Colour-blind casting finds new stars for Billy Elliot

The mining communities of the North-east of England where the fictional Billy Elliot grew up were largely bastions of the white working-class. But the new cast of the hit musical will be more ethnically diverse, thanks to a training scheme and "colour-blind" casting that has now produced a black-British Billy, a Chinese-British Billy, one Irish and one American.

Stephen Daldry, who directed the film and the stage versions, yesterday presented the next set of young stars specially trained for the central role.

"I'm incredibly proud," he said. "The tenacity and determination and courage of these children is almost magnified in children that come from different ethnic backgrounds. It would be morally reprehensible not to choose them. The casting department has never been given any guidelines on the racial background. They respond only to their enthusiasm and talent."

All the boys were trained at the Billy Elliot school in Leeds, which makes efforts to find children from all backgrounds, not least because the Billy role is so demanding there are comparatively few who can do it.

Daldry said it was a "misconception" that dance training was not available to people from every background, because both the Leeds school and the Royal Ballet's own White Lodge school worked hard to spread their net wide. But it was tough. "Most of the boys have already been dancing for years and have already been through a huge amount of prejudice and bullying because they're the only boy usually in the dance class. But when you come to a situation with Matthew Koon, whose parents are from Hong Kong but is very much a Manchester boy, you can imagine another level of prejudice.

"There's a level of suspension of disbelief when you go to the theatre. When you're watching a show and miners are tap-dancing or in tutus you're in the realm of make-believe."

But he paid credit to the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre for making colour-blind casting the theatrical norm, though only within the past 20 years.

Richard Eyre, the former head of the National Theatre, said there were two productions where the issue was debated.

The first was Guys and Dolls in 1982, when he wanted to cast the black actor Clarke Peters as the lead Sky Masterson. "Everybody thought Clarke was so great why on earth should we not be able to cast him?"

The second was when he wanted the black actor Clive Rowe as Mr Snow in Carousel in 1993. He won that debate too.

Eyre believes audiences now accept such casting. "In theatre, everything depends on the imagination of the audience. It's metaphor," he said. In recent years, there have been striking performances by black actors in roles which social verisimilitude would deem white.

Black breakthroughs

1930 Paul Robeson plays Othello in the West End, when it was the norm for white actors to "black up" for the part. He reprised the role in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959.

1982 Clarke Peters plays Sky Masterson, the role made famous by Marlon Brando, in the National's Guys and Dolls.

1990 Josette Simon plays the female lead in Arthur Miller's After the Fall at the National Theatre, London, a role widely believed to be based on Miller's former wife, Marilyn Monroe.

1993 Clive Rowe plays Mr Snow in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel at the National Theatre.

1998 Carlos Acosta becomes the first black principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, taking roles including Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.

2000 Ray Fearon becomes the first black actor to play Othello on the RSC's main stage in Stratford since Robeson.

2000 David Oyelowo becomes first black actor to play an English monarch, Henry VI, for the RSC.

2001 Adrian Lester plays Hamlet directed by Peter Brook at the Young Vic, London, and in Paris. He also plays a male Rosalind in As You Like It and, in 2003, Henry V at the National.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker