• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Brassed Off is back, striking chords with a new generation

When Paul Allen's stage version of Brassed Off appeared in 1998, two years after Mark Herman's film about a small Yorkshire community's efforts to win a brass band competition was first released, the miners' strike that formed the story's backdrop was still a fresh wound on Britain's landscape.

ENCORE: Paul  Allen's stage version of Brassed Off bring a fresh perspective to a film that struck an emotional chord in Yorkshire and beyond.
ENCORE: Paul Allen's stage version of Brassed Off bring a fresh perspective to a film that struck an emotional chord in Yorkshire and beyond.

Thirty years after a civil war which became a defining moment of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's calculated assault on the trade unions, the play's current revival for a tour which arrives in Edinburgh next week is a timely reminder of one of the late 20th century's most inglorious eras.

The fact that Brassed Off makes its point about how an entire community can be decimated by enforced pit closures through a romantic comedy that hymns the unifying power of music is testament to the play's staying power. Yorkshire-born Allen, whose work in popular theatre has seen him forge close links with Alan Ayckbourn and the Scarborough-based Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, welcomes a second life for his play.

"You've now got a generation of both performers and audiences who have never seen a pit-head," Allen says, explaining some of the thinking behind a tour co-produced by the Touring Consortium, York Theatre Royal and Bolton Octagon. "I was walking along a beach in Wales with a friend, and they picked up a piece of coal, which is such a rare thing to see now, but which used to be something that was essential to our lives.

"If you go to Grimethorpe, which is where the film was made, all you see are roundabouts named after the pits that were closed down. Everything has been bulldozed flat, so there's no real evidence of the mines. Yet both the mines and the strike are such an important part of our history, so it's good to keep them alive somehow, and to keep the anger about what happened alive as well."

In the film, the role of Danny, the band leader whose closing speech of the movie is a damning indictment of the government forces behind the pit closures (and which was later sampled on Chumbawamba's 1997 hit single, Tubthumping), was played by the late Pete Postlethwaite. For this new production, the baton is picked up by John McArdle. As a fan of the film, which also starred Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald, he too recognises its populist power.

"Sue Johnston was in it," McArdle says of his former fellow Brookside star, with whom he toured in Jim Cartwright's play, Two. "She played one of the wives, and I loved Pete Postlethwaite's performance, but playing it myself is like playing any of the great parts, in that you have to try and forget all the great actors who've done it, and bring something of yourself to it.

"With Danny, though, there are only so many ways you can do it, because he's a very driven character. All he wants is to get his band to the Royal Albert Hall, but he knows he's dying, and he knows his community is being ripped apart, and that politicises him, whereas in the past he's been apolitical."

McArdle's own politicisation came during his first exposure to theatre during his early 20s, while training to be a plasterer in Northampton. "I helped build Milton Keynes," he jokes.

"7:84 brought a play to the college called The Fish In The Sea," McArdle says of an early play by the late John McGrath, which was first seen in 1972 at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, the grassroots venue where Postlethwaite cut his acting teeth.

"I also saw a company called Belt and Braces, so I was exposed to agit-prop theatre from very early on. Where agit-prop hit you over the head with its politics, something like Brassed Off takes a much subtler approach. Brassed Off tells the story of a family, and it's entertainment for the masses, but it becomes political, and, rather than preach to the converted, it gets its message across to people who might not normally be interested."

When Brassed Off was first performed in Sheffield, it included a poignant appearance by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and broke box office records, quickly transferring to the National Theatre. Since then, to Allen's astonishment, the play has become something of a staple for amateur dramatics groups.

"This has often been in places that have barely heard of Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher," says a still bewildered Allen.

The last time Allen visited Grimethorpe, as well as roundabouts, he noticed that a memorial to miners who had been killed down the pit had been erected near the war memorial.

"There were a lot more names on the miners memorial than there were on the war memorial," he says. "There's an anger and a rage in places like Grimethorpe that exists to this day about what was done to them. To have whole communities destroyed like that was absolutely gob-smacking.

"Thirty years on, I think back to 1975, which was 30 years after the Second World War, when war films were still very popular, although in terms of them being made they dropped off shortly after. What happened after the strike was that, while agit-prop plays were being made at the time, there was a silence.

"Since then, partly down to writers like Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, which also came out of the strike, and partly down to a system whereby Cabinet papers are released under the 30-year rule, we can see exactly how determined Thatcher's government was to break the unions, that silence has been broken.

"There is a long history that's come out of the miners' strike, and some of that history is awful. In parts of Wales where the mines shut, there are now two generations who'll never work again, and nobody is helping these people. Whether a thing like that causes the plays I don't know, but it somehow seeps into the collective consciousness, and it's our job as writers to articulate that."

Brassed Off, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29 to May 3, www.edtheatres.com

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

227286