This piece is a slightly re-written version of a paper I gave on regional identity in Brassed Off in March 2007. I am including it here because I think that it is a good example of how the study of British cinema very quickly achieves a critical orthodoxy about some films, and the way in which several film scholars immediately lapsed into the stereotype of the North of England as the ‘land of the working class’ that has been with us since the nineteenth century (see the reference to Rob Shields) suggests a lack of critical imagination. I think that there is more to be said about the changing status of the community in Brassed Off, and that this film provides an excellent opportunity to explore the relationship between economy and culture, and class and region. The one dimensional critical approach of various scholars of British cinema have, I think, missed something interesting about how this film seeks to express identity. They are all to obsessed with class and gender to attend properly to the question of social space in the film, but it is the film itself that suggests we need to go beyond old conceptions of the North (based on economy and class) and to consider the new (based on culture and space).
In this paper I argue that in Brassed Off it is the cultural utopianism represented by the Grimley Colliery Brass Band that overcomes the alienation and economic decline of a Yorkshire mining community. The film is typically approached as a narrative about class and gender; albeit one that problematises those categories with the advent of post-industrial society in the United Kingdom. As such, the film is defined as a portrayal of ‘working class life’ (Hallam 2000: 261) and ‘Old Labour collectivism’ (Monk 2000: 277) that draws upon the ‘iconography of working-class realism’ (Leach 2004: 63-64) in presenting ‘a last throw of the dice for a powerful element in the construction of the identity of large parts of the industrial north of England’ (Blandford 2007: 28). This ‘crisis of post-industrialism’ is cast as ‘the crisis of masculinity’ in late twentieth century Britain (Marris 2001: 47), evident in ‘its treatment of the alternately dying, impoverished, and isolated male body’ (Luckett 2000: 95), and its ‘certain level of nostalgia for a fading masculinity’ (Blandford 2007: 29). Crisis is, however, overcome with ‘a certain utopianism about the possibility of collective action’ (Hill 2000: 183). Brassed Off, then, is seen to play out ‘a drama in which male social and emotional bonds once associated with the workplace and the working man’s club are threatened, mourned, struggled for, and finally restored’ (Monk 2000: 282).
The uniformity of critical opinion regarding Brassed Off reflects the north of England’s ‘intensified “sense of place,”’ which, as Rob Shields (1991: 208-230) had demonstarted, has adpoted a ‘consistent form since the nineteenth century in the popular imagination as the “land of the working class.”’ However, in the contemporary era this sense of place is challenged, as the north as ‘land of the working class’ is made problematic by the decline of industry and the transformation of labour. Consequently, the significance of a Yorkshire regional identity in the film has been overlooked, and here I argue that Brassed Off narrates a transformation in the basis for social identity in the town of Grimley from a solidarity based on social class to one based on identification with a regional identity. The ‘social and emotional bonds’ of working class, male culture are mourned, but are not, in the final scenes of the film, restored. As this regional identity is identified with a brass band, it is equally a shift from economy to culture. The identification with the region is located within the nation, and the film represents the affirmation of a British national identity through the expression of a regional, Yorkshire identity.
The issue of regional identity emerged in a number of British films released between 1992 and 2002, including The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (Christopher Monger, 1995), Blue Juice (Carl Prechezer, 1995), and 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) (Redfern 2005a, 2005b, 2007), but no British film released during this period exemplifies the alienation of the regions from the centre, the transformation of work, and the demand to see regional cultures validated in the life of the nation better than Brassed Off.
Alienation most obviously features in the film in the decision to close the Grimley colliery. The report produced by Gloria that demonstrates the pit’s profitability goes unread by the management as it is revealed that the decision to close the pit was taken some two years before the miners voted for redundancy. Gloria’s belief that she could make a difference, that her work would enable both the management and the miners to make an informed decision is shown to be hopelessly naïve, suggesting that ‘down south’ they are unaware of the realities of life in the north. Though the miners vote for redundancy it is clear that it is merely a formality, a means for the management to retain control over the community’s future but to transfer responsibility on to the miners. The colliery manager, McKenzie, is shown to be different from the miners: he does not have a Yorkshire accent, he never shares the same space as the miners, does not try to cash in on the kudos the band brings to the colliery, and his office is spacious with wood panelled walls in contrast to the drab grey interiors of the spaces inhabited by the miners (e.g., the pub, Phil’s home). Andy, the youngest miner and band member, accurately predicts the outcome of the ballot will go four to one in favour of redundancy, because he is aware that although the miners want to keep the pit open they know that they have no real choice in the matter. Here the management are represented as gangsters: McKenzie’s seclusion in his office, his assistants hanging on his every word, and Gloria’s observation that he made the miners ‘an offer they couldn’t refuse’ link him generically to Don Corleone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). The alienation of the miners from this decision making process is evident in one sequence where the band’s performance of Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ is heard over shots of a meeting between the management and the union leadership. The miners are excluded from this meeting but the use of music to obscure the negotiations makes the spectator aware of their absence and their lack of a voice in deciding their future. It is only through music that they are able to express themselves. The ease with which the miners are overlooked is revealed early in the film, as we see Ida and Vera, the wives of two of the band members, talking over the backwall of their terraced houses. The handling of space in a series of shot/reverse shot draws on the stereotypes of gossiping Northern women (e.g., from Coronation Street [Granada, 1961– ] and the paintings of Beryl Cook) and implies that they live in adjacent terrace houses. A wide shot then reveals to us that Ida and Vera do not live side by side but are divided by a backyard in which a former miner sits smoking and reading the paper.
