Billy Elliot meets RED [by James Wenley]
With Billy Elliot, everyone remembers the feel good inspirational story of the boy who became a ballet star. In revisiting the film recently, I was struck by the gritty social background – of Thatcher’s England and the miners sacrificing everything with lengthy strike action. For Billy, dancing was a way of escaping a life already set out for him; of following his father underground.
In his play The Pitmen Painters, Elliot screen-writer Lee Hall returns to similar concerns. Based on a book by William Feaver, and a fascinating real-life story, Hall follows the Ashington Group miners through the 30s/40s, who, encouraged by their art tutor, turn to painting for the first time and become darlings of the art world. While Elliott’s rags to riches dancing feet is a populist story (and later turned into a West End / Broadway musical with music by Elton John) and the Pitmen’s story is a far more intellectual one (this is Theatre with a capital ‘T’), they share much in common: Mining, social upheaval and class warfare - exchanging pickets for paints. One miner with great promise, Oliver, is offered a weekly stipend, worth more than his mining pay, to be a full-time painter – a chance to escape the mines and have a “proper creative life”. In both, we see Hall dealing with passions, creativity, self-expression in an otherwise oppressive environment.