The ultra-competitive world of brass band competitions comes under the spotlight in a new four-part documentary series on Sky Arts. Chris Burn reports.
Brass bands may be more associated in the popular imagination with collieries and the Salvation Army but a new documentary series starting next week will lift the lid on the intense dedication and fierce competition that surrounds the wide array of contests they take part in.
The four-part Sky Arts show, called Battle of the Brass Bands, focuses on some of Yorkshire’s best-known and loved brass bands – and the larger-than-life characters who make up their numbers – as they compete against national and international rivals in a series of events.
The first episode takes a look at a War of the Roses sound-off between Yorkshire’s Brighouse & Rastrick Band and Lancashire’s Fairey Band as they perform in a series of villages in Saddleworth in the annual Whit Friday Contests.
Doctor David Thornton, musical director of the Brighouse & Rastrick Band, explains that competition is an integral part of the brass band community.
“There is a rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire,” he says.
“Up until you have performed, you hardly speak to those people. As soon as you come off stage, everyone is best friends – most of the time anyway.”
The series also focuses on the likes of the Black Dyke Band from Queensbury in West Yorkshire as they compete in the British Open Championships in Birmingham, as well as the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and their participation in the National Brass Band Championships at the Royal Albert Hall. A similar showdown was part of the storyline in the film Brassed Off.
The documentary focuses on the first woman to hold the position of principal cornet player in the Grimethorpe band – Kathleen Gaspoz, who was inspired to join a brass band because of the film and has moved from Switzerland to South Yorkshire to join the famous group which inspired the much-loved movie.
“Grimethorpe is associated with Brassed Off but also as one of the biggest names in brass bands. I want to prove to myself and the supporters of the band I was the right choice for Grimethorpe,” she says.
The series also show the UK’s top brass bands playing for national pride as they go up against America’s number one The Fountain City Brass Band at the The Brass in Concert competition in Gateshead.
Neil Edwards, head of Specialist Factual Programming at Twofour Broadcast and series director, says: “Making these films was a total privilege and an absolute revelation. If you think the world of brass bands is all flat caps and whippets, think again. These are amateur musicians playing to an Olympic standard.
“The competition pieces feature some of the finest and technically challenging music I’ve ever heard, presented in some of Britain’s most prestigious and iconic venues. I challenge anyone to experience the thrill of these competitions and not be converted into a brass fan for the rest of their lives.
“I’m delighted that Sky Arts has chosen to highlight this talented, fiercely competitive, frighteningly committed and completely unique community of British musicians.”
Phil Edgar-Jones, director of Sky Arts, adds: “We are delighted to be presenting Battle of the Brass Bands on Sky Arts in August.
“Brass bands are one of the longest running music traditions in British history and we are looking forward to celebrating and highlighting the role that brass bands play in our cultural landscape, and to display the high level of skill and dedication that these musicians give to their art.”
The new series will air from August 20 on Sky Arts and will also be available for streaming on NOW TV.