Brassed Off

It felt like just the thing for a Sunday evening when I’d been feeling out of it all day.  A comedy, right out of the Ealing school, focused on a brass band – a musical phenomenon as redolent of the northern English working class as pigeon racing, ferrets and prize leeks on the allotment.  Think about it – Britain’s most evocative television them for the last fifty years is played by a brass band and places its drama firmly within its context.  I have a lot of time for a good brass band.  I saw the Grimethorpe Colliery Band play in Brighton once, as part of a Labour Party Euro conference, and they were fabulous beyond the natural wave of sympathy from the audience.  And some of my favourite “guilty pleasures” involve Peter Skellern’s renderings of Tin Pan Alley standards arranged for voice, piano and brass band.

So, a film resting firmly on a soundrack played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band can’t be all bad.  But then, it’s a pretty good film all round, really, and the band music is just the icing on the cake.  The plot is pretty slight, and there’s certainly no unambiguously happy ending.  The washed-up remnants of a Yorkshire coal town may have a future as black as the coal dust that comes up from the lungs, but they have the music.  And the music is the only thread that holds the community together.  A far greater film, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, celebrates this same indomitable spirit and it does have to be said that Ewan McGregor, whatever his other assets, is no Henry Fonda, but this film will do very nicely for now.  The best bit for me was the extended sequence at the Saddleworth Whit Friday events; beautiful, touching, and funny all at once, and capturing perfectly the boozy jollity in the sunshine.

As political polemic, Brassed Off probably missed the boat by a good ten years.  By 1996 grass was growing on the pit heaps and the government that treated people so cynically in the service of economic expediency was a sad parody of itself, clinging on to power by its fingernails.  And me, I’m torn.  I feel, from deep in my heart, for the miners and their families.  And yet, if deep coal mining were a new idea, would we find it acceptable to send men down into the earth to spend their days in the darkness, to breath deadly black dust all their working lives, to risk all the hazards the earth falling on their heads and the foul air, the stagnant water and the firy breath that snuffs out the lives of family men; all to be cast aside at the whim of the beancounters.  There was alway something queasily macho about mining – Sheffield Wednesday football programmes used to carry full-page ads that said “BE A MAN – BE A MINER!” but these men were heroes, and that they found the time to produce beauty as well: that’s a bloody miracle.