Décembre 2023 | Bold as Brass: Understanding Brassed Off’s Brass Band

Pauline Pambo, université catholique de lille


Amongst the repercussions of the unanticipated box-office triumph of Mark Herman’s 1996 film Brassed Off was the sudden rise to prominence for the general public of the British brass band movement—and in particular of one of its most renowned representatives, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Albeit set in a fictional town named Grimley, the story of Brassed Off is indeed rather overtly based on that of the large South Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe, whose colliery brass band went on to win the National Brass Band Championship in the Royal Albert Hall on October 17, 1992, five days after the announcement of the closure of their pit. It therefore naturally follows that, by virtue of its mutually influential relationship with reality, the movie serves as a foray into the zeitgeist of the immediate post-Thatcherite years in impecunious British colliery towns. Yet the brass band as depicted in the movie does not solely function as a source of local colour, providing a vista of the actual lives of many mining communities of the period; it also acts narratively as a prism through which the crystallization of the mining community’s hopes is perceived.


Lorsque le film Les Virtuoses de Mark Herman est sorti dans les salles de cinéma en 1996, il a connu un succès au box-office aussi retentissant qu’inattendu et a rendu au mouvement des fanfares de cuivres britanniques ses lettres de noblesse en figurant en tête d’affiche l’emblématique Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Bien qu’elle se déroule dans la commune fictive de Grimley, l’intrigue des Virtuoses est en effet ouvertement calquée sur l’histoire de Grimethorpe, un village du Yorkshire du Sud dont la fanfare minière municipale a remporté le Championnat National des Fanfares de Cuivres au Royal Albert Hall le 17 octobre 1992, cinq jours après l’annonce de la fermeture de leur mine. En vertu de son rapport d’influence mutuelle avec la réalité, le film reflète le Zeitgeist des années post-Thatcher dans les villes minières britanniques en proie à la précarité. Pourtant, la représentation de la fanfare dans le film ne se limite pas à relater le vécu quotidien typique de nombreuses communautés minières de l’époque ; elle remplit aussi la fonction de prisme narratif par lequel les espoirs—et désespoirs—tant individuels que collectifs de la communauté minière se cristallisent.


        The success of Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off, which was released in British theatres on November 1, 1996, grossed over £3,000,000, obtained three BAFTA nominations and won the César Award for Best Foreign Film in 1998, came as a surprise to the director himself:

It never really crossed my mind [the film] would be a hit. I thought a few people within a 5-mile radius of Barnsley might understand and enjoy it, but then maybe quite quickly forget it, so it’s always been a hugely rewarding and surprising experience to see it become so big, especially around the world, and—more importantly and tellingly—to still be appreciated quarter of a century later. (Interview with Etheridge)

Amongst the repercussions of the film’s unanticipated box-office triumph was the sudden rise to prominence for the general public of the British brass band movement[1]—and in particular of one of its best representatives, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Though it is set in a fictional town named Grimley, the story of Brassed Off is based on that of the large South Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe, whose colliery brass band went on to win the National Brass Band Championship in the Royal Albert Hall on October 17, 1992, five days after the announcement of the closure of their pit. The official website of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band specifies that “for the band, which provided the soundtrack music and the extras for the on-screen band, the spin-offs have been vast” [and that] “since the release of the film, [they] have toured extensively in Europe” as well as in other parts of the world (“Brief History”). This begs the question of the exact role and significance given to the brass band in the film.
        In the present article, I argue that because it anchors the film in its time, explores the intimate dynamics of mining communities and serves as a symbol for hope—or the lack thereof—, Brassed Off’s brass band serves as the catalyst of a left-wing political and social commentary by shedding light on local consequences of the deindustrialization enacted by the British Conservative government in the 1980s. Grimley’s brass band was imagined as a fictional surrogate for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band: the former borrowed the latter’s story, music, and even its members, yet its cinematic existence also shaped the public perception, success and popularity of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in turn. By virtue of this mutually influential relationship with reality, the film’s brass band serves as a foray into the zeitgeist of the immediate post-Thatcherite years in impecunious British colliery towns. The brass band as depicted in the film does not solely function as a source of local colour, but also provides a vista of the lives of the mining community and acts narratively as a prism through which the crystallization of said mining community’s hopes is perceived.

