In 2000, the film version of this story hit the big screen. It was a tale of a working-class boy in a northern pit village, set during the 1984/85 miners strike, who didn’t just want to dance but wanted to do ballet.
The film was a big hit, but, apart from the nostalgia that struggle always brings to the fore for those of us around at the time, it didn’t have much to commend it to a politically aware audience. The setting was just that – a backdrop. It didn’t seem to affect the boy, apart from the agonising that both his father (who nearly scabs to get the money for his son to dance) and older brother (should he accept scabs’ money to pay for his brother to dance?) do.
The glorious end is little Billy living his dream against the backdrop of crushed miners returning to work. Presumably, Billy dancing is meant to be their victory?
So along went our reviewer, who had not been all that enamoured by the film, to see the stage show, wondering how different from the original it could be?
It is amazingly different! The wonderful proud humour (especially in the face of adversity) and language from the youngest to the oldest is what you would have expected in a north-east mining village. The strike isn’t just an incidental going on in the background, it is as much the main story as the boy’s wish to dance, and while the dance scene between the pickets and the police is almost slapstick, the dance that the police do with riot shields is quite scary. Anyone who has ever faced riot police in this country is immediately hit by the intimidating noise that they can make when banging their batons in unison, and it is that intimidation that is recreated on stage.
There is no doubt on stage about who the good and bad guys are between the police and pickets: the jeering police wave their wage packets and boast of the overtime payments for cracking miners’ heads. But the story is much more fudged when it comes to the scabs, who only really make one appearance – to bring the money they have all collected to pay for Billy’s dancing chance.
This is the only scene that doesn’t fit with reality. Such people used to hide their heads in 84/85 when not in a pack or protected by the police, and they were just as guilty of ‘wage-packet waving’ as any copper. The idea of them getting together and donating piles of cash to help the son and brother of strike leaders beggars belief!
There is a brilliant scene where the pickets are holding their Christmas party, the whole thing being an excellent representation of the parties that went on throughout the coalfields in miners’ welfare clubs during the strike, with satirical songs and pantomimes aimed at the government, the police, the press etc.
And the ending of the strike is not portrayed as crushed miners going back to work with heads bowed. The lodge banner is out and the song proudly proclaims that a battle may have been lost but the war goes on.
The battle to save the mines may indeed have been lost, but when workers stand up in such numbers, and against such odds, there is a victory in that alone; one that resonates through the years and becomes part of our history, and one that will no doubt inspire future generations of workers to stand not only against the class enemy and its police force, but also against the enemies among their own ranks; not just the scabs, but also the far more dangerous forces of social democracy, who stand behind striking workers whispering defeatist poison in their ears.
All in all, this show is highly enjoyable, and the audiences that see it, love it. Sadly, for the majority of the working class, the more negative film is the only Billy Elliot that they will see, as this show, like all West End shows, is financially out of their reach.