BBC4: Tuesday 10 November, 9pm
Jamie Bell as Durham schoolboy Billy Elliot, swapping boxing gloves for ballet shoes after watching Julie Walters hold a dancing class at the gym. Dad Gary Lewis and older brother Jamie Draven are unimpressed by Billy lining up with little ballerinas. They’re miners on strike and there are pitched battles to be fought on the picket lines in the summer of 1984.
But Billy persists, encouraged by Walters’ recommendation for a Royal Ballet School audition. Most of the drama in Stephen Daldry’s nostalgic working-class fairy tale takes place at the periphery. The anger and desperation of the miners’ strike is plainly subordinate to a young boy’s dream of escape.
And not just from the dead-end Durham life, but from himself: his mum’s dead, his gran’s gaga and his best friend is a boy who wears his big sister’s clothes. Yet there’s no inner-dynamic at work in Billy’s effortless graduation from gawky 11-year-old to aspirant balletomane. It seems he achieves his goal by simply showing up, shuffling through some unstructured Riverdancy cavorting and – after a bit of screen-wipe season-switching, Notting Hill-style – that’s it.
The kids in Fame had to work a good deal harder but then, despite the dour Durham setting, social realism is not Billy Elliot’s strong suit (the miners’ strike is treated as glibly as the Comic Strip’s Strike!, which was at least intentionally funny). The title might weakly echo the daydreaming fantasy of Billy Liar, but it’s the ghost of Kes that hangs over Daldry’s theatrical film: the sensitive boy outgrowing a repressive background of prejudice and hardship.
Trouble is, an injured kestrel is a more potent symbol than ballet slippers and, in any case, what hardship? To get his way, Billy just has to stand his ground and stamp his feet before gaily skipping over life’s obstacles which, in this case, are a doddle to hurdle: macho Dad breaks down – “He’s just a kid, let’s give him a chance” – the miners rally round and, ey oop, even truculent brother agrees, Billy must go to London.
Jennifer Beals worked up more of a sweat in Flashdance, and it wasn’t even her dancing. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, asserted another recent ‘gritty’ and ‘uplifting’ North Country fairy tale, but there’s evidently two. And this one’s called Billy Elliot.