When Paul Allen's stage version of Brassed Off appeared in 1998, two years after Mark Herman's film about a small Yorkshire community's efforts to win a brass band competition was first released, the Miners Strike that formed the story's backdrop was still a fresh wound on Britain's landscape. Thirty years after a civil war which became a defining moment of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's calculated assault on trade unions, the play's current revival for a tour which arrives in Edinburgh next week is an all too fitting reminder of one of the late twentieth century's most inglorious eras.
The fact that Brassed Off makes its point about how an entire community can be decimated by enforced pit closures through both a romantic comedy and the unifying power of music is testament to the play's staying power. Yorkshire-born Allen, whose work in popular theatre has seen him forge close links with Alan Ayckbourn and the Scarborough-based Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, welcomes a second life for his play.
“You've now got a generation of both performers and audiences who have never seen a pit-head,” Allen says of some of the thinking behind a tour co-produced by the Touring Consortium, York Theatre Royal and Bolton Octagon. “I was walking along a beach in Wales with a friend, and they picked up a piece of coal, which is such a rare thing to see now, but which used to be something that was essential to our lives.
“If you go to Grimethorpe, which is where the film was made, all you see are roundabouts named after the pits that were closed down. Everything has been bulldozed flat, so there's no real evidence of the mines. Yet both the mines and the strike are such an important part of our history, so it's good to keep them alive somehow, and to keep the anger about what happened alive as well.”
In the film, the role of Danny, the band leader whose closing speech in the film is a damning indictment of the government forces behind the pit closures (and which was later sampled on Chumbawamba's 1997 hit single, Tubthumping), was played by the late Pete Postlethwaite. For this new production, the baton is picked up by John McArdle. As a fan of the film,which also starred Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald, he too recognises its populist power.
“Sue Johnston was in it,” McArdle says of his former fellow Brookside star, with whom he toured in Jim Cartwright's play, Two. “She played one of the wives, and I loved Pete Postlethwaite's performance, but playing it myself is like playing any of the great parts, in that you have to try and forget all the great actors who've done it, and bring something of yourself to it.
“With Danny, though, there's only so many ways you can do it, because he's a very driven character. All he wants is to get his band to the Royal Albert hall, but he knows he's dying, and he knows his community is being ripped apart, and that politicises him, whereas in the past he's been apolitical.”
McArdle's own politicisation came during his first exposure to theatre during his early twenties while training to be a plasterer in Northampton, where “I helped build Milton Keynes,” he jokes.
“7:84 brought a play to the college called The Fish in the Sea,” McArdle says of an early play by the late John McGrath, which was first seen in 1972 at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, the grassroots venue where Postlethwaite cut his early acting teeth, “and I also saw a company called Belt and Braces, so I was exposed to agit-prop theatre from very early on. Where agit-prop hit you over the head with its politics, something like Brassed Off takes a much subtler approach with it. Brassed Off tells the story of a family, and it's entertainment for the masses, but it becomes political, and, rather than preach to the converted, it gets its message across to people who might not normally be interested.”
When Brassed Off was first performed in Sheffield, where the first four performers featured a poignant appearance by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, it broke box office records, and quickly transferred to the National Theatre. Since then, and to Allen's astonishment, the play has become something of a staple for amateur dramatics groups.
“This has often been in places that have barely heard of Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher,” says a still bewildered Allen.
“The last time Allen visited Grimethorpe, as well as roundabouts, he noticed that a memorial to miners who had been killed down the pit had been erected near to the war memorial that had long been in place.
“There were a lot more names on the miners memorial than there were on the war memorial,” he says. “There's an anger and a rage in places like Grimethorpe that exists to this day about what was done to them. To have whole communities destroyed like that was absolutely gob-smacking.
“Thirty years on, I think back to 1975, which was thirty years after the Second World War, when war films were still very popular, although in terms of them being made they dropped off shortly after. What happened after the strike, was that, while agit-prop plays were being made at the time, there was a silence. Since then, partly down to writers like Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, which also came out of the strike, and partly down to a system whereby cabinet papers are released under the thirty year rule, so we can see exactly how determined Thatcher's government was to break the unions, that silence has been broken.
“There is a long history that's come out of the Miner's Strike, and some of that history is awful. In parts of Wales where the mines shut, there are now two generations who'll never work again, and nobody is helping these people. Whether things like that causes the plays I don't know, but it somehow seeps into the collective consciousness, and it's our job as writers to articulate that.”
Brassed Off, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29-May 3
Mining For Gold – The Miners Strike on stage and screen
The Strike – In 1988, alternative comedy troupe The Comic Strip made their most famous film as part of Channel Four's The Comic Strip Presents... series. The film focused on a former miner and would-be screenwriter, whose personal account of the strike is picked up by Hollywood producers, who proceed to cast Al Pacino, played by Peter Richardson, as miners leader Arthur Scargill and Meryl Steep, as played by Jennifer Saunders, as his wife in a big budget action movie. This telling satire on how history can be warped on film also starred Robbie Coltrane and Alexei Sayle, and won numerous awards.
Billy Elliot – Like Brassed Off, the Lee Hall-scripted film about an eleven year old boy who wants to become a ballet dancer was set against a backdrop of the Miners Strike in Tyneside, with several scenes filmed at the Ellington and Lynemouth collieries in Northumberland. Released in 2000, Hall's tale of the transcending power of art made a star of Jamie Bell, and has gone on to become a hit stage musical.
The Battle of Orgreave – In 2001, artist Jeremy Deller staged a re-enactment of one of the Miners Strike's defining moments, when running battles in June 1984 between Yorkshire police and striking miners looked like civil war. Deller gathered together more than 1000 volunteers for the public event, which utilised historical re-enactment societies as well as former miners and policeman in a spectacle that was captured by film-maker Mike Figgis.
The Herald, April 18th 2014