As the narrative of Brassed Off centres on the closure of the colliery the economic aspect of the film is particularly strong. The loss of the pit simply means the absence of work and beyond coal mining there is no employment for the men of Grimley. For example, Simmo appears to have no job at all and appears to survive solely on what he can hustle playing pool, even referring to Andy as his ‘main source of income.’ The main focus of this part of the narrative is Phil and Sandra. Burdened by debt acquired during the 1984 miners’ strike, they are unable to keep the bailiffs from the door and eventually their possessions are seized. The bailiffs and the creditors they represent are symbolic of the Thatcher government, being insensitive and ignorant of the struggles of Grimley, and profit from their parasitic relationship to the miners. In order to raise extra money Phil is forced to perform as a clown, Mr. Chuckles. The birthday party at which he performs takes place in a middle class home, and the film contrasts this space (nicely decorated, carpeted, bright) with Phil’s house with its carpet and furniture stripped out. This house is also more modern than Phil’s 1930s dreary council housing and is unattainable to him, and this emphasises the relegation of heavy industry to the past. As McKenzie comments: ‘coal is history.’ On exiting, the mother is surprised to hear that he is a miner, to which he responds: ‘You remember ’em love. Dinosaurs, dodos, miners.’ This sequence is cross-cut with Sandra unable to pay for the family shopping, and relying on the charity of Vera, who, as the cashier, slips her a five pound note from the till. An exhibitionist shot of the table laid out with the birthday cake and other foods exposes a bounty that the miner’s lack. The one time we see one of the miners eat is when Andy takes Gloria to the fish and chip shop, which represents his idea of going ‘posh.’ (Other than this the men of Grimley appear to survive purely, and specifically, on bitter). Gloria comments sarcastically that if she knew they going to go this posh she would have got dressed up, and here the film notes the cultural and economic difference between the Grimley idea of ‘posh’ and that of someone who has just returned from the south of England. Phil’s other engagement as Mr. Chuckles takes place at a harvest festival, again contrasting the bounty of the middle class mothers and their children with the desperation of the miners.
The closure of Grimley colliery forces a shift in the conception of Yorkshire from one that is defined primarily in terms of economic activity to a definition that is culturally based. Moya Luckett argues that Brassed Off ‘ultimately exposes the Marxist truism that culture has no value without an economic infrastructure’ (Luckett, 2000: 96), but the film seeks to demonstrate that in the era of mass pit closures the colliery band is now more essential to the community of Grimley than ever before representing, pride, continuity, and unity. Originally founded in 1881, Danny states that through two world wars, three disasters, seven strikes, and one ‘bloody big depression’ the band ‘played on every flamin’ time.’ The continuity of the band is also evident in the continuity from one generation to the next: Danny’s son Phil is a trombone player, and Gloria turns out to be from Grimley and the granddaughter of the best bandsman and bravest miner Danny ever knew. She even has her grandfather’s flugel horn, and is accepted into the band by virtue of this historical and familial link. The final shot of the film focuses on Danny, who we know to be terminally ill, and a title tells us that, ‘Since 1984 there have been 140 pit closures in Great Britain at the cost of nearly a quarter of a million jobs.’ Brassed Off does not offer any solution to these problems and there are no miracle cures or last minute rescue packages, but the film is utopian in its representation of collective action through the band. Though Danny will die the memory of him will persist through the continuity of the band, and his picture will adorn the practise hall wall alongside Gloria’s grandfather.
