Welcome to Easington... after Billy left town

Billy Elliot has gone from strength to strength, as the hit film becomes a West End musical this week, with songs by Sir Elton John. The story of the miner's son who dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer made household names of its star and director, but what of its co-star: the town of Easington, County Durham, where the film was shot? Sholto Byrnes reports
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The Independent Online

A triumphal note is struck at the end of the film Billy Elliot as Billy, now a man, takes to the London stage in Swan Lake. Billy's father, Jackie, and his elder brother, Tony, are in tears as they watch. All is well, we are led to believe. Billy has managed to overcome the antediluvian prejudices of the north-eastern working-class environment in which he grew up, and has achieved his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. The miners' strike of 1984-5, which provided the backdrop to Stephen Daldry's 2000 hit film, has ended; the men have gone back to work.

A triumphal note is struck at the end of the film Billy Elliot as Billy, now a man, takes to the London stage in Swan Lake. Billy's father, Jackie, and his elder brother, Tony, are in tears as they watch. All is well, we are led to believe. Billy has managed to overcome the antediluvian prejudices of the north-eastern working-class environment in which he grew up, and has achieved his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. The miners' strike of 1984-5, which provided the backdrop to Stephen Daldry's 2000 hit film, has ended; the men have gone back to work.

So they did. But in Easington, County Durham, where the film was shot, they did not go back for long. The colliery closed in 1993. "That was due to my enemy Margaret Thatcher," says Mona McMann, who lives round the corner from Billy's home in the film, "although I blame Scargill as much. The miners had no money, but he lived in a mansion." Since the pit shut, she says,"it's a ghost town. They're pulling all these old houses down - the house where they filmed Billy Elliot has gone - and the shops are going. We haven't got a shoe shop or a dress shop, or anywhere to buy wallpaper now. You have to go to Hartlepool."

Mona, 78, moved to Easington in 1970. Her husband, Martin, was a deputy at the colliery during the strike. "The deputies had to go in to keep the place ready for when the men went back to work," she explains. "But there was one day when Martin was coming back down the main street, and I've never seen a crowd like it. They were spitting on the deputies, smashing their cars, and the children were booing."

Many of the old wounds have still not healed. "We've never recovered," says George Douglas, who worked in nearby Blackhall Colliery for 46 years. George, 82, is a widower, and Mona a widow. The two go tea-dancing at the Welfare Hall on Tuesday afternoons, and demonstrate a few steps in Mona's living-room, which has a Labour poster in the window. "Shall we do a foxtrot?" asks Mona, who goes on to lead George in a slow waltz next to the three-bar heater.

They don't rate the chances of many younger dancers joining them, though, let alone a real-life Billy coming out of Easington. "They're too busy taking drugs," says George.

Easington was as important to Stephen Daldry's film as Jamie Bell, the child star who played Billy. Its rows of back-to-backs provided the perfect setting for the fictional village of Everington, down the cobbled streets of which the young Billy danced, and whose people, while poor, were depicted as possessors of a sense of community that withstood the bitter pressures of the strike.

On Wednesday, the curtain officially goes up on Sir Elton John's musical version of the film at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. But when Daldry, the director, and Lee Hall, who wrote the script for both the film and the musical, take their bows, the people of Easington will not be watching. Their lives are far removed from the West End glitz. Their streets are boarded up, and the village is dying, quite literally; 31 per cent of the area's increasingly elderly inhabitants suffer from a limiting long-term illness, the highest proportion in England and Wales.

Out on the street near Mona's house, two potential Billies kicking a football about are too young to be into drugs, but they have other reasons for spurning the barre and the pas-de-deux. "I'm not a poof," says nine-year-old John. Over an 80p portion of chips at Nest Fisheries, the staff echo the sentiment. "Ballet dancing?" says one. "Belly dancing, more like, especially on a Friday night after a few." Has the film brought extra attention to Easington? "We had some Americans come across once. They never came back, though."

Down the road at the Easington Colliery Officials' Club, memories of the film are fonder. "He wanted to be someone else," says 65-year-old Ruby Harley of Billy. "He managed to break out of the little cage that all the bairns were born into round here." Her friend George Park, an ex-miner, looks dubious. "But it's football they want, not ballet," he says. Do they think the film paints an accurate portrait of Easington? "Aye," says George, adding that those who were on strike, like him, still have no truck with the scabs. He hasn't worked since the colliery shut. "They didn't just take our jobs," he says. "They took our spirit, too. That's all I knew, the pit."

Would he join the strike again if he could repeat that time? George nods. "He was right, Scargill. He was fighting to keep the pits open. Now there's nobody working and we're all on the dole."

"The union was everything," says Ruby. "It kept people together." When the union's power was broken, the community began to fragment. "Some people took redundancies and it changed them," she says. "They spent lots of money and wouldn't speak to people in the street."

They both feel sorry for the younger generations in the village. "When we left school, we had a job down the mine," says George. "Now, there's none." "There's nothing for the young people," adds Ruby. "No jobs, no youth centres. That's why they take drugs."

Further up Seaside Lane, not far from where the Easington Colliery County Junior and Infant Schools are boarded up, their impressive, red-bricked structures testament to more confident times, a local priest points to the end of a green. "That's where they gather," he says. "I was sweeping up there yesterday and I found needles." The priest, who asks not to be named, seems to have given up on Easington. "The pit closed, and the older people were left here. The more vigorous ones moved out. They sold off the old Coal Board houses and moved problem families in. There's lots of crime and drugs. It's declining all the time."

He doesn't feel that the local people are all that interested in Billy Elliot, the film or the musical. "It had a bit of an agenda, didn't it, of homosexuality." He also thinks the characters in the Elliot family were exaggerated. "No father round here is that brutal," he says. As for the chance of a real Billy emerging from the village - he hoots with laughter.

"What," asks the priest, who is on his way to vote, "would you do for Easington if you were Tony Blair?" He answers his own question. "Nothing. Because he doesn't have to." George Park offers a similarly gloomy view of the leader whose party's heartland this is. "We're Labour people," he says, "but I don't like Tony Blair. He's a Tory for me."

James Laws, a heavy goods vehicle driver for Easington District Council, describes himself as a colliery lad. "My father worked in the mines, and us colliery lads stick together," he says. "I call my wife a townie because she's from Sunderland." James works two shifts a week as a taxi-driver, as well. On the journey back to Durham, he gestures either side of the road to the grassed-over areas where the collieries once stood. "All the way, all the villages had pits. Margaret Thatcher butchered the coal industry, and 20 years on from the strike I know families where son is still pitched against father because one of them was a scab. They don't even go to each other's funerals. That bit was right in the film. Although it's a bit like the Wild West round here with all the drugs and crime."

Most people appear to be unaware of, and uninterested in, the musical that is sure to be the talk of London. Its £5m cost will bring nothing to Easington, although some people are pleased to hear that Elton John has written the score. "He's a bit funny," says George Park, "but he's a hell of a singer."

Last Friday, at a preview performance, a standing ovation greets the finale of Billy Elliot, an extravaganza of song and dance in which miners dress in drag and half the cast don frilly skirts over their costumes. I think back to George and Mona, their eyes alive with the magic of the foxtrot. Once George has had his heart operation, he says, they'll be doing the cha-cha-cha.

But no one else is dancing in Easington now. To the ex-miners in the colliery officials' club, Billy Elliot is no more than a memory, a brief ray of hope which passed over a landscape darkened by the closure of the pits that were their life.

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