April 16th, 2002

Billy Elliot

Remember when BBC newscasters used to end reports with remarks like, “And fingers crossed for Emma Thompson at tomorrow night’s Oscars!”, as if it were a patriotic given that we’d be rooting for the smarmy old cow? Well, expect similar exhortations for Billy Elliot come this month’s awards.

Set in Durham against the backdrop of the 1984 miner’s strike, it tells the “exhilarating”, “stirring”, “bravura” story of an 11 year old boy drawn away from his weekly boxing class towards the ballet sessions organised by Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters), much to the disgust of his Father, miner Gary Lewis. His elder brother, a firebrand picketer, is disgusted too. The word “cissy” is bandied about over the kitchen table. But Billy can’t and won’t stop dancing. Will he eventually win over his pa and bro, triumph against the odds and local prejudice and grow up to perform in the Royal Ballet? Did Scargill win the Miner’s Strike?

These are questions we know the answers to from the outset. Billy Elliot is clearly assembled from a Do-It-Yourself-Construct-A-Heartwarming-Surprise-British-Movie-Success-Kit. There are the usual measures of provincial earthiness, “wry humour”, (in this case mostly at the expense of male homophobic inhibitions), with pathos dolloped over the top by thick gravy – Billy’s Mam died young, you see, as a tinkling piano trickling constantly throughout the film reminds us. Julie Walters is drafted in to do her careworn but tough schtick, while Gary Lewis must surely by fed up of playing the dense patriarch who eventually does the right thing out of love for his bairns.

Where do we begin? Well, there’s the boy himself, played by jug-eared sprout Jamie Bell, the most ungrateful, self-obsessed little character visited on us since Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Granted he’s 11 but his utter indifference to the privations, picketing and police presence all around him are more to do with his blinkeredness than his innocence. As for his spontaneous dance routines, mostly involving lots of running around punctuated by the occasional clumsy pirouette, you marvel at the stoicism of his family and fellow terrace-dwellers in not gathering him up, hog-tying him to a rail and lobbing him in the canal – they’ve enough to be putting up with as it is. His backyard routine to The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” just makes you want to toe-punt the little c*** up and down the back ginnel.

As with The Full Monty, Billy Elliot is guilt of exploiting rather than exploring a political backdrop for its own dramatic ends – in this case, the miner’s strike. The permanent phalanx of police is presented as a mere fact, their dubious role in the strike unquestioned. Indeed, if the film imparts any message via Billy Elliot, it’s the insidiously fashionable one that the crisis suffered by the miners was somehow one of masculinity, rather than their being victims of the callous, needless birth-pangs of a post-industrialist project enforced by Thatcher’s Tories. The scenes involving confrontations between police, picketers and coachloads of scabs are often lamentably staged – in once scene, you can see what are clearly a bunch of local extras actually grinning as they’re pursued down the streets by cops.

Then there’s the scene in which Billy’s Dad, reduced to scabbing to pay for Billy’s fees, is confronted by his eldest son, who simply takes a leg-up over a security fence to get into the coalfield. Erm – dunno, but in actuality, wouldn’t he have been hauled back down by about 1500 riot police? Wasn’t that why they were there? Ironically, the truth is that back in the early Eighties, you could have thrown a brick in any of the big Northern industrial town nightclubs and hit half a dozen blokes in ballet tights. The New Romantic era went over huge in recession-hit Leeds, for instance, with clubs like Amnesia and The Warehouse crammed with Spandau lookalikes. Recession-hit areas have always been hotbeds for defiant flamboyance and dressing up, a cultural fact beyond the conceited makers of Billy Elliot with their stereotype notions of dourly conservative Northerners.

Ultimately, however, the sub-text to The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, one that seems especially pleasing to Americans is – okay, your jobs and traditions have been taken away from you but don’t be so sullen and brutish about it. You can still entertain us with your little dances. You Northerners are the new Negroes, dancing is in your blood. Dance, you poor clods, and maybe we’ll throw you some pennies! Some may find this “heartwarming” . I find it blood boiling.

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