A Grimethorpe Story

A Grimethorpe Story

This more comprehensive history of the band was compiled and written some years ago by the bands former Percussionist Mark Arnold. We thank Mark for taking the time to complete this labour of love. 

Life after George

In 1972, George Thompson resigned his position at the age of sixty five. The band first appointed Derek Ashmore as Deputy Musical Director but after a short reign (the highspot being two LP’s for York Records) he was replaced by Denis Wilby as Resident Conductor. This was again quite a short reign and an appointment of a Resident Conductor was not made until June 1974. He was John Berryman (from Cornwall) who had been the Musical Director of the Bodmin Town Band for four years, and prior to that he had been Principal Cornet of GUS (footwear) Band of Kettering for some ten years. He took the band to the Granada Television Band of the Year Competition in 1974 and finished one point away from a hat trick of wins after playing first. Under his leadership, the band finished joint first at the Mineworkers’ Finals in Blackpool. Unfortunately, he resigned to take up a teaching appointment in the Midlands in August 1975.
Following the resignation of George Thompson the band was successful in obtaining the services of Elgar Howarth as Professional Conductor and Musical Adviser. He was appointed in July 1972. Grimethorpe Colliery Band was a relative newcomer in the world of Brass Bands at this time – both Black Dyke Mills and Besses O’ the Barn Bands had 100 years of history between them.

But it may have been Grimethorpe’s very youth that has helped it to break with tradition, and interest some of the world’s leading composers in writing for a medium which has, up until now, been regarded as apart from the mainstream development of music.

The main inspiration behind the band’s emergence into the new music field is Elgar Howarth, a musician with unique experience of composing, conducting and brass playing.

After graduating from Manchester University, Elgar Howarth studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, working with composers Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Hoehr and Peter Maxwell-Davies. When first hearing Grimethorpe he said that there was a unique sound from virtuoso players which had not yet been used by the composers with whom he normally worked.

So with the prospect of developing the range of music to which he had always been committed, and with the band’s full agreement, he accepted the job of Professional Conductor. He said at the time, ‘the thing which interests me most about brass bands is not the traditional form of their music making but the potential offered to composers of our time by the virtuoso playing element present in a band such as Grimethorpe. I would hope to be able to stimulate a new repertoire for bands and find the atmosphere and enthusiasm at Grimethorpe stimulating and showing exactly the kind of potential necessary for an exploration of advanced 20th Century music, all combined of course with the normal musical interests of the traditional brass band’. Within a month he found himself as an ‘unknown’ in the band world, conducting the Grimethorpe to victory in the second annual Granada Television Band of the Year Contest. The first piece in the programme was his own ‘Pel Mel’, written some ten days before the contest and designed to show off every aspect of the players’ talents. It caused a sensation – an unknown composer and conductor sweeping the brass band movement and breathing new life into the competition world.

1992 a Traumatic Year

1992 was a traumatic year for the band culminating in a great victory. Alan Morrison Grimethorpe Principal Cornet at the time picks up the story.

The story starts in March 1992 on a spring Sunday afternoon. The day of the Yorkshire Regional Championships at St. Georges Hall, Bradford.

Grimethorpe Colliery Band was on the crest of a wave and at the time were the form band in Britain, having had a very successful 1991. However, the ‘Holy Grail’ was to win at London and we joined every other band in Britain in starting out with an appearance at the Area as the first step to glory. Frank Renton was to conduct the band, as he had with great aplomb and success over the previous 4 years and the test-piece was ‘Frontier’ by Michael Ball.

We arrived at the rehearsal room for a 4pm start. The draw was at 5pm and the first band on stage was scheduled for 6pm. There was already a little concern about the bands Solo Horn player, Andrew Armstrong. He was due to be picked up en route to the rehearsal but hadn’t turned up. The bus had waited, but decided he wasn’t going to appear and must have decided to go by car, and so the bus carried on to the rehearsal without him.

The rehearsal started without him, as frantic telephone calls were being made to his home, which were totally fruitless.

At about 5.15pm the draw came through to the rehearsal room – yes, you’ve guessed it – the dreaded No.1, which Ken Hirst, the band secretary, had an annoying habit of pulling on a regular basis. This meant we had to pack up immediately and get down to St. Georges Hall to be on stage for 6pm. We just hoped that Andrew would get his act together and go straight to the hall. This was not to be.

Andy was a chronic diabetic, and at lunchtime had inadvertently missed a meal. His wife had taken their young son out for the day, knowing that Andy was tied up with the contest. In mid-afternoon, Andy suffered a ‘hypo’ and was laid motionless on the kitchen floor until his frantic mother found him at around tea-time. He was rushed to Barnsley General and was later released, but was in no fit state to play an Area Contest. We realised this as we signed on, minus a solo horn player.

The contest management were very supportive, and allowed us to delay the start until 6.15pm in the hope he may turn up. They also sanctioned the use of a borrowed player, but because of the No.1 draw, it had to be from the band drawn last, Hammonds Sauce Works and in particular a young man by the name of Billy Rushworth. We were delighted to hear this, but more dismay came when we found that they were rehearsing in Shipley, and even a helicopter wouldn’t get Billy to the hall in time. We resigned ourselves to going on stage with only 2 horns.

At this point, Frank Renton swung into action. It was already 6.05 pm, we were signed on and ready to play. Frank threw the score at me and told me to write several sections of solo horn parts for 1st baritone. He was already writing out some parts for Solo Trombone, and Ray Curry, – well poor Ray looked under serious pressure. He was Grimethorpe’s 1st Horn player, and he was frantically practicing the horn solo and small cadenza which was not easy for the most rehearsed of horn players, not quite believing the predicament he had found himself in.