Playing the Tune of its Time: The Band as a Foray into the Zeitgeist of 1980s Mining Communities
        Brassed Off takes place in 1994 in a pit village from Yorkshire and the film does not hide the fact that it is deeply embedded into the Northern region of England and the immediate past of the contemporary period in which it was released; the very name of the fictional town it is set in is a portmanteau of two South Yorkshire villages whose collieries were both closed in 1993: Grimethorpe and Frickley. As such, the presence of a colliery brass band could be seen as yet another topical element incorporated in the film as a means to reconstitute the particular regional ethos of the period during which it was made. The film demonstrates a documentary interest for Northern industrial social environments that is apparent in the numerous details relative to brass band culture it contains.
        Brass bands have had a particular history in the coal mining industry of the Northeast of England, where they have been present in colliery towns since the middle of the 19th century and “became focal points for the culture and entertainment of their communities” (Holman 1). The Grimley colliery band in the film is shown to have existed for many generations and all the exclusively male members are miners or former miners who meet to practice seemingly one evening a week after work. The “vaguely defined” (Herbert 1) national contest they take part in appears to correspond to the National Brass Band Championship of Great Britain, as written on the banners decorating the stage in the penultimate scene. The Saddleworth custom of the Whit Friday brass band contest—which was created in the late 19th century and is still held on a yearly basis to this day (Delph Whit Friday Website, “Delph Whit Friday band contest”)—is equally depicted, and particular care was taken to have the names of existing Northern British bands featured on screen in the form of the other participants in the contest: Oldham Music Centre Senator, Wardle High School Band, British Aerospace Manchester, Yorkshire Building Society Band, Uppermill Village Delph Band, Fairey Band, Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, Charity Brass for Cancer Research, and Yorkshire Electricity Drighlington. Some elements in Brassed Off are even directly borrowed from the reality the film portrays. As aforementioned, the soundtrack was performed by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, and some of its members served as extras in the practice and concert scenes (Grimethorpe Colliery Band Website, “Brief History”). However, strive as the movie might have done to be as accurate as possible, “parts of the brass band community reacted angrily to what was seen as another misrepresentation of its great movement,” as “aspects of the film were appallingly inauthentic” (Herbert 1)—to wit, Pete Postlethwaite’s character, the conductor of the band, wears the same jacket as the other members on stage during official performances while a conductor is supposed to stand out, and he sometimes wears his uniform even to attend regular practices, which is highly uncommon; bands participating in contests usually play the same piece of music (which is not the case in the film), and the results of the Whit Friday contest are never announced before the sun has set (while it is done in daylight in the film). As Herbert remarked in The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History, this is due to the fact that Brassed Off is “not a documentary [but] a fictional account of a place and a moment,” and its purpose is to “tell us something about the tone and meaning of [the political confrontation that occurred in the period] which the starker facts of reality often obscure,” namely “working-class attitudes to Thatcherite reforms” (Herbert 1). The depiction of a brass band anchors the movie in the ethos of the region it seeks to represent but the crux of the movie, therefore, is not so much a study of brass band culture as the examination of the damaging consequences experienced by former industrial communities throughout Thatcher’s consecutive mandates and in their wake—“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” (Brew). Indeed, it is undeniable that the rendition of history offered through the film is politically tinted and seeks to denounce the deindustrializing policies enacted by the Conservative government during the 1980s: Mark Herman stated that he happened upon the idea for the film while witnessing the dire consequences of the pit closures in his Northern English environment:

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. (Qtd. in Brew)

Some translations of Brassed Off’s title even entirely omit the brass band-related word play in favour of articulating the film’s political tenets some more:

A direct link between the living conditions of the miners and Margaret Thatcher’s neo-Darwinian politics is established in the Italian film title Grazie, signora Thatcher. Even though Brassed Off is set in 1992 (sic), which is two years after Margaret Thatcher’s replacement by John Major, the Italian title is still appropriate since the miners are struggling with the indelible mark Thatcher left on British politics and society, and also because Major did not change Thatcher’s course. (Thieme 5)

