PAST: I’ve been working on Billy Elliot for about 13 years, since I had the first idea until now. It’s been in and out of my life like an old friend or more like family really - family in Newcastle that I visit sometimes. As a writer, it’s not very often that you have the chance for your work to be seen by so many people, and people from so many different cultures. I’ve been very lucky that it clicked. I had no idea that’d it be so successful. I thought I was making a very little arty film, and I think Stephen Daldry did as well. We were making it more for ourselves and didn’t think it would have any popular life. When Elton John suggested we make it into a musical, I thought, “this is a really bad idea”. I was delighted to be proved wrong.
Before we opened on Broadway in November, everybody who supposedly knew said that the language, the swearing, the accents, the specificity of Billy Elliot were all going to get in the way, that Americans weren’t going to understand it. They advised us to tone it down. Perversely, we decided to do the opposite, to be even more uncompromising and to make it more itself really. Then we went “oh fuck, what have we done?” because people were investing $20 million in this. It’s not like a Fringe production that you put on at the Gate - a lot of people could lose a lot of money! Because of what’s been going on in America, we knew there’d be people in the audience who had probably lost their jobs that week. People came out and went, “wow this is about us, people going through economic and political turmoil”. They really recognised something in it about themselves. It wasn’t anything we were doing, it was the same piece, but I think if we had messed around with it and tried to translate it, the metaphor might have been lost. When we opened, there were so many other shows falling off the edge of the world, it was probably the worst time in 25 years to open a show on Broadway. But weirdly the timing proved lucky for us because of these coincidences.
It was very strange going from Times Square through the stage door and seeing a set of the village hall in Easington that’s an exact replica of a village hall in the 1980s. From Easington to Broadway was an odd dislocation. Opening night was amazing. Because of all the worries, we thought it was going to be a really tough audience – and then they stood up and gave a standing ovation in the middle of the show before the number had even finished! We were reeling from that. It was quite a thrill.
PRESENT: I almost can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a relationship with the Live Theatre in Newcastle. When I was very small, they came to my school. In the Seventies, they used to take theatre to people in communities that didn’t have access to it. I was one of those people – my parents never went to the theatre. Later on, when I was a teenager, I joined Live’s youth theatre and I’ve been involved ever since. That group was very important to Newcastle. A whole load of actors - like Tim Healy, Robson Green, Denise Welch - came out of it. After we went away to study, we came back because we felt at home there and our lives had all become inter-connected. It literally feels like a family and it’s ongoing. I’ll continue to write plays for Live, maybe not this year or next, but it’s part of my life and I’ll always go back.
The inspiration to write The Pitmen Painters was purely accidental. I was in a bookshop down on Charing Cross Road and I saw this spine saying “Pitman Painters”. When I got William Feaver’s book down, it struck a chord somewhere in the back of my mind, I had heard about this real-life story growing up in Tyneside. I started to read the book in the taxi on the way home and I then rang Max up and said “I’ve found our next play”. The story embodies a lot of things I’ve been mulling over for years with this mix of miners and high art, like in Billy Elliot. Also having had things go wrong with a lot of screenplays in the last ten years, I really wanted to do a stage play where people just talked. Theatre does people talking really well so it seemed the perfect forum for a discussion of art, what it means to people’s lives and what its value is ultimately.
In 1934, a group of miners from Ashington hired a professor from the local university to teach them art history. To help them understand the theories of art, he got them to paint and it turned out they were really good. They were taken in by the art world, bought by collectors and wooed by the chairman of the Tate. But in the end, all of them decided not to become artists – they carried on making art but they stayed as miners. That makes it very different from Billy Elliot, of course. It was unthinkable for Billy to be able to do what he does and still remain part of that community.
I think The Pitmen Painters raises questions rather than answers them. The main question for me is very personal. When I was growing up in the same area, 40 years after the pitmen painters, it was considered very weird for me to like theatre and poetry and art. Why was that, when 40 years earlier they’d been such a hunger and desire for it? The more I investigated the pitmen and their environment, it seemed to me that something went wrong. The culture of ordinary life had been travestied somehow and we were accepting less and less in terms of culture. I’m not a snob. I don’t think everyone has to listen to Bach if they don’t want to. But it does seem to me that a lot of ordinary people – because of where they come from or how they’re educated – are led to believe that art isn’t for them, and as a consequence the good stuff is kept for a small group of people. That seems wrong. We lose nothing by sharing.
I thought we might just get away with The Pitmen Painters in Newcastle, but I was sure there was no way it would work in London or at the Cottesloe, which is much bigger than the Live Theatre. I thought it was a horrible idea to transfer it, but Nick Hytner had confidence and he was right. Now the Lyttelton is of course much bigger again. But in fact when we plonked the set onto the Lyttelton stage, we realised it’s basically the same size – theatres can be very deceptive - so we haven’t had to change the production much. And it certainly doesn’t effect what happens on stage. It seems to work still.
FUTURE: With Billy Elliot, it’s doing very well in New York and there are Japanese and German productions in the pipeline and I think a Korean translation, so it carries on its very strange journey. With Pitmen, we’re going on tour after the National. I’m not sure after that. There’s been some interest in America and lots of talk about coming into the West End maybe next year. I know there’s interest out there, but I’m just not sure if the transfer will happen in the current economic climate, and I’m nervous about planning ahead.
I’ve also been working on the stage version of The Wall with Roger Waters (from Pink Floyd). And I’ve done a screenplay for a film called Toast that Marianne Elliott is attached to direct. And I’ve written a film musical about Elton John’s life that I’m talking to various directors about at the moment. That’s ongoing and will hopefully happen sometime soon. And I’ve got to write a new play. I have a couple of ideas. I owe Nick Hytner a play about Gypsy Rose Lee and WH Auden in the 1940s. I should have finished it a long time ago so I’ve got to start work on that. I didn’t write anything new last year because I was so busy in America and here. I’m dying to get back to my desk.
The Pitmen Painters returns to the National Theatre, running in rep in the NT Lyttelton from 31 January to 14 April 2009 (previews from 27 January) before embarking on a regional tour. The West End production of Billy Elliot continues at the Victoria Palace theatre.