Manchester film reviews

Pete PostlethwaiteBrassed Off at Liverpool Philharmonic

Director: Mark Herman; Starring: Pete Postlethwaite, Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald

Reviewed by Charlotte Starkey January 2011

This is not so much a review as an acknowledgment of a memorable event last week. The screening of Brassed Off at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Tuesday 25th January was particularly appropriate and poignant, a fitting tribute to the much admired Pete Postlethwaite who died on 2nd January 2011.


He began his acting career just a few yards from the Philharmonic Hall, at the Everyman in the 1970s. Since then he has touched almost everyone in theatre and film both here and abroad as well as gathering a huge following among audiences. He enriched any scene with his presence. He was a wonderful teacher, actor and northerner born just down the road in Warrington sixty four short years ago. He played in Alan Bleasdale’s The Muscle Market (1981), a separate ‘addition’ to the rest of Boys from the Blackstuff episodes. He has played most major theatres, Bristol Old Vic, Manchester’s Royal Exchange among them, and he has been a lead actor in memorable Shakespearean performances.


In Brassed Off he brings his amazing presence onto the screen eventually finding in his confused, angry, anxious bandsmen and sole bandswoman Gloria (played with great touches of humour, subtle and earthy by turn, by Tara Fitzgerald), the discipline and dedication required to compete in, and win, the national brass band competition.


Liverpool Philharmonic HallLiverpool’s Philharmonic Hall is a magnificent 1930s building with stunning acoustics. With the raising of the unique Walturdaw screen from the bowels of the building beneath the stage, complete with proscenium arch, curtain and Wurlitzer organ music, the concert hall is transformed into a cinema. The  screen evokes, like the film itself, a world of communal entertainment all but lost in the modern cinema – the Regals, Hippodromes, Essoldos of yesteryear. The impact of the scenes grew in significance on the large screen – the symbolism of the colours (especially red – all the ‘p’s and ‘f’s’ of the title shots picked out), the crisp uniform of the band, the images of the pit head, the cage, the grimed miners’ faces, the angry women’s protest pitch, the community in turmoil, the lyrical hills behind, the intimacies, humour and sadnesses – all these leapt out with a forceful beauty, defining a world betrayed, a community of workers and families in the process of being scrapped like the pit itself.


The WalturdawBrassed Off, directed by Mark Herman, portrays the agonies of a community experiencing the devastating effects of England’s industrial decline as a consequence of successive disastrous policies – from Alfred (Lord) Robens in the 1960s as head of the Coal Board to Thatcher’s economic policies of the 1980s continued under Major in the 90s. Although the Miners’ Strike had ‘ended’ in 1985 (the film was released in 1996), the narrative is set in the year 1992 with references to the 1984 dispute about the ballot of miners. The shadow of the miners’ defeat, which darkened lives well into the 1990s and beyond, is cast across the impersonal, dominant, sometimes beautiful, images of the pit-head in this film – in particular the momentarily illuminated night-lights shafting upwards into the cold steel, grey-blue girders of the pit frame whilst the mellow harmonies of Rodrigo’s ‘Orange Juice’ Concerto (Concierto de Aranjuez)  are heard.


The narrative of a brass band, doggedly led by the determination of its ailing leader Danny, hauntingly acted by Pete Postlethwaite, shapes the wider context of a wilful political destruction of industry and industrial communities driven by a simplistic hatred of union power. Where politicians and mine owners lacked communication skills, vision or understanding either of people or industry, as the film suggests, the band found all these qualities in their music whilst, until the end of the film, their families fell apart in poverty. Meanwhile England’s economic base shifted to what we recognise today as a cul-de-sac – in the final words of Danny “for a few lousy bob.”


Commentaries on the film sometimes see only the ‘feel good’ factor, even simply a comedy, hearing the idyll of England in the strains of The Floral Dance with its echoes of a Cornish landscape  (“crap” is Danny’s scything description, suggesting more a response to the myth of an English pastoral than to the energetic musical performance, which is beautiful), the haunting evocations of nature in Rodrigo, the pathos of Danny Boy outside the sick Danny’s hospital window (there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at that moment last Tuesday). The film constantly juxtaposes the progression of the narrative about the band, its music, its characters, with the darker realities of the disintegrating community and families of Grimley. Images of protest, argument and hopelessness strike counterpoints of discord against the lyricism of the music. Management is significant by its fleeting, scornful (the provocative black limousine), furtive operation.


The screening reminds us powerfully of the bitter anger that suffuses so much of the language of this film – Danny as angry as Chrissie in Boys from the Blackstuff. For many who lived through the dark years of Thatcher’s premiership, Postlethwaite’s band leader suggests an anxious, fearful ailing fragility in that memorable face, until in unison the band prepare for one last grand performance in a harrowing yet triumphant symbol of a refusal to accept the tragic destruction of a community and a way of life quietly. ‘VIC- TORY,’ the banner of the women proclaims early in the film: the letters revealing only ‘TORY’, the ‘VIC’ shrouded from view – the Tory ‘vic-tory’ over almost-broken spirit, the darksome ‘self-help’ victory of the management of the mine and the politics which destroyed many people.


