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Brassed off no longer... village band that came back from the edge of oblivion

The people of Dinnington are not the type to suffer fools gladly.

So when a BBC camera crew rolled into town last year promising to bring the former pit village's colliery band back from the brink of extinction, lips were pursed and eyes were rolled.

There was no doubt the future looked bleak. Back then, the Dinnington Colliery Band, whose history dates back to 1904, had just six members – five of them were from the same family. There was no conductor, the rehearsal rooms were an anonymous looking building in the shadow of a bus terminus and besides a handful of friends and relations few people even knew of its existence.

The dedicated surviving members had tried to bring new blood into the cornet section, but no one wanted to know and when their search for a second euphonium player proved more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, they seriously doubted that a London film crew could succeed where they had failed.

"We'd tried everything," says Kay Brookes, whose three daughters and sister Joan Herdman had duly turned up to rehearsals knowing each week might well be the band's last.

"We'd been into schools, we'd put adverts in the local newspaper. Obviously we only had a small budget and we did what we could, but a lot of people just didn't seem interested."

Following the usual format of such shows, the BBC drafted in a celebrity and made use of a contacts book far bigger than Dinnington Colliery Band's. Sue Perkins, comedian and winner of Maestro, was unveiled as Dinnington's saviour and Dr Nicholas Childs, conductor of the phenomenally successful Black Dyke Band, agreed to be on hand to offer advice.

To Childs, the story of the Dinnington band's decline following the closure of the pit in 1992 was a familiar one. Thirty years ago, Britain boasted 20,000 thriving brass bands. Today, there are 500 and many of those are hanging on by their finger-tips.

Undaunted by the grim statistics, Perkins arrived in South Yorkshire with bags of enthusiasm and a flat bed lorry emblazoned with banners appealing for new members to come forward.

However, as the battle between southern ambition and northern pragmatism began, for a while it looked like Kay, who has played the solo baritone for as long as she can remember, and the others were right.

The brass band might run through their blood, but for the rest of Dinnington, who if footage from the first episode of A Band for Britain is to be believed are in a permanent battle with rain hats and the elements, had better things to do than learn to play a brass instrument on a wet Wednesday evening.

"I remember Penny came home from school one day," says Kay, of her youngest daughter who is now 39. "She said, 'I want a pony' and we said 'You don't want a pony, you've got a flugel horn'.

"For us the band has always been part of what our family does and it's something we've always been proud of. At one point there were 15 of us involved and between me and my daughters we have 150 years of playing experience. Joan and I aren't getting any younger and while we will keep on playing as long as we can, we really just wanted to ensure that the band was left in as good a state as we found it.

"The membership of a band like this always comes in waves, but the last few years have been difficult. Youngsters these days have so many other things they can do, a brass band isn't necessarily top of their priorities."

It will come as no surprise that things did turn out fine in the end. Perkins won Kay and Joan over and amid the rag tag bunch of assorted musicians who turned up at Dinnington Memorial Hall for the first auditions, there were some genuine stars.

Not least 12-year-old cornet player Alex Kennedy who was desperate to be in the senior band despite knowing his friends might not approve and when Jonathan Beatty, who had a 15-year association with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, agreed to come on board as conductor, things finally began to look-up.

"It's been absolutely superb," says Kay, who will be on stage when Dinnington Colliery Band take part in the Yorkshire Brass Band Championships at St George's Hall in Bradford next week. "A few of those who signed up during filming have had to leave because of other commitments, but we have filled 25 of the 27 places available and players like Alex have been a real breath of fresh air. He's like one of the old bandsmen, a young lad with a really fantastic outlook on life.

"Being involved in the programme has given us all a boost and there's a sense now that we can do anything if we put our mind to it. It's been a few years since we were in the position to even take part in the championships, but we are genuinely determined to win.

"It can take years to get a band to a high enough standard to go through, so it's a big ask, but we believe that we are good enough and that's half the battle. When the cameras were there, none of us ever quite knew what to expect, but it's been a fantastic experience."

When the cameras stopped rolling, the original members of Dinnington Colliery Band could have been forgiven for expecting the enthusiasm to fizzle out.

However, the revival has continued and the band has also recently secured a deal with Decca, part of the Universal record company and the same label as Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse.

"I've only been into a recording studio once before," says Kay. "It was years back in a little place in Rotherham and we could only afford a four-hour slot.

"It was nice to get the CD, but we didn't have the time or the equipment to correct all the mistakes, so it wasn't exactly perfect. In my ignorance I thought it would be a similar set up with Decca, but when I walked into their studios I just couldn't believe it.

"There were microphones, headphones and all the latest technology. We played our hearts out that day and the sound was just incredible."

The recording deal is reported to be worth 1m and while the bulk of that money will go into promotion, the band hope that if the album, which comes out on Monday, is successful, they will at some point be able to afford purpose-built rehearsal rooms.

However, for now, in the week that marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the bitter Miners' Strike, the members of Dinnington Colliery Band are just grateful not to have yet played their swansong.

"When the pit closed, none of us were sure what the future would hold, but all these years on it's nice to think there is some positive news to come out of the village," says Kay. "The band is more than just a few people getting together each week to play music.

"If you drove down the high street today you'd never know that

Dinnington was once a pit village. The band is the only thing to bear the name of Dinnington Colliery and hopefully in future generations

it will still be a reminder of a proud industry and the people who

worked so hard to keep it going."

n The three-part series A Band For Britain begins on BBC2 on Monday, March 8 at 9pm.

 
 
 

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