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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star