It’s 20 years since the pit shut but South Yorkshire’s real Brassed Off village has refused to die, writes Digital Editor Graham Walker.
Now, as it begins to thrive again, the inspirational stories of locals and celebrities who fought to save the beating heart of the community are revisited in Mel Dyke’s new book Grimethorpe Revival.
For years it was argued in parish council meetings that Grimethorpe could only start to change its fortunes if it changed its name.
VIDEO: Press the play button to watch our exclusive chat with Mel and her big name guests at the book launch.
Grimey, as locals still know it by, did nothing for the image of the place.
But these days it’s a name to be proud of.
It serves as a daily reminder of the thousands of blackened miners who lived, breathed and, in some cases, died for the community built on coal.
But when the pit shut in 1993 Grimethorpe became the poorest village in England. Crime went from 30 per cent below the national average to 20 per cent above and some families fled.
Now though it’s a different place after the area battled for £164m of public and private investment. New link roads, 50 new businesses, around 2,500 jobs and 500 extra homes resulted.
Grimethorpe, famous for its brass band which featured in the film Brassed Off, is the epitome of the grim determination of northern folk to survive despite the Tories’ so-called ‘managed decline’ of the north of England.
No surprise then that Margaret Thatcher’s death wasn’t mourned by families there who are still grieving the loss of jobs and opportunities two decades on, says Barnsley educationalist Mel Dyke.
The former deputy head at Grimethorpe’s Willowgarth High School led a book-in-a-day project when the pit closed, with heartfelt views of miners, families, school children and celebrity supporters. Music legend Billy Joel was moved to receive a copy.
Now, 20 years almost to the day after the colliery closed, Mel has revisited many of the letters, press interviews and celebrity messages of support, for a new book called Grimethorpe Revival – Famous Faces Support A Coalfield Community.
It’s a unique piece of living social history.
Cudworth actor Shaun Dooley, who grew up in the village during the strike, and Stephen Tompkinson, who starred with Pete Postlethwaite in Brassed Off, have contributed.
Famous faces at the book launch at Barnsley’s Holiday Inn at Brooklands, in Dodworth, included former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and former Unison trade union general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe, Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis, and Barnsley East MP Michael Dugher, plus the original Calendar Girls, Look North’s TV presenter Harry Gration, playwright John Godber, Hirsty’s Daily Dose Capital FM radio star Simon Hirst, Ancient Egypt BBC TV presenter Joann Fletcher and Barnsley’s real Billy Elliot, the Royal Ballet’s Philip Mosley – who inspired the film and stage production.
Mel, whose father worked at the pit, says the household names have helped to inspire a revival.
She said: “I’ve called the book Grimethorpe Revival because I don’t accept that the Government of the day destroyed Grimethorpe.
“They destroyed Grimethorpe pit. But they could not destroy the spirit in that community.
“I’m just the editor, who put it together. I’ve kept all those letters that 12-year-old kids wrote to John Major, begging him not to close the pit, for all kinds of reasons. One because ‘my dad will be out of work this Christmas – it will break my mother’s heart’.
“Really poignant stuff.
“If you forget to look back, you can’t properly look forward.”
Lord Prescott revealed how Brassed Off was a motivation for change.
He said: “When we first came in I saw that wonderful film, Brassed off.
“I was sitting in the cinema and thought, ‘somebody should do something about that’. And I realised I was the elected minister to do something. I had been in the job two weeks.
“So Grimethorpe was one of those areas for the Coal Community Programme we brought in.
“Don’t get me started on Thatcher – she kicked the hell out of us.”
Look North’s Harry Gration said: “This book brings back memories of an incredible dispute. You can have your thoughts about whether it was right or wrong. But people were passionate about it.”
Playwright John Godber, currently writing a play about the steel industry, said: “It’s nearly 30 years since the miners’ strike. And the pain of that is still very real to the people it touched.
“The most important thing is remembering the resentment it caused. Because actually, that’s what drives you to make works of art.”
Barnsley’s latest TV sensation, Joann Fletcher, who presented a recent and highly acclaimed new BBC TV series Ancient Egypt, about real people who walked the earth thousands of years ago, says Mel’s book is also about real lives.
She said: “ I think there’s a beginning of a revival in town pride.”
Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis added: “We are about to open an Experience Barnsley museum in the town and the book will be an important contribution.”
Grimethorpe Revival: Famous Faces Support A Coalfield Community, is published by Pen & Sword Books Limited. Visit www.pen-and-sword.co.uk.