15th September 2000 at 01:00
'Billy Elliot', which follows a miner's son in his bid to become a ballet dancer, has been compared to 'Kes'. Heather Neill talks to its young star and the screenwriter.

Jamie Bell's term at Northfields mixed comprehensive in Billingham, Northumberland, will begin more than two weeks late. Instead of knuckling down to the introductory sessions of his GCSE courses, he is in the United States promoting Billy Elliot, his first film. But 14-year-old Jamie hasn't escaped entirely into a world of make-believe; he was set three weeks' work before he left for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto and, although there was "an awful lot of maths", he "got through it somehow".

Jamie's ability to apply himself is one of the qualities that the film's writer, Lee Hall, admires about him. "In a lot of ways the film is about work," he says. Work and the lack of it, in an area of north-east England where sons traditionally followed their fathers down the mine. The film is set in 1984 and the community is riven by desperate people making different decisions about survival. Billy's father and older brother are on strike and they daily run the gauntlet of the riot police protecting the "scabs" as they are bussed into work.

A spirited boy whose mother has recently died, Billy helps look after his increasingly disorientated gran in the terrace house they all share. Every week his father gives him 50p to attend a boxing class. Billy is no boxer. Dismissed as incompetent one day, he watches a girls' ballet class and gets drawn in by the tough, bossy, chain-smoking but inspiring teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (played by Julie Walters), as much as by his own fascination with steps and rhythm.

The rest of the story is about Billy's struggle to express himself through dance in a community which regards it as unmanly. Eventually, at immense cost to himself and his family, he attends an audition at the Royal Ballet School. Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry, here directing his first film, know how to skirt the dangerous sloughs of sentimentality; just as you think nothing will prevent a weepy wallowing, something funny happens or Billy furiously dances out his frustration on the cobbles in a style all his own. Go well equipped with tissues, nevertheless. Jamie himself admits that the completed film "made my lip wobble a bit".

Until Billy Elliot is released at the end of the month, his friends in Billingham haven't much idea what to expect. "They kind of think it's like Diehard or The Matrix and they lose interest and walk away halfway through a sentence when I try to explain." Jamie has been dancing since he was six and, as a member of the excellent National Youth Music Theatre, has travelled the country in shows such as Bugsy Malone, Tin Pan Alley and The Wizard of Oz. Rather like Billy, he has had to face prejudice, though not he says, from adults. Getting the part was not easy. "After the seventh audition I wasn't eating properly and every time the phone rang I jumped to answer it." When Daldry eventually rang with the good news, Jamie was engrossed in an Eighties football match on television and had little to say.

Screenwriter Lee Hall says that finding a boy who could play Billy was a bit of a nightmare. He had to be the right age, "a genuine northern lad", not an artificially polished stage-school kid, but who could nevertheless dance and act to a high standard. They saw 2,000 contenders before they realised Jamie could carry the film. For him the choreography was a revelation. Learning to use dance to express character was a particular pleasure - "I'd done smiley-face, sparkly-costume kind of things before." He and Julie Walters got a lot of fun out of working on their "I love to boogie" sequence, fun that leaps off the screen.

The teacher's role is not sentimentalised, however, as it might have been in an American film. The pair have their rows, sometimes using foul language. And when Jamie sets off for his new life, the family parting is a tearful wrench; Mrs Wilkinson is cool, merely denying that her protege is going to miss her. Lee Hall says he wanted to explore the role of the mentor. "(The teacher) tends the seed, but what she gets out of the relationship is something more amorphous than he does. She's left in a rather sad place."

The seed of the story was sown when Hall saw a photograph from the time of the strike, "a woman pushing a pram along this implacable line of police". There's a funny sequence where Mrs Wilkinson's daughter casually knocks half-a-dozen riot shields without even looking at them while she chats to Billy. The gesture is required, but as Lee Hall says: "The strike went over kids' heads really." He was about 16 himself in 1984 and living in the north-east. Former miners play the miners in the film. "They wouldn't be police - they stopped short at that." Yes, he has seen Kes and is an admirer of Ken Loach and the Scottish film-maker Bill Douglas, but the influences are long-digested. This is Lee Hall's work, "a metaphorical version of my own life". And, indeed, a reflection of Jamie's. Hall is aware of how the story of the film is being replayed in real life by the soon-to-be-famous Jamie.

For Lee Hall, author of Spoonface Steinberg, it was important "to try to say that because something is emotional it doesn't have to be mawkish". And he reiterates a sentiment expressed by Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader:

"Creative people are left dormant because we, as a society, have no idea or ambition how to tap into them and we are poorer for it." The story of Billy - and Jamie - is a triumphant vindication of the creative spirit.

On general release from September 29 (15 certificate)

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