Brassed Off, the classic British film about a pit village and its band which refused to die, is 20 years old and still has fans shedding emotional tears – not least of all star Stephen Tompkinson.
He might be best known these days as the gritty, hard-nosed detective DCI Banks, but play him a few notes of spine-tingling brass band music from the film and he admits he’s a wreck.
He’s not alone.
Throw in an emotionally supercharged script by Mark Herman, who also directed, and you have a passionate, inspiring celebration of human endeavour which still has audiences fighting back tears two decades on.
The award-winning 1996 film, set in the fictional village of Grimely, was inspired by the real life pit closure at Grimethorpe, near Barnsley, and the struggle for survival of its world famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band.
In a look back at the making of the film, which was honoured with a 20th anniversary screening at the Ilkley Film Festival, Stephen admitted it remains his finest piece of work.
He told how locals were ‘indispensable’ in helping to make the film, telling their story, how the film proved so popular they had to stop The Odeon in Doncaster from showing it after a 26-week run, because the runaway hit was about to clash with the DVD release, how it was a dream working with co-stars Pete Postlethwaite, Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald and how it all led to a drink with big fan Robert Redford. Stephen says he would jump at the chance of appearing in a modern day sequel, following the characters two decades on.
In an exclusive chat – watch video highlights online – he also revealed how the Brassed Off soundtrack’s spine-tingling brass band music gets him every time.
He said: ”I’m hopeless. Hopeless. The first time we got together as a cast was to go to the world famous Abbey Road studios, to watch the band record the sound track. They did Danny Boy which I thought, reading it, was a bit too on the nose, possibly a bit gratuitous. But they did it. None of us could look at each other. We were all gone.”
It was Downton Abbey’s head butler Mr Carson, actor Jim Carter, who conducted the band to their winning finale in Brassed Off, who was there at the end to help him.
Stephen, now aged 50, added: “When we filmed the last scene I was inconsolable.
“My tears on screen were absolutely real. Some of the last scenes we filmed were in Birmingham Town Hall, that we tried to make look like the Albert Hall. When they called the final cut on the whole thing I was gone for about half an hour and it was Jim Carter who picked me up and snapped me out of it.
“I’m the same as anyone else. When you see people watching it now, you can see them looking for a hanky surreptitiously and rejoicing at the same time.
“It just goes to show what an amazingly, beautiful, heart-warming, human story Mark Herman, who wrote and directed it, wanted to tell.”
He played suicidal miner, Phil, or Danny’s boy – the son of band conductor Danny, portrayed by the late great Pete Postlethwaite.
Stephen’s character has a mental breakdown while trying to make ends meet as a kids party clown and is infamously dubbed Coco The Scab by a debt collector, after he asks for time for his redundancy money to come through.
It was one of the film’s key, hard-hitting roles, which mined a rich tragic-comedy theme, where humanity wins in the end, just as Grimley Brass Band reunite after the pit closure to win the National Finals.
Is it his proudest piece of work?
“Definitely,” says the actor, who today starts filming a new series of DCI Banks in Leeds and has had starring roles in the likes of Wild at Heart, Ballykissangel, Grafters, Drop the Dead Donkey and Trollied.
He said: “Robert Retford, of all people, asked us to open his Sundance Film Festival with Brassed Off so I knew it mattered. After we had a drink with him I remember saying to Pete Postlethwaite, ‘it’s odd to think, at 31, this could be the highlight of my career’.
“When Mark’s script came along and I knew it wasn’t a Hollywood version. It wasn’t a pit that was going to close with huge explosions or car chases, it was a honest story where the biggest entertainment angle was brass band music. It was a story that had to be told. These people felt betrayed. And it was their voice. It was their story.
“It was a piece of social history. A lot of MPs have commented it being a shameful episode in Britain’s social history. Cardinal Basil Hume, who was head of the Catholic Church at the time, went as far as to say Mrs Thatcher was evil, what she did to communities – how systematic it was and, with malice of forethought almost, destroyed communities.
“We learned everything from the people we met.
“Before we started film, Pete and I went to Grimethorpe for about 10 days to meet people, to get the accent as near perfect as we could, to let them read the scripts, to know that it was their story, that we weren’t trying to embellish it in any way; that we just wanted to tell the truth.
“They saw that, they accepted us, they opened up to us in a way that was indispensable to us, as was the way that the Grimethorpe Colliery Band welcomed in these strange actors.”
Phil Jackson, 67, who went on to play Chief Insp Japp in TV’s Poirot TV, was tuba player Jim in Brassed Off. He said: “I can’t play the tuba but I can read music. I marked on the score so I knew exactly which fingers to use. I can’t blow and make a good noise but I got the fingering right.
“My son, George Jackson, is now a conductor and he did a masterclass at the LSO in London. In the interval this guy ran up to me and said ‘you’re my favourite tuba player’. It was the principal player of the LSO and he loved Brassed Off. He thought I’d done a great job. That was the ultimate compliment.”
Bradford born Brassed Off producer Steve Abbott, founding chair and now a director of Screen Yorkshire, said the film was made with his company Prominent Features – formed with his business partner and five of the Monty Python Team. Their first film was 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda and he has produced travel documentaries for Sheffield pal Michael Palin.
He said: “Brassed Off was a film we were passionate about. We were angry about what had happened to the coalfield in South Yorkshire.
“That’s what drove us to make this film. We have enormous pride in it.
“I’ve a slight regret that it couldn’t have been made with an all-Yorkshire crew at the time, that had my arm twisted to get involved in establishing Screen Yorkshire.”
n Watch Graham Walker’s video report at thestar.co.uk