In many regards, the film does address the events and tensions of its time through the perspective of Northern English populations that faced the brunt of Thatcherism.[2] The brass band is central to that endeavour and serves as an instrument for Herman to explore political dynamics and contemporary national tensions. Though the events narrated in the film take place in 1994, Brassed Off largely borrows from and is inspired by the 1984 miners’ strike, which had been started as a reaction to the government’s decision to close coal mines that were considered obsolete. “Three years before the miners’strike, in January 1981, [the National Coal Board] chairman, Sir Derek Ezra, warned that the price of coal was falling and that the twenty-three least productive pits were losing around £85m per year, or nearly £20 per ton of coal” (McSmith 157-58) The struggle between tradition and modernity is represented cinematographically by the fact that the brass band, which stands for popular tradition, never actually interacts with or even shares the same space as the colliery management, which is visually coded as a criminal organization (Redfern 3): the board members wearing suits and hovering around their leader are an anonymous goon-like presence and the source of suspicious, hushed conversations and scheming that neither Gloria nor the film viewers are entirely privy to.
        Through an intertextual reference to The Godfather’s Michael Corleone (Gloria bitterly remarks “You made them an offer they couldn’t refuse”), the leader in question, McKenzie [Stephen Moore], is painted as the clear antagonist and “perhaps the only one-dimensional cipher” of the film (Brew). When Gloria confronts him about the management’s closure of the pit in spite of its financial viability, he initially vaguely feigns sorrow by means of platitudes but his casual pose and mock affected tone are in stark contrast with the grim situation, and it is not long before he lets go of the charade, revealing with a sardonic smile that the pit’s fate was decided two years prior—he is made to embody cruel corporate modernity as he declares that “coal is history.” By transporting the characters to London and showing the marked contrast between the capital and their small hometown, the narrative device of the brass band championship also allowed Herman to represent the stark economic disparity between the North and South of England which was deepened during the period; the figure of Thatcher showed a division in the country as hers “was a government representing the prosperous South of England rather than the regions prone to high unemployment in primary manufacturing industries [and she pursued] policies which, it was generally accepted, were likely to increase unemployment, at least in the short term” (Clarke 368).
        The brass band equally allows the demonstration of the stringency of the poverty that derived from unemployment and plagues the community in the film; as an independent society, it relies on small weekly donations that the miners can scarcely afford—at the beginning of the movie, Mary Healey’s character, Ida, sternly warns her husband not to “go handing over any kitty money,” and it is only the arrival of the alluring Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) that keeps Jim (Philip Jackson) and Ernie (Peter Martin) from leaving the band for financial reasons—, some members (like Phillip Ormondroyd) have been left destitute by the 1984 miners’ strike and are seriously indebted from purchasing instruments beyond their means. The only reason the band is able to afford its final trip to London in order to participate in the finals of the National Brass Band Championships at all is that Gloria, a middle-class woman visiting the village for work, finances it at the last moment. That the period entailed deindustrialization and economic inequality would likely have been known to the public of the time, be it British or foreign, although the majority of them were probably abstractly aware of it rather than intimately familiar with its local consequences. Herman’s aim was not only to depict the ills of his time, he also sought to make his audience care about the situation and empathize with Northern English former industrial communities. The use of the brass band was instrumental in this undertaking, as it provided non-Northern English audiences with an intimate, albeit fictional, vista of the lives of mining communities.