We trouped on stage at 6.15pm a little disconsolate. However, the band played really well, Ray Curry was absolutely amazing and played the horn solo as if he had been playing it for weeks. There were problems though, -not all of the horn parts had been covered and some trios turned into duets late on in the piece. We knew this immediately and retired to the pub to drown our sorrows and think what might have been.

About 4 hours later, someone burst through the doors and congratulated us on a marvellous 2nd prize and of course qualification for the National Finals at RAH in October later that year.

The piece for London had already been chosen. It was to be ‘A New Jerusalem’ by Philip Wilby. The piece starts with an off-stage trumpet part that was fundamental to the whole ethos of the piece. The Voice of God started the work and returned twice more, the final time very near the end. To make the effect convincing and achieve the spine-tingling character of the whole piece – The Voice of God needed to be unseen by the audience throughout.

Frank Renton made it plain that that was exactly what he wanted and suggested I stood as high in the RAH as possible – appropriately enough – in the Gods!!!!

Preparations started in earnest about 2 weeks before the date of the contest. However nothing could prepare us for the events that were about to unfold and as we entered the final week we were unknowingly just starting a story that would be covered worldwide and would throw our carefully planned schedule into utter chaos!

At Monday evening’s rehearsal, somebody happened to mention that an announcement was to be made in the House of Commons at 2.00pm the following day. It could affect the future of British Coal and might have implications for the Yorkshire Coalfield and Grimethorpe Colliery in particular. We were not concerned about Grimethorpe possibly closing because we knew that there was at least 90 years of coal left and felt sure that this would keep the pit safe for many years. How wrong we were!

At the appointed time, The President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, rose in the Commons and sounded the death knell for the British Coal Industry. In a hard hitting speech, he announced the closure of 33 pits nationwide, mentioning each colliery by name. I listened in cold shock and nearly froze with fear when the words ‘Grimethorpe Colliery’ were mentioned in the long list. It was like the reading of the ‘Killed in Battle’ list on Armistice Day each year.

Still in shock, we arrived at the bandroom for our scheduled extra rehearsal on the Tuesday evening. However, the car park was full. We couldn’t even get near the Miners Welfare Institute, where the bandroom was situated. It seemed that the whole of the world’s media had descended on Grimethorpe. They soon realised that the famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band were to take part in a major competition at the weekend and we became headline news. We were on News at Ten (after the 1st bong), BBC News, Sky News, Channel Four – they were all there. Japanese camera crews turned up, Swedish, American, Spanish, Polish, Australian – you name it, they were there. The ‘Media Village’ was set up in a primary school car park which became a mass of satellite dishes, caravans, news reporters, camera crews and everything associated with a major, breaking news story. It was totally unreal!!

Rehearsals became a total waste of time. They were forever being interrupted for interviews to meet deadlines, photo calls of individuals and collective shots were demanded and by Thursday Frank Renton was tearing what little hair he had left into shreds. He demanded to be left alone and we, after agreeing to all demands by the media, slammed the door shut on them at about 10.00pm so we could get down to the serious business of rehearsing for the National Finals.

The following day, we packed up the coach, amid several camera crews, and agreed that one, the BBC, could travel on the coach with us to London. The others hired cars, and were overtaking us on the M1 filming at the same time, nearly causing several accidents on the way.

We arrived at the hotel around 5pm, and guess what the scene in and out side reception was. Total chaos, with the world’s media now encamped on the doorstep and in the foyer. It took hours to check in. We then had to set up the rehearsal room and again found it impossible to rehearse until Frank stamped his feet, shouted some abuse at the media, and finally got down to rehearsing New Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, the playing was not at its best. Elgar Howarth was in attendance and seemed quite concerned that the players were tired and drawn after such a traumatic week. We retired to bed thinking that we were way behind in the rehearsing schedule and if anything, hoping for a miracle the next day.

As ever, we were anxious to get a late draw, the television camera crews were still taking our every move and had even agreed with the organisers to set up a camera in the hall. We drew No.17, which for Ken Hirst was a major achievement. He even mumbled something about somebody pinching his no.1 ball, although he was a relieved man when they had.

As we arrived at the hall, we were met by hundreds of people all cheering us on. It seemed like much more than just the normal contest goers. There were of course the obligatory 4 or 5 camera crews that followed us into the bowels of RAH.

Frank Renton gathered the band together for his usual pre-match pep talk. Frank always finds the right words for the right occasion and surpassed himself in motivating the boys for this one.

“Win this contest not just for you and Grimethorpe Colliery Band, he bellowed. Win this contest not just for the 1,500 miners at Grimethorpe and the village devastated by this announcement. But win this contest for the 33,000 miners nationwide who have just lost their jobs and may, just may, find a little comfort in the knowledge that their band has triumphed in the adversity that afflicts them all, and could just be a glimmer of hope for a very bleak looking future, whatever they do from then on.”

The lads were visibly moved by this very emotional rhetoric from Frank and turned on their heels determined to play the performance of there lives.

Grimethorpe entered and the audience was buzzing, the RAH was packed to the rafters and the camera crews were already doing their business. Suddenly the buzzing stopped, Frank raised his right arm directly above his head. The first note was a top G double forte and a perfect top G filled the RAH. Members of the audience later related to me that the slight delay from Frank pointing, causing several seconds of silence in the packed hall, really filled the air with tension as everybody wondered were the Voice of God was going to come from. Then suddenly the silence was broken by this huge sound and the atmosphere became totally electric.

In the opening bars as the band sat still, a photographer started crawling commando style through the cornet section to get a better picture of Frank. He was stopped in his tracks by a furious Frank Renton who glowered and pointed at him with all the force of a senior army officer. The photographer evidently froze, and slid away with his tail between his legs.

As I finished the first trumpet call, the band took over. The energy in the performance was absolutely spellbinding with each and every player reaching into the depths to give every ounce of commitment and strength into what was turning into a wonderful performance. All the set backs of rehearsing went out of the window and the band gave one of the most memorable and outstanding performances ever given at the National Finals or any other contest for that matter.

