Stephen Daldry is one of the world’s most acclaimed directors with a mantelpiece full of awards for his work on stage and screen.
But it is one story which holds a particular place in its heart due both to its global success and its ability to show the power of love, respect and community.
As audiences across the UK become entranced by the story of Billy Elliot, he tells John Bultitude how this story of one boy’s journey has touched so many people – including him.
Stephen Daldry is a man who is in demand. His enviable ability to spot a compelling story and then effortlessly tease strong performances out of actors has made him a big box office name and one of those rare directors whose name is well-known to the ordinary person on the street who are the inspiration for much of his work.
And he also eschews the trappings of the A-list to which he belongs. Despite chatting in a rare 20-minute gap in his day while waiting for a trans-Atlantic flight for some very high-powered meetings about some very exciting projects (of which more later), there are no airs and graces displayed even though they could be forgiven in a man of his creative calibre.
After an initial reassuring chat that there are very few questions he has not answered before about Billy Elliot, he tells the story of the show whose central plot of the boy who swaps boxing to ballet with spectacular results and is currently proving a huge hit with audiences across the country as it embarks on its first UK tour.
It all began back in the mid-80s when writer Lee Hall (who is probably best known for the likes of stage hit The Pitmen Painters and the films of War Horse and Toast) sent Stephen a script. “I have known Lee almost all my adult life and he sent me something called Dancer which was actually set in a village near Sheffield,” recalled Stephen.
From there, the movie of Billy Elliot was born. Set against the background of the miners’ strike, it follows the story of the lead character who starts boxing training. Billy’s ability within the ring is not great and when he decides to attend a ballet class instead, discovers he has a natural ability.
Unfortunately, a boy doing ballet is not the done thing. It is not an aspiration for a lad growing up in a tough North East mining village particularly as his family are dealing with the upheaval of their community’s future in a conflict between the pits and the authorities.
But this life-affirming film became a huge hit worldwide winning around 12 awards and dozens more nominations.
Enter music legend Elton John and his partner David Furnish who thought the story would be perfect for a stage musical and it was time for Stephen to return to the story of the boy whose determination to succeed and make his dreams come true unites both his family and his community.
Stephen recalls: “When we first considered bringing Billy Elliot to the stage, we thought about launching it in the North of England somewhere like Sunderland particularly because that is where it was set. We always felt that an audience that was close to the story and a community that had been through the same thing themselves should see it first.”
Unfortunately, that initial tour did not work out for various logistical reasons and so the West End beckoned. Stephen said: “We did hope it would tour when it was there but it was just too big a project to take out at that stage. It was so successful there that we are hoping it will go back some time.”
And that dream of taking around Britain has now also come to fruition with things going incredibly well at the first three venues on its UK tour. Stephen said: “The audiences that we have played to in Sunderland have been incredible. In Bradford, lots of people came to see it. We have been playing to audiences that understand the story.”
And that is the crux of taking the production out there. As he explains: “Taking it out on tour means it will connect with a lot of people and many communities will have a close association to the story. This idea of an entire area not only struggling for their jobs but having to change their whole way of life is very powerful.”
To make that story work needed exactly the right cast and finding the best actors to play the parts which have been beloved by those who enjoyed the movie was so important.
The Billy’s are particularly crucial and Stephen’s team operate an intensive training programme known affectionately as ‘Billy Camp’ purely to equip the boys with the ability to act, ballet-dance, tap and cope with the demands of the show often before their voices have broken. Stephen explained: “That training can sometimes take two years. At the end of the programme, we have equipped the young men with a set of skills they can use in all sorts of different ways.
“Billy has to be the most demanding part for boys in theatre. They are on stage for so long and it is a very athletic. They need to be able to run the equivalent of a marathon and throw a bag of hammers at the same time.”
It is not just the more junior members of the company that are tricky to cast. “Casting the adult parts is hard too. It is always tricky because you are looking for men who can play a set of miners. They need to be big burly guys who can do a lot of dancing,” said Stephen. “Having said all that, I think they are an absolutely fantastic cast.”
The creative team also keep a very keen eye on things. Despite their high-profile, Elton John and David Furnish are also heavily involved. “As one of the executive producers, David is very involved in the production, and of course Elton is always there for the company. We work extremely closely.”
And that scrutiny will remain even though the excitement of the tour opening is under way to ensure the show is absolutely tip-top for every venue it visits. He said: “We keep working on it. Billy Elliot is not one of those projects you can leave. We need to keep looking at it as it goes around the world and stay involved with it by adapting it and changing it depending on who is in it and where we are. We are always trying to keep it fresh and we are constantly working with it.”
That extraordinary success just keeps on growing. The show has now been seen by over 10 million people in five continents and, since opening in the West End in 2005, stage productions have been performed on Broadway plus Toronto, Chicago, right across North America, into South America, The Hague, and even Seoul.
That sort of enviable global success comes after years of hard work but equally, does Stephen find it extraordinary that events in a small North-East village in the mid-Eighties when small communities locked horns with those in power touched so many? He said: “I think it works well anywhere because people feel a connection with it. On a broader level, people can understand losing their industry and therefore their sense of community whether that is mining or car manufacturing. I think people can link into that whether they are in Sunderland or South Korea.
“On a more personal level, it is also a lot about fathers and sons. It is about the love they want from their fathers that a lot of sons feel they don’t get, and vice versa.”
And it is that core of emotion which is at the heart of the production and has made it the latest success for Stephen. He started working at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre before moving on to a host of other work including including artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, directing for the National Theatre, countless West End and Broadway shows, another of his global hits An Inspector Calls, and that is before you add in four movies, and his role as creative and executive producer for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
As we chat while he waits for a flight to the States, he says: “I have a very busy schedule. I am just about to head off to New York where I am working on Pier 55, a new floating park and performance venue in New York, and then I have to move on to Los Angeles for a meeting about the film of Wicked. Last night I finished working on Series 1 of The Crown which is a TV series for Netflix and will be screened towards the end of this year. I am always very, very busy. I enjoy working hard.”
And there you can see the parallels between Stephen Daldry (as the dad) and Billy Elliot (as his ‘son’) as he instils that work ethic and dedication in a creative project to help it grow and succeed. A great example of how nurturing and caring can help things grow and flourish just like a community in crisis and a young boy taking his first tentative steps on the road to success.
Words By John Bultitude