but I realized everything important about my creative life was formed in my bedroom in Newcastle and so on leaving University I set about writing a series of plays which explored this in ways which were more or less autobiographical. Billy Elliot is one of the less autobiographical pieces. I have “two left feet” as they say in Newcastle. But the basic premise of a young boy discovering a new world of creativity against the background of the harsh realities of the 1980s was a world I felt very familiar with.
The Making of a Musical
I assumed that this subject matter would be of very limited interest. Ballet as I knew ‘was for poofs’, films about kids growing up in the North of England were something that we’d got bored of after the film Kes in 1970. So I was amazed when my friend Stephen Daldry, who was a theatre director of some eminence, asked to read the script and then declared he would direct it. I think right from the word go he saw something that I had not seen, as it was too close to my own concerns. He saw that the story was almost a myth or a fairy tale, that once the dancing and music were committed to film it would become almost like a musical.
Elton John was at the very first public performance of the film in Cannes, France and I heard it had sent him home in floods of tears. I was amazed that one of my musical heroes had even seen a bit of my work let alone liked it, and I was even more surprised when a couple of months later I was in New York having supper and discussing the possibility of making a musical of the film. Elton was passionate that the story could work as a musical. What amazed me even more was that Elton insisted that I should write the lyrics to the songs. I was thrilled but also incredibly nervous. The whole project only seemed possible if the original creative team on the movie would commit to being involved. They all committed and I set about writing the songs with Elton. We had an immediate rapport starting with the first song and just kept going till the end. Elton’s music surprised me. Somehow he managed to tap into all sorts of traditions of songs that had huge resonance with the working class culture I was writing about. Hymns, the songs of male voice choirs, folk songs, the kind of rock and roll beloved of working mens clubs were all flooding out. I realized that what we were creating was a form of musical that had a particularly British heritage going back to music hall, Ewan McColl’s work with the Unity Theatre, Joan Littlewood’s famous productions at Stratford East which led on to Lionel Bart emerging to produce Oliver. It was a tradition which I had seen in the work of the 7:84 Theatre Company in the 1980s – where song, folk dance, politics and gritty humor all came together in the proud working-class tradition of ‘a good night out’. Although we never discussed any of this consciously, Elton had understood that tradition and had thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of us to create a musical that was truly British, that would be rough, lyrical, funny, and moving in equal measure.
But however good it looked on paper and however good the songs sounded on Elton’s demo, the show depends entirely on finding someone to play Billy Elliot. Not only did we need one Billy Elliot but we needed three at any one time. It seemed like an impossible challenge. It took a couple of years to trawl through every dance school in the country but to my amazement we found a group of boys who surpassed my hopes. The strangest thing was conjuring up a story which I thought was an extreme and unlikely metaphoric tale only to find time after time that it was true. The boys who we discovered, just as Jamie Bell had been, were real life Billy Elliots. And I can recognize in them the sure straightforward enjoyment of what they do, that I had discovered in Newcastle. Their pleasure is simple, uncomplicated and unpretentious; to them what they do is the most natural thing in the world because they have found a way of expressing themselves.
Never forget where you come from
If Billy Elliot is about one thing, it is that we are all capable of making lives for ourselves which are full of joy and self-expression, whilst we might not all become ballet dancers we are capable of finding moments of real profundity and creativity whatever our circumstances. But more than that, we have a duty to ourselves and each other to create a society where this possibility in all of us is nurtured and can flourish. We owe it to the next generation to create a world where it is possible for the Billy Elliots, as yet unborn, to have a chance to succeed and flourish rather than be fed to the machine which grinds us into identical pieces only fit for consumption. If Billy Elliot conveys any message at all, I hope it is that it is possible to fight back and resist and it is possible to move on without forgetting where you come from.
‘I know that we can produce a society where man will cease to simply go to work and have a little leisure, but will release his latent talent and ability and begin to produce in the cultural sense all the things I know he’s capable of: music, poetry, writing, sculpture whole works of art that, at the moment, lie dormant simply because we, as a society, are not able to tap it.’ - Arthur Scargill, Leader of National Union of Mineworkers,1982.