Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Interview

NORTHERN SOUL

Politics is at the heart of the huge success of Billy Elliot. Ian Mitchell a Yorkshire miner during the 1984-85 strike, spoke to screenwriter Lee Hall about the challenges of writing on working class life.
Lee Hall
Lee Hall

Billy Elliot: The facts

  • By mid-November 1.4 million people in the UK had seen Billy Elliot
  • In the US over 5.8 million people had seen it in its first five weeks
  • Received the Standard Life Audience Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival where 88 percent voted for it
  • Received four awards at the British Independent Film Awards
  • Were you surprised at the success of Billy Elliot?
    There are two answers really. I was completely surprised that such a small, personal film could succeed. Stephen Daldry, the director, is a friend of mine, we got together, wrote the thing, and after many years got the money to do it. So I'm very surprised that people would like it. But my other answer is I always knew that if you can write something about working class people with some integrity, and can represent their lives, because they make up a huge percentage of the audience, I think there's a real chance of it being successful. When you think about Boys from the Blackstuff, people see themselves in it, and we're so deprived of anything that's got any texture and reality--if you can write about that stuff well you have a good chance of being successful. The people in London who rule the film industry or the BBC are always mystified by these things, but it seems obvious why they're successful--because they're speaking to people.

    The BBC funded the script, but it didn't want to talk about the miners' strike at all. It was absolutely resistant to the whole idea. Then there is the inverse snobbery to the whole dance thing, which is exactly what the film is about, and the struggle of trying to persuade people why it's so relevant, which is exactly what the film is about. I went to Cambridge, so I know that other world, but they're so out of touch it's unbelievable. The inverse elitism was more acute in an article by Charlotte Raven in the Guardian, where she claimed the film was patronising the working class people and a lot of the comments from the liberal metropolitan press are very sniffy about the film, because they say it's sentimental. But it's my own experience, so it's true--people are like that. The whole film for me is trying to look at the contradictions about these attitudes to class, and that's what is interesting. Putting the two extremes together--ballet dancing and the mining community--means you can look at all these issues. It's politically informed, but not didactic in any way, and that was deliberate. The political issues have been dealt with in other ways, and what I have to say is not unique. I felt I wanted to try and capture what I perceived as the spirit of the strike: the sense of an out and out battle with the police/state. So that's what I could achieve as a dramatist. You can go and read books that talk to you about the machinations of the politics.

    You say it's not unique, but I was really pleased that a lot of people who'd been to see the film, and who played some part in supporting or were involved in the strike, saw that the film came over as very favourable to the miners, and you'd be a complete idiot to miss that one. In the scene where Billy's dad nearly cracks and attempts to cross the picket line, people claim he goes back to work and everything is happy again. In fact, he didn't go back. You think, hang on a minute, for anyone involved in the strike that was a very realistic scene. So many guys, for personal reasons, nearly broke, especially after Xmas and being out ten months, because they were really trying to hold their families together and nearly breaking. The film shows that really well.

    The best thing about the film for me in terms of the strike is the role of the police, because you don't get told it, and I don't remember seeing anything like this. The television series Our Friends in the North has an episode which shows the police and the mining communities really well, but I think this shows it brilliantly. It also shows the effects on Billy and the young girl, how the occupation became normality, the fact that they actually rampaged through people's houses chasing after people. Young people have to be able to see that was the reality.
    I was very surprised, because they show the film before it's completed to people to see what they think, and some young people just didn't know what a strike was, really. I just cannot believe that they were saying, 'What's going on? We just don't understand this.' I find it very scary that people didn't know--it made me think that it was definitely worth doing just on that level.

