Brassed Off, the British classic film about a pit village and its band which refused to die, was adapted for the stage 16 years ago by Paul Allen - who is delighted to see it return home.
Passionate and inspiring, a celebration of human endeavour, the play is on at Sheffield’s Lyceum until Saturday, May 10.
Here playwright, journalist and BBC radio presenter Paul, who lives in Sheffield, tells how the stage version came about and still gives him hope that community spirit can triumph against all odds.
VIDEO: Press the play button to watch the trailer for this stage production of Brassed Off.
One of my first jobs when I arrived in Sheffield as a trainee reporter on the late lamented Morning Telegraph in 1967 was to cover a brass band concert somewhere in Sheffield 6, writes Paul Allen.
“A colour piece” said the News Editor, meaning that there wasn’t going to be any news in it.
I turned up, it might have been Stannington, but I can’t remember – and found the band secretary. “I hope it’s not going to be one of those pieces about how much beer trombonists drink when they’re off stage,” he said. Of course not, I said, bridling a bit.
“Good,” he said, “Well mine’s a pint.”
Since then in my 47 years as an arts journalist I’ve covered concerts and music theatre events from the West End to pantomime in Barnsley, from Covent Garden to garden parties.
And I’ve tried to get to the nearest bar after the show is finished before the brass section of the orchestra. I have a head start – critics always get seats on the end of the row and rarely sit through all the applause.
Have I ever beaten the trombonists to the bar? Not once.
And here’s the thing, I was a trombonist myself, albeit a very bad one who once provoked a conductor, when I had to find a haunting F sharp to underpin a chord in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, to say, “It’s supposed to be ghostly, not ghastly.”
So when in 1997 I was Deputy Chairman of Sheffield Theatres, and Chief Executive Grahame Morris said in November that we desperately needed a hit by March, a light bulb flashed.
By adapting Mark Herman’s screenplay for the Crucible I could indulge my love of brass bands, drink a great deal of beer as research and incidentally help save Sheffield’s leading cultural institution.
Mark and the bosses of Channel 4 Films and Miramax Films generously made the piece available much earlier than is normally the case and suddenly I had a bout two weeks to write it…
But there’s a much more serious reason for wanting to do the job that of the dozen or so plays I’ve written has given me the greatest satisfaction as well as a few royalties.
During the miners’ strike I’d just got established presenting the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope. Many people in government and in the newspapers were accusing the BBC of bias in favour of the strikers but coming down on the train from Sheffield every week I couldn’t find anybody who wanted to hear about the strike.
For many of them it was an embarrassment. There was occasional talk of the “enemy within.”
Now I went back to Grimethorpe, whose band history inspired the screen, in December last year before the current production went into rehearsal.
There was a white wreath in front of the church marking the 20th anniversary of the pit’s closure. And for the first time I went to have a proper look at the second memorial next to the monument to the dead of two word wars.
It lists the men who died in that pit in its century of history. The list is much longer than that of the war dead.
What do I conclude from that?
Simply that whatever you think about Arthur Scargill, whether there should have been a ballot or not, whether at least some pits were viable or not, it will not do to accuse the mining communities of a lack of patriotism.
“Who’s got the land under us fingernails?” you’ll hear John McArdle as conductor Danny as he justifies playing Land of Hope and Glory to end the play, Tory party anthem or not.
There are a few other little tweaks in moving the story from the screen to the stage. In the cinema the camera tells the story but in theatre you have to let the actors and bandsmen (and women these days) tell the tale between them. My version sees it through the eyes of young Shane Ormondroyd (Luke Adamson) who was only eight at the time of closure but is now looking back in a mixture of anger, sadness, pride and very broad comedy.
Shane makes the story about fathers and sons too, about mothers fighting desperately to keep families fed, about neighbours doing what communities used to do and, please God, will continue to do in spite of the pressures not to. And it’s a story expressed through the glorious medium of a brass band in which our brilliant flugel-horn player Clara Darcy lights up the stage.
It’s a great cast headed by Andrew Dunn, best known as Victoria Wood’s love interest in dinner ladies and for playing Alastair Campbell to Rory Bremner’s Tony Blair. And a lovely production by Damian Cruden who is doing it for the second time.
He’s based at York Theatre Royal and here’s been the surprise for me: in cathedral cities and spa towns where you don’t expect a play about mining and brass bands to be the most obvious attraction there have been full houses and passionately favourable responses.
Even in Dartford, where audiences weren’t so big (bit near London, isn’t it?) those who did come gave the cast a standing ovation. I would like to think this could be heard in London – from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament as Danny puts it – because it may be too late for the pits but we still have a chance to maintain communities.
This stage version of Brassed Off has been to Edinburgh – its first professional production in Scotland, although it’s been seen from Germany to New Zealand now - and is on Sheffield this week; coming home before ending the run of this production in Bolton.
I live in Sheffield and expect to be around for a “wet” afterwards most nights. But I still can’t beat the band to the bar.
* Paul was born in Kent and brought up in cold country vicarages.
In 1976 he was the first regional journalist to be named Critic of the Year in the British Press Awards, for television and radio reviewing.
In the 1980s he began a long association with the BBC Radio 4 arts magazine Kaleidoscope. He wrote and presented the Kaleidoscope feature The Leaf and the Fig which won the last BP Arts Journalism Award for radio in 1993.
Two dozen of his plays have been produced, on radio and theatres across the country. Most recently his adaptation of Brassed Off, which opened in Sheffield and subsequently transferred to the National Theatre.
He has presented Night Waves on BBC Radio 3 since May 1998.
His biography of Alan Ayckbourn, Grinning at the Edge, was published by Methuen in 2001. A Pocket Guide to Alan Ayckbourn’s Plays was published in 2004.
Brassed Off, by the Touring Consortium Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Bolton Octagon, is now playing Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre, Wednesday, May 7, 7.45pm; Thursday, May 8, 2pm and 7.45pm; Friday, May 9, 5pm and 8.30pm; and Saturday, May 10, 3pm and 7.45pm.
BRASSED OFF IN CONVERSATION - A TALK BY PAUL ALLEN AND DEBORAH PAIGE
Brassed Off captures a mining community facing the destruction of their industry and the aftermath of the miners’ strike.
It’s 1992. Grimley Colliery - the film version was filmed in Grimethorpe - faces the threat of closure and the future of the brass band seems uncertain.
With the miners torn between redundancy packages and the picket lines, band–leader Danny’s hopes of winning the national brass band competition seem like a distant dream. But the arrival of flugelhorn–playing Gloria brings hope, romance and controversy to the Yorkshire brass band on the brink of collapse.
Featuring rousing live music, Brassed Off is a funny and heart–warming drama that reaches stirring heights as Newstead Brass Band performs the final scene, set in the Royal Albert Hall, live on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre.
This stage production was adapted from Mark Herman’s screenplay by Paul Allen and commissioned and directed by then Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres Deborah Paige,
The world-stage premiere of Brassed Off was in March 1998 - a smash-hit in Sheffield before transferring to the Royal National Theatre.
You can join Paul and Deborah in conversation to discover how it made the journey from screen to stage, withe a special Brassed Off In Conversation event at the Crucible Adelphi Room on Saturday, May 10, at 1pm.
Tickets are £10 each for this exclusive fund raising event for Sheffield Theatres’ Prestige Club members, to raise money for the Lyceum Theatre Refurbishment.
*A transaction fee of £1.50 (£1 online) applies to bookings made at the Box Office, excluding. Buy in person, call 0114 249 6000 or see www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.