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When David was first crowned King: a look back at the Open of 1997 - ref art002

The 145th British Open was a strange contest. Not only was it held in January, four months after the intended date due to the death of Princess Diana and it’s morbid aftermath of hagiography, but it was also the first time the event had been held outside Manchester in the whole of it’s long history. It meant that whoever won the title would have the dubious distinction of holding the prize for the shortest period ever, whilst Marple, the reigning champions could justifiably call themselves British Open Winners for a little longer than most people expected.

The venue for the contest was Symphony Hall Birmingham, a change from the acoustic disaster of the previous year at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester that gave audiences and adjudicators alike a headache from the reverberation and lack of facilities. As sublime a contest stage could not have been invented for bands with near perfect acoustics due to the state of the art architecture and facilities that included a warm up room and spacious changing rooms for the bands. The Hall, wasn’t going to let the contest down for sure.

The test piece was Michael Ball’s clever and deeply absorbing Whitsun Wakes, a homage to a banding past that thankfully we will never be returned to, but should never be forgotten, whilst the men chosen for the task of finding the winners were Bill Relton, James Williams and David Read; a safe if rather uninspired trio of experience. There was a feeling that somehow the mistakes of the previous year in both venue and possibly result were not to be repeated, and Mrs Mortimer had made sure the banana skins were going to be kept to a minimum.

The day started with the draw, and the numbers game which is so much a part of band contests began to unfold. Much is made of the draw at major contests for there is a belief, however mistaken, that an early draw means disaster. With fifteen of the seventeen bands already in place, two draw numbers were left in the sack, and one of those was the dreaded number one. As I said, there is a lot of superstition held about the draw, and much of it is complete hogwash. The truth about the number one spot however is hard to repudiate. Just once since the War had a band playing first taken the crown, and with just two discs left in the bag, one of the representatives from either Besses O’ th’ Barn or Yorkshire Building Society was going to be left with the task of explaining to their band and conductor that statistically this wasn’t likely to be their year. Their representative stuck his hand in the bag and drew out number……. 11. His sense of relief was palpable, just as the sense of doom was on the face of the rep from Besses.

And so to the contest itself....

Besses opened the day with the Queen, although for many, myself included, this ritual has become one of the last anachronisms of contesting we could do without. After a short break we were off and the first of seventeen performances of Whitsun Wakes was given.

It must be said however that the premier was a disappointment, with Besses taking the Wakes of the title a little too literally. It was an uninspired start from both band and conductor alike and you could sense the bands disappointment at the draw had been brought to the stage. In the end they were placed last but one, and in retrospect they were possibly lucky to get that.

With the next group of four bands however the contest came to life. First up were NSK RHP Ransomes under the baton of Brian Grant. For some time this band had been making good progress and this was undoubtedly shown in a performance of real merit and class. 194 points and the early leadership was just reward for a rendition that adjudicator William Relton wrote was, “stylish and commendable.” Tredegar were next up under the direction of James Scott and immediately gave notice that the runners-up spot of the previous year was no fluke. A strong committed performance with excellent soloists gave them 192 points and sixth place. Many thought if the draw had been kinder then they would have been placed higher. But that’s contesting for you.

On to the stage came Brighouse in their Caesarean purple and gold. Not for the first time, Alan Withington conducted with a verve and style that had many in the audience shouting themselves hoarse at the end of their performance, but many had seen but not heard a great show. Too many slips and the propensity to blow too loud for the music had cost them dear and they had to be content with tenth place. Next up, CWS Glasgow with Howard Snell still striving to win his first Open title after so many close calls over the years. This year he gave the audience and adjudicators alike a performance that would at any other time would be enough to walk away with the title – but again the Gods were against him. Perhaps it was the draw, perhaps the judges didn’t like the subtleties of his interpretation or just the one or two tiny slips from the band were enough to deny him again. Whatever the reason, 197 points was not enough and the Scots went home again, this time with third place. Funny ol’ game contesting.

Desford up next, but over the years the Open had not been a happy hunting ground for the boys from Coalville and this year was no exception. A pretty ordinary show and fifteenth place. Band number seven were Grimethorpe, and a performance out of the top draw from the Brassed Off superstars. Peter Parkes had something to prove to many of the detractors who thought him slightly over the hill for the big ones, but a show that recalled memories of past triumphs gave Grimey a well-deserved fifth place with 193 points.