Striking the Right Note: The Band as a Vista of the Miners’ Lives
        The brass band’s presence frames the movie both intra- and extra-diegetically; it provides the opening and closing pieces of soundtrack and appears through the credit rolls, in the form of all the lowercase red instances of the letters “p” and “f” which, as they stand out, are reminiscent of the musical directions that would be featured on music sheets. As it permeates the entire movie, Brassed Off’s brass band acts as both a looking glass and a keyhole with regard to the film’s mining community, in that it serves as its reflection and also in turn reveals particular inner aspects of it. Indeed, because it is a cultural extension thereof, in many ways the structure of the band reflects that of Grimley’s mining community: it is an intergenerational kinship of sorts, as attested by the fact that the walls of the practice hall are covered in pictures of former members, flags and memorabilia which underscore the band’s rich history. The very first scene in which the brass band gets together is designed to denote the winsome congeniality inherent to tight-knit communities; some members may not be particularly sedulous practice-wise, but still adhere to the band’s spirit and the practice atmosphere is cheery despite the gloomy threat of the pit closing that all members are aware of—Ernie cracks bawdy quips and Harry [Jim Carter] sarcastically jokes around.
        Because the colliery band is a vocational society and the profession of miner does not require to be well-versed in foreign languages, some of the band members are not familiar with Spanish names, which is rendered comically apparent by the fact that Rodrigo’s concerto de Aranjuez is known to them as the “concerto de orange juice.” They are, however, extremely receptive to and affected by their art, and they are moved almost to the point of tears by Gloria’s performance. The fact that the band has a political dimension as well is depicted by one of the most prominently placed decorations in the practice hall: a union banner, whose aim is to “provide a union with an identity, and act as a rallying point for its members” (Foster 1) and which hangs directly behind the conductor as he addresses the players. The brass band indeed revolves around the local working class: it is a close inward group which has existed for generations and in which players often come from the same families. For instance, Danny’s son, Phil, is a trombone player.
        The band is constituted of miners, former miners, and sons of miners who were born and raised in Grimley. “Usually as a rule we don’t allow outsiders” is the conductor’s (Pete Postlethwaite) first response as Gloria asks him whether she can temporarily join the band, and the only reason she is let in is “by virtue of [a] historical and familial link” (Redfern 5): she was born in Grimley, and is the granddaughter of Arthur Mullins, a former miner and friend of Danny who passed away due to an occupational lung disease and who, according to the conductor, was one of the best players in the history of the band. As such, Gloria Mullins is part of the community, and the shot that pans from the pictures on the walls to her face as she plays visually ties her to the band’s history, notwithstanding her current occupation as a white-collar professional.
        Gloria plays with her grandfather’s flugelhorn, which is significant as, in the words of Baudrillard, “old objects have a particular psychological status in that they summon the past” (105) and they “are always akin to a family portrait; they are the concrete form of the memorialization of a former person—a process tantamount to an elision of time” (106). Former members therefore vicariously live on through the band—not only through their pictures on the wall but also through cathectic instruments symbolically passed on to their descendants. The band also provides a visual communal cue; as soon as the members don their purple shoulder-strapped uniforms, the bond uniting them becomes apparent and they in turn assert and boast about their origin. The sartorial attributes of the band concurrently underscore the fact that the band is not fully homogeneous: Gloria does not wear trousers like the male members but a fairly short skirt, and, when they decide to involve themselves more with the band’s activities, Vera and Ida match the band’s colour palette by sporting bright purple hair strands.
        Though gender relations as they occur within the band initially appear to be divisive, they ultimately point towards collective harmony. The band is an exclusively masculine space and Gloria’s exceptional admission as a new player happens amidst a flurry of reductive instances of sexualization on the part of the miners: upon her arrival Ernie openly associates her name with a raunchy pun which has all the band members snickering. Although he and Jim are both married and sixty years old, they explicitly find her attractive and decide to stay to spend time with her. Simmo and Andy crudely discuss their teenage memories of Gloria, and even Danny comments on her appearance and ogles her backside as she climbs into the bus bound to Saddleworth. However, Gloria doesn’t shy away from sexual innuendos, instead laughing along and even responding in kind, giving as good as she gets (“Want to