Brassed Off

The genesis of Brassed Off came in 1992, when filmmaker Mark Herman was driving through the small Yorkshire town of Grimethorpe in northern England. The vibrant and close-knit community he had known in the 1980s was now just a cluster of stores and homes, mostly boarded up and abandoned. Grimethorpe had been built to service its principal industry, coal mining, and when the mine (or ÒpitÓ) closed down, the town followed. Herman was shocked by this rapid and unheralded decline. ÒI couldnÕt believe that had happened without it being in the media,Ó he said during a recent visit to Detroit. His intense, emotional reaction became Òthe spark of the story.Ó In England, Herman explains, the systematic shutdown of the coal industry was largely motivated by politics. The coal industry was nationalized there after World War II, becoming the National Coal Board, and the miners became part of a powerful union. ÒThe closures I think were a result of the society not wanting any one union having that much power that they could hold the country to ransom, which they did in the late 1970s,Ó says Herman. Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Òinvested in nuclear and other energy sources which have their own unions. In the end it just meant the death of the coal industry because they didnÕt have that power anymore.Ó The miners were offered a bulk pay-out, but the towns were doomed. ÒThe film never says whether itÕs right or wrong to close the pit,Ó Herman explains. ÒIt may well be right economically, I donÕt know. What was wrong was the effect, not doing anything about the communities.Ó When the conservative Tory government Òstarted closing the pits in the early Õ90s,Ó he continues, Òthey didnÕt just say, ÔAll right, weÕre going to close 40 pits,Õ because then people would pay attention to it. The government just closed two at a time, so it didnÕt become news. It was rather cleverly done.Ó Herman, whose politics are decidedly pro-Labour, was looking to tell this political story in personal terms when he heard a radio report about a brass band Òin the northeast of England which had to pack it in because of unemployment.Ó The point was that Òonce the band goes, then the whole communityÕs gone.Ó Brass bands, he continues, Òhave always been connected to the unions and the industry in the north of England. At all the protest marches thereÕs always local brass bands following up the back.Ó So Brassed Off (British slang for Òpissed offÓ) examines the mine closures, and the resulting loss of communities and a way of life, through the story of a brass band in the fictional Yorkshire town of Grimley. To find a stellar brass band, Herman had to look no further than the town that inspired the film. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, one of EnglandÕs top brass bands, had survived the mine closing and near shutdown of Grimethorpe itself by securing sponsorships and turning semiprofessional. In addition to recording the sound track, members of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band appear onscreen alongside actors Pete Postlethwaite, Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald. The town also served as the filmÕs primary location. ÒWe had to dress Grimethorpe up to make it look better,Ó Herman said, adding that sometimes the crewÕs work prompted double takes from residents. ÒThe scene in the film where the pit does close and the signs are up and thereÕs a wreath up there Ñ ÔWe fought and lostÕ Ñ there were some people coming out of the pub and they thought theyÕd stepped back 10 years.Ó As for HermanÕs career, Brassed Off has been a rewarding comeback after his 1991 farce, Blame It on the Bellboy , was savaged by critics and ignored by the public. Brassed Off , despite having three strikes against it Ñ the unpopular subjects of politics, miners and brass bands Ñ has become a hit in England. As a Yorkshire resident, Herman imbued his film with that regionÕs sensibilities, throwing in a healthy dose of Òhumor as a defense mechanism.Ó ÒEven though itÕs very miserable now in a place like Grimethorpe,Ó says Herman, Òthey still use that humor to fight against it, and I think thatÕs almost uniquely Yorkshire.Ó And to HermanÕs surprise, the filmÕs mixture of comedy and desperation has been a success even in London. In England, he continues, ÒtheyÕre not interested in political cinema,Ó and the works of Ògreat filmmakers like Ken LoachÓ ( Land and Freedom , Hidden Agenda ) donÕt become box-office hits. Brassed succeeds largely because the very politicized subject matter was expressed through music. ÒSay if Ken Loach was doing Brassed Off , in those union meetings you would have heard every word,Ó explains Herman, referring to a scene that begins at a band rehearsal and carries the music over scenes of labor negotiations. ÒYou donÕt need to hear what theyÕre saying, you just need to know that theyÕre arguing. It becomes almost like a ballet. ItÕs Busby Berkeley doing a political film.Ó The recent elections in Great Britain brought the Labour Party (albeit a more middle-of-the-road ÒNewÓ Labour Party) back to power after almost 20 years of Tory dominance. Herman sees Brassed Off as fitting the political shift. ÒI think this film came at the right time in England,Ó he says. ÒThat mood was already there and this film was just a sort of confirmation of what happened in the past, those things that we want to change.Ó

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