Grimethorpe Colliery Band left brassed off by music festival snub

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The Independent Online

When it opened its doors in 1904, St Luke the Evangelist in Grimethorpe declared itself as "a church built by miners for the miners". An appearance by the South Yorkshire village's renowned colliery band at the church's annual music festival would then have been an obvious way to celebrate a shared heritage.

But no such invitation has been received by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band to perform at the crumbling church, which lies within sight of the now defunct coal mine whose closure in 1993 led to the village being named one of the poorest in Europe. To make matters worse, a rival band with a long history of competing with the Grimethorpe ensemble for music prizes has been recruited instead.

Such is the level of discord in Grimethorpe at the top billing of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Brass Band for Friday's centrepiece concert that managers of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band were forced to insist they were not showing "non-allegiance" to their home community. It was the triumph of the Grimethorpe band and its mining musicians in a national competition days after the announcement of the colliery's closure that inspired the 1996 Bafta-winning film, Brassed Off.

Since the worldwide fame that followed the success of the film, which told the story of a colliery band as they struggled to find a living during the demise of the coal industry, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band has led a renaissance in Britain's brass-band culture. There are around 600 brass bands with nearly 20,000 players around the country, leading to intense competition to gain a place among the nation's best ensembles.

But efforts to raise £1.5m to renovate Grimethorpe's red-brick church, which had become so dilapidated that it was marked for demolition in 2001, threatened to dampen the colliery band's celebrations after they retained their title at the English National Brass Band Championships this weekend. Organisers admitted yesterday there had been "much muttering" in the village about the Grimethorpe band's absence from the festival and the arrival of their Carlton rivals. The Rev Peter Needham, who has led the fundraising campaign to save the church and convert it into a village hall since his arrival six years ago, said the Carlton band were a cheaper alternative to their "professional" colleagues in Grimethorpe.

"Obviously we were very disappointed that the Grimethorpe band couldn't come and play. One of the former members of the band asked me how I dared to invite the Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band to Grimethorpe and told me that nobody in the village would come and hear them.

"But when I asked my congregation they told me they would be interested in hearing the band and encouraged me to go on with the idea, he said."

After raising more than £350,000 for essential repairs with events including a barefoot walk from Grimethorpe to York, hopes had been high that the future of the church was about to be secured. But a failure to secure a lottery grant put the programme in doubt and the music festival was designed to revive the campaign's fortunes.

Managers of Grimethorpe Colliery Band, which was founded in 1917 as a leisure activity for colliery workers and will now represent England in the brass band European championships in Belgium next year, said they had been unaware of the festival and could not play this week because they have been booked to perform in Essex.

Terry Webster, the band's manager, said: "To the best of my knowledge we have had no invitation. The leader of the Frickley band contacted me last week after they were booked to ask me why we weren't playing. He thought it was strange.

"We played at the opening of the medical centre a few weeks ago and we are happy to support the village. But when you don't get asked you take other bookings, and as a result we are playing in Southend this weekend."

The wrangle comes as leaders of brass bands are calling for increased recognition from arts funding bodies for their home-grown brand of musical excellence. While the Arts Council has given £155m to opera and £70m to ballet in the past five years, the equivalent figure for brass bands is £140,000.

Many brass bands have diversified their sources of income, securing recording contracts and corporate sponsorship as well as opening the doors of this once men-only domain to female members. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band is sponsored by Powerfuel, a Yorkshire coal-fired power station owner, and last year became the first ensemble-in-residence at the Royal College of Music in London.