When the Grimethorpe Colliery Band was formed in 1917, as a leisure activity for colliery workmen, none could have predicted the unique story to come.
The band have seen many highs, including years of competitive success, a tour with The Beautiful South and an appearance at the Olympic Opening Ceremony. But it’s the story of their resolve in the face of the colliery’s closure in 1992, as told in Mark Herman’s 1996 film Brassed Off, that brought the band’s story to a global audience.
In the band’s centenary year, Brassed Off will be screened with live accompaniment from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in the Royal Albert Hall, the venue of the brass band National Finals, as featured in the film.
Ahead of this screening we caught up with Peter Haigh, the band’s Director, to talk about his involvement with the band, the film and this special event.
How did you come to be associated with the colliery and its band?
I was appointed Administrative Officer at Grimethorpe Colliery on 1 January 1978.
When I applied for the post, the colliery manager at the time Mr Haynes asked if I knew anything about brass bands. When I told him I didn’t he said, ‘well you’re going to need to!’
The job description of Admin Officer included being involved with the band. Working for the coal board at that time was a very secure job – something that seems to be getting rarer and rarer these days. I also became Secretary of the miners’ welfare scheme. I gave up this position in about 2002; the miners’ welfare has now demolished.
The band has survived some very difficult times. First the miners’ strike of 1984-85
About 3/4 of the players, as well as the conductor, were on the colliery books so weren’t getting paid anything during the strike, but they kept coming along and rehearsing – they had such affection for the brass band they were in. Credit to them all, they could have all gone to other bands.
And it still continued following the pit’s closure in 1992?
Yes. The band kept playing and since the pit closed the band has become a limited company and a registered charity – it’s a business now.
Coal mining was a very pressurised industry and everyone was always working at 110%. I will always have a deep affection for the industry and the tight-knit communities it built. It was extremely hard work for the miners but they always had such amazing camaraderie.
I still have deep emotions about what happened and there are still some people whose names we will never mention in those areas. The lads who went down the pit deserved every penny they earned and more.
2017 sees the band celebrate its centenary. How do you plan to celebrate?
We are in the process of organising the recording of a new CD and have organised a Gala Centenary Concert on 20 October for invited guests, and a Centenary Celebration Concert on 21 October 2017, both to be held at the Elsecar Heritage Centre, Barnsley. Tickets for the Saturday concert will be available very soon – up to date details will be on our website.
Barnsley Council are also planting a flower bed in front of Barnsley Town Hall, depicting the band’s badge and acknowledging the centenary.
And of course you have the screening of Brassed Off here?
Of course! I like to go down to the Chelsea Flower Show, and funnily enough when I was down in 2014 a friend of mine told me he had tickets to see Gladiator at the Albert Hall – a screening of the film but with an orchestra playing the music over the top.
It was one of my favourite films so I had to go and it was just incredible. It’s really quite unbelievable that Brassed Off is now getting screened in a similar way!
The film saw the band rise to global recognition. What impact did the success of the film have on the community?
Grimethorpe Colliery Band already had a worldwide reputation, but the film did give us a new impact to the world.
Ken Hirst was the band’s secretary at the time, and when the pit had closed he said to me that he had been approached about the band being involved in a film about brass bands and pit closures.
Having gone through having buildings being demolished at the colliery while I was still there (I was on one of the last to leave the colliery on closure) and it leaving everyone in such a demoralised state, I said – ‘Don’t you think we’ve been through enough?’.
Ken had the same mentality as Pete Postlethwaite had in the film – even when the pit was about to close he used to say “What about the band?”! Ken was band secretary at the time of filming and must be acknowledged for all the work he carried out over his 40 years with the band.
Initially I was not keen on a film being made about the pit closures, but I now hold my hand up and state that it was a marvellous idea. I relate to the film in so many ways – I worked at a colliery called Denby Grange – we had a miner there (Ted Pickles) who used to be a part time clown/children’s entertainer!
How true to life was the film?
The real life theme and the theme of the film were the same: ‘how are we going to continue?’.
I could nit-pick at some of the ways in which the band was portrayed but really it was great. The name worked so well – we all used to say that we were Brassed Off with the Tories!
The film did have realism about the government’s attitude towards the coal mining industry.
We still have the memory of how the coal industry came to be decimated and Pete Postlethwaite’s speech said it all. I heard he did the entire thing unscripted.
The film’s 21 years old now. What’s been its legacy for the band and the area?
Most of the band no longer live in Grimethorpe like they used to in years gone by. When I joined almost all of the players were very local and on colliery books – we still have a couple of players who were miners at the colliery.
Lots of the buildings seen in the film have now been demolished – the old folks’ home/Grimethorpe WMC, etc. I heard that the local council were going to do a Brassed Off trail so I can only wonder where they thought they could still trail.
The film is still a big part of our identity but we know it will not last forever. We were prominent in the brass band world before the film but now thanks to it we’re a household name – plus, we get to sell the CDs and DVDs at our concerts!
Brassed Off Live, featuring the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and a pre-show talk with the cast, comes to the Royal Albert Hall on 9 May 2017.