Muck, brass and orange juice

a picture of brass instruments by Roger Clarke

The sights and sounds of brass: Jackfield Brass Band at the Brassed Off launch at the Black Country Living Museum

Brassed Off

Brassed Off is on tour and Roger Clarke talks to two of the stars and looks at the background to the play which had its roots 30 years ago in the Miners' Strike of 1984.


LUKE Adamson, who plays Shane in Brassed Off, probably knows more than most about the hardships and dangers of coal mining.

The 24-year-oldsaid: “I was born and brought up in Selby, which had a huge mining community and the biggest deep mine in Europe. The mines are all closed now but I had a lot of family friends, people at school, so I know a lot of people who lost their job, lost their Luke Adamson and ANdrew Dunn at the Black Country Living Museum launchlives even, down the mines. My best mate’s dad was killed down the mines when I was about 15 or 16, right at the very end of mining round there.”

The closures were announced in 2002 and by October 2004 the last of the five pits which made up the Selby Superpit was closed with the loss of 2,000 jobs.

Luke Adamson, left, who plays Shane and Andrew Dunn who plays Phil

“We did Brassed Off ten years ago in York and today the country is closer to how it was when the play was set than when it was ten years ago.”

Andrew Dunn, inevitably best remembered as Tony in Dinnerladies, who plays Phil, was born in Leeds and moved to another mining area, North Shields, in the North East when he was nine then went to college near Wakefield just up the road from Woolley Colliery where Arthur Scargill worked as a miner for 19 years from the age of 14.

He said: “In the 80s I was touring at the time of the miners’ strike and it was a very divided country, quite violent at times, and it seems now you are getting echoes of that resurfacing with a north south divide and all that sort of thing.”

Phil is the character in the film who rants at Thatcher and her Government in an explosion of emotion. He has no job, no money, no prospects, his wife and children have walked out and suicide seems to be his only escape.

“It is interesting doing it now because it is a historical piece in one sense. Mrs Tahtcher is not with us any more and this is set in 1994 but when I do that speech its gets a reaction still. We opened this tour in York and it gets much more a reaction now than it did 10 years ago.

“It is a very emotional part to play. His life has been destroyed totally. He tries his best but his wife leaves him his children have gone, there is no money, he loses his house, he loses his job – again.”

In this version Luke’s Shane, who harmembers of Jackfield Brass Banddly figures in the film, is the narrator, a young men talking about his life and the lives of the community of miners, going back to the time when he was eight and life in Britain was about to change.

Luke said: “I love it as a piece.  It is incredibly moving and it is as much the story and the writing as it is the brass band music. To add that to what is already an emotional script just takes it to the next level and I think you have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by it.

Members of Jackfield Brass Band who will apear as the Grimley Colliery Band

“But is an important piece because it was such an important moment of English history that it shouldn’t be forgotten. However you feel about it, whether you were a die hard Tory, and some people are, or whether you were affected by the strikes or the pit closures, you cannot deny that this happened and the repercussions are still being felt 30 years on.”

This Touring Consortium Theatre Company production is mounted with York Theatre Royal and Bolton Octagon as co-producers and is based on the 1996 Mark Herman film, where Monty Python’s Prominent Features was a co-producer incidentally.

Touring Consortium Staff director Neale Birch said:  “Mark Herman’s film, was taken from real life events, Grimethorpe colliery band. He was inspired by their story. And the closure of pits and the destruction of communities. The play was commissioned by the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and went to the National Theatre and we did a tour in 1999.

Finding a brass band, an essential part of the play with the iconic flugelhorn solo orange juice -Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez - has been a problem for the tour. The last tour was in the autumn Picture of Neale Birchbut a spring tour has been clashing with regional contests.

“These are important to the bands and it seems that each week we are playing coincides with the week that that band has to be in a contest in that area. But we have managed. Thankfully but it has been a challenge.

“It is an enormous commitment for the bands. They are all working full time and they are giving up their evenings and their weekends to rehearse and to perform. It is a huge thing for them.

Birch used Jackfield, the bad that will appear at the Grand, in a production at Birmingham Rep and he said they all remember what a fantastic experience it was. “They play the characters in the band so they have to act.”


Touring Consortium Staff director Neale Birch

The play commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Miner’s strike, which still stirs emotions today. Neale said:  “The play resonates on a number of levels, on one level it is a local story about a village in South Yorkshire but it is about the destruction of a community, about people who are disenfranchised, it is about the trampling of communities and community spirit.

"Unfortunately one can find that everywhere in the world, throughout history that has been happening, and I think people can connect with that. It is happening today. The same thing is happening with motor manufacturing in Detroit for example, and when people see it on stage in front of them they can connect with it  and they recognise it from their own communities perhaps, or their own histories or what they see on the news or read in newspapers.”.

The consortium was set up initially to produce curriculum related texts and Neale said: “What is important is that we get young people into theatre. Not only to help them with their studies but also to get them interested in theatre, to enjoy theatre so we try to give them as positive an experience as possible.

