Brassed Off: a 90s UK film that demands not to be forgotten
It's funny, it's moving, it's brilliant: we look back at Brassed Off, starring the late, great Pete Postlethwaite...
This article contains spoilers for Brassed Off and The Full Monty.
“If this lot were seals or whales, you’d all be up in bloody arms. But they’re not, are they? No, no they’re not. They’re just ordinary common-or-garden honest, decent human beings. And not one of them with an ounce of bloody hope left”. – Danny, Brassed Off
One of the things that I love about a certain subset of contemporary British comedies is their core of steel. That, hiding underneath some often very hefty belly laughs, there’s a political story, a foundation of social outrage, and a desire to address through cinema issues that often get swept under the carpet. It’s what keeps such films in my mind, long after the latest R-rated comedy screen filler has trundled to the back of the DVD shop.
Take, for instance, The Full Monty. The beauty of it – a genuinely excellent film, for my money (one I’m sure I’ll look at in more detail on this site in the future) – is that the comedy comes as a consequence of human beings being pushed well out of their comfort zones. But that it doesn’t neglect why they’ve been pushed to do it.
In the case of that movie, people are taking their clothes off for money, because, well, what else is there? Don’t forget: there’s a haunting suicide attempt in the midst of the film too, one of the many parts of the movie that continue to resonate.
More recently, the excellent Pride achieved something similar, by telling a harsh, often unpleasant story with some very, very strong comedy. And further examples include the likes of Billy Elliot, East Is East and the more recent Sing Street. Not for nothing are films like these amongst the best comedy movies of the last couple of decades.
But I think Brassed Off is the best of the lot.
In fact, I’ll go further: it’s probably my favourite British film of the last 20 years or so. The irony, of course, for such a British film so centred in British culture is that it was co-funded with American money (Miramax, then run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, stumped up, without asking for any changes to the script). But then for writer/director Mark Herman, it was almost a miracle that the film got made in the first place.
“Poor lad. Still got your mind on that pit?”
Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.
Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.
A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.
Brassed Off was born.
Even then, though, Herman was conscious of writing “some dreary political polemic”. He wanted a cover for his story, and recalled a radio report about a brass band that had had to close when weekly subs stopped coming in. That seemed to fit the film he wanted to make, and thus the real-life Grimethorpe Colliery Band – and its home town – became an inspiration (albeit hidden – deliberately not very well – under the name Grimley in the movie).
“Even then, brass band music isn’t any more appealing to a movie audience than pit closures, so there also needed to be that layer of humour”, Herman noted. Still, he secured finance.
It helped that Herman delicately handled the film’s many chuckles, ensuring that the comedy was dry rather than farcical, and in many ways very geographic. “Much of the humour in that area [the north east of England] is almost a self-defence mechanism, especially useful during what were, and still are, pretty hard times. ‘If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry’ is an oft-used phrase, but there are times and places when it couldn’t be more true”.
The same sentence could, of course, also apply to the aforementioned The Full Monty there.
With Brassed Off though, even as we get the dry, witty asides in the first on-screen rehearsal of we see for the colliery band, and the eventual beautiful playing of ‘Orange Juice’, Herman intercuts his film with scenes from the mine itself, as union negotiators and management begin the process that, ultimately, will lead to the pit closure by the end of the film.
From the off, there’s a sense that a hopeless battle is being fought, with Grimley next on the list for closure, following workers at seven other nearby pits voting to accept extremely generous redundancy terms. When you have nothing, are living with the bailiffs one step away from the door, and someone offers £23,000 and a £5,000 sweetener, what are you supposed to do? The film makes that point very keenly.
“It’s music that matters”
But I’m a little ahead of myself, because Brassed Off isn’t just about the miners, and the band. It’s about the details, the human beings, the communities, and the divisions therein. Herman certainly doesn’t make a political polemic, as promised, but he still demonstrates the strain that the sheer poverty places on a community.
His story quickly centres on Danny Ormondroyd, conductor and overseer of the colliery band. The band is Danny’s life, and has been for decades. And Danny is played by Pete Postlethwaite.
