Who remembers Billy Elliot? Its probably easier to ask who doesn't since the movie, made in 2000, both reminded us of the past yet also provided a look at the future. The past was graphically illustrated by the story being set amidst the violence of the miner's strike of 1984. The strike was a picture of life in the UK up to that point, a time when division across the UK was a stark reality.
On the one hand you had Billy and his family, housed in the typical narrow terraces usually lived in by his social class, on the other the more middle class area in which his dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters in fine form) lives, and at the other end of the extreme, the grand structure of the Royal Ballet School.
When Margaret Thatcher (below - Rob Bogaerts/Anefo/CCO) became Prime Minister the UK was a devastated and chaotic country. Strikes were seen an almost daily basis. High inflation led to mass unemployment and the divide between social classes was as great as it had ever been.
That was the 1970s and into the 1980s; that was the UK that Thatcher's government had to take on. Almost twenty years after the film was made, the UK is still a divided country, albeit for different reasons. Or are those reasons so very different?
In 1984, and throughout the film, there is more than a hint of sexual repression in that one of the concerns, as expressed by Billy's father Jackie (Gary Lewis), having discovered his younger son's interest, says that boys do football, boxing and wrestling. Billy replies that ballet is not just for poofs. Paradoxically, Billy's best mate Michael (Stuart Wells) does 'come out' to Billy as being gay, particularly after Billy calls by one day to find Michael cross-dressing. Yet despite the thinking of the era, once Billy's talent for dancing had been revealed, not just Billy's dad, but also his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven), along with the rest of the community, rally round to raise the money for Billy to go to the Royal Ballet School in London. But even though so much progress has been made in making differences unremarkable today, although the stigma surrounding sexuality has been removed, at least to a large degree, homophobia is still well established. The debate still goes on.
The divisions that exist today were, in a sense, predicted in Billy Elliot, and as they also were (again in one sense) by an earlier movie, Kes, made in 1969. Based on Barry Hines' book, Kestrel For a Nave, the film's principal character, Billy Casper, is indeed from what might be termed the lower socio-economic group. With an inadequate single mother (Lynne Perrie), a bullying and abusive older brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher) and sadistic teachers at school, in particular the headmaster, Mr Gryce (Bob Bowes). Gryce is severe, abrupt, appears constantly in a bad temper, and does not listen, inflicting punishment even on a boy who has simply been sent to convey a message to him by another teacher. He shows no interest in Billy as a pupil or faith in him as a future member of society, and regards the young people of the school as being of little worth. Another is the PE teacher, Mr Sugden, brilliantly played by Brian Glover - remarkably this was Glover's first acting role, acquired through being a teacher himself alongside Barry Hines, whose recommendation landed Glover the part.
One teacher who was the polar opposite of Gryce and Sugden was Mr Farthing, played by Colin Welland. Farthing takes an interest in Casper and helps the boy along the way. Like Billy Elliot, Kes is set in a mining area with an uncertain future - the miners in the area were allegedly then the lowest paid workers in a developed country.The film was produced at the start of the British coal-mining industry being run down, as gas and oil were increasingly used in place of coal, which led to wage restraints and widespread pit closures. Shortly before the film's release, the Yorkshire coalfield, where the film was set, was brought to a standstill for two weeks by a strike. Kes does not have as happy an ending as Billy Elliot but the parallels between the two stories still run true - whereas Casper does not find his way out of a life of drudgery, Elliot does; at his interview with the panel at the Royal Ballet School, Billy is asked by a panel member: “What does it feel like when you’re dancing?” Billy pauses before saying, “Dunno.” Two judges on the panel, including the one who asked the question, look disappointed.
“Billy is struggling to articulate something that he has never had to articulate [before],” explained the film's director, Stephen Daldry. Unable to initially answer the judge’s question, Billy shows how limited his world has been. His eventual answer, in broken sentences is: “It sort of feels good. It’s sort of safe and that… But, once I get going, I sort of forget everything. I sort of disappear. I can feel a change in my whole body. I’m just there… I have this fire in my whole body. I’m flying… like a bird. Like electricity… Yeah, like electricity.”
It is this feeling that is shared between the two Billys but unlike his later counterpart the dancer, Billy Casper has no chance to explain (except to Mr Farthing). Jackie Elliott shows an ultimate ability to learn from his son and provides the way forward for Billy to progress but Billy Casper has no similar outlet - only his braggart of a brother Jud.
(left - Keith Pattison)
Turn fiction into a possible reality for a moment; Jud Casper was a violent young man in 1969, in an area when going down the pit was the only working option. Billy Casper had declared an unwillingness to follow but his chance of doing something else was denied by Jud. Fifteen years passed by between the two stories so the small slightly-built fifteen-year-old Billy Casper would then have been thirty. Jud some five years or so older and both could have moved further north to escape pit closures in Yorkshire to the north-east to work in the pits there, and by 1984, both, Jud in particular, might have been at the forefront of strike action. Such one-dimensional thinking, well entrenched for decades, pervaded the UK at the time. In some ways, it still does.
The violence between the police and striking miners in 1984 has also been repeated, again for different reasons since the strike, at least on the face of it - was the strike purely against pit closures or was it a politically-motivated action, led by hard-left leaders wanting to bring down an elected Conservative government? The same ideal is expressed today by a number of trade union leaders. And its question; what happens to communities devastated by de-industrialization and privatization, has been thrust into the spotlight with the Brexit vote - the source of much of the division now prevalent in the UK today.
The world is moving at an ever-increasing pace away from fossil fuels like coal and has done for some time but it must surely be good idea to keep former mining communities strong, safe, and giving them a valid means of alternative employment. The same also applies to steel and other industries faced with closure today.
The consequences of not doing so, as well as what amounts to a destruction of entire areas of work, placed alongside the 'weird kid that wants to get out,' makes the message behind Billy Elliot, and for that matter Kes, just as relevant now as it was when both films were made.
© Kevan James 2019.
Read Kevan James' previous article on the consequences of yesterday upon today -
'The Undisciplined Young'.
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