Throughout the film there is a division of labour between the men and the women of Grimley, and this is reflected in the way in which social space is divided along gender lines. The men are associated with the pit, the pub, and the practise hall, while the women are shown in domestic situations (e.g., pegging out the washing, caring for children) or in service jobs (e.g., as a waitress, a pub landlady, a cashier, or nurses). Men and women are rarely shown together to occupy the same space: Harry and Rita pass one another outside their house, barely acknowledging each other’s existence; and, unable to cope, Sandra leaves Phil. The economic struggles of Grimley bring families to the point of collapse but through the band they are able to come together. At the Albert Hall the men and women of Grimley are reunited within a single space. Rita and Sandra are in the audience, where previously they have been scornful of their husbands’ interest in the band. With the men on stage and the women in the audience a division of labour remains in place at the end of the film. However, Gloria’s presence in the band suggests that it may be overcome. Gloria is the only female member of the band, and her arrival in Grimley prompts Vera and Ida to take an interest in their husbands’ activities. Gloria’s presence in the band also suggests that class differences may be overcome: it is Gloria who provides the money for the band to travel to London, thereby cleansing herself of the stain of being part of the management and readmitting her to the band. Hill argues that the film projects the image of a ‘populist alliance in which middle-class characters into the community represented by the working-class characters’ (2000: 184); but this alliance is not predicated on gender or class. With the colliery gone it is no longer a pre-requisite of band membership that the musicians be miners, and the grounds for membership is shifted to being from Grimley and this opens the way for a middle-class woman to become a member of the band. In his defiant speech at the Albert Hall, Danny reminds us that it is not music that matters but people. However, in stressing the pride, continuity, and unity the band has to offer Grimley following its economic decline, Brassed Off makes the case that music does matter because it represents the community.
Mike Wayne places Brassed Off into a category he describes as ‘anti-national national films.’
The films in this category are defined by their critique of the myth of community which underpins national identity; the myth that is of the deep horizontal comradeship which overlays the actual relations of a divided and fractured society. The myth of unity and shared interests is a powerful means of legitimising the social order. These films are national insofar as they display an acute attunement to the specific social, political, and cultural dynamics within the defined territory of the nation, but they are anti-national insofar as the that territory is seen as a conflicted zone of unequal relations of power (2002: 25).
It is certainly the case that in representing a mining community in Yorkshire, Brassed Off articulates the social, economic, and cultural dynamics of the UK as a ‘conflicted zone of unequal relations of power.’ The alienation and economic decline of the residents of Grimley is derived from these inequalities. However, the closing scene of the film does not critique the myth of a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ but appeals to precisely that myth. On leaving the Albert Hall the band is seen riding on an open-top bus past the Houses of Parliament, and, like many films, the red London bus and Big Ben are used in Brassed Off to represent Britishness. By placing the band aboard the bus, the film symbolically places Yorkshire within the nation. It is in this sequence that the band plays Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, or as Danny refers to it (with grudging respect): ‘Land of Hope and Bloody Glory.’ The film thus appeals to the ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ of a British national identity whilst at the same time asserting the regional identity of Yorkshire, and the importance of that regional identity in the nation. Brassed Off may be read as an appeal to the nation not to forget that communities such as Grimley are a part of the nation, and though the traditional image of the North as an industrial heartland may no longer be applicable the intensity of identification with the North has not diminished.
Brassed Off is a British film – but its nationality is articulated through the representation of the regional in a harmonious relationship with the national. The alienation of a regional community can be overcome through the unification of the regional and the national, and in representing the Yorkshire region the films make the case for importance of the regional in the UK. Brassed Off dramatises the shift from traditional heavy industries to cultural industries and make the case that the rest of the UK needs to recognise this shift and reorient their ‘mental maps’ of the region. It also emphasises the vitality of a regional subculture; and that the nation should respect the uniqueness of Yorkshire, and recognise its contribution to the cultural life of the nation. In contrast to the anti-Thatcherite state of the nation films of the 1980s that questioned the validity of a national identity (e.g., The Ploughman’s Lunch [Richard Eyre, 1983]), Brassed Off has a positive outlook on the value of regional cultures, a British national identity, and the possibility of negotiating a more sympathetic relationship between the regional and the national.
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Hallam, J. (2000) Film, class, and national identity: reimagining communities in the age of devolution, in J. Ashby and A. Higson (eds.) British Cinema, Past and Present. London and New York: Routledge: 261-273.
Hill, J. (2000) Failure and utopianism: representations of the working class in British cinema of the 1990s, in R. Murphy (ed.) British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI: 178-187.
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Wayne, M. (2002) The Politics of Contemporary European Cinema: Histories, Borders, Diasporas. Bristol: Intellect Books.