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Christopher Eccleston was offered role in Billy Elliot but turned it down as he found film ‘offensive’

‘True Detective’ actor lambasted the film, about an aspiring ballet dancer, as ‘a middle-class view of the working-class experience’

Jacob Stolworthy
Monday 22 January 2024 09:10 GMT
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Christopher Eccleston has revealed he turned down a role in Billy Elliot as he found its depiction of a working-class family “offensive”.

The Manchester-born actor, who grew up in Salford, criticised the film, which tells the story of an aspiring ballet, while discussing his decision to reject acting opportunities he feels patronise working-class people.

For Eccleston, it was the portrayal of the lead character’s parents that left him with a sour taste in his mouth. The actor, whose father was a forklift truck driver and mother was a cleaner, told The Independent in a new interview: “I’m tired of seeing working-class parents portrayed as being vehemently against their kids going into the arts.”

The 59-year-old actor, who has long been vocal about his concern regarding the lack of arts funding in the north, assed that he he was approached to play the role of Billy’s father back in 1999.

“What was that f***ing ballet film everyone went mad for? I was offered a meeting to play the father. But I said, ‘I’m not going to do that, it’s offensive,’” the actor claimed.

The coming-of-age film, directed by Stephen Daldry and written by Lee Hall, was released in 2000. Jamie Bell played the working-class dancer from Country Durham. Meanwhile, the character’s father – a striking coal miner who tries to push his son towards boxing instead of ballet – was ultimately played by Gary Lewis.

Former Doctor Who actor Eccleston lambasted the film as “a middle-class view of the working-class experience, made for the American market,” adding: “F*** it!”

Lewis prevously said met with the miners in preparation for the role. Speaking about his time in the film, Lewis said: “My family and I were very active in supporting the miners: I stood in picket lines, I raised money for the miners and I was involved in the whole campaign to stop closing the pits.

“Basically, it was the state that launched a complete attack on a section of the work force, a section of the working class. Lots of people responded with solidarity and that was a key element in the script: solidarity working at different levels, the collective solidarity, the economic solidarity.”

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Eccleston has long been vocal against the lack of funding that goes towards drama schools and arts venues, expressing concern that this will affect the rising crop of actors coming out of the north.

Christopher Eccleston, 59, says he turned down ‘offensive’ role in ‘Billy Elliot (Getty Images)

In April 2023, Eccleson was praised for his impassioned words after Oldham’s historic Coliseum theatre was closed down after a failed campaign to save the venue.

The Coliseum, which the actor branded a “beacon” for actors in the Greater Manchester area, became the biggest theatre outside of London to lose its Arts Council England subsidy of £600,000 per year following a funding shake-up in November 2022.

“I went to see productions there as a child, and I just think it’s tragic that Oldham and its borough is losing a theatre in a time where we’re supposed to be levelling up,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s today programme.

“What last night was about was beginning a campaign to establish a new theatre in Oldham, and also to say this can’t happen anywhere else. Because the question in my mind is, if they can get rid of Oldham Coliseum, which has been there for over 100 years, where’s next for the North West?”

Gary Lewis ended up playing the father role in ‘Billy Elliot’ (United International Pictures)

Eccleston, whose credits include Cracker, 28 Days Later... and The Leftovers, continued: “If you grow up in the North West, you don’t feel the culture and the arts belong to you. You don’t believe, if you come from a council estate, [that] you can be an actor, a poet or a painter.

“So places like Oldham Coliseum, Bolton Octagon – they’re a beacon for people like me.”

He said he “wouldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t for” such venues, stating: “And they’re disappearing. So what happens to this generation’s Chris Ecclestons or Maxine Peakes, or whoever you want to name?

“There’s no more actors like me coming through – it’s impossible. Now, you’ve just got to go to public school, haven’t you? You’ve got to go to Oxbridge, otherwise you can’t act.”

He said he would advise aspiring actors from the North West “not to just think about becoming an actor”, but to “produce, direct, use iPhones, use everything available to you”.

Christopher Eccleston stars opposite Jodie Foster in ‘True Detective: Night Country’ (HBO)

The actor also warned: “You’re going to have to put up with the unemployment – you’re gonna have to put up with the rejection – and that’s going to be doubled if you’re from a working-class background or if you’re a minority, etc etc.”

Eccleston said he will “keep banging on” about ACE’s promise to set up a new theatre in Oldham in 2026, and that the money that would have gone to the Coliseum will be given to the council “to fund other arts projects in the area”.

The actor recently finished playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol. True Detective: Night Country airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW

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