At the end of the performance the audience went into raptures. The emotion of the whole scenario took over and coupled with the excitement of the contest and the feeling of overwhelming satisfaction at the level of performance achieved, tears rolled down the faces of more than one hardened band member and Yorkshire Miner.

The band were on an uncontrollable high, and were whisked off stage onto the steps of the RAH for the worlds media to get another ounce of flesh. It was as if we had won already, but then we had to come down to earth until we found out whether or not the 3 adjudicators agreed with the whole audience.

The band supporters were ecstatic, but other bands had also played well. The reigning champions Desford Colliery had evidently played very well a few bands earlier than us. Fairey’s had also given a very worthwhile performance and these two seemed to be our main contenders. So we waited and waited for the results.

3rd – Williams Fairey 2nd -Desford Colliery and the 1992 National Champion Band of Great Britain were announced. With 99 points the band which played number ——- 17 Grimethorpe Colliery.

The balloon went up. Tears of joy flowed down the face of every single member of the band. We had done it.

Philip Wilby commented “a sure triumph of the human spirit, a sense of liberty and resurrection drawn out of sorrow and pain”

As you can probably imagine, the mother of all celebrations was underway, and if any body of people know how to celebrate, Grimethorpe Colliery Band are world leaders and the evening became a blurred but very happy memory.

The pit closed within 15 months of the announcement and is now flattened entirely, however the band remains and goes from strength to strength.

The First Tours and Television Appearances

On 29th June 1976, the band embarked on its first major tour for the Bi-Centennial celebrations to the U.S.A. arriving back on the 15th July 1976. Concerts were given in Chautauqua (on the shores of Lake Chautauqua and very near to the Great Lakes), in Albany Washington Park, in New York Trinity Church (Wall Street on Independence Day), in Harrisburg (the Hershey’ Founders’ Hall where the audience included all the Governors of the United States), in Uniontown (a coalmining town) at the Theatre in the Carnegie Institution in Pittsburgh, at Penn State University, in Hazelton High School, and in the Kennedy Plaza Philadelphia.

The highlight of the tour was when the band played in the grounds of the British Embassy in Washington when The Queen and Prince Phillip entertained President Ford and his wife.

In 1977 the band was involved in seven television ventures, an Everyman programme, a television advertisement, a Granada winning programme and four with singer song writer Peter Skellern, the pianist and vocalist which began the band’s association with the artist. In 1978, the highlights were an award winning recording which sold over 60,000 copies, and a one night show at the London Palladium. This recording entitled ‘Skellern’, was followed by a further recording entitled ‘Astaire’ which sold in excess of 100,000 copies. The band has a Silver and Gold award for the two recordings.

The band toured France from the 10th July to the 25th July 1978. Concerts were given in Annecy (near Swiss border) in Grasse (perfume town) Istres, the Place Des Arenes in Nimes, Aix En Province, Bagnols Sur Ceze, Menton (next to Monte Carlo on the South Coast) in Paris (almost under the Eiffel Tower) and then in the seaside resorts of Berck and Stella Plage in Northern France.

On the 17th May 1979, the band gave a concert performance in the Dvorana Lisinski in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. On the 28th July, the band left the UK for a tour of Italy, returning on the 9th August, 1979. The band participated in the Montepulciano Festival in Tuscany and also gave concerts in Florence, Pavia and Turin. This particular tour was the subject of a documentary film called “Arrivederci Grimethorpe” made by Granada Television and which was subsequently shown on most networks in the UK in 1980. Both of these visits were with Elgar Howarth as conductor.

In April of 1980 the band spent just over a week in Austria and gave concert performances in Vienna and Hall In Tyrol (near Innesbrook). In September 1981, the band represented the Coal Mining Industry as part of Blackpool’s celebrations with its twin-town in Germany, Bottrop. Apart from playing at concerts in and around Bottrop, the band played in a large square in the centre of Dortmund. Also, in September the band played for the third time at the 87thHenry Wood Promenade Concerts held at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Black Dyke, conducted by Elgar Howarth. The concert included the first performance of William Waltons Arrangement of The First Shoot performed by Grimethorpe.

On Saturday 27th February 1982, the band flew to Australia, returning to the UK on Wednesday 24th March. While in Australia they travelled in excess of 6,000 miles, taking off and landing a total of 22 times, a total of 10 coach journeys, and staying in 13 different hotels. The band gave a total of 22 concerts, in Perth, Pinjarra (50 miles to the South of Perth), Karratha (1,000 miles to the North of Perth), Adelaide (for the Adelaide Festival, the overall Managers of the tour), Mount Gambier, Sydney (in the main concert hall at the Sydney Opera House), Brisbane, Moranbah, Dysart, Blackwater (these last three towns being in the coalmining areas in North Queensland), Newcastle, Woolongong, Melbourne and Geelong.

A somewhat less ambitious visit to the Republic of Eire was arranged the following year where the band played to capacity audiences in Dublin and Cork. However, this will probably be long remembered by the band for the stormy crossings that were encountered on the outward and homeward journeys.

In December 1982, Grimethorpe took part in a one off competition called “Palace Champion of Champion Brass Bands” held at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. It was unique in that all the major title holders from that year competed, they were – Besses O’ th’ Barn Band (British Open Champions 1982), The Cory Band (National Champions 1982), The Desford Colliery Dowty Band (the Granada Champions 1982 and Rothmans Champions 1982) and Grimethorpe Colliery Band (Rothmans Champions 1981). It was truly a Champion of Champion competition as it brought the ‘Test Piece’ winners versus the ‘Entertainment’ winners, therefore it consisted of two parts, Round 1 – March & Test Piece and Round 2 – Entertainment Programme. The eventual winners were Desford winning £1,500 plus 4 cornets. Unfortunately this style of contest has never been repeated.

