Television Review: A Band For Britain (March 2010, BBC2)
Dinnington Colliery Band, Jan. 2010
Photo Copyright © Scott Wishart
( This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License )
A Band For Britain
Even these days, just occasionally a television producer or production team come up with what turns out to be not just a bright idea that actually works, but moreover provides good, intelligent entertainment and even achieves something positive. BBC2's three-parter A Band For Britain is one such rare beast. Eminently watchable, it proved entertaining without having been dumbed down, no insulting anybody's intelligence here, for once. Furthermore, A Band For Britain also brought to wider public attention the very sorry state of the once great British brass band movement as a whole, as well as of the Dinnington Colliery Band in particular. And if this was not enough, the programme actually helped revive the fortunes of this particular failing band - for how long, however, remains to be seen. Certainly, a lot of positive things here.
Yes, the once proud and great tradition of the British brass band is in deep trouble in this day and age. While many even outside of hardcore brass band aficionados may have heard of "premier" bands such as Black Dyke Band (previously Black Dyke Mills Band), Grimethorpe Colliery Band, or Brighouse and Rastrick Band, how many even know of the existence of "lesser" known bands? How many would even have known of the existence of the Dinnington Colliery Band? One rather suspects, sadly, almost none. In its heyday some thirty years ago, the brass band movement could boast somewhere between twenty and thirty-five thousand bands, many if not most bands associated with the collieries - almost all long since gone as a result of the deliberate destruction of the British coal mining industry under the then Thatcher government. Today, surviving bands number between possibly fewer than five hundred and maybe a thousand at best, and many surviving brass bands are struggling to keep going or are even failing. In the glory days of brass band, band recordings even rose to the top of the pop charts and bands sometimes featured on pop recordings, brass band was a regular on our television screens, provided theme tunes for television programmes, and featured prominently in television commercials.
Alas, those days have long passed. Brass band has not only suffered as a result of the mine closures, but also from increasing lack of popular interest and neglect. At a time when bands are failing and when every single band lost is another nail in the coffin of the movement as a whole, BBC2's A Band For Britain serves as a last-minute wake-up call that we are at peril of losing this glorious tradition and heritage of the British brass band. A heritage that we should all treasure and cherish, certainly not feel indifferent about. Yet, as A Band For Britain demonstrated only to clearly, indifference toward brass band is alas all too prevalent even in the Yorkshire heartland of the movement. And if in Yorkshire, what hope the rest of Britain?
But what of the programme itself? For anybody with even a passing interest in not only brass band but British tradition and heritage in general, A Band For Britain surely proved something of an emotional rollercoaster. Poignant, sometimes humorous and funny, often uplifting, frequently sad and depressing (if you cared at all), yet always entertaining. The two vital ingredients that ensured the success of A Band For Britain were the Dinnington Colliery Band itself of course, and presenter Sue Perkins.
Winner of the BBC's conductor competition Maestro, television and radio presenter and comedienne, a better presenter for A Band For Britain and 'driving force' for the revival of the Dinnington Colliery Band than Sue Perkins would be very hard to imagine. Her unlimited enthusiasm, enviably boundless energy and drive were a joy. Ms. Perkins also seems blessed with that rare gift of being able to genuinely engage both participants in the programme as well as the viewer without any condescension or being downright patronising - all too common failings in presenters. To watch her getting people involved and cajoling, even mildly bullying where necessary, all in her very personal and often somewhat quirky, even mildly - wonderfully! - eccentric way was an experience in itself not to be missed.
Like far too many brass bands, Dinnington Colliery Band, from the small South Yorkshire mining town of the same name near Sheffield and Rotherham, had been failing, teetering on the brink of extinction. A band with a proud tradition that started life in 1904, it survived two world wars, the miners' strike of 1984/5 and the closure of its pit in 1992, but in recent years lost more and more of its regular members. At the time of the start of A Band For Britain, the Dinnington Band essentially had been reduced to about half a dozen core members, five of them from the same family, and a few members of the training band.
These core members consisted of septuagenarian sisters Kay Brookes (solo baritone horn) and Joan Herdman (percussion), Kay's daughters Joanne Brookes-Wright (solo tenor horn), Penny Brookes (flugelhorn), and Sally Bannan (principal cornet), and the latter's husband Toby Bannan (trombone), with occasional (due to his job as a long-distance lorry driver) support from Jess Marshall (euphonium). Far short of the regular standard brass band complement of twenty-seven players. To the core members, the band clearly meant everything, and their pluck, true Yorkshire grit, and passion and dedication were - indeed, are - most inspiring and admirable. Those ladies in particular were just, awesome really.