So we had listened to seven performances and unknown to us all we had heard the bands that would take third, fourth, fifth and sixth places already. What was strange was that by the time four other bands had appeared on stage the contest was over.

Eight and nine were a disappointment with Whitburn and Sellers giving the type of shows that could be described as “not too bad, but not too good either”. Twelfth and thirteenth were a fair return. The next two however, were in a different league all together.

Williams Fairey were a band that hadn’t tasted success at the Open since 1993, when Peter Parkes had taken them to victory. Now they were under the control of James Gourlay who’s musicianship and style had won the band and himself many admirers. They were going to be the band to beat – and so it proved.

Whitsun Wakes was a piece that demanded a lot from a band and its conductor. Essentially it was a test piece in traditional format, with a statement of the theme at the beginning, sections of differing speed and dexterity leading to a central beautiful chorale and then to a series of difficult quasi cadenzas from cornet, horn, flugal and sop and baritone a little later. A big finish and that’s your lot. Hard yes, but not nearly as unplayable as Masquerade, the piece that last saw Fairey take the crown.

So Fairey’s gave the performance of the lives and ended up with 198 points and one and a half hands on the Shield. Eight performances to go, and only a perfect rendition (which everyone knew was impossible) or a show that would be as close to perfection as the 1970 Brazilian football team could beat them. Guess what? On came Yorkshire Building Society and played like Pele, Rivelino, Jairzhino and the rest and proceeded to win the Open with a performance that could only be called “amazing”.

The playing was outstanding, with the soloists Peter Roberts on soprano, Iwan Williams on flugal, Sheona White on horn, Nick Hudson on trombone and Morgan Griffiths on euph giving virtuoso performances. David King conducted like only he can, whilst the star was undoubtedly Ian Porthouse on solo cornet, who played quite brilliantly and walked off with the soloist prize for his outstanding contribution to a near perfect show. 199 points and victory. Everyone thought it was good, but nobody, especially those who had just heard Fairey’s thought it could be that good. It was, and it was enough to win the title.

What followed confirmed that nothing could better it. Fodens and JJB Sports were very good, but in comparison sounded just like ordinary bands, whilst Marple couldn’t repeat their victory of fourteen months previous and sunk to a disappointing eleventh place, behind JJB eighth and Fodens ninth. All were eclipsed by what had gone before. The last few bands tried hard, with Cory playing well enough for seventh place, Rothwell claiming a lowly fourteenth and Rigid Containers, who had the misfortune to follow YBS on stage taking last place. What would they have done to have swapped places with Besses at the beginning of the day?

It was a strange victory in that by the halfway point in the day, the contest was over and done with. The draw, the thing that everyone thought would play a major part in deciding the fate of the trophy seemed to be the only thing that rebelled, and when the statisticians looked at the results some odd things appeared. Pairs of performances won the day, with the bands that played 10 and 11, 2 and 3 and 7 and 8 filling the top six places. Odd possibly, but thoroughly deserved none the less.

So Yorkshire Building Society took their first Open victory with the highest ever points total. What would have happened if their representative had had the misfortune to draw the number one disc out of the bag some eight hours earlier was something we can only imagine? Who said the draw was important.

145th British Open Order of Merit

January 17th 1998.

1 Yorkshire Building Society. ( D. King ) 11 199
2 Williams Fairey. ( J. Gourlay ) 10 198
3 CWS Glasgow ( H. Snell ) 5 197
4 NSK RHP Ransome ( B. Grant ) 2 194
5 Grimethorpe ( P. Parkes ) 7 193
6 Tredegar ( J. Scott ) 3 192
7 Cory ( J. Wise ) 16
8 JJB Sports Leyland ( R. Evans ) 14
9 Fodens (Courtois) ( N. Childs ) 13
10 Brighouse and Rastrick ( A. Withington) 4
11 Marple ( C. Cutt ) 15
12 Sellers Engineering ( A. Morrison) 9
13 David A. Hall Whitburn ( R. Adams ) 8
14 Rothwell ( T. Wyss ) 17
15 Desford Colliery ( F. Renton ) 6
16 Besses O’ th’ Barn ( D. Broadbent) 1
17 Rigid Containers Group ( J. Berryman ) 12

The adjudicators awarded points to the top six bands only.

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