In 1982, the band started a series of recordings of Music by Carl Davies for a BBC Television Series entitled “Working Lives”, these recordings continued through 1983 with the series being completed in 1984.

A series of good contest results in 1983 led to Grimethorpe being crowned BBC Band of the Year. Also in this year the band recorded it’s second film soundtrack for a French film. 1984 was the year of the National Union of Mineworkers’ dispute against colliery closures. The band won at the British Open for the third time in its history and setting a unique record in being the only band to win two British Opens on the same piece (the other in 1967) the piece in question being John Irelands “Comedy Overture”.

1985 continued with the Mineworker’s strike still on and it was not until Tuesday the 5th March, that the band led the parade of the Grimethorpe Miners back to work. This was the end of a traumatic twelve month period in the band’s history. The strike had cost the band a considerable amount of money and it had been somewhat of a miracle that the players had remained together throughout that period.

Ken Hirst, the long standing secretary of the band, was awarded a Compaq Portable Computer (together with the Lotus Software Package “Symphony” and a Dot Matrix Printer) in the first week of January. This followed a competition on the BBC2 Television Programme MICROLIVE and a film of the band playing the slow movement from the Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst which was included in the programme.

1985 was the year that Grimethorpe blew entertainment contests apart. Bands were being more gimmicky in the things that were done at these events that (although of his dislike of contests) Elgar Howarth was asked for his ideas for an entertainment contest. He decided that something was needed that was the ultimate and would take entertainment contests back to basics. His idea was a full programme without a conductor, but not just a sit down performance but fully choreographed with interludes composed by Mr Howarth himself. Weeks were spent not playing but performing the choreography to perfection. Needless to say the band won. The win was greeted with the headline in the British Bandsman “Grimethorpe Gambles its way to Victory. The gamble did not pay off in one way, for the entertainment Judge did not give the band top marks and the win was entirely due to the high marks awarded by the two Music Judges. The programme was variously described by some as foolhardy, outlandish, a homogeneous extravaganza and even a bodyline blow. Nevertheless the programme brought the house down and surely this is what the Entertainment Contest is all about.

In June 1985, half a dozen players appeared in the film All Creatures Great and Small, the actual recording being done in the North Yorkshire Village of Askrigg. October saw the band record excerpts for a Russell Harty profile on the Michael Parkinson programme.

In 1986 Grimethorpe (with Sunlife) were the first band to perform at the Kenwood Bowl, Conducted by Geoffrey Brand, finishing with the 1812 Overture, complete with Fireworks.

During 1987, the band took part in the opening celebration of the 750 years anniversary of Berlin, held in the international Conference Centre of West Berlin. They also gave concert performances in the St. Magnus Festival held on the Orkney island of Kirkwall.

Grimethorpe made its first compact disc in 1989, recorded for EMI music at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios. The same year the band played in front of Prince Philip during his visit to the Selby Coalfield.

Mr Howarth

In 1974, Elgar Howarth brought Grimethorpe to the Harrogate Festival for an even more notable event – the premiere of the band’s first commissioned work. Brass band history was made when Harrison Birtwistle conducted his own ‘Grimethorpe Aria’. Although some of the audience on that occasion were obviously startled by the unfamiliar sounds they were hearing, the success of the work marked the beginning of a partnership between two sections of music that had before been considered totally separate.

In the same year ‘Elgar Howarth’ style concerts were given at Warwick and Lancaster Universities, the Halle Proms in Manchester, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Wythenshawe Forum Music Society. A programme of modern music was also performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. The highlight of the year was undoubtedly the band’s appearance at one of Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall playing to a capacity audience of 6000 – the first time a brass band has played at these concerts. Another ‘first’ as far as brass bands are concerned was an appearance at the 1974 Leeds Music Festival, as well as there debut in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in June 1974. In 1975 performances were repeated at the Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts (including the first performance of a new piece for brass band – ‘Ragtimes and Habaneras’ by Hans Werner Henze) and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. 1976 has seen modern type concerts at St Andrews and Stirling Universities in Scotland, both conducted by Elgar Howarth. Earlier in 1976 the band made history for itself by playing the soundtrack for a Walt Disney Film entitled ‘Escape from the Dark’ which had its premier in May. The music was composed and conducted by Ron Goodwin. It was released worldwide under the title of “The Littlest Horse Thieves”.

In 1976, the band qualified for the National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall and the National Mineworkers’ Finals at Blackpool. In May, the band became Granada Television Band of the Year for the third time. The conductor on that occasion was Bryden Thompson from Scotland. This particular competition had been very much a ‘Grimethorpe affair’ – winning six times, second four times, third twice and being unplaced twice in a total of 14 contests until the last contest in 1987.

Despite the stubborn refusal of some brass band ‘diehards’ to accept Elgar Howarth and the avant garde music, one cannot escape the fact that it has been those two major contributions which have toppled the prejudices of those who still equate brass bands with Miners’ Galas and renderings of ‘Abide with Me’
In 1976 arguably the most important Brass Band recording of it’s time was released entitled “Grimethorpe Special” and conducted by Elgar Howarth. The recording consists of “Fireworks” by Elgar Howarth, narrated by Lady Valarie Solti, Elgar Howarths arrangement of Takemitsu’s “Garden Rain”, Harrison Birtwistles “Grimethorpe Aria” and Hans Werner Henze’s “Ragtimes and Habaneras”.

1976 was the year after “Fireworks” had been unleashed on the unsuspecting banding fraternity at the British Open where Wingates under the baton of Richard Evans took the title playing of number 23.

Grimethorpe incidentally did not take part as Elgar Howarth was in the box with William Relton and Roy Newsome, but such was the furore that many conductors thought it “undesirable” and the following years saw the Open revert to ‘Epic Symphony’, ‘Diadem of Gold’ and ‘Benvenuto Cellini’.