Not one to hang about, Ms. Perkins soon organised a recruitment drive for new members and got Dr. Nicholas Childs, conductor and musical director of the Black Dyke Band, to help the band with advice, sitting in on auditions, and lending Dinnington some new repertoire from his Black Dyke Band. Perhaps the most hope-inspiring result of the recruitment drive and resultant auditions was the promotion of twelve year old Alex Kennedy (cornet) from the training band to the main band. Not only a promising musician, young Alex Kennedy proved, here and throughout the three programmes, an impressive, even inspiring figure indeed. This young lad's genuine total love of and dedication to brass band were inspiring and truly admirable, and for me were one of the high points of the series.
The recruitment drive did prove remarkably successful, though how much of this was attributable to the presence of TV crews remains to be seen longer term, and Ms. Perkins and the programme never stood still, moving onwards and upwards, more or less, with the occasional down. Small gigs followed, a new conductor and musical director, Graham Jacklin, was acquired along with new band uniforms, and soon even a first new competition success followed at Hardraw Scar. Even a shared platform for Dinnington Colliery Band at a mighty Grimethorpe Colliery Band concert, including a joint performance of the latter's party showpiece, the Gallop from Rossini's William Tell Overture, was arranged. However, the path was never smooth, with disagreements, the odd squabble, even despair setting in here and there. A final blow came with the resignation of Dinnington's conductor/MD Graham Jacklin shortly before the concert with Grimethorpe, with Sue Perkins having to step into his shoes for the concert with only one rehearsal. (A replacement for Jacklin was found in Jonathan Beatty soon after the end of A Band For Britain.)
However, in the end the band got there, and they even managed to acquit themselves respectably playing alongside Grimethorpe with the William Tell Overture. That in itself has to be a major achievement that the whole Dinnington Colliery Band can justly take great pride in and that certainly helped boost their confidence.
This is where A Band For Britain left off. A job well done, one band rescued from the brink, and one hopes for the long term. One also hopes that the programme helped raise popular interest in the brass band movement as a whole again, and again more than short-term. Congratulations are undoubtedly in order, to the irrepressible Sue Perkins, to the BBC, and most of all those magnificent ladies at the heart of the band and the whole Dinnington Colliery Band itself. Onwards and upwards!
Of course, this is not quite where the story itself ends. Apparently, the Dinnington Colliery Band are campaigning for a second series of A Band For Britain. Now, while one would wish them the best of British for this and a follow-up to see how the band is faring is highly desirable, at the same time one can't help wondering how other struggling or failing bands are getting on - or not - and that this would be at least equally as deserving of a follow on. In particular, one can't help wondering - indeed, worrying - what happened to the other twenty-odd brass bands that were originally being considered for A Band For Britain. How many of them are still around now, and in what shape?
Dinnington were fortunate in being offered a record deal by Universal, reportedly worth a cool £1 million, and their first album, also titled A Band For Britain, released to coincide with the series, has just charted in the UK Classical Album Charts at No.2. Congratulations, great news indeed, and hopefully this will prove helpful in securing Dinnington Colliery Band's longer term future.
Still, the long term future of brass band remains in grave doubt. Undoubtedly, greater Arts Council funding would help, especially for lesser known and struggling bands, and would be more than deserved. When one takes into account the high level of Arts Council funding minority arts such as opera receive, the pittance allocated to brass band becomes ludicrous and galling. However, it has to be admitted that no amount of Arts Council funding in itself would be sufficient to keep brass band alive and well. Of far greater importance still has to be raising the profile of brass band, increasing public awareness and achieving renewed greater general popularity.
One question that arises out of this and that the whole movement has to ask itself is, what can the brass band movement do to help itself in this quest? Perhaps the movement needs to modernise its image somewhat, and perhaps a wider contemporary repertoire needs to be included to reach out to a contemporary audience. But ultimately, only the brass band movement itself can answer these questions.
The loss of any more bands, no matter how insignificant they might seem, would surely be catastrophic. Bands of every standard are needed to keep brass band alive, without lesser known bands to keep interest alive and keep promoting new talent, eventually even the premiership bands will surely die.
Let A Band For Britain be an inspiration to all, and a call to arms as it were. Save our British brass band heritage before its too late!
A Band For Britain -
Dinnington Colliery Band's newly released first album
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