You might argue that Mike Leigh did it better and bleaker in the decade that preceded it, but for a brief period at the end of the nineties, British cinema flourished in telling working class stories to a mainstream audience – an audience who may not have known about Leigh’s Meantime, let alone had an opportunity to view it.
1996 saw Danny Boyle adapt Irvine Welsh’s first novel Trainspotting (which was much about the hopelessness felt by much of young Scotland as it was about heroin). Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty followed a year later (a feel good tale of Sheffield’s steel workers rising up from the misery of the dole queue). Billy Elliot, released in 2000 but set 15 years prior in the midst of the miners’ strike, helped shine a light on crumbling communities rarely shown on film. Say what you like about Elton John’s West End musical adaptation, but I’m happy the story continues to be told.
But perhaps best of the lot, if not as acclaimed, was Mark Herman’s Brassed Off, released in 1996 and the story of a South Yorkshire colliery brass band taking part in an inter colliery contest, set against the backdrop of their community’s pit closure. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a staggering piece of film. The music is beautiful; the cast a who’s who of working class British acting talent of the time; the tone uplifting while never being insensitive to the reality of the situation the story roots itself in. I grew up in a South Yorkshire pit village called Armthorpe, not dissimilar to the location in which Brassed Off is set. I can’t think of many films that had more of an impact on me growing up.
Brassed Off claims to be set in ‘Grimley’, in reality a thinly disguised portrayal of Grimethorpe, a village in South Yorkshire close to Armthorpe, and which had been named the poorest village in Britain two years earlier by the European Union (and whose real life colliery band provided the soundtrack the film). It features an impressive cast (Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald, the now too little seen Stephen Tompkinson), all of whom have their fair share of notable scenes (Tompkinson’s Coco The Scab breakdown is gut wrenching). But at the heart of it all is the character of Danny, the bandleader. He’s played by Pete Postlethwaite, and it’s very much his film.
As the fourth and youngest in a Warrington working class Roman Catholic family, Postlethwaite probably never had to study the working class in order to be able to accurately portray it. In 1981 he’d even played the lead in Alan Bleasdale’s The Muscle Market, a spin-off from BBC2’s seminal working class television drama Boys From The Blackstuff. But even so, his performance in Brassed Off is extraordinary.
Postlethwaite pitches Danny as stoic, but not soft, yet sometimes even a bit silly and often a symbol of ridicule. He and director Herman aren’t patronizing in suggesting that middle-aged working men wouldn’t tease someone seemingly more interested in trombones than the Trades Union Congress. That said, Danny gives as good as he gets, securing the film’s best line, within the film’s best sequence, when the band rehearse Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez after Fitzgerald’s character joins them, against a montage of striking miners and TUC boardroom debates. “You wot?” grunts Harry (played by Jim Carter) upon hearing Gloria’s been rehearsing the piece. Danny: “That’s Orange Juice to you”. Harry: “Oh aye”.
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Yet it’s Danny’s speech at the end of the movie that most remember as being Postlethwaite’s greatest contribution to the film. “Truth is, I thought it mattered, I thought music mattered,” croaks Danny onstage at the Royal Albert Hall, upon the band winning the competition (there’s a spoiler there for you, but it doesn’t really matter). “But does it bollocks, not compared to how people matter.” Even if Danny hadn’t lifted himself off his death bed to make the speech (again, sorry) it’d still be one of British cinema’s most inspiring moments. You don’t have to born into a mining community to feel moved by it, but it certainly helps.
Pete Postlethwaite OBE has been dead for five days now, succumbing to cancer at the age of 64, mere days into 2011. His passing is a great loss not just to cinema, but to society. Postlethwaite see, was a character just as principled as the character he portrays in Brassed Off; I only learnt upon his death that, after starring in excitingly provocative climate change film The Age Of Stupid in 2009, he’d threatened to hand back the OBE he was awarded in 2004, in protest at the then government’s decision to build a coal-fired power station in Kingsnorth, Kent. Knowing the message it’s reporting would send, he even attended the London premiere of the film on a bicycle.
It chipped my heart upon learning Pete Postlethwaite had died on Sunday – after all, I’d watched him pull through once, why not again? – yet the man Stephen Spielberg once described as “the best actor in the world” (perhaps referring to Postlethwaite’s Oscar nominated role in 1993’s In The Name Of The Father rather than his work for him in Jurassic Park 2) leaves behind an impressive body of work, encapsulating his talent at portraying complex humans brilliantly. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), The Usual Suspects (1995), Lost For Words (1999), The Constant Gardner (2005), and just last year, The Town. All brilliant turns. He was even okay in Inception too.
For me though, nothing beats Pete Postlethwaite’s brilliance in Brassed Off, the highpoint of working class cinema’s moment in the sun a decade and a half ago. Rest in peace Pete Postlethwaite, this one’s for you…