There’s often a question, when a hit show comes over from London, of whether it’ll translate from the British. This year, that show is Billy Elliot, opening at the Imperial on November 13. The musical, adapted from the film about a blue-collar boy from a coal-mining family who wants nothing more than to be a dancer, was an uncontested smash in England. Its audiences there, however, could be expected to know at least something about Thatcher-era union-busting—stuff that few Americans under 40, and not so many over 40, are likely to remember. Unless they’ve read the guide below.
Mysterious British Element How It Figures In Song and Dance What Really Happened 1984–1985 miners’ strike Struggle for solidarity serves as the backdrop for Billy Elliot’s pursuit of individuality. An announcement that coal mines all over Britain would be closed kicked off a strike. After a year of violence and police clashes, the miners lost and returned to work. The loss essentially broke England’s powerful trade unions. Arthur Scargill Miners sing a song of support for him. President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) during the strike, generally liked and respected by the miners. After individual regions chose to strike, he took the protest nationwide—without putting it to a union vote. Michael Heseltine Derided in song, along with Margaret Thatcher. Tory member of the Thatcher cabinet who was sometimes mentioned as her potential successor. After the strike, kept closing mines as a member of the Board of Trade. Trades Union Congress (TUC) Also musically mocked. Organization representing most major trade unions. TUC, along with many unions, didn’t support the strike, for which NUM flipped them all the metaphorical bird and kept picketing. Tony Blair An unseen inspiring voice who is coming to speak in support of the miners. Yes, that Tony Blair, back when he was driven by the fire of youth and Socialist idealism, unaware that his future would see him in bed with an unapologetically capitalist American president. Cockney/Geordie Terms used by the cops and miners to taunt each other. Cockneys, of course, are from the East End of London; Geordies, from northeast England. Like most regional nicknames, these can easily become slurs. 1926 General Strike Mentioned by Billy’s nan as an event she remembers. Nine-day job action by miners to improve work conditions and keep the government from reducing their pay. Similarly unsuccessful.