Q&A with Writer Lee Hall | Living North

Q&A with Writer Lee Hall

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Stephen Daldry, Elton John, Lee Hall

Billy is coming home! You must be very excited?
It is really exciting for me, bringing it back to where the idea came from. We did our very first reading of the script, when it was called Dancer, at the Live Theatre nearly 20 years ago. We brought people from the BBC to hear it and see if they were interested, and of course they were. It’s amazing how it caught everybody’s imagination and it’s a lovely journey to come back to the North East.

You tried to launch the musical here?
Yes that's what I really wanted to do, because I'm so proud of the North East and it is a celebration of all of the things I love about growing up in the North East. It’s full of the humour and humanity of the North East too so I thought people would get more of the jokes than they would down South, but it was too complicated with the kids. It’s taken a long time, but we got here.

Where did the idea for Billy Elliot come from?
I was living in America in my mid-20s and I was trying to explain to people what it was like growing up in the North East, especially during Thatcher's time and the miners’ strike. It’s quite an unusual thing to explain so I was thinking about it quite a lot. Then I was daydreaming in the bath one day and I had this vision of a little lad running down a back alley wearing a tutu. It was such a strange thought that I got out of the bath and wrote a little story about this kid that wanted to be dancer but his dad was a miner during the strike. I put it in a drawer and didn’t think much about it, then I got it out six months later when I realised it might make a good story.

So is the story autobiographical?
It’s a kind of fantasy autobiography. I can’t dance to save my life, but a lot of the emotional story is really about me. It’s about growing up in a place where masculinity was defined by the culture of the mines or the shipyards, feeling a bit different and knowing that you're probably not going to follow your parents down the pit or into the yards – particularly because it was becoming clear during the strikes that those industries were being decimated by Thatcher. It was a very interesting time to grow up but also a very difficult time for people. The politics are very important to me. It’s a history of that time, but it’s also a fable about the underdog and the underdog succeeding.

Did you find it easy to write?
It came really fast. I think it’s because I knew the world of it very well. I knew the people I was writing about, the time, the culture and that bit of the country. It was more difficult trying to make the musical from the film, because you have practical things to deal with – not least that an 11 or 12 year old kid has to sing, dance, do a convincing Geordie accent and be on stage for the best part of two and half hours. For the first five years I drove everybody mad because I was always tinkering with the script. When you watch it with an audience you understand what they like, what they don’t understand, things that work well and things they find funny. The great thing about theatre, compared to film, is that it’s not fixed.

The idea for the musical famously came from Elton John. What were your first impressions?
I thought it was a terrible idea. I thought we’d never be able to do it. Partly because I didn’t think we’d find the kids, but also because I didn't want to make something glossy and trite about something that was so important to me. Then I realised we could make a musical that comes from a tradition of theatre making that I knew about: about ordinary people, the underdog and ensuring the audience have a really good time. Something that’s robust and funny, but not pretentious. Then I got really excited about it. Elton was brilliant. He’s one of the easiest collaborators you could imagine. He really knew what he was doing. We wrote the songs first and then once we knew which musical numbers were in the show, I could write the script to make them work.

Was that the first time you’d written lyrics?
I’d done songs in shows at the youth theatre, but nothing like writing with Elton John. I assumed Bernie Taupin would write them, so I was really amazed when he said I should write the lyrics as well. He thought it was important that the characters sang the way they spoke and I think I was very lucky that he had the courage to try something new. It was a very brave thing to do. I realise now that if I had been rubbish, he’d just have sacked me and got Bernie Taupin, but he was incredibly supportive and I’m grateful that he understood the show and had faith in me.

What were the advantages of doing a musical?
We decided that if we were going to do the musical, it had to be better than the film. As a group we wanted to make it more political. A lot of the politics got lost in the cutting room, not for political reasons, but because the film was much shorter than the musical. So we were able to put things back and made the kind of political statements that are unavoidable when you talk about the miners’ strike. We wanted to make them a central part of the experience for people. We all think it is better. Every night we get a standing ovation and it gives you a great deal of pride to know that something we made so long ago still has that reaction for people. 

Do you have any favourite scenes?
There’s a number called Solidarity where the police and miners are fighting and there’s a dance class in the middle and we see Billy learning to pirouette for the first time. It’s really complicated because everyone is on stage and two or three things are happening at the same time. It took two or three months to get the sequence right and we kept going back to the drawing board before we cracked it. It was painstakingly put together, but the audience’s reaction when they see it working like clockwork is fantastic. It’s probably my favourite bit.

Will you get to see it in Sunderland?
I’ll certainly be up in Sunderland to see it and I’m inviting a lot of my friends to see it too. I live in London mostly, but I see Newcastle as home. Not all my plays are about the North, but it is the mainstay of what I’ve written. I very much enjoy that a lot of people in the North East have seen my plays and have a strong connection with them. I’m excited to see their reaction to Billy because it’s obviously about the North East and quite a profound event that happened. It will be a moving thing for me.

Anything else you want to do while you’re here?
I always like to go and have a drink in the Crown Posada. Down the quayside where Live Theatre is and the pub under the bridge, that's my home. I've always been a member of the Lit & Phil in Newcastle and it's a great place to go and research when I'm up. I have a triangle between Live Theatre, the Crown Posada and the Lit and Phil – it's all very civilised. 

Published in: April 2016

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