The phrase "brassed off" is a British expression that has its origin in the Royal Navy.

A common duty, handed out by the "top brass" as a form of punishment, was cleaning the brasswork on the ship. Any sailor assigned this tedious task was truly "brassed off".

Brassed Off!

1996 British film produced by Steve Abbott, Prominent Features and Channel 4, written and directed by Mark Herman and edited by Michael Ellis. All the incidental music, the stuff that isn’t classical or traditional, is by Trevor Jones.

Cast:
Pete Posthlethwaite – Danny
Stephen Tomkinson – Phil, Danny’s son
Tara Fitzgerald – Gloria
Ewan McGregor – Andy
Jim Carter – Harry
Philip Jackson – Jim
Peter Martin – Ernie
Sue Johnston – Vera
Mary Healey – Ida
Lill Roughley – Rita

Brassed Off! is the story of The Grimley Colliery, its imminent closure, and the Colliery Band, and what will happen to it as a result. Danny is the band leader and devoted to the band almost to the point of being dismissive of the probable closure of the pit. To the members of the band, though, the colliery is the only large-scale employer in the area, and its closure must mean the folding of the band. At the same time, the band are rehearsing and competing in The National Brass Band Competition, trying to get to The Albert Hall for the final.

Alongside these two main plot lines are two others. The first is the story of Gloria, a local girl returning to the area after making a success of herself elsewhere. She comes to one of the band practices, plays a mean trumpet, and gets herself a regular position. The rest of the band doesn’t know, though, that she’s actually working for the management closing the pit down. She falls for Andy. The other main subplot focuses on Phil and his inability to keep his wife and children: he is forced to supplement his income by dressing as a clown and doing children’s parties.

So what happens? Well – you know already. The film does not have an unpredictable plot, and this – unlike other films such as The Full Monty and Swing, which are also as predictable as they come – is undoubtedly one of the film’s strengths. We know that the guys in The Full Monty will strip and make the money; we know that the guy will get the girl in Swing, and that the band will eventually be a great success. These films are certainly not dislikeable, but they are rather saccharin: the inevitability of the happy ending is okay, but there’s nothing to make the films classic, really, nothing to keep you thinking after the credits have rolled. Brassed Off! is similarly predictable – the guy gets the girl, the band leader manages to carry on conducting despite his silicosis, the band wins (I’m not really not blowing any plot here). The pit closes, and they are all out of a job. And it’s this that makes the film classic: the inevitability leads to both an instant happy ending, and a long term miserable one which far outweighs it, and any sort of saccharin-ness that might have gone along with it (although in truth there isn’t a good deal). You don’t just leave the film feeling upbeat… all still have their problems, and serious problems they are too. You are certainly left with a great deal to consider – especially since the last thing you hear the band play is Pomp and Circumstance as they travel around London in an open-topped red, double-decker bus: that’s certainly a good few patriotic buttons to press at the end of a film which is, arguably, largely scathing about the state of the country… thoughtful stuff indeed. (The band’s problems, too, are more far-reaching than, well, Swing certainly, whose story really only concerns a few people, and is reasonably lightweight at that; The Full Monty has more social commentary, but is still a very personal and individual story. Brassed Off!’s social commentary turns quickly into criticism – perhaps not of the pit closures, perhaps, but certainly of the lack of concern given to those that the closures made unemployed.)

And the acting’s good: this is Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald and Ewan McGregor for goodness sake (hard not to see him wielding a light-sabre rather than a trumpet, though, in retrospect). There’s some effective comedy – one of the band guesses that Gloria’s second name might be ‘Stits’ (you have to say it out loud). There’s the lovely moment between the two band members’ wives when they first see Gloria: ‘Are you a member of the band?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh right!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Oh just something my husband never said.’ – and the now priceless ‘Yes I am.’ ‘What?’ ‘Thinking what you’re thinking.’ My personal favourite is the band member constantly trying to stop people from saying that he plays the tuba: ‘It’s a bloody euphonium’. There are some great sentimental moments too – Andy and Gloria getting together is lovely, and the first brass competition that the team enter and then get progressively drunk at is fun too.

The tear-jerking stuff, though, is first rate. Gloria playing ‘En Aranjuez Con tu Amor’ (that the rest of the band know, hilariously, as ‘Orange Juice’) whilst the management, in silent montage, argue about the future of the pit, is breathtaking. The band playing ‘Danny Boy’ for Danny in hospital is one of my favourite cinematic moments. There are others too: I won’t spoil it.

But it’s undoubtedly the music that makes this film stunning. It’s played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and is simply marvellous. It’s available as a CD and well worth the asking price for ‘En Aranjuez Con tu Amor’ alone. The film itself is available on video or DVD and is, by far, one the best British films of recent times.

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