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Television review: Where There's Brass (1969)

Television's appreciation of what brass banding is all about has changed over the past 50 years — or not as the case may be...


Brass banding has been enjoying one of its rare moments in the television spotlight of late - with the ‘Our Lives’ BBC 1 series following Cory and Tredegar as they prepared to take part in the Welsh Regional Championships, and the ‘One Show’ recently featuring the musical link created between Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Birkwood Primary School in Yorkshire.

However, there is no news as yet to when the proposed four-part Sky Arts series, which filmed at the British Open, National Finals, Brass in Concert and Whit Friday events will be screened. It is rumoured however to be on the distant horizon, and, to be as equally positive in its understanding and portrayal of the banding movement.

Television coverage of the social and cultural aspects of the banding movement has certainly come a long way over the past half century of broadcasting; especially when you take a look at a programme entitled, ‘Where There’s Brass’ produced and screened in 1969 by Yorkshire Television, written and narrated by none other than Michael Parkinson.

“...the popular notion of a brass band musician is of a middle aged man who votes Labour, drinks pints of bitter, beats his wife, and breeds greyhounds.”

Of its time

In its defence, it is very much of its time and place (although the same couldn’t really be said of some of the other programmes that have since come in its wake). 

That said, it doesn’t get off to the best possible start when ‘Parky’ (in professional ‘Yorkshireman’ mode a few years before his BBC 1 chat show got rid of his flattened vowels and made him a national star) says that “...the popular notion of a brass band musician is of a middle aged man who votes Labour, drinks pints of bitter, beats his wife, and breeds greyhounds.”

And although he quickly tries to redeem himself by saying that those are misconceptions that don’t “stand up to close scrutiny”, through the modern prism of brass banding in the 21st century, the programme still shines a deeply ingrained, if affectionate stereotypical image that has lingered in the general public’s mindset for far too long.

Not one woman is interviewed. 

Looking at the programme now, and although incredibly dated, it still remains curiously prescient.

Familiar

There is something all too familiar about the troubles of the wonderfully named, but isolated Scapegoat Hill Band near Huddersfield, the eternal need to inspire a new generation of young players, the expense of instruments, old men talking of a rose-tinted heyday of yesteryear, the arcane rituals “and po-faced solemnity” of the contest day and the role of the adjudicator (in this case the great Frank Wright). 

The timeless gripes about the ‘poaching’ of players as well as the lack of a contest audience could have been filmed yesterday.

And whilst Michael Parkinson’s description of the contesting as being “a fiercely competitive business” may still be true, his assertion that the hierarchy consists of having “a super-league at the top, a Fourth Division for the scrubbers”, manages to raise a PC eyebrow or two.  

Then there is Black Dyke playing to a packed concert hall conducted by Roy Newsome (in tails) and the players, including Jim Shepherd and a young Kevin Wadsworth talking about why the band held an unique attraction them.  

They are described as the archetypal ‘works band’ whilst the other side of the coin is shown with Brighouse & Rastrick under Walter Hargreaves (standing on a tiny box) in the recording studio - the side drum part to ‘North Country Fantasy’ played with a sense of authentic panache.  

The timeless gripes about the ‘poaching’ of players as well as the lack of a contest audience could have been filmed yesterday.

Grain of current truth

Parkinson’s assertion that the contest rewards in the brass band world “are not really worth fighting about”, still seems apt given current levels of prize money at many events, although his added reflection that that they do fight “with vigour and a cool disregard for fair play. The name of the game is ‘to win’” also retains more than a grain of current truth too.

Some things never change then...

Forensic skills

The programme is also entertaining though in a curious way – especially when you see a young Derek Broadbent at work (sporting a waistcoat years before Gareth Southgate made them trendy) and the incredible footage of band buses racing against each other down the steeply sloped roads on their trip to Belle Vue. The vibrato heard is like acoustic jelly. 

And here you see the working of the ‘Brass Band Registry’ - which “tries to bring law and order to the brass band world” – helped by the forensic skills of Evelyn Brey cross checking signatures with a magnifying glass. 

The end scene of a lonely euphonium player practicing ‘Silver Threads’ sat in a deserted bandhall may well be a clumsily thought out artistic metaphor for “a withered relic of a less enlightened age” in 1969, but even today it will still resonate with people trying for all their worth to ensure their community bands survive another half century or more... 

Iwan Fox


To watch the programme go to:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=the+true+and+tender+north+for+brass+band&view=detail&mid=B3680D834A4D33D34E6AB3680D834A4D33D34E6A&FORM=VIRE

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