‘Brassed Off’ At 25

Unlike other films of the time about Britain's post-industrial communities, 'Brassed Off' refused the consolations of the New Labour era – opting instead for a combination of solidarity and despair.

Still from Brassed Off (1996) with Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald, and Pete Postlethwaite. (IMDb / Miramax)

‘The truth is, I thought it mattered—I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to how people matter.’ So begins Danny Ormondroyd’s (Pete Postlethwaite) eventual determination that his devotion to the colliery brass band he leads, and its hundred-year heritage, means little without the social fabric that holds it all together.

Writer and director Mark Herman had wanted to make a film about miners for some years, but it wasn’t until he heard about a northern colliery band playing on after the closure of their pit that he settled on the lens through which to explore the long tail of the defeat of the miners’ strike. The resulting film, comedy-drama Brassed Off, is now 25 years old, and although overshadowed in its own time by 1997’s The Full Monty, it continues to pose challenging questions about the legacy of deindustrialisation in Britain.

Set in Grimley, a fictional pit village in Barnsley standing in for real-world Grimethorpe, Brassed Off is unabashed about its ‘grim up north’ sentimentality, and its portrayal of a multigenerational brass band brought together by music and a shared industry leans on Yorkshire stereotypes of pride, bloody-mindedness, and blue—though never mean—humour.

It is likely that such romanticism now lands differently with viewers who came of age after the closure of the mines, at least in part due to the fall of the so-called ‘red wall’ in 2019. Moreover, whereas in Brassed Off ‘coal is history’ is the sort of utterance that could only come out of the mouth of a management stooge (there are ‘hundreds of years’ worth of coal down there’, we’re reminded by the mineworkers), it has a different ring in a context where coal is now widely accepted as the most reprehensible of all fossil fuels.

Yet in 1994, when the film is set, life in Grimethorpe really was grim. The settlement had only ever existed for a single industry: going into the miners’ strike in 1984, almost 90 percent of working age men in Grimethorpe worked down the pit. The mine was eventually closed in 1993, and by the time of the film’s release Grimethorpe had been declared one of the most deprived districts anywhere in the European Union.

Brassed Off strips bare the lie of post-industrial economic diversification that was sold to mining belt towns in the 1990s through the attempts of Danny’s son, Phil (Stephen Tompkinson), to make ends meet moonlighting as Mr Chuckles, a clown-for-hire. Phil’s commitment to the ’84/5 strike led him to financial hardship, loan sharks, and—in turn—the total breakdown of his still-young family unit. He stumbles over his clown shoes as he tries in desperation to hold his life together, before deciding there is simply no future in which he can make things right.

The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, heard on the film’s soundtrack, really did play on after the closure of its mine. During the first of a number of montages that set the band’s music to scenes depicting the industrial and social trajectory Grimley now faces, we hear the second movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (‘Orange Juice’ to the miners). For many years thought to be inspired by fascist bombing of Guernica in 1937, its solo flugelhorn shines through a thick curtain of brass like a beacon. It sounds like resistance.

In the film the instrument is played by graduate Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), a miner’s daughter who—unbeknownst to her new bandmates—has returned to the village to carry out a survey she believes will persuade the mine’s managers of its viability. In reality, however, her role is to window-dress a foregone conclusion to close the pit and make the majority of the village’s men unemployed.

If Brassed Off is largely remembered for its northern sentimentality or defiant pride, its more overlooked theme is resignation. The film starts with two longstanding band members vowing to cease their subs, owing to ‘the current climate’. A running joke about a wife ignoring her husband later reveals her disappointment that he’s given up the fight for their shared livelihood. A tense union meeting sees men egging each other on to vote against redundancy, barely concealing their appetite for an easy get-out at any cost. For one character, suicide appears the only route to a kind of appeasement for a life made unliveable. Even more than the actual pit closure, it is resignation that tears the community apart.

The film remains so poignant and potent today because the story of the Left’s failure in northern England’s mining belt is in large part one of disillusionment. It is a problem that defines the uphill struggle the Left continues to face in these parts of the country, against which any number of good intentions about green industrial jobs and revolutions and a new deal seem destined to rub even after 25 years. Mistrust of the Labour Party may have been sown by those who, in their infinite hubris, looked upon the closure of mines and saw only ‘nowhere else to go’, but disillusionment in the idea that things can truly get better is rooted in the social schism created by a deindustrial divide whose legacy continues to undermine the towns represented by Grimley.

Gloria, the film’s idealistic graduate, thinks she’s returned to Grimley to give hope to the mineworkers. Her realisation that her mission is essentially a PR exercise—the mine was always viable; it is being closed ‘in the name of progress’—shows the futility of counting on hope without politics. In the film’s final act, Danny addresses a mostly well-to-do crowd at the Royal Albert Hall. In doing so he addresses his son, his band, his co-workers, and us—viewers present and future.

‘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. Oh aye, they can knock out a bloody good tune. But what the fuck does that matter?’

The film doesn’t give us the happy ending we might have wanted. Instead, it ends with Danny leading the band through a rendition of ‘Land of Hope and bloody Glory’ aboard an open-top bus as it travels through the night-time streets of London. His face solemn and ambiguous, the moral of the story is not the music but the band.