I need, therefore, to declare my cards here. The late Pete Postlethwaite was and is one of my favourite actors of all time. In the 90s in particular, barely a month went by without him appearing in a new film.
Such a great mix, too. From his deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Giuseppe Conlon in In The Name Of The Father, through to his scene-stealing in The Usual Suspects, a bit of footie with When Saturday Comes (spoiler: Sean Bean survives that one), and dinosaur hunting in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, he felt ever-present on cinema screens for a while there. I liked that.
I saw him on stage once too, in a not-great production of Macbeth. Yet heck: he was outstanding. A friend of mine worked behind the scenes at the theatre the show was playing at, and he told a tale that Postlethwaite had to have a particularly pokey dressing room, due to the compact nature of the venue itself. His disappointment reportedly dissipated in seconds when they dropped off a tray of tinned beverages in the corner of the room for him. Nobody working in the theatre during the show’s run had a bad word to say about the man.
Me neither. Danny Ormondroyd, for me, is Postlethwaite’s best performance, and his best character. Danny is the one who stands for the history of the colliery here, and the band. He’s done his years down the mine, and is paying health consequences as a result of that.
The second outstanding performance you get in Brassed Off comes from Stephen Tomkinson, as Danny’s son, Phil.
Phil is in a marriage to Melanie Hill’s Sandra that’s feeling the strain of debt, and a bleak future. Not that Danny sees that. The one thing that gets him through, while the world he knows falls apart around him, is his love of music, and his love of the colliery band. Even to the expense of seeing just how much trouble his son is in.
It’s not that he doesn’t see what’s going on, rather he doesn’t really recognise it. His way of dealing with it all is through tunnel vision, focusing purely on the band and the music that he loves. Postlethwaite conveys this majestically: just witness the moments where his face paints a haunted picture as he realises others don’t share his one-track musical approach. He simply can’t compute it, we realise.
The clues to this are laid early on. When he picks up Phil for band practice, and his wife yells at him and throws a plate in his direction as they cycle off, Danny wryly notes “bit clumsy with the crockery, your Sandra”. Funny? Yes. Human? Yes. Tragic? Yes. And Brassed Off is full of small touches like that, that really make the film matter. There’s a real sense that the screenplay here was fine-tuned and focused before Herman unpacked his cameras.
“Is this the colliery band rehearsal?” “No love. Band’s on Tuesdays. Tonight’s origami class”
What Herman’s screenplay also latches onto is that it’s not just the story that matters, it’s the characters within it. He’s got quite a broad ensemble here, but even nominally supporting players have pivotal parts to play. Personally, I love the interchanges between Jim and Ernie (Philip Jackson and Peter Martin), not least their insistence that they’re going to quit the band, their resolve holding right up until a second before the excellent Tara Fitzgerald’s Gloria walks through the door.
Sue Johnstone, too, gets to demonstrate the compassion and support of community, all from behind the checkout of the local Spar. Not in a massively demonstrative way, but again, just through a small, non-showy gesture. She gets a few corking one-liners, too.
Perhaps the only one-dimensional cipher here is Stephen Moore (you might remember him as Kevin’s dad in Harry Enfield & Chums), playing the colliery manager Mr McKenzie, insistent that he wants to keep the pit open, yet seen grinning on the way out once the result has been announced. I do get why his role is so narrow, though: the film’s at its least interesting when we peak behind the scenes of the mine management, and follow the inevitable irrelevance of Gloria’s feasibility study. Those moments are the only ones in Brassed Off I can live without.
It’s the character of Gloria, along with Ewan McGregor’s Andy, meanwhile, that proved to be the thrust of the film’s promotional campaign when the film made it to the States. Bizarrely, Brassed Off was actually sold as a romantic comedy (!) by Miramax in the US, and to this day, the DVD cover highlights Ewan McGregor’s Andy and Tara Fitzgerald’s Gloria. In fact, the eager accompanying sales copy is worth citing:
“This delightfully entertaining comedy treat features hot screen stars Ewan McGregor (STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE, MOULIN ROUGE) and sexy Tara Fitzgerald (SIRENS). It’s the critically acclaimed story about two old friends — and ex-lovers — whose surprise reunion turns their lives … and the lives of everyone else in town … hilariously upside down!”