survey my quantity, love?”, Jim asks her in the back of the bus, and she retorts “Well, they do say ‘no job too small’”). Like Vera and Ida, Jim and Ernie’s wives, decide to found an impromptu fan club in order to follow the band to Saddleworth so as to keep an eye on their overly flirtatious husbands, they also show their ability to make use of sexual quips by confounding Danny, who vaguely attempts to dissuade them from joining, into letting them board the bus by deriving double entendres from his words and pretending to take offence at them. Once they have effectively put a stop to Jim and Ernie’s flirting, they engage in bawdy banter with Andy and the rest of the bus, showing that the entire group is unified despite gender-specific attitudes and the earlier emphasis on Gloria’s femininity and sex appeal.
        Indeed, later on, during the Whit Friday competition montage, long shots of all the band and freshly-created fan club members drinking together and socializing cements the idea that the band’s space is a loving and cohesive, if teasing one, despite the gender differences—while all the miners line up and relieve themselves on a wall, the women take a walk, laughing, and both groups eventually merge back and are shown to be laughing and enjoying themselves. As it is rooted in the same common ground as the whole village (common history, common social class, social coexistence and emotional bonds) and showcases the community’s unity without effacing the small disparities that exist between its members, Grimley’s brass band is the locus of what Bourdieu named the “habitus” of the mining community: it enables the display of “these generative and unifying principles which retranslate the intrinsic and relational characteristics of a position into a unitary life-style, that is, a unitary set of persons, goods, practices” (15).
        In the same way, the brass band reflects and displays the harmony of the community when it is united, it also reveals and addresses the issues that its individual members face outside of it, either by materializing these issues, or offering the characters the space necessary to express, and sometimes overcome them. In the case of Gloria, the band’s newest addition, it sheds light on her inner conflict regarding the apparent incompatibility of her working-class origins and her managerial employment: although she has not told anyone that she is employed by the pit management intent on closing the mine, as soon as she puts on the band uniform, she is visually made to adopt a critical stance towards her employer for the first time. She is wearing her professional attire, a suit, and absentmindedly watching a television programme mentioning the probable closure of the Grimley colliery while spreadsheets and an open computer lay on her bed as the landlady knocks on the door of her room to bring her her brand new brass band uniform in a garment bag.
        Mark Herman elected to use an editing strategy akin to the Kuleshov effect in the montage of this sequence: the scene then briefly cuts to another sequential shot of Phil dealing with bailiffs and when it switches back to Gloria, she has donned the uniform and is standing in front of a mirror, clasping her hands and looking somewhat forlornly at the reflection of the television screen before directing her gaze at her own reflection, barely able to muster a smile. This added distance, visualised by the interplay of glances and reflections, points to her introspection and foreshadows the fact that her loyalties will shift at the end of the film. The brass band equally serves as the key to its male members’ vulnerability, which they have difficulty addressing. As Gloria remarks in the final scene of the movie, “Yorkshire men are famous for not showing their feelings,” a tendency that the film confirms in many instances (for instance, as he and a group of miners encounter Phil shortly after his attempted suicide, Harry cannot bring himself to put words on Phil’s actions and clumsily talks his way around it: “We heard about, er… We were on our way to the hospital to see you”). It is particularly noticeable through the Ormondroyds’ filial relationship, which is strained for the majority of the film, as neither Danny nor Phil are willing to confide in the other about the serious issues they each face—Danny keeps his budding illness to himself and Phil never initiates a discussion about his disastrous financial situation or the departure of his wife and kids.
        The brass band is the only way through which they genuinely communicate, and they both use it to cope with their situations in their own ways. Despite his criminal record, severe financial debt, the relentless bailiffs who threaten his family, and the fact that the band only has two performances left, Phil decides to purchase a brand-new trombone on credit to satisfy his father’s unrealistic expectations. To him, the instrument is a token of his father’s approval, and his participation in the band is a way to connect with him and make him proud. As for Danny, the conductor and oldest member of the band, he seems to be using the band as an escape from the town’s tragic fate: he consistently refuses to consider the looming certainty of the pit closure to the point that he is unaware of the existence and date of the ballot held to decide on the matter:

