Death throes of an industry

Picture of Danny with the pithea in the background

Brassed Off

Wolverhampton Grand


YOU would have to be either chiselled from coal or a hardened mine owner not to be moved by this very human story of despair and desolation as a whole community is destroyed..

There have been plenty of plays about politics but few outside agitprop which are as openly political and hostile to a Government as Mark Herman’s 1996 film about the aftermath of the bitter Miners’ Strike of 1984.

Paul Allen’s adaptation two years later moved the story from screen to stage but the sense of injustice and the impotence of the miners is still all there as the owners set about closing Grimley colliery no matter what the human cost or consequences.

It is set 10 years on from the near year-long miner’s strike, 30 years ago this year, which had mortally wounded the National Union of Mineworkers and set in train the destruction of the coal industry with the closure of pit after pit.

Grimley is a thinly-disguised Grimethorpe, with its threatened and celebrated Colliery Band the inspiration for the film, and John McArdle gives us a gruff, no-nonsense Yorkshireman Danny, the band’s conductor and driving force, who sees the band and music as more important than anything else in Grimley be it the threatened pit or the loss of jobs.

His son is Phil, near bankrupt Phil, played by Andrew Dunn (DinnerLadies). Phil was jailed in the aftermath of the 1984 strike, a working clas hero who was then unemployed for a year, building up a cycle of debts, with debPicture of Phil, played by Andrew Dunn, clowning around with wife Sandra, played by Rebecca Clayt paying debt, that he can no longer pay back. The miners might be bottom of the pile when it comes to the pit but Phil is even below them.

As the debts mount so does the anxiety and strain at home and when he buys a new, at least new to him, trombone on the knock to replace his broken instrument, to please his father as much as himself, his wife, Sandra, played by Rebecca Clay,  snaps and leaves him, taking wth her their three children.

Phil, played by Andrew Dunn, clowning around with wife Sandra, played by Rebecca Clay

The aftermath of the miners strike with the debts, pit closures and devastation of whole communities saw a significant increase in suicides in mining communities and Phil almost adds to the number after railing at Margeret Thatcher at the pithead and trying to hang himself from the gantry dressed in the clown's outfit he wears trying to earn extra cash as a children's entertainer.

His son, Shane, played by Luke Adamson, eight at the time of the closure, is the narrator, playing first the child, with echoes of Blood Brothers with an adult playing a child, and then finally the young man who we discover takes over the band to show that it, like Grimethorpe Colliery Band, will survive despite there being no colliery any more.

Behind all the tension there is a love story as Gloria returns to the town of her birth as a surveyor for the mine owners, which, when the men find out,  immediately makes her management in the eyes of the miners, the enemy, one of them, even though she is battling as much as they are to keep the pit open.

She renews her childhood romance with Andy, played by James Robinson, a Jack-the-lad miner whose hobbies are snooker and women, who finds himself torn between love for Gloria and loyalty to his workmates as the impending closure consumes everything, including reason.

Gloria, played by Clara Darcy, has one big advantage though, one the miners can respect, she is a brilliant Flugelhorn player, as she shows playing Orange Juice, the haunting second movement from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and to her credit the solo is played live and quite beautifully by Darcy. These days merely being able to act is not enough.

Amid the leads we have the other miners, Harry, Andrew Roberts-Palmer, Jim, Kriag Thornber and their wives, Rita, Helen Kay, and Vera, Gilly Tomkins.

It is perhaps the wives who are more vocal in wanting to keep Picture of Gloria and her Flugelhorn, both played by Clara Darcy, meets up with the other band members Jim, Kriag Thornber and Harry, Andrew Roberts-Palmerthe pit open, the miners seem more defeatist as if the effects of 1984 has taken the fight out of them and an offer of £23,000 redundancy is looking, if not attractive, at least better than the £15,000 on offer if the battle goes to review and the pit then closes as the miners know deep down that it will.

Gloria and her Flugelhorn, both played by Clara Darcy, meets up with the other band members Jim, Kriag Thornber and Harry, Andrew Roberts-Palmer

The story is greatly aided by being about ordinary people, blokes with blokey jokes and banter, crude at times, but that’s real life, and the women have wifely concerns. There are no firebrands or left wing agitators, no union crusaders and management barons, just ordinary people having to face up to a problem beyond their control brought about by the people running the country. The language is industrial at times, but we are talking about the death of an industry and a community here so you would expect it to become emotive.

In the real Grimley, Grimethorpe, unemployment was to stand at more than 50 per cent for a decade after the pit closure.

And through it all we have the band, the nearest thing to stability in Grimley, and even that is fragile at times, and the band are played ,in the main, by the celebrated Jackfield Brass Band from near Ironbridge in Shropshire – although a few cast members are actually playing their own instruments among them if you can spot them.

The band are the the still flickering flame of defiance, battling their way through to the National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall (in reality Birmingham Town Hall in the film) and the final climax.

The play is set by designer Dawn Allsopp with a pithead and its winding gear, a street and the old orange street lamps which is both effective and flexible with scenes seamlessly merging into each other with the whole thing beautifully lit by Mark Howland, even down to the sky backdrop behind which produces dawns, twilights and even red skies at night that would delight any shepherd in Yorkshire. 

Director Damian Cruden has kept up a good pace and clever use of the stage with some ingenious moments such as the snooker match for Andy’s euphonium.

If there was a criticism it would be with the incidental music between scenes. Tracks such as Pulp’s Common People might have the right sort of title and be from the same sort of era, 1995, but did tend to jar.

This was Yorkshire miners we were talking about, brass bands, working men’s clubs and best bitter hardly makes for Pulp fans. Surely there are enough emotive brass band pieces that could have been used – after all the power of brass is the star of the show.

A minor point, which should not detract from a fine Touring Consortium Theatre Production. This is a fine cast bringing the story of a moment in our very recent industrial and social history to life and deserveing to be seen.

In the real Grimley, Grimethorpe, near Barnsley, unemployment remained at more than 50 per cent for a decade after the pit closure

Incidentally in 1983 Britain had 175 deep mines, when the current tour of Brassed Off started the nation that gave the world the industrial revolution was down to just three and recently it was announced two of those last remaining pits are set to close. To 12-04-14

Roger Clarke

Muck, Brass and Orange Juice – the death of an industry

Paul Marston's view



Contents page Grand  Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre