Q&A with Producer Jon Finn | Living North

Q&A with Producer Jon Finn

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Jon Finn - Producer of Billy Elliot The Musical

Can you tell us a bit more about your background?
I always wanted to manage a theatre so I went to Leicester Poly to do a degree in Arts Administration and while I was there I went on a secondment to Working Titles films. They’d just made My Beautiful Laundrette, but were still starting out. I didn’t go back to college for a term because I was having so much fun and then as soon as I finished college I went to work for them. I looked after physical production on the Richard Curtis films and all the stuff they did in the Nineties. It was an amazing place to work because it was so vibrant. Then we set up a little low-budget label called WT2, which was supposed to make smaller films and Billy was our first film out of that. It started off being tiny and just snowballed. Nobody expected it to be as popular as it was.

What drew you to the film?
I think it was because it was about home. I come from Low Fell in Gateshead and my granddad was a miner. We ended up shooting it at Easington and my granddad actually worked in the pit there. It actually made me cry when I read it – very few scripts have ever done that. We were looking for a film for Stephen Daldry [the director] and he really liked it as well. For me it was all about it being from Newcastle and really wanting to make a film about Newcastle in Newcastle.

Did you identify with Billy at all?
Unfortunately I’ve got the rhythm of a brick so there’s no chance of me doing any dancing any time soon, but I was the first person in my family to go to university so I understood the idea of leaving home. Back in the Eighties it really felt like you were leaving because there was only the phone.

It was a phenomenal success. What do you think appealed to audiences?
The metaphor really works. The whole idea of dance was so alien in a mining community – that you could make a living out of it, never mind that you’d want to do it or could be any good at it. It’s amazing how many dancers I’ve spoken to have said that’s my story. Back when we released it, there were a few films about outsider kids, but it was the dance that really propelled it. Also Jamie Bell was so fantastic in the film, he was so easy to fall in love with and I think that really helped.

How did you find the transition to the musical?
I thought it was a phenomenally bad idea. The idea of tap-dancing miners made me laugh and we all resisted it. Elton suggested doing it when we were in Cannes and I remember laughing an awful lot about it. Lee went to see him, wrote some songs and the songs were great, so we decided to do a workshop to see if there was anything in it. I remember the workshop really clearly because we did it on stage at the Old Vic. I remember sitting watching it and thinking, ‘Oh God, it actually works better as a musical than it did as a film’. I was completely surprised. We put it on stage not really expecting it to go any further than London and it’s been all over the world.

The musical must have come with extra challenges though?
Honestly it is such a complicated show. The thought of putting it on rollerskates and taking it on the road is terrifying. We’ve got such a big ensemble – in the region of 45 kids and about 28 adults. That’s a lot of people for a show that’s moving. Then there’s all the people we need to support the kids on top: the teachers and chaperones. The London show has its own 10-bedroom house that’s got a school in it, so all the Billy kids are in one building. Most of them leave home for the first time as 11 to 12 years old. It’s a major deal for them but they seem to settle in really quickly. It will be a bit more varied for the kids on tour because they’ll have a new city each time.

Will the tour be similar to the London show?
Everybody wanted to take it out as it was, or as close as possible. It’s as near as damn it the West End show. In fact there’s a few people from the old cast who have come on tour. It’s a really great cast. The only bit that’s changed is the set – in London we have this huge house that comes out of the floor, which obviously we can’t take with us, but everything else is the same. It was as near as we could get it, stick it in trucks and take it on the road.

Will you get to see it in Sunderland?
It’s the bit of the tour that I’m really looking forward to seeing. It’s nice to take it back to Newcastle and show people their own world on stage. There aren’t many stage shows set there and it is absolutely about that kind of community. Its sense of humour is very Geordie, it reminds me of my uncles and my brothers and the craic that everybody has, especially those who worked in the industry. The miners had a camaraderie and a huge community around them. A fair few of my family never made it to London to see it, so it sorted out my Christmas presents. They joke that I’m the last person in my family to make money out of the mines, though not quite in the same way as my granddad.

Published in: April 2016

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