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. (Brew)

        Similarly, the rapport of the other band members with the brass band is revelatory in the sense that the only times the miners allow themselves to show their emotions with regard to the forthcoming disappearance of their livelihood are during the brass band performances, many of which contain close-up shots of their emotional, sometimes even tear-stricken faces. “It is only through music that they are able to express themselves” (Redfern 3) and the band therefore serves as a sober vista of their intimate psyches, providing the public with an insight into their emotional state and thusly creating sympathy. If Brassed Off’s brass band has a twofold function in relation to the community—as a device reflective of its history, quiddity and unity, and revealing the underlying emotional tensions its members face—the film’s narrative nonetheless clarifies that the extent of this unity is not all-encompassing. Not only are not all the miners of Grimley on board with the band or the decision to keep the pit open (as is shown by the altercation between Phil and another miner during the ballot), but outside of the band, the relationships between men and their family members are often strained: Phil’s wife, Sandra, takes their kids and leaves him when their furniture is seized by bailiffs, and Harry and his wife Rita only stop to see one another long enough to argue. The band’s unity then appears to be an escapist, idealized version of what the interpersonal dynamics within Grimley could be if it were not for the financial pressure and unemployment looming overhead. Brassed Off’s brass band then takes on another role.

“With an Ounce of Bloody Hope Left”: The Band as a Crystallization of the Community’s Hopes (or Lack Thereof)
        The Grimley colliery band serves as a symbol of hope—or the lack of it. This dual symbolism stems from the film’s attitude towards the Northern British populations affected by the harsh governmental deindustrialisation measures of the 1980s: it both celebrates their spirit and laments their fate. The band’s status as the community’s linchpin and a symbol of hope and dignity is established by its conductor, Danny Ormondroyd, himself an intimidating figure incarnating pride and heritage—this is particularly noticeable during the scene in which, after a less-than-stellar performance, he exhorts the band members by conjuring up the band’s enduring history:

Over 100 years, this band’s been going. Two World Wars, three disasters, seven strikes, one bloody big depression. And the band played on every flaming time . . . And you know one thing more than owt else out here that symbolises pride? That’s this bloody band. Ask anybody. (Brassed Off)

Though the band does eventually end up being a vessel for sentiments that help the miners cope with their situation, it also highlights the bleak despair around it, for “it’s [indeed] as the Grimley Colliery Band are seen enjoying their finest ever moment, that the Grimley Colliery itself suffers its worst. . . . The band has never been more successful, the ecosystem around it never more in despair” (Brew), and yet the former is predicated on the latter, as exposed early in the movie: only four minutes into it, Vera and Ida’s first conversation revolves around their husbands’ purported “packing in” of the band and resignation: “Well, no point in carrying on, is there? Pit goes, band will go t’same way,” Vera declares. It therefore naturally follows that the band, in its quality of collateral consequence of the pit closure, should underscore the miners’ powerlessness. Indeed, Redfern remarks that “though the miners vote for redundancy it is clear that it is merely a formality, a means for the management to retain control over the community’s future but to transfer responsibility on to the miners.” This perception of powerlessness is grounded in a historical reality: many participants in the 1984-85 miners’ strike felt that they had never had a chance to make their claims heard due to the fact that ever since the 1978 Ridley report on “how a Conservative government might defeat union militancy,” whose provisions had advocated for “building up coal stocks at the power stations, making plans to import coal and switching to dual coal/oil-firing as fast as possible », the government had been anticipating the strike (McSmith 157).

The alienation of the miners from this decision-making process is evident in one sequence where the band’s performance of Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ is heard over shots of a meeting between the management and the union leadership. The miners are excluded from this meeting but the use of music to obscure the negotiations makes the spectator aware of their absence and their lack of a voice in deciding their future. (Redfern 3)

