Life and Art: Billy Elliot

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Jan. 31 2001 3:00 AM

Life and Art: Billy Elliot

What the film gets wrong about the British miners' strike.

("Life and Art" is an occasional feature that compares movies with the real-life facts they're based on.) 

Scene from Billy Elliot
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In Billy Elliot, the eponymous 11-year-old hero escapes the macho mining culture of his hometown by taking up ballet and vying for a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Ballet School. The plot isn't as fanciful as it might sound—Royal Ballet dancer Philip Mosley is a miner's son from blue-collar Yorkshire—and as a sentimental sob story, Billy Elliot is surprisingly effective (it may well receive Oscar nominations next month). But as history, Billy is bunk.

Take the boy's living conditions. He's supposedly living through the miners' strike of 1984-85—the class war to end all class wars—with his bullying miner brother Tony, his widowed miner dad Jacky, and his ga-ga grandmother. But from the look of things, it's more like 1974. Tony listens to LPs on an ancient mono record player. Billy's prized Newcastle United soccer shirt is 1970s vintage (telltale sign: no sponsorship patch). The use of T Rex songs for the bulk of the soundtrack allows for a nice segue from the band's "Ride a White Swan" to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," but it also sets the movie in entirely the wrong decade (front-man Marc Bolan died in 1977). The house's overcrowded conditions have the brothers sharing a room—in looks and tone, it's eerily reminiscent of the house in Kes (1969), a beautiful, moving film about a sensitive lad with a bullying miner brother—and grandma seems to be parked in what was once the living room.

The sight of Billy in such a house ratchets up the sympathy level, but it's exceedingly unlikely that a small family with two coal-face workers wouldn't have modernized their home. Although the yearlong strike caused severe financial hardships for miners' families, they started out relatively well off—it's dangerous and dirty work, and by the early 1980s miners were among the highest-paid manual workers in Britain. Billy wouldn't have been in Tony's hand-me-downs; the family's income would've risen considerably during the 10 or so years between them.

But the bigger problem is the presentation of the strike itself. In the movie, policemen gambol unmolested on the village green as they wait to escort the next shift of strike-breakers into the pit. The film's coppers never speak, which was certainly not the case in real life. In The Miners' Strike 1984-5: Loss Without End, Martin Adeney and John Lloyd report that the village of Easington, where Billy Elliot was filmed, was rife with "intimidatory" police tactics—women and children were verbally harassed, drivers were picked up and questioned—that hardly gibe with the movie's pastoral idyll.

Later, in what is probably the movie's most unrealistic scene, Jacky—who's stressed out about raising the cash to get Billy down to London for his Royal Ballet School audition—casually decides to break the strike, boards a bus full of scabs, and heads off to do a shift underground. Tony sees him on the bus and, along with five friends, climbs over the unprotected (not even barbed wire!) fence onto mine property to talk Jacky into keeping the faith. Although there was an element of formalized protest in the eggings, name-calling, and physical intimidation of scabs by strikers, if it had been that easy to get near the mines, there would have been a lot more violence and vandalism. As it is, two miners were killed on picket lines and more than 11,000 people were arrested during the strike.

The problem is that this genre—call it the "art as ticket out of the grim North" formula—requires class conflict. Think of the lads in The Full Monty doing a strip-tease to ease the pain and privation of mass unemployment, or two of the brothers in East Is East hairdressing and sex-organ-sculpting their way out of the family's cramped home, or the Brassed Off band chasing away the threat of Thatcher closing their town's pit by playing a beautiful version of "The Floral Dance." It's all entertaining enough, but it's just too bad the moviemakers end up rewriting history in the process.

June Thomas, Slate's foreign editor, was born and raised in Mosley Common near Manchester, England, a mining community whose pit closed in 1968. Her father and grandfathers were miners. You can e-mail her atintpapers@slate.com.

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