    What would you say to the people who accuse the film, where Billy becomes a ballet dancer, as just about someone who escapes the working class--people can get out of their class, and this just shows it?
    The most horrifying conclusion for me is that the film is Blairite--ie, that by being cultured you transcend your class. I don't think the people who say this have been able to read the film. He starts off as an individual and then he takes everybody with him. He's able to do so because there is some type of solidarity and community which has allowed him to flourish--to me, it's about finding self expression and standing up for what you believe in. It makes me furious to think people really believe you can't articulate yourself in an artistic way and remain working class. It shows such an ignorance of the whole tradition of the working class, where art is an absolutely fundamental thing. I do believe everybody is creative and everyone's an artist. It's not an embodiment of middle class values, and I'm amazed at the falsity of that type of analysis. In the narrative of the film it's about Billy's relationship with his father and the wider community, and understanding their own potential at the time of being shat on by everybody. That is the dynamic of the film. Was that problematic for you?


    Growing up in the North, socialism was taken for granted

    Billy Elliot rehearses his steps
    Billy Elliot rehearses his steps

    No, not at all. The family was in crisis, with the death of his mother. But also the other relationships that came into it, such as Billy's friend, which dealt with the question of sexuality. One of my experiences of the strike from the outset was that there was a lot of mistrust towards a gay guy we worked with who didn't want to stand on the picket line, fearing he'd get loads of abuse. He turned into one of the best activists in the strike and his sexuality was absolutely secondary. First and foremost he was a key figure. By the end of the strike things didn't go back to normal. People who previously would have been hostile had to defend him. That would have moved people as well. Also there was an explosion of activity, and people did find that they had talents. People acted out scenes from the strike when they went round trying to get solidarity. For me it was--okay, he gets out--but the most important thing is how people are accepted back. When Billy Elliot was shown in Glasgow some people would have liked to have shown it at the Glasgow Film Theatre. The fact it's been at the Odeon for six or seven weeks tells a tale.
    That's interesting, because when we were making it the film companies felt it was an arthouse film and we argued vociferously for it not to be ghettoised in that way, and we were proved right. What's quite weird is reading columns in the Daily Mail about what a great struggle the miners fought. When did that ever happen?

    Do you think there is a trend for more radical films to come through and be more acceptable?
    These types of film are quite hard to get made. You have to fight for them. Billy Elliot was an endless process of trying to explain to people why it's good. They can't just read a script and respond. In the beginning there were five or six different companies that reluctantly put money in because no single place would take it on. The ludicrous thing is that it's made a fortune for the companies, yet they couldn't see that it might, so the amounts of money we received were quite tiny. In fact, it was the lottery that saved us because it gave us about £1 million, which it will get back. There are so many of these daft gangster films that they put money into it makes me mad.

    What about the legacy of Thatcherism continuing under Blair, because you've written about inequality under New Labour?
    A lot of people ask me why I set the film in the past. It's relevant now as the story of the kid struggling to find self expression, but it seemed to me that the strike was the absolute political watershed since the Second World War. It was such a defining moment, and from there runs everything else. Certainly I don't think you would have Blairism if that strike had been successful--it's a whole row of dominoes. I particularly wanted to have the strike there because it seems to define our current era. The film is about that loss of the strike, but also the loss of culture, community and tradition, and once you've beaten that down you open the door for this sort of relativism which seems to be what Blair is about. The things that have been in the papers--you know, 'It's grim up north, we've seen that before'--but it's happening now--to real people. There's a culture of the liberal left that this depiction of people's lives is old fashioned, as if it's different now! I don't know what they think has happened. To me it's evident that they don't get out of their little enclaves in Islington. If people can recognise that those struggles are going on, it's a battle.

    Watching the film, people identify for all the right reasons, and I found it quite inspiring because it is about overcoming adversity. It all comes together at the end where they're sat in the theatre and there's the young boy, his partner and the father all sat together--the people who helped to get him there. There's a bit of Brassed Off in it. I think it's popular because Thatcher did do us badly, and we're still paying the price for it--Blairism--but also because of the lack of a challenge from the leadership of the trade union movement. There's real bitterness in society where we'd love to see people having a go, so anything that smacks of resistance is popular. Thousands of people like me are so happy to see something that is really well done and shows what these bastards did. When I've told people tales about the police they think I'm exaggerating. Did you see first hand what the police did?
    I grew up in Newcastle rather than in a pit village but you couldn't help but be aware of everything that was going on. We had a little youth theatre group which went out and put on our daft plays supporting the strike. So when I first discovered theatre, acting and writing it was very politicised because it was agitprop plays raising money for support groups. You'd never do Shakespeare--it was always about the miners. The police thing is very interesting because it was one of the things they wanted us to tone down. And we were always scared to go into the edit room and find they were looking over our shoulders so we constructed the whole thing in a way where if you took it out you would completely fuck up the narrative. That's why, often, if there's nothing going on in a scene we put in the police. So they just couldn't cut these things out, really, and we managed to say what we wanted to say.

