The Boys are back in town

It’s taken a while, but Billy Elliot is finally coming home. The stage musical of this now famous ‘backstreets to ballet’ story comes to Sunderland in April and writer Lee Hall will be there in the audience with his mam. Kathryn Armstrong talked to the prolific and very political playwright

The story of Billy Elliot has touched many a life in the years since Lee Hall made the skinny boy in the ballet  class a household name.

Not least Hall’s life as he’s the first to admit. But we’re not talking the Oscar nomination and the Elton John collaboration for the stage musical.

Hall measures Billy’s legacy in performances seen, lives touched, jobs created and careers launched.

And he is rightly proud.

Next month Billy comes back North. To Sunderland Empire Theatre, not so far from those east Durham streets that were made famous in the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliott film.

“It’s been a long time coming”, concedes Hall, talking from his home in the heart of London’s theatre district.

Hall will be 50 this year and his heart if not his home, is still firmly in the North East, ‘‘my artistic home, even though I have lived all over the place’’.

“I’ve got to say I fought hard to try and open the show in the North East. It became impossible because of the set and I was disappointed at the time not to be able to bring it.”

But a few years on, the pride at seeing Billy take to the Empire’s stage won’t be diminished. He will be there in the audience next month with his ‘mam’ and his sister, justifiably proud of little Billy, who remains a symbol of hope, resilience and fight.

It amazes me how smart, intelligent and informed our audiences in the North East are. They are sharp about everything and I still think it is an amazingly creative area which keeps refreshing itself

But though it is more than 30 years since the miners’ strike which features so heavily in the story, Hall remains angry that in some ways the social landscape remains unchanged for today’s Billys.

He refers to the very recent end of steel-making on Teesside and the closure of the Redcar blast furnace.

“When I came up with the story of Billy there was still a mining industry. By the time I made the film, many pits were closed and now there is not a mining industry.

“Watching the Teesside plant broadcasts made me feel 14 again. A terrible story of job losses, which is heartbreaking because many thousands of lives are affected.

“It is a time of massive cultural and economic change and ordinary people are not protected. Big business and finance get supported but it is taken away from ordinary people.”

He worries that high tuition fees are having a generational impact on the arts which is just starting to be seen by people like himself working in the industry.

He’s not the first high-profile writer or actor to say such a thing and is anxious that the Billy Elliots of the world now have no safety net.

“The story of Billy Elliot is about somebody who has a talent and is given a chance.

“Billy is only able to succeed because he took everyone with him. You need family, community and teachers to be able to do that.

“Today drama schools are full of people from public schools – nothing wrong with these kids but they are the only ones who can afford it and that was not true in my day.”

Lee’s own story is that of the boy with working class parents who went from a comprehensive in Benfield to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and one day got an Oscar nomination for his Billy Elliot screenplay.

In his day there were grants and financial support to make that educational leap. Now the landscape is different.

“I can really see the difference now. It is a precarious profession and one that is becoming another world – it is up to us to make it open to all or we are losing a generation of the most talented kids.

“The smartest kids are being excluded and as a country we are poorer for it.

“It is like going back to the 1930s where people paid for their education and they were much worse times.”

Hall is famously political and was involved in a voracious row with Newcastle City Council when it announced the axing of >> the city’s cultural budget in 2103.

He predicted the city becoming a “cultural wasteland” and remains angry at reductions in library services in the city.

“I am brokenhearted about what has been done to libraries in Newcastle, cutting their hours and shutting down half of them but I am also deeply ashamed at the real assault on ordinary people and their right to culture.

“I can go to Amazon and order a book but people rely on libraries.

“Culture should be a vital part of everybody’s life and what we are seeing is cultural apartheid”, he says.

Culture lies at the heart of many of Hall’s plays. The Pitman Painters brought us the story of the Ashington miners and their night-school painting class who went on to rock the art establishment. It remains a constant with North East audiences and beyond.

Later this year his outrageously funny Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour will land at the Theatre Royal. It’s a very grand building for a pretty shocking and hilarious play about a group of Scottish convent girls with a plan to ‘go f…ing mental’ on a school trip to Edinburgh. It’s brilliant and the Theatre Royal an exciting showcase for Hall.

“It’s a real thrill to bring it to big Grey Street”, he laughs.

“A great contrast. Quite a few of my plays start at Live Theatre, such as Cooking with Elvis and Pitman Painters.

It is nice enough that people are interested in the work that is so fulfilling for me and that people in the North East have a connection with what I do.

“It is rare and rewarding to have a connection with the audience, a special thing.

“I have done a lot of talks at Live Theatre and it amazes me how smart, intelligent and informed our audiences in the North East are. They are sharp about everything and I still think it is an amazingly creative area which keeps refreshing itself.

“We are a significant and cultured place and years ago we did not celebrate that.

“We recognise that now and culture is seen as an important part of the North East’s identity. It has taken a long time to grasp and celebrate that but there is a danger of cutting that cord and that talent will go elsewhere.”

As is evident, Hall’s work is popular in the the region and across the the globe and if he writes plays, people will come – so what is on the radar and how does his writing life play out on a daily basis?

“I wake early and prefer to write for a few hours before I have meetings with directors, actors, novelists; every day is different.”

Current projects include Victoria & Abdul, the story of Queen Victoria and an Indian manservant.

Abdul Karim and the monarch became friends – he taught her Urdu and about the Koran because he was a Muslim. He also cooked curry for her – and she became a fan!

He didn’t find favour with Queen Victoria’s court and after her death died in poverty, but the story is one of friendship and loyalty as her constant companion for the last ten years of her life.

Rich pickings for any writer.

Hall has also written Rocketman, the Elton John story which has Tom Hardy playing the flamboyant singer – who of course collaborated with Hall on Billy Elliot The Musical.

Speaking about the project on the BBC Front Row programme in 2014 Hall said he saw parallels in the lives of Sir Elton and the fictional character of Billy, a young boy from a working class community who dreams of becoming a dancer.

“The more I talked to Elton, the more I realised that he was Billy Elliot,” he explained. “He went to the Royal Academy when, I think, he was about 13 and he was studying to be a classical pianist and he discovered Elvis Presley and the rest is history.”

It seems there’s a bit of Billy in a lot of people.

“It is as relevant now – which is terrible”, concludes Hall.

“But it is thrilling to me that this musical has been going for 11 years.

“I read show reports after the performances and there are still standing ovations.

“It teaches people something essential about how they are feeling. It is so exciting to have something that is still so ‘alive’.

“It is a universal story, an embodiment of all that talent. I wrote Billy a long time ago and now it is owned not by me but by scores of people dedicated to making it fresh. It embodies what we can do together.

“For those of us who work on it, it is more than putting on a play; it is a crucial part of our lives, the embodiment of what you can achieve if you put resources to the right things. It has been a very exciting thing and long may it continue.”


Billy Elliot is at Sunderland Empire 6-30 April | atgtickets.com/venues/sunderland-empire

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