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“I’m Still Surprised” by Tyrone Guthrie

With the annual jamboree of the Area Championships nearly upon us, we've dug deep into our history and picked out this absolute pearler of reporting from the BBC.

Tyrone Guthrie was regarded as one of the leading social commentators of the time (in this case 1948) and was a regular broadcaster in the radio. That year he was sent to the North Western Area Championships at Bolton to file his report, which was then reprinted in all things, the programme for the Championship Contest of the National Brass Band Championships, held at the Royal Albert Hall on 16th October 1948.

Its very much of its time, quirky and a tad patronising, but there is still some neat observations from a person who knew nothing about contesting. It makes for interesting reading and doesn't cast us in the best possible light, but then, when were we ever by the national media.

This is what he thought about it all..........

“At one sharp I was at Victoria Hall, Bolton. Its entrance hall as like the Court of Ruritania with scores of men in spanking pseudo-military uniform-scarlet, maroon, royal blue and emerald, “set off,” as they say, by gold braid and a heartening flourish of silver euphoniums, cornets and trombones.

Alas, the illusion of Ruritania was but fleeting. The Victoria Hall is not really a bit like the Royal Palace at Strelitz. It is a dingy mid-Victorian public building with a platform and wide galleries and piercing draughts, and in the middle-virgin white amid the encircling gloom-the judges’ box, crate, kennel, cubby or den.

I must confess that I had no idea Brass Band Contests were even so popular as they are. And now that I’ve been to one, I’m still surprised-not that is wasn’t first-class entertainment. It was. But it’s quite difficult entertainment. I don’t think the casual visitor would enjoy it awfully. And I don’t think in this audience there were many casual visitors. We were mostly supporters of the various competing team, a lot of whom had travelled considerable distances, or else pretty expertly qualified observers.

I made friends with one of these. Let me tell you a little about him, because I think he epitomises this audience.

He lives near Wigan, and works as a labourer in a paint factory. He plays the cornet in a local band, but-so he said-his band is not up to Contest standard.

None-the-less he knows plenty about the brass band business. He knew all the principal personalities-conductors and players-and entertained me greatly with gossip about them. He was a highly intelligent critic of technique and taught me some of the things to listen for, some of the elements of brass band appreciation. And he had a fine sense of the relation of technique to interpretation. In other words, he knew his onions. And I had made a lucky shot in sitting next to him.

But that’s the whole point. I could have picked lots of others no less qualified to instruct and inform, though none could have been more friendly and cordial. There were dozens of men like him there-people with no pretensions whatever about being musicians or critics or highbrows or intelligentsia and so on-but who knew plenty about what they were listening to, and could talk about it well.

It was an exceedingly intelligent, expert, alert audience. The occasion, consequently, was almost stimulating.

What about the performance? Ah! There I’m not going to commit myself. I don’t know enough about it. I only know that some of the Fourth Division bands gave me great pleasure. They had been set three little pieces of a sort of Edward Germany-Eric Coatesy type-quite pretty and by no means, or so I thought, too childishly easy.

The Champions, however, were set a Fantasia of Mozart, arranged for Brass by Sargent. And arranged, I suspect, to provide every test of skill. There were great massive held chords, and rapid runs and counterpoint. And an adagio theme that was a trap to all but the top conductors. Then, towards the end, there was a cadenza for solo cornet, winding up with a trill in which he was joined first in winds by a second soloist. Then by all the cornets. Then by all the band… No! I don’t think the trombones were expected to do it-I’m not sure-but certainly great fat euphoniums were trilling away like mad.

As good luck would have it the team drawn to play first in the Championship Class was the celebrated band of the Fairey Aviation Works under a star conductor. Suddenly one heard what brass band playing could be. The Brilliance, and at the same time, the sweetness and expressiveness of the tone fairly lifted one out of the Victoria Hall, half-way to heaven.

The Fairey Crowd were good - marvellously good. But they only got second place… The Judges gave top place to Wingates Temperance… Well, certainly Wingates were pretty hot stuff and I suppose the judges knew their business. But what an afternoon those judge had had! Five hours locked in a crate in the Victoria Hall, Bolton.

And what a good idea of someone’s it has been!

These are the objects for which it has been founded (I quote a leaflet):

To continue the splendid traditions of the Crystal Palace Championship Festivals, which were held from 1900 to 1938;

To foster improvements in contesting conditions throughout the country;

To make the greatest possible contribution to the development of brass instrumental music.

Don’t you agree that all these objects are well worth while?

These brass bands are one of the comparatively few cultural institutions that have sprung out of the conditions of industrial urban concentration; one of the few cultural by-products of industry. This brass band tradition, the attitude to recreation that the contest expresses-these things are highly significant and valuable.”

4BR Note:

The 1948 contest was held at Victoria Hall, Bolton on Saturday 10th April. The winners were Wingates Temperance conducted by Jack Eckersley, who were awarded 191 points from the number 7 draw by the judges, Drake Rimmer, Alfred Ashpole and George Thompson.

In second place came Fairey Aviation Works and their "star" conductor Harry Mortimer who played number 6 and who were awarded 185 points, whilst third place went to CWS Manchester under Eric Ball who played off the number 1 draw and were awarded 173 points.

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