Saturday 23 May 1998
"I'm sure 'The Floral Dance' is a grim memory for everyone," confirms the comedian Arthur Smith. "It's that image of Terry Wogan Morris- dancing to it that's so terrible. Brass band music does have an extremely unfashionable image. You associate it with Edwardian afternoons in front of bandstands. Or it seems like something that happens to someone else on Sundays in another part of the country."
Now, though, all that is changing. The film Brassed Off, premiering tomorrow night on Channel 4, made it legitimate to come out and declare your enthusiasm for all things brass. According to Smith, "that film is so good, it makes brass banding seem dramatic. Previously the only portrayals of bands had been Wogan camping it up on Top of the Pops."
That reborn cred will only be enhanced by a charming documentary Smith has made to precede the premiere. In Up the Brass with Arthur Smith, the comic eavesdrops as the Vaux Samson Band from Silksworth, south of Sunderland, prepares for the North of England Brass Band Championships.
The band's dedication is something to behold. Bob, the band's conductor who is a driving instructor by day, admits that: "it's more than a hobby. It's an obsession, a mission."
"Does anyone ever have to go to bandaholics anonymous to try and wean themselves off being obsessed by banding?" Smith wonders, rather surreally.
"No," Bob replies, "the problem is people like me are so sad we don't realise we're bloody obsessed by it, so we don't think there's a problem." Before they perform in the contest, he gives the band a football-manager- style pep-talk. Shaking a clenched fist, he exhorts: "let's go stick it up them."
Robbie, the principal cornet and a decorator for the council, reveals that if they won the competition, "I'd develop wings and fly. You'll have to peel me off the ceiling if we come first or second." In the wee small hours of the big day, he has a nerve-induced dash to the loo. He reckons that you "eat, sleep and drink 'band'. People cry, people get upset. You get everything. It's just one big family."
Which can cause problems for those outside it. Bob later concedes that when he got divorced the band was perhaps "an issue." Julie, the tenor horn, is less equivocal: "You don't marry outside the movement. Few marriages survive it. You can spend 10 nights on the trot rehearsing for the contest and the next two celebrating or drowning your sorrows."
Smith gets the best out of these band-members by using his greatest skill - putting people at their ease. "Someone once said I had 'a talent to engage'. I'm loath to blow my own trumpet - even though obviously that's what I'm doing in this documentary - but it's not something I work at. It's about taking an interest in people and relaxing them. I'm good at listening to people and entering their world - especially if I'm paid for it!"
Smith, who in a busy week has also penned BBC1's film on Monday about Euro 96, My Summer with Des, starring Neil Morrissey and Des Lynam, owns up to the fact that he knew "sweet euphonium" about banding before he went up to the north east. "I didn't like the noise," he confesses. "Now I'm a convert. The music is a great sound. It's the sheer size of it, it's so big and full. It has a honey-coloured loudness.
"Also for a slacker like myself, anyone with that sort of passionate commitment is quite impressive. For some of them, it becomes all-consuming. Certain areas have a strong tradition of it - many musicians' parents have been in brass bands. But it has a creative side, too. They're not all improvising jazz solos like John Coltrane, but it is still a creative endeavour, and it's rather more interesting than flower- arranging."
Smith reflects that it was an enlightening time he spent with the Vaux Samson Band. "I haven't begun subscribing to Band and Bandsmen magazine, but I have been present at debates about whether a woman's physiology is better suited to some instruments. I've also become obsessed with the notion of embouchure," he laughs.
To prove the extent of his conversion, Smith concludes that: "now I'm going to a monastery for three years to dedicate myself to learning the euphonium."
'Up the Brass with Arthur Smith' is on tomorrow at 8.30pm Channel 4. 'Brassed Off' follows at 9pm
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