Thu, Oct 14

The 1984 Miners' Strike: The history behind Billy Elliot the Musical

The 1984 Miners' Strike: The history behind Billy Elliot the Musical

Billy Elliot the Musical plays out amid the turmoil of one of the darkest times in modern British history – the 1984 coal miners’ strike. As young Billy studies ballet, despite the objections of his dad and the derision of his community, the mining town in which he lives experiences relentless hardship and despair. Money and food are scarce. Police eagerly clash with protesters.

Director Stephen Daldry, book writer and lyricist Lee Hall, composer Elton John, and choreographer Peter Darling deftly interweave the story of the miners’ struggles with Billy’s journey, which becomes a beacon of hope in a dying community.

The show, winner of 10 Tony Awards, is a powerful, seamless combination of riveting political theater and thrilling dance musical. Billy Elliot gleefully and savagely vilifies former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, architect of a policy to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

“It’s not possible to exaggerate how close Britain came to civil war,” says Daldry.

The memory of that time is still painful in Britain, but it’s a safe bet that the majority of people outside the UK know little or nothing about the country’s coal mining industry, and what transpired during those bleak days. Although one doesn’t need to be familiar with this part of British history to be thoroughly moved, uplifted, and inspired by Billy Elliot, knowledge of the conflict adds an even greater appreciation for the accomplishment of the creative team – the same artists, minus John, responsible for the 2000 film – and why they are so passionate about telling the miners’ story.

In 1984, the mineworkers’ union, with 250,000 members, was among the most powerful unions in Britain. The coal industry had been nationalized in 1947; in essence, the country owned it. Thus, the miners felt they were invested in the industry, a stark contrast to the United States, where the industry is privatized.

“The profits and the use of that resource were commonly held, just like a library or school,” says Hall, who grew up in a coal-mining town in North East England, similar to where Billy Elliot takes place.

The NUM had gone on strike in 1972 and 1974, both times over wages. During the second strike, Prime Minister Edward Heath declared a state of emergency, and instituted a three-day workweek in an attempt to conserve energy. At that time, Britain got most of its energy from coal, and Heath hoped that the public would blame the union for the blackouts and massive disruptions they were regularly experiencing.

“Instead, distaste for the government grew,” says Hall. “It became a politically unstable situation, and a general election was held.”

Heath and his Conservative (or Tory) party were voted out, and the Labour Party, led first by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and then by James Callaghan, was voted in. The NUM flourished.

In the aftermath of the Conservatives’ defeat, Nicholas Ridley, a right-wing member of parliament, drew up a plan advising the Tories how to conquer and dismantle the coal industry the next time their party took power. This “Ridley Report” advocated buying and stocking foreign coal and oil resources, so that if the coal miners struck again, the public would not feel the effect. Ridley also suggested that the country “train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.” His ideas were supported by Margaret Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, and prime minister of Britain four years later.

“She wanted to reduce the political influence of trade unions,” says Hall. “Her ideology and economic outlook was based on privatizing, on letting big business lo...