Editor-At-Large: Wor Billy! What a sensation, what an inspiration

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The Independent Online

At last, a musical that's rough, raw and, above all, political. Billy Elliot has been praised to the rafters, and rightly so. From the sheer exuberance of its young stars, to the captivating choreography, it's far more than a feel-good evening. Billy Elliot is about a kind of socialism that we'll never see again, when communities were united by their principles. The miners' strike seems like an event from a century ago, when people believed that together they could fight lousy wages, uncaring bosses and cynical politicians in the last real struggle of the working class. Billy Elliot reminds us of that sense of dignity and pride that vanished for ever with the closure of the pits. In its place we have the legacy of Maggie Thatcher - the Me generation, where everyone strives to earn more than anyone else, people live in gated communities and few of us know more than one person in our street. As for the working class - those are dirty words. These days the village of Easington where Billy grew up has had

At last, a musical that's rough, raw and, above all, political. Billy Elliot has been praised to the rafters, and rightly so. From the sheer exuberance of its young stars, to the captivating choreography, it's far more than a feel-good evening. Billy Elliot is about a kind of socialism that we'll never see again, when communities were united by their principles. The miners' strike seems like an event from a century ago, when people believed that together they could fight lousy wages, uncaring bosses and cynical politicians in the last real struggle of the working class. Billy Elliot reminds us of that sense of dignity and pride that vanished for ever with the closure of the pits. In its place we have the legacy of Maggie Thatcher - the Me generation, where everyone strives to earn more than anyone else, people live in gated communities and few of us know more than one person in our street. As for the working class - those are dirty words. These days the village of Easington where Billy grew up has had the heart knocked out of it - shops are boarded up, and with no jobs in the area few people want to buy houses. The coast has been cleaned up and the path along the cliffs signposted as a heritage trail. When I walked it last year the only locals I saw were elderly men exercising their dogs. When you haven't got any work, going for a scenic ramble isn't exactly top of your agenda.

It's so New Labour to think that encouraging day trippers by printing leaflets and putting up footpath signs will bring back life to an area. When I visited Grimethorpe the story was exactly the same: no jobs, but outside town a lot of road building funded by EU grants, brand new highways going from nowhere to nowhere. The award-winning silver band still practised in the village hall, but now miners were using the internet downstairs to develop IT skills.

The most chilling moment in the musical is when Billy vents his frustration at being prevented by a short-sighted dad and brother from attending an audition. He thrashes into a solid wall of police riot shields, reminding us of the daily violence that left scars which have never healed. The "battle of Orgreave", re-created by Jeremy Deller and filmed for television a few years ago, was a worthy project but will never touch as many hearts as five minutes of Billy Elliot. I'm not looking back at the past with rose-tinted spectacles - the pits were doomed anyway. But I regret the passing of the best elements of true socialism and the last election reminded us all that Labour now has the same goals as the Tories: privatisation, targets and initiatives. Instead of helping each other we want rewards, tax cuts, bigger houses and more cars.

Young people, few of whom bothered to vote in the last election, feel that politicians are uncaring, not to be trusted and out of touch. Politicians themselves speak a language no one but them understands; have you heard Gordon Brown lately? It's no good Tony Blair moaning on about parents losing control of their children and the rise of the yob culture when a Labour government is full of people who educate their children privately, have two homes and award themselves fat pay rises and massive pensions. Sometimes you have to lead by example, and if Labour's leader buys a multimillion- pound house as a rental investment what message does that send to ordinary men and women on the minimum wage? Billy Elliot delivers a history lesson we need to be reminded of.

In comparison, On the Town, the Leonard Bernstein musical at English National Opera, packs all the political punch of a damp flannel. Set in New York at the height of war in 1944, it charts the progress of three young sailors on 24-hour shore leave, in search of girls and top fun. The show is a sell-out. But it misses an opportunity to give us any real social message. The choreography is lacklustre, and staging uninspired, although the cast is talented and sings well. There's no sense of time ticking away as these young men flail around in their last moments of freedom before being sent to fight a war in the Pacific in which many died. New York looks too white, too anodyne. Leonard Bernstein's score contains brilliant orchestrations but few memorable songs. In the end, you have to ask why bother to revive this second division work instead of something by Kurt Weill.

The gala performance I attended was hosted by that well-known opera-lover Jerry Hall, who couldn't even pronounce Wagner or Handel's Semele correctly in her halting little speech read off a card. At the party after the show, actor Colin Salmon sang Maria from West Side Story really badly, an insult to all the talented members of the company who had just performed. When will ENO get its act together? Billy Elliot is a triumph on every level and On the Town a waste of effort.

A gentlemen's club

Much has been written about the new Tory boys in the Shadow Cabinet, 33-year-old George Osborne and 38-year-old David Cameron. Shadow Chancellor Mr Osborne comes from a wealthy family and went to public school, St Paul's, before Oxford. Mr Cameron, education spokesman, went to Eton and then Oxford. The number of people at private schools has declined for the first time in 10 years, but only by 0.6 per cent. We still have a two-tier education system where children who have parents wealthy enough to be able to afford school fees are more likely to go to good universities and land decent jobs. Sadly I don't think Mr Osborne or Mr Cameron represent a new face of Conservatism at all. And with just two women in the Shadow Cabinet, it's clear Mr Howard still thinks Tory women should be like Sandra, looking decorative and doing the dishes.

Pontin's holiday camp at Camber Sands has had a rather different kind of camper over the past couple of weeks. First Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon topped the bill at a three-day festival. Yoko bravely made the trek from her chalet to the stage through torrential rain and thick mud to give a thrilling performance in the main hall. Then 300 striking French surgeons chose Pontin's for a union meeting last week to discuss their grievances. It seems they got an excellent group rate, although I don't know if a full English breakfast was part of the deal. Pontin's must expect a call from Project Blair any day. Surely this is the perfect location for the next party conference. Bono might even turn up and provide the cabaret.

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