I'm just another ballet-loving working-class Northerner

'At my comprehensive, some played the clarinet, some danced, some, like Billy Elliot, did ballet'
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The Independent Online

Billy Elliot, the latest remake of A Star Is Born, has been widely and rightly admired for its lush, efficient sentiment and sympathetic portrayal of a world that seemed to most of its commentators very remote and alien. The story of how a boy from a mining community develops an interest in ballet and becomes a great dancer appeared utterly extraordinary to most newspapers. It seems to have occurred to most of them that there might be a real story behind this, and reporters were dispatched to the opera house to see if they could find any dancers who had come from a similar background.

Billy Elliot, the latest remake of A Star Is Born, has been widely and rightly admired for its lush, efficient sentiment and sympathetic portrayal of a world that seemed to most of its commentators very remote and alien. The story of how a boy from a mining community develops an interest in ballet and becomes a great dancer appeared utterly extraordinary to most newspapers. It seems to have occurred to most of them that there might be a real story behind this, and reporters were dispatched to the opera house to see if they could find any dancers who had come from a similar background.

The fact that they all managed to come up with a different dancer, each of whom was happy to say that Billy Elliot's story closely resembled his own, ought perhaps to have made them think twice. But the initial response stuck firm. How extraordinary that someone from the north of England - that someone from the working classes - should take to dancing and not stick, say, to greyhound racing and ferreting.

Actually, speaking as a member of the working classes, I did not find it that surprising a story at all. The working classes are far more relaxed about their leisure pursuits than anyone seems to think; they are, on the whole, perfectly at ease with whatever interests their children choose to pursue. If your only idea of the Northern proletariat is gleaned from the cinema, then you can be forgiven for thinking that they all grow up with cultural boundaries defined by football, singing or stripping in working men's clubs and pigeon-fancying.

The reality is somewhat different. I went to school at a comprehensive in Sheffield, and though some of my contemporaries were mad about footie, that certainly wasn't a universal fascination. Maybe these are the vagaries of memory, but everyone seemed to have some furiously pursued activity.

Some of them learnt the clarinet and played in orchestras, thanks to the local authority's enlightened policy of funding a group of peripatetic music teachers. Others sang, and not just soppy club classics, or in terrible old rock bands in their dad's garage; there was a terrific fad for opera, or oratorio, which has always been a hugely popular thing in the North. Some, like Billy Elliot, danced: ballet or tap or jazz. I never met anyone who had fancied a pigeon in his life.

And - this is the crucial point - no one thought any of this remotely odd or worthy of comment. Their parents, unlike Billy Elliot's, were overwhelmingly proud of them. It wasn't until I got to Oxford and met a lot of people who had been very expensively educated that it occurred to me that there was anything unusual about this.

The first week I was there, I remember meeting an Etonian with an English scholarship who had never heard of Sacheverell Sitwell; at my comprehensive, that was the sort of thing we talked about all the time. It proved quite rare to meet someone middle-class with a really passionate interest in culture; they had all been aggressively spoon-fed with academic facts, and in their spare time had lain on their beds and drunk Southern Comfort illicitly. In the end, they all became film critics, solicitors or dentists with an Oxford degree and no conversation. Culture was something other people did; at best, they were going to sit in an audience and watch.

For most of my school contemporaries, on the other hand, those passionate adolescent pursuits continued as a vivid backdrop to their lives. They were never going to become great actors or dancers. But those hours in youth spent perfecting a jeté in a freezing cold Sheffield church hall has fed back into their lives. Sometimes, I expect, when the kids are out, they get out their old cello and have half an hour of private pleasure with Saint-Saëns. What their youth provided them with was an emotional resource, an understanding of art and theatricality that will always nourish and enrich their existence.

And sometimes they do go further than that. One contemporary of mine, mad keen on singing, went on and on; I last saw her, a glittering presence, singing Anne in The Rake's Progress at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Even then, that seemed a possibility. I can't believe that anyone would have thought to say that she ought to be sticking to "Hey, Big Spender"; it seemed perfectly ordinary to be spending your lunchtimes perfecting "Deh vieni, non tardar". Because half the school was doing something similar.

Billy Elliot tells a truthful story, and it is not a strange one. The strange story would be someone fighting an expensive education and middle-class parents and coming home to announce that they want to cook or dance or sing. That doesn't much happen. I don't know why we pretend otherwise.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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