Listen to this article
The pit wheel fell silent 20 years ago but the sound of the Florentiner March still booms across the village of Grimethorpe on a chilly January evening.
It is practice night for Grimethorpe Colliery Band – and potentially one of the last if the brass band cannot raise more funding.
The band inspired the 1996 film Brassed Off starring Pete Postlethwaite and Tara Fitzgerald, charting its triumph in the national brass band finals just days after the pit closure was announced. In real life, the band kept on playing, but has struggled since its main sponsor collapsed two years ago, and has now hit crisis point.
Demanding more “shaping” of the notes, conductor Mark Bentham asks: “If Grimethorpe can’t do it, who can?”
If “the world’s best” brass band, which has wowed audiences from the Sydney Opera House to the Royal Albert Hall, cannot survive, the future for the estimated 1,000 brass bands in the UK seems muted.
The local MP has blamed “snobbery in the heart of Whitehall” for the lack of funding for a working class treasure.
“Last year, the Royal Opera House received over £26m in Arts Council funding and the English National Ballet received nearly £6.4m,” said Michael Dugher, Labour MP for Barnsley East. “This compares to just £23,000 for the British Federation of Brass Bands.”
Nigel Dixon, the band’s manager, is fully booked for 2013, with 48 concerts and three UK competitions. However, he said the band was unable to cover its costs of about £20,000 a month.
Mr Dixon estimates even the top brass bands run at a loss of £25,000 a year. Instruments cost many thousands of pounds, and there is travel and accommodation to pay for on tour. The band has tried to generate extra income by providing music lessons in local schools, and has established a youth band.
Grimethorpe’s 28 players receive £35 a gig. They all have other jobs, and travel from across the north to attend twice-weekly rehearsals. Gavin Pritchard, a percussionist, drives almost five hours from Cardiff to “play with the world’s best band”.
The enthusiasm and pride are shared at Grimethorpe working men’s club. Philip Evans, the secretary, who has lived in the village near Barnsley all his life, said: “Wherever you go and say you are from Grimethorpe, they have heard of it straight away. They have put it on the map. We are very proud. I thought the National Lottery was for these purposes. But for anything outside London, there’s nowt.”
Mick Sewell, playing pool in the club’s snug, said: “It’s the only thing left from the pit. The football team and the welfare club have gone.”
The news comes as councils begin swingeing cuts to regional arts venues and theatres in an attempt to rebalance town hall budgets.
In the past, most collieries had a band where recruits did more practising than mining. Some have survived under new sponsorship. Barrow Colliery became the Barnsley Building Society Band until it was taken over during the financial crisis. It is now sponsored by the Barnsley Chronicle, the local paper.
Richard Budge, the man dubbed “King Coal” when he took over the rump of Britain’s coal industry in the 1990s, bankrolled Grimethorpe after privatisation. But in 2010 Powerfuel, his main company, went into administration and the funding stopped.
The band room is covered with memorabilia from Brassed Off, which has led it to play in Japan, New Zealand and the US. Mr Postlethwaite, who played the conductor, was a frequent visitor and opened the Millennium Green in the village. The band played there during his funeral two years ago.
Stephen Tompkinson, another star of the film, has been on national television to plug the cause. Mr Dugher believes sponsors will be found to keep Grimethorpe going, but also wants to highlight the plight of less famous ensembles.
Brass Bands England (BBE), the new name for the federation, estimates there are about 1,000 active bands in the country.
The Arts Council said it was giving BBE £176,000 over the next three years and had awarded £120,000 of lottery funding to individual brass bands in 2011-12.
Cluny Macpherson, director for Yorkshire, said more applications from bands would be welcomed.
“To make direct comparisons in what’s invested in one type of music or another isn’t straightforward,” Mr Macpherson said, “because each involves very different numbers of musicians, performers, technicians and some require the upkeep of major buildings in which performances take place.”
Mr Dugher, who hopes to meet Ed Vaizey, culture minister, with other northern MPs in coming weeks, said brass bands “are a fundamental part of Britain’s creative industries”.
With increasing numbers of young brass players coming up through the ranks, he added: “We need to look at the future while remembering the past.”
Listen to the band play in this audio slideshow below