The band is used to manifesting this helplessness, both via the soundtrack and the aforementioned stark contrast between the band’s competitive victories and the defeat constituted by the closure of the pit. “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” (Brew). Indeed, the character of Danny, whose existence is strongly linked (if not quasi-tantamount) to that of the band itself,[3] manifests this helpless despair as he is made to collapse by his worsening sickness strongly suggested to be related to the years he spent mining. “The band’s conductor is sick, and the social coherence that has bound the band together for so long is cracking” (Herbert 1). The very end of the film is “elegiac” (Blandford 28) in tone: though the Grimley Colliery Band has won the National Brass Band Championship, the members’ future is extremely uncertain as they have all been left unemployed and destitute. The last scene even has them ride a bus into the darkness, presaging the worst. Blandford considers the last scenes to be “a last throw of dice for a powerful element in the construction of the identity of large parts of the industrial north of England” (28).
        Indeed, although the band highlights the tragedy of the colliery town’s fate, it also paradoxically symbolises hope in the form of the agency the band members fight to retain. Not only does the band seem to be in charge of the overall tone of the story—“some tunes come across like ironic commentaries on the film. The movie begins, for instance, with the marching song ‘Death or Glory’ and ends with Edward Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’” (Thieme 5)— , but as the endeavour of several individuals coming together in unison to make themselves be heard, it also serves as a metaphor for collective class action.
        According to Žižek, the brass band is both an idealized symbolic expression of community and a token of resistance. Though initially, Danny’s obsession with music appears to the miners as a futile and fetishistic insistence on an empty symbolic form stripped of its social substance (Phil tells him at some point “I love the band. We all do. But there’s other things in life, that’s more important,” only for Danny to answer “Not in mine there isn’t”), as soon as their struggle is lost and the decision to close the pit is taken, their persistence in continuing to play at the national championship turns into a symbolic gesture of resistance, an appropriate act to continue the political struggle. Or, as Ewan McGregor’s Andy puts it: “If there is no hope left, only the principles remain” (Žižek 192). Indeed, in his refusal speech, Danny’s attitude has entirely shifted and he reproves the audience (both in and outside the movie) regarding their lack of support and seeming disinterest in the tragedy faced by miners: “I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to how people matter.” This conception of the band as a form of resistance, or at least as an attempt to bring outside attention to the miners’ despair is clearly evoked in the movie through the interaction between Harry and his politically active wife, Rita.

Rita: Harry, in a month’s time when you’re at home all day and there’s nowt but dole coming in, at least I can know that I did summat. It weren’t much, but it were best I could do and at least it were summat.
Harry: What are you on about?
Rita: Ten years ago before the strike, you were so full of fight. Packed full of passion, you were. Now you just do now. All you do is blow your bloody trumpet.
Harry: Aye, but at least . . . people listen to us. (Brassed Off)

The character of Harry suggests that, in the situation that is Grimley’s, traditional political activism—such as the vigils his wife takes part in—is bound to fail due to the lack of concern of outside parties, while playing music is more liable to be effective in catching attention. Danny’s earlier calls for pride and perseverance are echoed through the miners’ decision to play at the Albert Hall: “Oh, they can shut up the unions, they can shut up the workers, but I’ll tell you one thing for nothing, they’ll never shut us up. We’ll play on, loud as ever.”
        The other way in which the Grimley colliery band suggests hope for the community is through hinting at the fact that it can evolve and adapt to societal change. The band is traditionally built on deeply entrenched exclusionary principles, but is shown to slowly shift and depart from those throughout the film:

The economic struggles of Grimley bring families to the point of collapse but through the band they are able to come together. At the Albert Hall the men and women of Grimley are reunited within a single space. Rita and Sandra are in the audience, where previously they have been scornful of their husbands’ interest in the band. With the men on stage and the women in the audience a division of labour remains in place at the end of the film. However, Gloria’s presence in the band suggests that it may be overcome. (Redfern 5)

Similarly, the band members do not tolerate scabs, but they readily forgive Phil, rendered suicidal by the guilt and the pressure, when he admits that he voted for the pit to close. When it is revealed that Gloria is employed by the management of the mine, she is immediately excluded and ignored by the band members who consider her a class traitor. They are unwilling to hear her explanations or entertain the possibility that she might also want the pit to stay open, but they also eventually forgive her when she proves herself by financing the trip to London. The band both reinforces the community’s unity and offers it hope in the form of adaptation.
        “The closure of Grimley colliery forces a shift in the conception of Yorkshire from one that is defined primarily in terms of economic activity to a definition that is culturally based” (Redfern 4). Indeed, though the miners are made to relinquish their equipment and the professional attributes with which they started the film, they retain their instruments and band uniforms, which they are wearing in the very last scene of the film, paving the way for what Redfern has called as “the expression of a regional, Yorkshire identity that is capable of overcoming differences of class and gender” (1).