Around the mid 70’s Elgar Howarth was perhaps at his most radical in the way in which he brought to the brass band a new and almost revolutionary change in musical perspective. The conservative elements that even today hold back the movement were even stronger then and pieces such as “Grimethorpe Aria” were considered so way out that they had no place in the movements development. It was perhaps the movement’s greatest mistake.

‘Fireworks’ remains a delight of musical wit and invention. The idea may be borrowed but writing is still fresh and insightful and at times wickedly pointed as it highlights both the brass bands potential and its limitations. It is easy to see why so many brass dinosaurs saw it as such a threat to the cosy limits they were used to as it reveals touches of those composers who Howarth admired (and they possibly never heard of) most and there are elements of Birtwistle, Henze and even Vinter throughout.

‘Garden Rain’ by the Japanese composer Takemitsu was originally written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble in 1974 but Howarth was allowed to re-score it for the full band. It is a reflective piece, both elegant and poetic (and very slow) which explores the softness of texture and colour that up until then had not been fully explored by brass band composers.

‘Grimethorpe Aria’ (1973) however is a totally different kettle of fish and remains one of the most important brass compositions of the post-war period. Howarth is, of course, a champion of Birtwistle’s music and one of the leading orchestral conductors of his works and the listener is rewarded with a performance that should have led Birtwistle becoming as well known a brass band composer as say, Robert Simpson, who’s works started to appear at around the same time.

As Howarth himself remarks in the superb sleeve notes, “It has not yet endeared itself to band audiences reared on more ear tickling fare” (How true – even 25 years later). He believed it would become a masterpiece of the repertoire, and he has been proven right.

The last work is the eclectic and almost exotically eccentric “Ragtimes and Habaneras” by Hans Werner Henze, which has fortunately remained a popular and accessible work, even though it estranges the traditional approach to brass band scoring and instrumental style. Henze knew little of the brass band (except for a list of the instruments and two recordings given to him) and so gave the banding world a brilliant entertainment of 11 miniature pieces of glittering brilliance based on a “Cuban” style of dance rhythms and musical references to Kurt Weil, Romberg and even Mahler. Even today it is as fresh as the proverbial daisy.

As Howarth points out, these composers have tackled the problem (of brass band repertoire) “…enlivening and revitalising a repertoire which had become inbred and stale”. Just remember he wrote this in 1976 – even today his words are almost prophetic.

The above excerpts are taken from a review of the record and reprinted by kind permission given by www.4barsrest.com

Changes after the War & George Thompson

A Lancashire man named Harry Mileman took over the band in 1947 following a short spell by George Hespe (well known for his brass band piece ‘The Three Musketeers’).

Harry Mileman left the band at the start of its decline in 1951 but with the help of Bill Foster and Joe Armstrong, it continued to function as best it could until a new Resident Conductor was appointed in 1952.

He was Andrew Owenson (well known for his arrangements for brass band) but although several players were recruited during his reign as conductor the progress of the band was not altogether satisfactory.

Andrew resigned early in 1955 and Harry Mileman, who had remained in employment at the colliery, took over as ‘Caretaker’ Conductor until he left to take over a similar position with a band in New Zealand.

Andrew Owenson again took over as Resident Musical Director but he did not reign long and resigned his position for the second time just prior to the Summer Season of 1957. The band was again helped out of its difficulties by Bill Foster (by now in his Seventies) until George Thompson was persuaded to take up his old position with the band. He had been conducting a band in Cornwall but he welcomed the opportunity of returning to Yorkshire. Towards the end of the 1950’s things began to improve, mainly as a result of this appointment in 1958. Known as a fine band trainer, Thompson set new standards of musical discipline, re-established the youth band ‘nursery’, and proved to be a source of inspiration to his players throughout his long period with them. Under his leadership, the band’s record at the ‘Open’ Championship of Great Britain was First in 1967 and 1969, Second in 1963, Third in 1960, 1961, 1968 and 1971.

In the competition field, the band took part in a total of 42 contests between 1932 and 1945. The results were – 19 firsts, 11 seconds, 4 thirds, 6 fourths and 2 fifths. Quite an achievement in any class. Shortly after George Thompson’s return, he was responsible (in 1960) for the formation of the Grimethorpe Colliery Junior Band.

When the Junior Band was reformed in 1960 it was felt that the band would be extremely fortunate if it found one player in every five years who was good enough to hold down a position in the Senior Band. In its first 16 years, there have been eight players who have seen service with the Seniors.

Since the band’s inception until 1976, the band has not been too successful in winning the major competitions although they can boast of some little reward in this sphere at the latter end of this period – ‘Open’ Championships in 1967 and 1969; ‘National’ Champions in 1970; Mineworkers’ National Champions in 1967 to 1969 and 1973 to 1976; Granada Television Band of the Year in 1972, 1973 and 1976. This seeming lack of success could possibly be put down to the wretched bad luck when drawing for playing positions. A spot analysis of 36 competitions at the time shows that the band has played earlier than number eight on 26 occasions.

The First Contest and Early Years

The band entered its first contest in July 1918 at Belle Vue, Manchester and under their professional conductor, J. A. Greenwood, obtained third prize playing ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by Hermann Goetz. Six conductors came to Grimethorpe between 1917 and 1931 and in 1931 William Foster took over. He was a hard uncompromising man whose solid grit brought the best out of the bandsmen. The first contest under his leadership was on 12th March 1932. The band was unplaced on this occasion but on the 28th March and on the 16th April the band won first prizes under ‘Bill’ Foster.

