Published May 1, 1997
Where Twin Town is determinedly cutting edge, Brassed Off by Mark Herman is quaintly old-fashioned. It is so both in being a straightforward, Rocky type story of a Yorkshire village’s brass band making it to the finals of the national band competition and in being the crudest sort of left wing propaganda—the sort of propaganda that the left wing itself has mostly given up on and which now survives only in universities and the movie industry.
Pete Postlethwaite plays Danny, the director of the Grimley Colliery Band. The wicked Tories are about to close the local coal mine, and when it goes the band will too. Danny professes all the way through to care only for music. “I know that there’s something going on at t’pit,” he says in his earthy Yorkshire accent. “But that’s separate. This is music. This is more important.”
They are playing “The Floral Dance” when a girl (Tara Fitzgerald) comes in and asks if this is the band rehearsal. Harry (Jim Carter) says: “No, band practice is on Tuesday; this is origami.” Yorkshire humor. She is a player of the fluglehorn and wants to join in. At first Danny says they don’t allow [pause] “outsiders” to play with them, where the pause is meant to suggest that he really means “women,” but she assures him that she is a local girl. “What’s your name, lass?” asks Danny.
“Gloria,” she says
Then one of the lads pipes up: “Gloria Stitz.”
Ha ha. More Yorkshire humor.
She tells them she is the granddaughter of Arthur Mullins, Danny’s best friend down t’pit, the bravest miner and the best bandsman Grimley had ever seen, who died of pneumoconiosis. Danny invites her to sit in and they play a brass band version of Roderigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” which the bluff Yorkshiremen call the “Concerto de Orangejuice.” Of course she is brilliant in the solo part.
Some of the lads are thinking about packing it in. They assume that the pit will close and can’t afford to continue their subscriptions. But the arrival of the sexy Gloria makes them change their minds. Also, Danny gives them a lecture on how the band “symbolizes pride” in the town. “The only reminder of a hundred bloody years of hard graft is this bloody band.” Danny’s son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson), who went to jail during the miners’ strike of 1984, borrowed some money to support his family, which consists of a harried wife, Sandra (Melanie Hill) and four or five kids, and has ever since been dunned by loan sharks, tries to give the old man a bit of perspective. “There’s more important things in life,” he tells him, than the band.
“Not in my life there’s not,” says Danny.
Also in the band is young Andy (Ewan McGregor) who had had a sort of a teenage fling ( “top half only” ) with Gloria when they were both only 14 and before, presumably, she moved away. He is more than ever smitten with her now. They re-establish a romantic relationship. But, lo and behold, Gloria turns out to be an employee of the hated British Coal Board and thus in league with Tories and scabs. Andy, who is so stupid that he gambles away all his money playing snooker with a hustler, is the most militant of the miners and is devastated. She tries to tell him that she is on their side and is writing a report that she hopes will save t’pit. But here, at least, he proves to be smarter since he already knows that her report is meaningless. The decision to close the mine has been made.
Sure enough, when Gloria angrily confronts her boss, he blandly tells her that reports like hers “have to be seen to be written, but they’re not written to be seen.”
She accuses him of having made his decision weeks ago. “Wrong,” he tells her. “Two years ago. Coal’s history, lass.”
And so it is. Even the new British Labour government doesn’t propose to bring back these Yorkshire mines with all their hazards (Danny, too, has pneumoconiosis) to produce coal the world doesn’t need anymore. But the romance of the mining “communities” lives on among leftie intellectuals like Herman who wouldn’t dream of going down a mine themselves. For them, one cannot help thinking, the miners’ once politically potent desire not to be put to the trouble of seeking other employment is merely a means to the end of bashing the hated Tories.
Perhaps the most memorable bit of Tory-bashing comes in a scene where Phil, who supplements his income by playing “Chuckles” the clown at children’s parties, suddenly loses his composure at a party which, for some reason, is taking place in a church. He suddenly starts abusing God, who “took John Lennon, and those three lads down t’Ainsley pit, and looks as if he’ll be takin’ my dad. And Margaret Bloody Thatcher lives? What is he playin’ at?”
Perhaps it’s the Concerto de Orangejuice. At any rate, the band’s survival and even triumph become a defiant gesture in the face of unsentimental taxpayers on behalf of outmoded technology. They love that kind of thing in Britain. Fortunately for America’s power and prosperity, outside of Hollywood not many people love it here.