Lee Hall: 'Cambridge taught me I was short'

The 'Billy Elliot' writer was raised on Brecht, Marx and Shakespeare – but he still found people looked down on him when he went off to university. Andrew Johnson meets Lee Hall

Lee Hall appears to be all contradiction: he's a working-class, comprehensive-school-educated northerner who went to Cambridge and now lives in Islington with his film director partner. He has given the world intelligent classics like Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, but believes in the merits of The X Factor and Coronation Street. He's just as proud that his name is in lights above theatres for Billy Elliot the Musical which he adapted – with music by Elton John – as he is to see his name above Britain's middle-class cultural citadel, the National Theatre.

He is a writer who seems effortlessly to appeal across Britain's class boundaries. The Pitmen Painters, back at the National next month after a sell-out UK tour, has won rave reviews as well as Best Play in the Evening Standard Awards. The Broadway version of Billy Elliot the Musical won 10 Tony awards, the West End version four Olivier Awards.

Yet he doesn't see anything contradictory in all this. For at the heart of his work is what he describes as "a tragedy for everyone" in Britain – class. Billy Elliot is about a miner's son who wants to be a ballet dancer. The Pitmen Painters is based on the true story of a group of miners who took art appreciation classes and went on to create their own critically acclaimed work.

In there, too, is aspiration that everyone can engage with, he argues, as well as the power of art to unify people despite their backgrounds.

While class may be a tragedy it is also, as Hall points out, a rich source of material for writers such as himself, who start off near the bottom of the social heap.

"I come from a long tradition of writing in Britain – in the 20th century at least – from JB Priestly to the various people in the Seventies such as Alan Bennett and Arnold Wesker who wrote about class and, very often, aspiration," he says. "It became unfashionable a few years ago, but it strikes me as an obvious theme that has always been of interest to theatre-goers. And being a northern writer, too: it was everywhere when I was a kid. You couldn't help but turn on the telly and see something by Alan Bleasdale."

Generations of bright and talented working-class children have escaped their backgrounds, and futures in the pits or the factories, through culture. But Hall bristles at the idea that it's an escape.

"I take issue that it's about rising above your station," he says. "Both Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters are about how you can integrate art into your everyday life. It's about aspiration. Everybody has a dream to be something, whether a football player, writer, actor or whatever. Simon Cowell has made a fortune based on this obvious intuition. So I think it's a metaphor – Billy Elliot or guys who want to paint – for any aspiration that sets you apart from the environment you're from.

"The pitmen painters spent eight hours in the mines and came out and had this rich life that completely changed their existence. People are still able to enjoy their art. They are and were part of a big conversation about what was of value in their lives. These were people who left school at 11 and 12 but were having conversations with the great artistic minds of their generation. I've read the correspondence, and they were equals."

His mention of Simon Cowell is moot. The talent show Svengali is dominating the airwaves both here and in America with his Got Talent and X Factor formulas – to the consternation of the highbrows who baulk at the populism of it all.

For Hall, however, Cowell is merely responding to the siren call of aspiration and, more to the point, putting working-class people on the television. "What people want to watch on the television is representations of themselves," he argues. "And The X Factor is for a working-class audience. Most of the contestants are working class. A lot of the panel are working class. The things that are popular – EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, The X Factor – all these things are basically working-class people sitting down and watching working-class people on the telly – and they're not caricatured. That's where the British film industry, and to an extent theatre, lags behind."

Whether it's film or television, Hall, like many writers, rails against the gatekeepers who he believes don't understand what people want because they don't understand anything other than a middle-class audience that wants "to see the bonnets and the Richard Curtis representations of the middle class".

"The gatekeepers are the apparatchik class and they don't understand the potential of a working-class audience," he says, adding by way of clarification that The X Factor is a commercial enterprise, but also a "skilful piece of entertainment".

"People are thrilled and entertained, and it gives them something to have an opinion on."

Which is not to say TV hasn't dumbed down since its "apotheosis between the Sixties and the Eighties" when mass audiences lapped up the work of writers like Dennis Potter. "Make no mistake about that," he says.

But the door seems to have been closed so firmly on those from the lower reaches of Britain's social pecking order that Hall believes that if he was born a few years later he may not have been able to push it open.

