Billy Elliot at 20
How a ground breaking event in UK history was depicted to audiences 15 years later in film
Few films have given a glimpse into the decade defining event of the UK Miners Strike in such a way as Billy Elliott. Set in the fictional village of Everington, County Durham and filmed mainly in the former mining village of Easington, the film follows the life of one boy determined to dance and to disregard what was expected of him. Boys his age were expected to join the boxing club, but he found comfort, and then a luxurious career, in ballet. These lessons would take place just next door.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the release of the film, but it is set against the backdrop of the strike which took place 35 years ago. It was an event which would see the Conservative government grind one of the strongest unions in the country, the NUM, into defeat. Striking miners up and down the country would stand on the picket line and be confronted by police; media coverage at the time would often portray it as a civil war.
In many instances, aggressive tactics were enforced by officers. Billy’s Dad, Jackie, and older Brother Tony were both striking miners. One scene sees Tony running through the houses and streets of the village, evading the seemingly hundreds of police officers who have set up camp to confront the miners. To the people in the film, and those of Easington in real life, it would have felt as though they were under seige in their own homes. Hardly surprising after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher labelled the miners as ‘the enemy within’.
Many of the houses shown in the film are now gone, with some being kept standing only until filming was completed. This way, houses which generations of miners and their families called home will live on through the film. Easington, like many villages in County Durham, grew around and thrived for decades on coal mining.
In villages like these, once the colliery closed, life was never the same again. In ‘Billy Elliot’ the strike reflects the community spirit of those with a connection to the picket line, but also the sometimes desperate situations they faced.
In order to pay for Billy’s interview and then attendance at the Royal Ballet School in London, Jackie feels as though he must cross the picket line and return to work. Tony was one of dozens of striking miners who would despise the men who return to work. Upon seeing his Dad on the bus heading to the pit, he desperately tries to stop him. At the last moment, practically at the entrance to the colliery, Tony and Jackie break down with Tony urging his Dad to get the money another way.
As it turned out, it was the other miners who chipped in to help pay for Billy’s visit to London; further adding to the generous reputation of miners and people from the North East of England when going through troubled times.
Billy Elliot is a film which shows the hard times endured by thousands in coal mining communities up and down the land during a strike which helped to seal the fate of the industry. The strike and the winding down of coal mining in the UK is still fresh in the minds of people, but the hardship of the miners and their families is still a part of recent history which goes unnoticed by lots of others.
The heartwarming and heartbreaking moments captured in Billy Elliot help to epitomise what life was like for those affected by the longest trade dispute in UK history.