Billy Elliot’s taxing problem solved with a poll

Redmand Rance as Billy Elliot. Photo: Alastair Muir
Redmand Rance as Billy Elliot. Photo: Alastair Muir
Stuart Piper is managing director of Cole Kitchenn Personal Management Ltd
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Last night, the producers of Billy Elliot the Musical had a problem.

Act 2 of the show opens with a song about Margaret Thatcher and the characters' hatred of her, including lyrics like, “We all celebrate today/ 'Cause it's one day closer to your death". I bet the news of her passing prompted a few phone calls at Working Title...

In today's Twitter engaged society, a witch hunt can so easily snowball to full on revolt. One story on the Daily Mail or on its widely read website could have led to a social networking fuelled embargo of purchasing tickets, and I imagine a considerable part of the box office demographic hails from some of the largely Conservative home counties.

[pullquote]Just as we should respect the human element of anyone's passing we should not white-wash history because someone has died[/pullquote]

The show came up with a neatly democratic solution, that neatly avoided such armageddon. The company took to the stage before the start of the evening's performance, and put to audience vote whether or not to include the Act 2 opening number, explaining in detail the song's content and historical context. The audience voted overwhelmingly for its inclusion.

Its appropriate democracy was the order of the day. Just as we should respect the human element of anyone's passing we should not white-wash history because someone has died.

Facebook is flooded with unguarded attacks of course, but then also many condemnations that no criticsm should be posted on the day of her death. But how long do those people think such condemnations should last? Forever? When is too soon?

In relation to Billy Elliot specifically, it is also not necessarily the writers expressing their own naked political beliefs, but in fact (whether they do in fact mirror or not) it is the characters who will Thatcher to die, so extreme is their hatred of the (now historical) figure. That is an accurate historical portrayal - the miners had those passionate extreme views whether you agree with their politics of their time, or the methods they undertook.

Interestingly, Peter Morgan also took to the stage at The Audience at the Gielgud to preface his play (which features the character of Maggie Thatcher on stage) with a speech that marked the moment with respect, though changed no content of the play itself.

I for one don't like to wade into these things online. I just showed my own mark of respect by stealing the milk from our office fridge and quietly throwing it away. In memoriam.

2 Comments

  1. It’s a tricky one this.
    Personally, I would have pulled the show, but I think it was a canny compromise that the producers came up with – certainly from a PR point of view. Also, I don’t think it’s about not being able to criticise someone on the day of their death, it’s more that it seems a bit indecorous to celebrate someone’s death on the day of their death. That said, I think the worst of all worlds would have been if they had cut the song, as that would have been censoring the piece and its political voice. Probably not a bad compromise in the end and it seems to have avoided a backlash.

  2. For me personally this feels like some fantastic examples marketing spin. The following days post these various onstage incidents in response to Margaret Thatchers death have seen both Billy Elliott, This House, and the Audience get referenced in various newspapers and media reports – not bad for one show which has been running for a number of years, one which has transferred and extended its run, and handy for a new one in current negotiations for New York to get them firmly once again in the public focus. How fortunate as well that writers, and politicians were readily available to hot foot it down to respective various theatres to speak from either on stage or in the audience and to also be mentioned in the subsequent reporting. Billy’s extra little touch of the cast giving the audience the chance to vote at the interval for the Act 2 opening number about Thatcher makes the show become memorable as an “I was there” moment for the audience and useful for publicity for any tweeters out in the audience whilst also entirely contrived to also appear to be democratic – but I also honestly think its unlikely that the vote would ever have gone against it by the audience; “the musicals not for turning!” which all goes to perhaps epitomise the immortal saying that “all publicity is good publicity”. The production publicists on all these shows should be commended, whilst ironically, providing demonstrations of the sort of exploitation that Margaret Thatcher herself would probably highly commend and encourage seen in the resulting box office receipts.

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