I AM privileged to be acquainted with the man known as “the real Billy Elliot”, the unforgettable lead character in the musical about a young ballet dancer in a pit village during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.
His name is Philip Mosley, and he is still a character artist with the Royal Ballet. Philip is in his forties now, the same age as me. When he was 12, he left his own Barnsley pit village – Cudworth – on a scholarship for White Lodge, the prestigious Royal Ballet school in Surrey.
Unlike the fictional Billy though, Philip’s dad, who worked down Darfield Main pit, was supportive of his son. Philip never had to pretend to be at boxing when he was secretly warming up at the barre.
The chances of being offered a place at White Lodge for any dancer, however talented, have always been slim enough.
The sad thing now is the chances of a young lad like Philip, from a modest background in South Yorkshire, going to such an establishment today are pretty much impossible. This is not just due to the expense, or the fact that there is even more competition for places from both within the UK and abroad. It is because the possibility has simply evaporated.
Although most of us are familiar with the 2000 film of Billy Elliot starring Jamie Bell in the title role and Julie Walters as the dance teacher, there is also a stage musical version playing at the Bradford Alhambra until June.
Never has it been a more relevant time to see it. The story of Billy’s struggles, wonderfully realised by Newcastle-born writer Lee Hall, should stand as a metaphor for everything which is still failing our children.
Billy Elliot might be 15-years-old, but the story it tells of doors slamming in the face of aspiration, inequality and prejudice has never been more relevant.
So much for the pledges of successive governments to raise aspirations. There has been no great leap forward. Instead what we have witnessed is a painful dragging back of the clock to a time when so many avenues in the arts, the media and the professions were closed off and dismissed as “not for the likes of us”.
A huge factor is cost. I heard only the other day of an extremely talented teenage dancer and singer who is working in a garden centre because her mother simply can access funding to send her to musical theatre college. The expense, however, is not the only issue. Too many of our young people have simply lost confidence in ever achieving anything.
They struggle through school, feeling that everything which is interesting and good is outside their reach. It’s a Catch 22 situation; the chaos of the education system in recent years has meant a serious push to improve academic standards is underway. Yet all those hours spent on trying to coax pupils into higher grades has left precious little time for them to think, dream and explore. It is fallacious to imagine that progress can only come about if young people leave school with a slew of acceptable grades in public examinations.
Some responsibility certainly does lie with education though. New analysis by the IPPR North think-tank today reveals that Northern secondary schools are funded £1,300 less per pupil compared to those in London. This is not just reflected in the exam grades achieved; it also filters out to the ethos of the school, the quality of inspirational teachers it can attract, and the horizon-expanding extra-curricular activities on offer. And obviously it is not just educational. It is also political and economic.
This imbalance underpins the chasm of the North-South divide. Whatever the Chancellor might say about the Northern Powerhouse, it is clear to any parent – and young person – that unassailable inequalities exist and are endemic across the country.
It is also obviously geographical, in that those wishing to achieve internships in the arts, media and professions are better-placed if they can live at home and commute into central London where most opportunities are.
It is also cultural. Frankly, the North is trailing behind on the matter of gender and racial equality, acceptance and inclusion. I suspect that any judgemental comments made to ballet-mad lads such as Philip way back in the 1970s and 1980s would still be made today, only using filthier language. It is hard enough for any youngster to pursue a dream against all the odds, even harder if they don’t fit the mould.
And sadly, it is harder still if they happen to be a Northerner. This is for all the reasons outlined above, and in other, less-tangible but just as pervasive ways.
As the aforementioned playwright Lee Hall admitted in an interview a couple of years ago: “Someone from my background would find it very difficult to come and work in the arts now. That’s because there has been a closing down of opportunities in education. I don’t think theatre has changed. It’s society that has changed.”
Can one boy in ballet shorts transform this into a volte-face? For all the Billy Elliots out there, whatever their gender, talent or ambition, I sincerely hope so.