Liverpool Docks before re-developmentThe Liverpool setting for another screening of Brassed Off is appropriate in other ways. Just a short healthy walking distance away from the iconic grandeur of the Philharmonic Hall is the waterfront and erstwhile dockland where Bleasdale set his Boys from the Blackstuff – not the developed waterfront we see now but the blitzed, bombed and containerised wasteland of Liverpool’s docks when the dockers were also left out in the cold and the historic contribution of Liverpool to the wealth of Britain was forgotten. Bleasdale’s series was written and produced over the years 1978 to 1982 and his plays find affinities in the spirits of the characters in Brassed Off. How many of the audience last Tuesday must have recognised the political sentiments of this film.


Danny is determined to make his dream happen – to fashion a group of anti-heroes, soon-to-be redundant miners, into musicians, creators, inheritors of beauty; to bang heads together (Yosser Hughes bangs his head against anyone and anything in despair). Both films converge in a telling portrayal of what it meant to be governed by a premier who believed ‘there’s no such thing as society’. Both films continue that powerful artistic polemic of social realist fiction (and fact) that has inspired writers and cartoonists from the sixteenth century onwards (and earlier still) in England – from Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Gillray, Cruikshank, Hogarth and Blake, through Dickens to Orwell and the continuing tradition where art and politics acknowledge their common roots in human struggle and confusion. In both dramas the women suffer and see as much as, and more than, the men (Sue Johnston is riveting as Vera binding the comic and serious elements together) – at a time when male politicians, fawning on the woman who dominated them in government, became accomplices in the destruction of British industry: Brassed Off makes no concessions to social propriety or political decorum to make its points either verbally or visually.


Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) as Mr Chuckles the clown madly fools with the trombone for which he sacrifices hisStephen Tompkinson as Mr Chuckles family. With the fallibility of a father whose home is falling apart he sees helplessly his wife, his children, his furniture and his own rationality leave him. He, again like Yosser Hughes, is a deeply dark, tragi-comic figure of despair. Some argue it is the crisis of masculinity under examination here. That ignores the fact that the fundamental conflict in Britain has always been one of class, however defined. It is sometimes claimed, too, that the film is a ‘northern’ product: the same has been said for Boys from the Blackstuff, as if that alone defines the constituency of the drama. More appropriately they are dramas that portray the tragedy of a whole nation.


Both dramas remind us that the basis of Britain’s wealth lay in the historic commitment of its people to build their communities, their families, around their work. This film shows how that ideal was trashed by short-term political ideological ambitions. The tragedy of poverty in Brassed Off, the unequal distribution of the wealth of a nation in this film, regardless of gender or geographical divides, lies in the fact that the politicians and chattering classes who created the crisis are present by their absence. That deprives both Mr Chuckles and his family of access to anything but the inhumane utilitarian slough of Victorian political philosophy so energetically embraced by Thatcher’s government.


The image of Tompkinson’s clown haunts the film: he descends from children’s jokes, to almost inarticulate political rage, eventually to a failed hospitalised suicide attempt with his clumsy huge red boots sticking out on the hospital trolley as he is wheeled past the room where his father recovers from a serious chronic lung complaint (red, purples and blues are symbolic colours of revolt, regality, riotous chaos and satire in this film).


The clown reminds us of the stupidity of a political theory (Milton Friedman’s) that became for Thatcher’s government, the justification for the aim to generate money for its own sake through the financial services sector and 'yuppie land', rather than for the well-being of the body-politic. As the clown loses the comedy and begins a diatribe against Thatcher in front of the confused, frightened children, in the local church at the Harvest Festival, he is preparing for a terrifying dénouement. Two security men patrol the colliery at night with their guard dog, protecting the owner’s property from the workers; suddenly, from high in the darkened girders of the pit head, a writhing, colourful insect-like figure gyrates madly from a rope round his neck. Momentarily it is shockingly, grotesquely comic, with echoes of Hogarh’s Gin Lane, the pathetic image of a clown unable even to die because he cannot cope. It is one of the great strengths of this film that it is constantly making telling visual and verbal connections across cultural and personal narratives to reinforce its canvas.


Much more is untold here. Pete Postlethwaite, arriving on his bicycle, has left an enduring legacy of which this ranks among his finest. It is apt that his recent documentary should be entitled The Age of Stupid: it is about climate change; for those of us who witnessed the age of Thatcher, it seems that stupidity reaches back as well as forward in time. Danny’s last words still resonate: “… this bloody government has systematically destroyed an entire industry. OUR industry. And not just our industry – our communities, our homes, our lives. All in the name of ‘progress’….” Brassed Off reasserts the point that human beings achieve grandeur when they reaffirm their shared humanity, that music and art as a whole achieve greatness when they express that truth. Danny reminds his audience, in the Albert Hall (actually Birmingham Town Hall) scene, it is not ‘music that matters’, it is the people who make the music that matters.


In a mesmeric way Pete Postlethwaite conveyed that insight: he engaged with the whole performance on screen and will be much missed. Pete Postlethwaite on a bicycle, ardently pumping out the music through his pursed lips on his way to rehearsal with the chaotic Phil riding on the rim behind him using a trombone to indicate the left turn. Didn’t someone else, who encouraged Thatcher’s extreme right turn, once talk about getting on a bike? A wonderful film; a memorable screening.

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