    Where did you get the idea of a young kid growing up and being interested in particular in ballet? I read somewhere you rang the Royal Ballet School.
    That was much later. It's not based on anybody. For me, writing was my ballet, in a sense. I was trying to find a way of telling my own story but in a visual way. The first image that came to my mind was the kid jumping up and down on the bed like I used to do. Once I had that bit, the whole thing about dance just came tumbling out. What you look for as a dramatist is conflict. I knew I wanted to set it in that time, because it was personal to me. I realised I didn't know much about the specifics of ballet at all, so I rang up the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden and to my amazement found this lad from Barnsley who is one of their principal dancers whose brother was a miner and had grown up during the strike. Since then there are a couple of people who've come out of the woodwork with similar stories. It's great to think I'd imagined something and it's turned out to be true.

    What do you think of the movement which has grown up against capitalism?
    It's interesting that it's growing into a movement. I've just started reading No Logo by Naomi Klein. Growing up in the north east, there was that sense of socialism being taken for granted. You'd stand out like a sore thumb if you didn't have certain principles. It seems a lot of people have discovered it for themselves--just woken up one day and it's there. What's weird is that it's often not really informed by a Marxist tradition and analysis that I take for granted, but it is exciting. It doesn't seem to be connected with any organised labour movement anywhere. It seems in parallel to it.

    All the books like those by George Monbiot and Susan George all say capitalism wrecks people's lives. What force can people look to bring about fundamental change--that is the question. The popularity of Billy Elliot is a sign of recovery. The defining moment was the miners' strike and the defeats that came after that. There's still lack of confidence on the part of ordinary people, but they like to see people fighting and standing up. That day's not too far, because we've got a government that just carries on with presenting neoliberal policies, privatisation--the infrastructure and the environment are falling apart, and people are connecting these things. We as a socialist organisation are finding it much easier to find an audience than at any time since I've been a socialist. In Glasgow on May Day we were part of a demonstration of 2,000 protesting against capitalism, very young with placards saying, 'Smash capitalism--save the environment'. Is Billy Elliot popular in the US?
    It's only on a few screens but it's about to go countrywide. They've spent a lot of money publicising it. I was there two weeks ago, and you could turn on the television and there were adverts for it, which is very weird to see sitting in a room in Los Angeles. It has gone down very well in the Puerto Rican area of Chicago, for instance, where there have been a series of test screenings, so I'm pleased that all sorts of different communities see themselves in it. I thought this film would never travel, but it's obvious why it has an appeal, really. It's about struggle. Hopefully it will touch people there. It's more than my expectations could hope for.

    What is your next project?
    Jimmispud, which was originally a radio play set in Newcastle, is another one about a little kid. But they sacked me, took the script and got rid of me, so I don't know what they've done with it. I do a lot of theatre and radio. I'm doing a kids' show in Hammersmith of Pinocchio, going back to the original book, which is very interesting--it's all about abject poverty, he's an innocent in this world who thinks everyone is nice, so he's bang up against it every time. It's a kids' pantomime.

    I can feel cut off from what people are thinking about the film, and I always feel really nervous politically about what I'm doing. You see your own compromises all the time written large, and it's really nice to hear when socialists like it.

    Police in the 1984/85 miner's strike occupy Armthorpe pit village
    Police in the 1984/85 miner's strike occupy Armthorpe pit village

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