“It is very difficult for the big theatres, like the Wolverhampton Grand, to put on drama because drama audiences are diminishing so what we try to do is toPicture of Jenny King put on plays that will attract people in so that it is easier for the big theatres to keep drama playing there.”

The consortium are working around the country to attract people to theatres -trade unions are being approached about this one – and Brassed Off  is the second of five productions aimed at theatre development, a nursery to grow on new audiences.

“We want people who came to see To Sir with Love (the last consortium production) to come and see Brassed Off, then see Regeneration, the next production, and the next two and who knows, at the end of 2015 they might be independent theatre goers.

Producer Jenny King, who along with Matthew Gale, formed Touring Consortium Theatre Company 18 years ago

”We want to nurture skills and talents required in keeping theatre alive but we want people to enjoy their visits to the theatre. A lot of people think it is too elitist but it isn’t - it is about them. The plays we put on are about people living in society just like them. We want them to get involved.

Theatre has a lot to do for communities it is an enormous part of our national culture and if we lose it we lose story telling and we can’t afford to do that.”

Jackfield Brass Band, from close to Ironbridge, has a long history, dating back to its formation as a Fife and Drum band in 1893 and evolving into a brass band two years later. 

In its last 20 band contests it has won five, been runner up four times and only missed out on prizes four times.

Incidentally, it was widely though that the haunting second movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, written in 1939, was to commemorate the bombing of Guernica in Joaquín Rodrigo's Spanish homeland in 1937 in the Spanish Civil War but it was much more personal than that.

His wife, Victoria, revealed in her autobiography Hand in Hand with Joaquín Rodrigo', published in 1992 that the inspriration had been first the happy days of their honeymoon followed by Rodrigo's despair ad devastation at the miscarriage of their first pregnancy.



Death of an industry

THERE is a popular misconception that Brassed Off is about the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5 – it isn’t it is about the aftermath a decade later as Michael Heseltine as President of the Board of Trade oversaw wave after wave of pit closures with their inevitable redundancies and devastation of  whole communities.

Mining villages only existed because of their pits, their only purpose was to house the miners, and if the pit closed the village died. Closure hit not only the miners and their families but everyone who depended upon them, the corner shop, garage, chippie, offie, bookie, the pub and working mens’ club – even the window cleaner.

In 1974 an earlier Miners’ Strike, and its winter of discontent with power cuts and blackouts had helped bring down Edward Heath’s Tory Government.

In response Tory MP Nicholas Ridley was asked to write a report on nationalised industries and in particular how a Conservative Government could fight, and defeat, a major strike. The Ridley Plan, leaked to the Press in 1978, was a blueprint for war and when, a year later, Margaret Thatcher was victorious in the 1979 General Election, the battle lines were drawn. Then, in 1982,when militant, no-nonsense Yorkershire miner, Arthur Scargill became President of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982, war was virtually inevitable.

The Government had tried to close 23 pits in 1981 but the threat of strikes was enough for them to back down – for a while. Scargill accused Thatcher and her Government of setting out to destroy the coal industry and the NUM.

His view was reinforced when Ian MacGregor was appointed as head of the National Coal Board (NCB), fresh from halving the workforce of the British Steel Corporation.

In 1984 the NCB announced that agreements from 1974 no longer applied and 20 pits would close, with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

Scargill declared this was only the start and that the Government intended to close 70 pits. The Government vehemently denied it and MacGregor wrote to every member of the NUM to tell them there were being deceived by Scargill. There were just 20 closures planned.

Luke Adamson as Shane and Andrew Dunn as Phil, at the end of his tether as failing childrens' entertainer in Brassed Off

Cabinet papers released this year though show the Government and MacGregor, despite her personal assurances to every NUM miner, were lying. MacGregor had wanted to close 75 pits over three years. Scargill had been right . . . almost. He had undersold the Government’s duplicity by five pits.

By March 1984 what was becoming increasingly a battle of personalities had become a national strike and witnessed some of the bloodiest battles ever seen between police and workers. Almost a year later, with many miners suffering extreme poverty - some had already returned to work for the sake of their families and children, their numbers exaggerated by Government – the strike, and much of the coal industry, was ended. The cost was estimated at £3bn, 11,000 miners were arrested and 5,000 stood trial.

In some areas there is still deep rooted antipathy to the police, and still poverty. In the early 1990s there was a particularly heavy round of pit closures and that is when Brassed Off is set in the fictional town of Grimly, a hardly disguised Grimethorpe, a real-life mining village of about 1,800 souls near Barnsley where almost half the workforce were miners.

The Grimethorpe pit, which employed 5,000 men, closed in 1993 and a year later an EU report on deprivation named Grimethorpe, once famed for its colliery band, as the poorest village in the country and one of the poorest in Europe. Unemployment was more than 50 per cent for the next decade.

In 1983 Britain had 174 working underground mines. Last year it was three. In 1984 187,000 miners came out on strike, while others who continued to work make the numbers of miners even higher.

In2011 NUM membership was down to 1,855, while the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, founded in Nottinghamshire in 1984 by miners who had continued to work, could muster just over 1,000.

Last year another 513 miners lost their jobs and this year it has been announced that two of the remaining three pits are to close.04-14


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