Newcastle writer Lee Hall, who penned Billy Elliot, on the phenomenal success of his stage play Pitmen Painters
Posted: 07 Oct 2009
Portrait of a playwright
Tyneside writer Lee Hall shot to fame with the 1999 hit movie Billy Elliot and adapted it for the stage in 2005, winning an award for best new musical. Now his latest award-winning play The Pitmen Painters is back touring in the North East.
Exclusive interview by Michael Hamilton
MH: Tell me how The Pitmen Painters came about.
Lee: It came about by accident in a way. I saw a copy of William Feaverís book in a bookshop and thought thatís a weird title. It was about the Ashington Group in the Thirties who were miners but became celebrated painters. By the time Iíd reached the end of the first chapter I thought this just has to be a play. It fitted perfectly with the themes that I like to write about. It launched at the Live in Newcastle a couple of years ago then went to the National in London and now weíre touring the country and itís back to Newcastle in September.
MH: It must be nice to be bringing it back home to Newcastle Theatre Royal (see the review in our Reviews section)
Lee: Weíre all very excited about coming back to Newcastle with the show. Weíve added to it and improved it so I hope anyone who saw it first time around will enjoy it even more. Weíre in love with the subject and the characters because itís a true story and itís part of our heritage.
Itís very important to me coming back to Newcastle and paying my dues as it were. In the cast there are people I went to school with and people I went to sixth form with and most of the rest I know from my youth theatre days. The Live was very important in my early development. Thereís a whole community of us Ė actors, writers and directors Ė who grew up at the same time and we share the same view of theatre: it should be popular and fun.
Itís so rare for a writer to be able to work with a pool of acting talent that you know so well. They understand you and play it in the way youíve imagined it. Chris Connel (who plays the main character Oliver Kilbourn) was at school with me, and Ian Kelly (who plays the posh teacher Robert Lyon) is a friend of mine from Cambridge University.
MH: Did you have inspirational teachers?
Lee: I went to Benfield School in Walkergate and sixth form college in Tynemouth. I was very lucky to have inspirational teachers. At Benfield it was Chris Heckles. She was very influential and really got me into drama.
I didnít really go to the theatre as a kid. It wasnít something we did in our family but I started writing, acting and making things up at school long before I was a regular theatre-goer. That was one of the gifts she gave us. It wasnít high culture or art, just something you had fun doing.
MH: Did you experience suspicion and distrust of intellectual activity when you were growing up? Itís a strong theme in your work.
Lee: Less so from my family. They were actually very supportive. They just thought I was weird and wondered why I was interested in this stuff!
At school though it was a hard, working-class place. There was a lot of incomprehension and distrust and you got picked on. I liked music and played violin and guitar and you got bullied for it. But in a way it made you stronger. I thought: ďIím going to fight to do my art.Ē It made me challenge myself about what I wanted to do and why it was important.
Itís always been my mission to write something those guys could understand. It doesnít have to be arty farty or airy fairy and above peopleís heads to be intelligent and emotional and relevant. And drama shouldnít talk down to anyone.
MH: The main character in The Pitmen Painters Oliver Kilbourn says: You canít be an artist and be working class.
Lee: Although itís about art, itís a comedy as much as anything. You can probe the issues about art and class but you can enjoy it as a good laugh and a good night out. I see The Pitmen Painters as a prequel to Billy Elliot in some ways because itís set 40 years before. They are like Billyís granddad. Like Billy Elliot itís an uplifting and moving play, but itís also very funny.
MH: How did the minersí strike affect you when you were growing up?
Lee: I was about 16 or 17 at the time and it seemed almost like a civil war situation. These little pit villages were being besieged by the Metropolitan Police. It just seemed so wrong. Margaret Thatcher broke the industry and broke the unions. Thereís still blood on the coalhouse door.
Ironically 30 per cent of our energy still comes from coal from China and the Ukraine where the health and safety conditions are still like England was in the 1870s. Weirdly everything that Arthur Scargill said has come to pass Ė whether you agree with him or not, or his tactics. And we are all the poorer because of it.
MH: What was it like working with Elton John on Billy Elliot the musical?
Lee: When he suggested it I thought it was the worst idea Iíd ever heard. How on earth can you make a musical out of the minersí strike? He was so convinced it would work so I thought letís give it a go. Iíd heard he had a reputation for being difficult to work with but for me it was by far the easiest working relationship that Iíd ever had. He couldnít have been more kind and supportive.
For me to work with someone who I had admired as a kid was incredible. I was a fan of his music. I had to pinch myself when I was at the other end of the piano, scribbling lyrics on pieces of paper while he played. I thought: ďThis canít be real.Ē
Elton saw himself in the Billy Elliot story. He had been sent as a kid to the Royal College of Music to become a classical pianist. He found rock Ďní roll and the rest is history. But I think he saw himself very much in the character. It was his story too.
MH: Would you ever move back to the North East?
Lee: Although I live in London I always think of Newcastle as my home, especially emotionally. I never feel like Iíve entirely left. Iím looking forward to coming back for the Theatre Royal run. My mum still lives in Newcastle so I come back quite a bit to see her and I still do a lot with the Live. I feel my home is there.
MH: What do you miss most about the North East?
Lee: I love Newcastle and Iíve always written about it. Itís somewhere that is very distinctive and it stays with you. Itís a very dramatic place to come back to Ė situated on the river with all the bridges. You can slip quietly into a place like Manchester through the suburbs, but arriving back in Newcastle is always a dramatic experience Ė crossing the river on the Tyne Bridge or whatever and St. Jamesí Park dominates the skyline.
The architecture and history are important but itís the character of the people that I hope I celebrate most in my work. Even if the characters are flawed and difficult they have a tremendous spirit, which you canít help but celebrate.
MH: What do you make of the regeneration of the city and the Quayside?
Lee: Itís amazing to me that the arts have been embraced so centrally there but I think Newcastle needs to catch up a little bit with Gateshead on the arts front. On the Newcastle side itís a little bit sad with lots of chains and bars and restaurants. But Iím really proud of the Live. Itís a tremendous resource and Iím very proud to be associated with it.
MH: And whatís in the pipeline?
Lee: Iíve been working with Roger Waters on a stage version of Pink Floydís The Wall, which is probably about 18 months away. Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters have taken up the last year and are still ongoing. The Pitmen Painters is going to Broadway next and Billy Elliot is going to Japan and Korea next year Ė Iím still trying to get my head around that! As a writer itís beyond what I could have imagined so Iím going to just try and enjoy the ride.
- Lee Hall, 43, is married to film director Beeban Kidron. He is best known for the hit 1999 movie Billy Elliot which starred Jamie Bell in the lead role.
- It told the story of a young boy from the fictional village of Everington who, in the face of opposition from his family and community, aspires to be and ultimately becomes a ballet dancer. It was set against the backdrop of the 1984/5 minersí strike and filmed in Easington Colliery.
- The inspiration for the screenplay was drawn from A J Croninís novel The Stars Look Down, also set in an English coal mining community during a strike, while the model for Billy was partly inspired by the renowned baritone Sir Thomas Allen from Seaham.
- Lee received an Academy Award nomination for the film, which was later turned into a stage musical with music by Elton John. It continues to enjoy a long run in the West End and opened in Broadway last year.
- The Pitmen Painters is a humorous but deeply moving look at art, class and politics. In 1934 a group of Ashington miners hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen began to paint. Within a few years the most avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collections. But every day they worked, as before, down the mine.