The ‘first’ on the 16th April 1932 started a run of successes for the band, and it is notable to recall that the band made its first broadcast in late April of that year. Broadcasting continued at varying intervals, until 1941 when the band broadcast on no fewer than eleven occasions. This yearly average was maintained until at least as late as 1950 and 1951. For the record, the fiftieth broadcast was made on the 4th March 1942; the hundredth on the 11th April 1946; and on the 26th January 1951 the band completed its one hundred and forty-second broadcast.

In 1951, however, the band ceased to broadcast and the one hundred and forty-third transmission did not go out until the 19th October 1959. It was in 1951 that the standard of the band fell a little and for some years it remained in the doldrums. A colliery not far away decided to form a new band, they were offering higher wages and better jobs than at Grimethorpe, so quite a few players left to join this new colliery band, which was called Wooley. During the war years, Bill Foster made way for a younger man and George Thompson took over as Resident Musical Director until he left to take over his old band in the South in 1946. Under his leadership, the band went from strength to strength, the high spot being the runners-up position at the Belle Vue ‘Open’ Championship of Great Britain in 1945.

During George Thompson’s first spell with the band, he was responsible, along with his brother Jim and a local Headmaster (Stewardson), for the formation of the Grimethorpe Schoolboys’ Band. Although the members of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band gave help in the way of tuition, the Schoolboys’ Band was not connected to the senior outfit. In 1976 there were still four members doing service with the Seniors who played with the original Junior Band. They were Fred Partlett, Alec Garbett, Bob Davidson and Gordon Silver.

Forming The Band

In 1917 several bandsmen working at Grimethorpe who belonged to a band at Cudworth, (the next village) which had disbanded, approached the Colliery Institute Committee with a view to starting a band at Grimethorpe. A meeting was held and the suggestion was favourably received. After lengthy discussions, a decision was made to go ahead and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band came into being in 1917. This was accomplished, chiefly with raw local lads plus men from the disbanded band at Cudworth, and a fund was started by the Carlton Main Colliery Company Limited, a sister company, the Colliery Institute Committee and supplemented by voluntary subscriptions from Colliery Officials and Workmen. The original name was the Grimethorpe Colliery Institute Band and for some years it was called the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

The Colliery Institute Committee purchased instruments and uniforms and generally financed the band until 1947 when sponsorship was taken over by the National Coal Board and its Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation. Some years later, the workmen at the colliery agreed to pay a levy towards the upkeep of the band and it continued throughout the years.

In The Beginning

Deep in the heart of South Yorkshire’s coal mining belt lies Grimethorpe, as unromantic as Black Pudding, yet and ironically it was an appropriate name for one of Yorkshire’s largest collieries.

Originally a small Hamlet – Grimms Farm – it became noteworthy at the turn of the century with the discovery of Coal and the establishment of an important colliery. And yet, Grimethorpe’s claim to fame stemmed not solely from the colliery itself, but from the brass band that bears the same name.

From the dreariest of landscapes, the glint and gleam of an inimitable brass sound lit up the lives of men who worked in darkness. Emerging from the pit, they made for the bandroom where, with a discipline natural to an industry where self-control means life or death, they practised and rehearsed to the impeccable standards which have won them recognition as masters of their art.

To many of us, the mention of a brass band evokes memories of the park and the promenade, of strains of Sousa and Sullivan. Some are often associated with good beer but in the excellence of their maturity, they may more readily be likened to fine Claret. Grimethorpe Colliery Band is one that has reached an enviable maturity.

Composers' messages received by Grimethorpe Colliery Band - winter 1992

Although the majority of the band would be out of work in the not too distant future, all the players vowed to carry on playing with Grimethorpe. For a while the band were left with only a token financial support and their future looked uncertain. However, a board of trustees was formed to managAlthough the majority of the band would be out of work in the not too distant future, all the players vowed to carry on playing with Grimethorpe. For a while the band were left with only a token financial support and their future looked uncertain. However, a board of trustees was formed to manage the finances and steer Grimethorpe through a very difficult period. Grimethorpe Colliery closed in 1993 and financial sponsorship from British Coal ended in 1994. Then in 1995, RJB Mining Plc and their Chief Executive Richard Budge became the band's saviours with a sponsorship deal for an initial three year period.

“We are living in terrible times: times of cultural impoverishment when traditions die, and are replaced with nothing but void. I hope the wonderful Grimethorpe Band can be saved. I pray for that.”

Hans Werner Henze

“My first visit to Grimethorpe…made an unforgettable impression on me. It was the first time I heard my music played at such a high standard.”

George Benjamin

“…it would be a musical and social tragedy for the colliery to be closed and the band disbanded.”

John McCabe

“You have my absolute support for this outstanding band.”

Gyorgy Ligeti

“The brass bands of this country are unique, and the Grimethorpe Band is unique amongst them.”

Sir Harrison Birtwistle

“They are one of the finest bands in the country and have done a great service to British composers.”

Sir Malcolm Arnold

“Grimethorpe Colliery Band, as the finest jewel in the world of brass bands, and a unique cultural asset, cannot be allowed to die.”

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

“Grimethorpe’s extra-ordinary ensemble…to lose them now would do irreparable harm to this country’s musical heritage.”

Sir Michael Tippett O.M.


The bands touring exploits have exploded in the past couple of years Visiting Japan and Australia in February/March 1999 playing to over 60,000 people and travelling over 60,000 miles.

This was the first tour for the band organised by International Concert Attractions Pty Ltd and the schedule was gruelling. The tour started spending 5 days in Japan and performing on 14/02 with two concerts in the Orchard Hall – Tokyo, followed on 15/02 at Kouseinenkin Kalkin – Tokyo, 16/02 Hagoyashi Koukaido Nagoya, 17/02 Festival Hall – Osaka and 18/02 Meil Parque Hall – Kukupka.