        The significance of Brassed Off’s brass band is therefore manifold and can be observed on different scales: outside the film’s narrative, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band serves as an authentic cultural element anchoring the story to the ethos of the region it is set in and lending credibility to its depiction while supporting the local community whose real-life history inspired the plot of the film through employment and exposure. Within the narrative, the Grimley Colliery Band is not only at the crux of the plot, but also acts as a prism allowing the exploration of the characters, their all-too-human foibles and the bonds uniting them in all their complexity. It incarnates the primacy of heritage, troth, and pride, and is instrumental in the film’s endeavour to “acknowledge the misery and sheer destructiveness wrought by the re-assertion of centralized capitalist power during the Thatcher years” (Blandford 28) by embodying their struggle, which many of them felt had not been taken into account. “Brassed Off does not offer any . . . miracle cures or last-minute rescue packages, but the film is utopian in its representation of collective action through the band” (Redfern 5) while also suggesting that one way for former industrial communities to “cope with adversity and social change” (Herbert 1) may be to refocus their identity in cultural terms rather than occupational ones.

Works Cited



Brassed Off. Dir. M. Herman. United Kingdom: FilmFour Distributors, 1996. Film.

Other sources

Baudrillard, Jean. Le système des objets. Saint-Amand: Gallimard, 1969. Print.

Blandford, Steve. Film, Drama and the Break-up of Britain. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Physical Space, Social Space and Habitus. Oslo: Institutt for sosiologi og samfunnsgeografi Universitetet i Oslo, 1995. Print.

Brew, Simon. “Brassed Off: a 90s UK film that demands not to be forgotten.” Den of Geek (2016). Web. 1 Apr. 2020.

Clarke, Peter. Hope and Glory. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Delph Whit Friday Website. “Delph Whit Friday band contest.” Web. 15 Nov. 2022.

Etheridge, Loz. “25 years on – brassed off: In conversation with Mark Herman.” God Is In The TV. 2021. Web. 13 Nov. 2022.

Foster, “Banners of Durham Miners’ Union 1869 to the present.” Web. 1 Apr. 2020.

Friedrich, Alena. The Representation of the Working Class in the Films Brassed Off and The Full Monty. Norderstedt: Grin Verlag, 2003. Print.

Grimethorpe Colliery Band Website. “Brief History—Grimethorpe Band.” 2017. Web. 1 Apr. 2020.

Grimethorpe Colliery Band Website, “About Us.” 2022. Web. 14 Nov. 2022.

Herbert, Trevor. The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Holman, Gavin. “Brass, Coal, Banners, Marching and Music: Colliery Bands and the Durham Miners’ Gala or ‘Big Meeting.’” Web. Academia.edu: 2019. 14 Nov. 2022.

McSmith, Andy. No Such Thing as Society. London: Hachette UK, 2011. Print.

Redfern, Nick. “‘Land of Hope and Bloody Glory’: The Affirmation of British National Identity in Brassed Off.” Paper presented at Bradford International Film Festival 2007, Bradford, United Kingdom. Web. 1 Apr. 2022.

Thieme, Elisa Valerie. “An Analysis of the Film Brassed Off.” Munich: Grün Verlag, 2013. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Die gnadenlose Liebe. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001. Print.


Pauline Pambo was born and raised in Lille, in the North of France. She obtained both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English Literature and Civilization Lille Catholic University. Her Master’s thesis entitled “Representation of the North of England in 1980s Left-Wing Cinema,” was written under the supervision of Suzanne Bray. She is now working as an English teacher.


Pauline Pambo est née et a grandi à Lille, dans les Hauts de France. Elle a obtenu sa Licence et son Master d’Anglais (LCE) à l’Institut Catholique de Lille. Son mémoire de Master sous la direction de Suzanne Bray s’intitulait “Representation of the North of England in 1980s Left-Wing Cinema.” Elle enseigne aujourd’hui l’anglais dans le secondaire.

[1] In the “About Us” section of their website, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band exhibits a contemporary review of the film from the magazine Time Out which reads that “for many, the brass band music of Grimethorpe comes as the real revelation.”

[2] For instance, the attempted suicide of the character of Phillip Ormondroyd [Stephen Tompkinson] on screen is reminiscent of that, unfortunately successful, of the miner Ian Tarren, which occurred in relatively similar circumstances during the 1984 miners’ strike.

[3] It is evidenced by the fact that he is shown to experience psychosomatic symptoms (a heightened heart rate) of the passion he has for music—“If it weren’t for band I reckon he’d pop his clogs,” Andy says about him, and the other band members agree.