Brassed Off: The Grimethorpe Colliery Band at the Royal Albert Hall. Image from grimethorpeband.co.uk
In May 1993, Grimethorpe Colliery in South Yorkshire closed. Six thousand miners lost their jobs. Amongst them were 17 members of the colliery’s brass band, who no longer had the means to pay their mortgages let alone their band ‘subs’. Despite being ‘Brassed Off’ the Grimethorpe Colliery brass band managed to play on. Its music provided the community with a glimmer of hope for the future.
Things didn’t improve quickly. In 1994, a European Study on deprivation listed Grimethorpe as the poorest village in the whole country. But despite the enormous challenges, the colliery’s music helped to provide hope of a better future.
In 1996, the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band won the National Finals. This was a year after the fictional Grimley Colliery had won them in the 1995 hit film ‘Brassed Off’ based on the story of Grimethorpe. Life had imitated art. The Grimley Colliery Band (made up of the film’s actors and the Grimethorpe Band’s musicians) powered the film to international success.
Early on in ‘Brassed Off’ the band’s leader Danny Ormondroyd (played by the late Pete Postlewaite) is heard saying “This is music and it’s music that matters.” He was of course partly right, music does matter. But as he later recognised, it’s the musicians and audiences that matter more.
In 1973 there were 174 working coal mines in the UK. By 2009 there were only 6. The communities around the pits were economically devastated. Societies broke down. This was far faster than the miners had envisaged. As the character Vinnie in Sky’s hit show ‘Brassic’ says “Sometimes life has a habit of not quite going how you mean it to.” Life in Grimethorpe certainly hadn’t gone according to plan. Only the brass band carried on as before.
Fortunately, where there’s muck there can also be brass. In the years since the colliery closed, Grimethorpe built on the investment work done by the Grimethorpe Regeneration Board. That work has created over 500 new homes, more than 50 new businesses and over 5,000 new jobs, including many at the UK’s warehouse and distribution hub for Asos. Unemployment is still above the national average, but compared to 1994 Grimethorpe is now thriving.
The same can’t be said of the community’s brass band. Musically it remains extraordinary, but in its 104th year, the former colliery band is in a precarious economic state. Despite a 2021 Government Cultural Recovery Support Grant, Grimethorpe and many other community bands remain in serious danger of being lost forever. Twenty-five years after the success of Brassed Off, the Grimethorpe Colliery band is brassic. Without sponsorship and restricted by COVID, the band needs to quickly get back to playing concerts. It’s had to start a crowd funding initiative (link below).
At the end of ‘Brassed Off’ the band’s leader Danny gives a passionate speech which includes “The truth is, I thought it mattered – I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to how people matter.” Danny is partly right once again. People do matter the most, but music matters too. It’s good for our souls and for our communities. Without music we all suffer.
After helping to save the community spirit in Grimethorpe, we can only hope that the band once again thrives. It will certainly be uplifting to hear it play publicly once again. Twenty-five years on, the sounds of the fictional ‘Grimley’ Colliery Band playing Orange Juice* still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Long may the Grimethorpe band play on. Music matters. People matter.
*En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor (nicknamed ‘Orange Juice’ as that’s far easier to say).