The next leg of the tour took the band to Australia starting on 21/02 at the Festival of Perth – Perth Concert Hall, 22/02 Thebarton Theatre – Adelaide, 23/02 Civic Theatre – Newcastle, 24/02 Sydney Town Hall, 25/02 City Hall – Brisbane, then a very well earned day off. After the day relaxing the band were straight back into it with two concerts on the 27/02, in the morning at Robert Blackwood Hall – Monach University, then completely stripping down and re-setting for an evening concert at Dallas Brooks Hall – Melbourne. 28/02 at Spray Farm Summer Festival – Bellarine Peninsula. The band performed at the end of a 3 month festival held at Spray Farm.

The previous evening the Australia Symphony Orchestra were performing to an audience of 2,500, but the band were to play to an audience of 5,500 and a complete sell out. The tour continued on 01/03 at Llewellyn Hall – ANU Canberra, 02/03 & 03/03 at the magnificent Lyric Theatre – Star City, where we were on the same advertisement hoardings as Julio Iglesias and Englebert Humperdink. Finishing the tour on 04/03 at the Entertainment Centre – Perth returning back to Manchester Airport to a good few inches of snow.

In carrying out this tour, the band missed the area qualifying competition for the Nationals held in Bradford, while the band were on the Gold Coast of Australia. The best comment to come out of this situation was from a woman from another championship section band saying “Aren’t you worried about your Brass Band World Ranking Points?”!!!!!

The band returned to Japan in May/June 2000, carrying out 7 concerts in a 10 day period playing to capacity audiences.

On arriving in Japan the band were welcomed to an official reception provided by the Japanese Brass Band Association where there were representatives from 11 bands from around the Tokyo area. After a day off on the Sunday to get over the jet lag, it was down to work.

The first two concerts on 29 & 30/05 were in Orchard Hall, which is part of the Bunkamura complex and conveniently situated next to the hotel. On 31/05 it was a trip by the Bullet Train to perform at the Festival Hall in Osaka, Japans second city. 01/06 a train trip to Nagoya, 02/06 a flight to Niigata. The band travelled by coach on 03/06 to Sendai, where it was found that the world famous Eastman Wind Ensemble were performing on the same day and staying in the same hotel as the band. Luckily, this did not affect audience numbers with Grimethorpe getting twice the number of people they did. On 04/06 it was the bands final concert of this tour at the newly rebuilt Kobe, after the earthquake of 1995, playing to a capacity 2300 audience in the new Kobe International Hall.

The band carried out a second overseas tour as part of the 14th Niedersachsische Music Festival based in the Lower Saxony area around Hannover. The purpose of the festival was to bring internationally renowned musicians to the rural areas of Lower Saxony. The first concert was on 22nd September in Emeden then the following day in Bassinghausen and finally on the 24th at Rinteln. The band were told by the organisers that they don’t invite back any groups that have appeared in the festival, but due to the popularity of the band, they have been invited back. A first in the 14 year history of the Festival.

Due to the massive success of the Australia/Japan tour in 1999, International Concert Attractions booked the band again for a further tour of Australia in 2001 but this time including concerts on the North and South Island on New Zealand and a one off date in Hong Kong on the way home.

Because of the success 2 years ago, with the popularity of the band with audiences, this tour was more relaxed with the first week being spent in the Kings Cross area of Sydney. The tour didn’t start on a good footing with all the luggage being lost on the flight over, arriving a day late, with the bands music arriving on the morning of the first concert. Apparently it had made a small detour to America. The tour started on the 25/01 at Wollongong Entertainment Centre, then 26/03 Civic Theatre – Newcastle then the main concert of the tour on 27/01 at the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. This concert was a complete sell out including 200 people standing for the whole performance and we were informed that the concert could have been sold out another 2 times. Then the final concert in Australia on the 27/01 at The Hills Centre – Castle Hill before travelling onto New Zealand.

The first Concert in New Zealand on 30/01 was at Civic Theatre – Aotea Centre – Auckland, 31/01 Christchurch Town Hall, 01/02 Dunedin Town Hall, 3&4/02 Michael Fowler Centre – Wellington, 05/02 Regent Theatre – Palmerston North, 06/02 Municipal Theatre – Napier returning back to Auckland on the 07 & 08/02 for the final two concerts on this leg at the ASB Theatre – Aotea Centre. After being woken at 2:30 AM it was an overnight flight for the final concert of the tour on 10/02 at the Concert Hall – Hong Kong Cultural Centre. As soon as the concert finished it was straight onto a bus to the airport then to the flight home.

Brassed Off & Memorials

Greater world fame came to the band in 1995 with the filming of Brassed Off! When government policy lead to the painful process of pit closures in the late eighties and early nineties writer/director Mark Herman decided that he wanted to make a movie about the way in which the closures affected the communities and people. The true story of Grimethorpe and its famous band gave him his vehicle and Brassed Off was the result.

The film is set in the fictional mining town of Grimley where the local pit is rumoured to be under threat of closure. While the women maintain a picket line outside the colliery gates the men wrestle with their conscience over whether to keep the mine open or accept management’s generous redundancy offer.

The film follows the lives of the local Grimley Colliery Brass Band as they attempt to reach, and then win, the National Brass Band Championship. Led by ex miner and musical director Danny (Pete Postlethwaite) and inspired by newcomer Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) the band battle through adversity to reflect the real history of Grimethorpe and become Champion of Great Britain.

The film also stars Ewan MacGregor who falls for the beautiful Gloria, and Stephen Tompkinson as Danny’s son Phil whose life is slowly being destroyed by the uncertainty surrounding him. A strong acting cast is, of course, augmented by the Grimethorpe Colliery RJB Band who supplied the bulk of the fictional Grimley Band as well as playing all the music. Said Mark Herman “It was interesting to blend four or five actors with a real band to the extent that people can’t see the join, which means that the band had to be as good at acting as the actors were as musicians.