Mind you, McGregor was the closest the film had to a big star, hot off the back of Trainspotting and with Star Wars just around the corner for him (he’d return to work with Herman post-Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace for Little Voice).
Still, he’s but one part of an ensemble here, and Herman injects his and Fitzgerald’s romance in the film with earth, and some tasty-looking fish and chips. She’s management. He’s in love. They have a surprise reunion which turns their live hilariously upsi… no, not at all. In fact, they’re a surprisingly smaller part of the Brassed Off jigsaw.
For theirs isn’t the key relationship in the film. Ultimately, that honour falls to father and son, to Danny and Phil.
Before I get to them again, I need to talk about the moment the film really turns.
“How you feeling?” “Death’s door. And the bastards still take the piss!”
It’s as the Grimley Colliery Band are seen enjoying their finest ever moment, that the Grimley Colliery itself suffers its worst. Brassed Off doesn’t over-fuss this, rather it marks the considerable contrast.
As the band take part in the crucial semi-finals in Halifax, their successful performance is intercut with the redundancy vote, Sandra at the end of her tether finding a receipt for a trombone she and Phil can’t afford (that Phil’s only bought to please his dad), grinning management, bailiffs at the door, all mixed in with musical success. We get mournful scenes of miners, having overwhelming voted to accept redundancy, traipsing out of the pit. The band has never been more successful, The ecosystem around it never more in despair.
The most haunting shot in the film is the triumphant band returning, disembarking the coach, and being faced with a pit that’s already stopped working. The protests are gone, the battle lost.
And then Danny collapses.
If there’s one moment in Brassed Off that, in particular, sends goosebumps up my arms and shoves onions into my eyes, it’s the reuniting of the band, outside Danny’s hospital room, with their emotional rendition of Danny Boy. Danny Boy is a piece of music that’s been used plenty of times in cinema, but surely never better than here. We have a colliery band without a colliery, the men seemingly without hope, switching off their lamps to the accompaniment of a tiny click apiece.
And then there’s the heart-breaking shot. Herman’s close-up on Tompkinson’s tear-stained face, arguably the character whose family has lost the most, is perfect.
How much else can Phil be expected to lose? I have no idea what was going through Tompkinson’s head on the day he delivered that performance, but it’s stunning work. Quiet. Dignified. Heartbreaking. When Phil attempts to take his own life not long after, there’s no question at all that the film hasn’t at least given us an understanding as to why he took that decision. In turn, that leads to Danny ultimately recognising where music sits in his list of real priorities, as Postlethwaite thunders through the speech I quoted right at the start of this article.
Be in no doubt: Brassed Off was and is a hard, hard film at its centre. No matter how much – a lot, as it happens – it’s able to make people laugh. And I’d argue that it’s the relationship between Danny and Phil that really elevates it to something extra-special.
“I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to how people matter”
I’ve left talking about the music of Brassed Off until the end, not least because it’s the part that most people seem to already know about the most. If you’ve not had the pleasure, though, it’s truly something. Not for nothing did many of those involved in the production pick up an enduring love of brass band music after working on Brassed Off, and whether the film is playing the band’s performances for laughs (the 14 competitions in one day, with the quality of music decreasing as the quantity of beer consumed increases) or going full-on for the finale with a hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck performance of the William Tell Overture, there’s something really special here.
The standalone CD, with added music from Trevor Jones, is a treat in its own right. But the music in the context of the film? It’s pretty much unbeatable.
Actually, that’s not strictly true, because you can always hear it live. For perhaps the happy ending in the midst of all the Brassed Off story is that the real-life Grimethorpe Colliery Band, in spite of everything the community around it has had to suffer, is still going. And in fact, you can find a list of its upcoming appearances on its website, here.
The band’s sheer endurance suggests that, at least in part, Danny Ormondroyd was onto something: music really does matter. Brassed Off certainly does, and continues to do so.
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