"The generation who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies were products of the Education Act and often working-class grammar-school boys like Tony Harrison and Alan Bennett – not exclusively but largely. By the time Thatcherism hit, it did become harder. Education wasn't as accessible. All these things would put people like me off. I think I would have always found my way to do something creative, but to go to Cambridge and to follow that course would've been really hard."

There is a price to be paid for aspiration. Once you follow the path out of the woods you can never really find your way back again – family and friends are forever distanced.

"The two people who wrote best about it were Tony Harrison and Dennis Potter," Hall says. "Potter wrote a play called Vote ,Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton. He goes back to the Forest of Dean and his dad's a miner, and it's that incomprehension – he's neither one class nor another. It's the heartbreaking divide this education makes."

Hall didn't pay that price, however. He grew up in working-class Newcastle upon Tyne, but was surrounded by people who fed him the works of Chekhov, Shakespeare and Karl Marx. So by the time he went to Cambridge to study English he had enough political wiring not to feel intimidated. "I thought it was really normal to be in your bedroom reading Brecht. When I got to Cambridge, I was ahead of the game. I had a healthy sense of superiority. The most striking thing when I got there was that everybody was so fucking tall. It was genetic, years of breeding, and I realised I came from a place where everybody is quite small, because they had to go underground for generations."

After Cambridge, he worked in youth theatre in Newcastle and at the Gate in London until, at 29, he wrote a radio play called Spoonface Steinberg. It caused a sensation and launched his playwriting career.

Billy Elliot came along in 2000 and Hall later adapted it for the musical. He returned to theatre partly because of the difficulty of getting a film made and points out that since Billy Elliot, Brassed Off and The Full Monty, there has been little for a working-class audience to see at the cinema. The gatekeepers, again.

The theatre, he adds, has always been moved forward by the emerging classes. So while we may be short on a new generation of Weskers and Bennetts, we do have a young generation of Asian and black writers who are starting to break through.

"They're outside the cultural mainstream but have things to say," he argues. It is one of the reasons he is evangelical about subsidised theatre, warning that we take it for granted at our peril. The National Theatre is 50 years old, he points out, established in the immediate postwar optimism when the working classes had proved a point and wanted a share of the future they had helped to create.

The beauty of the theatre, and the arts, he believes, is that it is only there that class truly vanishes; it is where the sons and daughters of lords mix with the offspring of barrow boys and no one knows or cares. "I'm a bit rosy eyed about it; it's a utopian place," he says. "In a rehearsal room you don't know where anybody is from.

"There's no guarantee the National will still be here in another 50 years," he adds. "Culturally, it is undervalued. We are over-represented in the world of film and theatre because we have this. If everything is done for commercial reasons, and you leave it to the Cowells to look after our intellectual life, we'll all be poorer – as much as I have a good time on a Saturday night. We can't let that happen."

Curriculum Vitae: The decorator's son who wanted to be a writer

1966 Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, son of a painter and decorator and housewife. As a child he is fed the works of Brecht, Marx, Shakespeare and Chekhov.

1984-87 After a comprehensive education, he wins a place at Cambridge to study English. Throws himself into the theatre, trying his hand at directing and adapting.

1987-97 He works as a fundraiser in youth theatre. He bumps into Stephen Daldry in the street whom he met as a student and is offered a job as a fundraiser at the Gate in London. "The entries into the theatre and the BBC and the radio all came from people I met there."

1997 His radio play, Spoonface Steinberg, is broadcast on Radio 4. It is a monologue spoken by a seven-year-old autistic girl who is dying of cancer. It is critically acclaimed and adapted by Hall for the stage. It is still repeated on the radio.

2000 Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry, is released. The story of a miner's son who wants to be a ballet dancer is a critical and commercial hit. It wins three Baftas, four British Independent Film Awards and is nominated for three Oscars.

2005 Billy Elliot the Musical, with story and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Sir Elton John, makes it debut in the West End. It is still running in London and has transferred around the world. It was nominated for nine Olivier Awards, winning four, including Best New Musical.

2007 The Pitmen Painters makes its debut at the Live Theatre in Newcastle.

2008 Billy Elliot the Musical makes its Broadway debut. It is nominated for a record-equalling 15 Tony Awards, winning 10.

2008 The Pitmen Painters transfers to the National Theatre, where it wins the Evening Standard Best Play Award.

2009 After a sell-out UK tour, The Pitmen Painters returns to London.

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