Brassed Off was a phenomenal success at the box office worldwide and the soundtrack was nominated for a BAFTA Award. The soundtrack CD won a gold disc for sales of over 100,000 in the UK and a gold disc for sales of over 30,000 in Australia. In a recent survey of all-time favourite films in the UK Brassed Off came 11th, beating Titanic and all the James Bond films.

In 1996 Grimethorpe became Yorkshire Champions once again as well as the top English band at the National Finals, thereby qualifying for the 1997 European Championships at London’s Barbican where the band gained 3rd place.

The band played at the World Premiere of Brassed Off at the Odean Cinema Leeds as part of the Leeds International Film festival. They were invited to play at the 50th BAFTAS at a star-studded event at the Royal Albert Hall. Virgin Radios Chris Evans also invited the band to perform on the Christmas show of TFI Friday for Channel 4 television.

In 1997 Grimethorpe became the first band to perform in the European Parliament Building in Strasburg, also travelling to Norway to appear in the Norwegian Film Festival at Haguesung to premier the showing of the film Brassed Off. The following year they appeared to an estimated television audience of 100 million people when they were part of the interval entertainment at the Eurovision Song Contest at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham accompanying violin virtuoso Vanessa Mae and opera singer Lesley Garrett. The band appeared at, and in the World premier of the stage version of Brassed Off at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, and also became Brass Band in Residence at London’s Royal College of Music.

The band undertook an unusual invitation to play at the World Cup Carnival at Saint Denis near Paris and returned to Paris again in July to perform at the Cite De La Musique conducted by Peter Bassino the Head of Brass at the Royal College of Music in London. September saw the band fly to Switzerland to undertake a three-concert tour and immediately returned to London to record the first of two television shows with Leslie Garrett. The band appeared in the second Series of Leslie Garrett Tonight which was shown in June 2000. In December the band appeared on the television show ‘Goin Home with Lesley Garrett’ on the new Sky “Artsworld” Channel. Lesley also features on the band’s compact disc – Classic Brass – which reached number three in the Classic FM chart. In September 2000 the band took part in the Quincentenary Concert for The Worshipful Company of Musicians, conducted by Elgar Howarth held at the Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Over the years, the band has performed at many memorial services for distinguished personalities in the country.

On The 9th July 1986, the band performed at a Memorial Service of Frank Cousins (1904 – 1986) held at St Martin-in-the-fields, with readings by Rt. Hon Neil Kinnock (Politician), Bill Owen (Actor), Norman Willis (General Secretary of the Trades Union Council) and Ron Todd (General Secretary of TGWU).

A Service of Thanksgiving for the life and works of the comedian Harry Worth (1918 – 1989) was held at All Souls, Langham Place, with readings by Erik Vick (Lords Taverner), Bill Cotton CBE, Vince Powell (Co-writer of ‘Here’s Harry’), John Ammonds CBE (Producer of ‘Here’s Harry’) and finally Sir Harry Secombe CBE.

On 14th July 1994, the band played at the Memorial Service for the Right Honerable John Smith (1938 – 1994) QC, MP and leader of the Labour party until his death, held at Westminster Abbey. As well as family and friends, the service was attended by all the leading members of Parliament from the major political parties of the day and the Prime Minister.

The band returned again to Westminster Abbey on 7th October 1999 to play at a Service of thanksgiving for the life and work of the Right Honourable The Lord Robens of Woldingham, PC (1910 – 1999). A remarkable man who was MP for Wansbeck (now Blyth) in 1945, a Labour Minister for many years, Chairman of the National Coal Board in the 60’s where he reshaped the industry into a modern industrial power source for the 60’s and 70’s, was on the Board of Governors of the Bank of England for 21 years, Chancellor of the University of Surrey establishing a leading Science & Technology Park, took the chairmanship of many international companies and was chairman of the committee on the Health & Safety of People in the Work Place which grew into the unique Health & Safety at Work Act and Executive.

Post Closure

Through all the media coverage, the band were booked for three concerts from the 23rd to the 25th November 1992. There’s nothing unusual in that, but this was to be as one of the support groups for the international pop group The Beautiful South in Birmingham NEC, Wembley Arena and the Sheffield Arena playing to 14,000 at each venue, with some of the members actually backing the Beautiful South in a few of their songs.

A national news paper the “News of the World” took an interest in the bands predicament and got involved by releasing a single called “The Miners Prayer” which included, Ruby Tuesday, Organ Symphony, Ravenswood and Paganini Variations. Another single was also released with the pop group “The Woodthieves” with the band backing on a track called “The Day the North Left Town”.

The following year the band got booked for 70 concerts and this took some reducing, even now the band are doing 50-60 concerts / competitions a year and has a full concert list a year in advanced.

In 1993/1994 Frank Renton hit on an idea for a new radio show, so in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, shows were recorded entitled “Stars in Brass”. The format was six half hour shows recorded at BBC Studio 7 in Manchester and Studio 1 Pebble Mill in Birmingham with each show having a different star from the Brass Band, Big Band and Jazz World.

As Frank explained, “…the whole point of the series is to bring together great musicians who have made their reputations in other areas of music, and see them, with a Brass Band creating different sounds and styles”.

The stars in the series were, Nicholas and Robert Childs, Maurice Murphy, Don Lusher, Guy Barker, Gordon Campbell and the brilliant Derek Watkins, screeching in the gods on “We’ve only Just Begun”. Needless to say that excerpts from the series were used to make a CD entitled “Stars in Brass”.

In 1995, Major Peter Parkes became Professional Musical Director and Garry Cutt became Resident Musical Director in a three year partnership deal. Also in this year the band moved into new premises in the Acorn Centre in the village of Grimethorpe. These premises, offered by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, are part of a regeneration project funded by European grants in response to industry closure, and are located in the refurbished Coal Board Area Headquarters buildings. The Major left the band in 1999 where Garry Cutt took over the mantle of Professional Conductor.