How we made Brassed Off

‘I spent months learning the flugelhorn – and I didn’t even have to play it’

Stephen Tompkinson, actor

Pete Postlethwaite, who was playing my father, took me down to Grimethorpe a week before filming to talk to locals and let them know this was their story. The miners were reticent at first. Not long before, a TV crew had stitched up the town, getting kids to throw stones at derelict buildings and making it seem as if it was a regular occurrence, as if Grimethorpe had become a wild west town.

But Pete, with that extraordinary face, could make people see him as one of their own. We were allowed into the miners’ club, and I remember one old boy looking at us and saying: “Now, Pete’s playin’ band leader? And tha’s playin’ his son?” I nodded. So he looked at Pete, and he looked at me, then he looked at Pete again, then he turned and said to me: “I bet tha’s glad tha’ takes after thee mother.” That’s when we knew we’d been accepted.

‘How can God take John Lennon and yet Thatcher lives?’ … Stephen Tompkinson, left, and Pete Postlethwaite.
‘How can God take John Lennon and yet Thatcher lives?’ … Stephen Tompkinson, left, and Pete Postlethwaite. Photograph: Allstar/Channel 4

The line I get most stopped about is when, playing the children’s entertainer Mr Chuckles, I break down and shout about how can God take John Lennon and three young lads down a pit and yet “Margaret bloody Thatcher lives?” The director, Mark Herman, shot the scene sensitively because I wasn’t comfortable saying it in a church in front of six-year-olds. He went round the room getting shots of the kids before we started doing anything, then edited it to look as if they were reacting to me.

Mark always said the one slice of colour was going to be this ridiculous looking clown – the big clown’s feet were comic relief so people knew it wasn’t too tragic. I was able to add little touches, like the way my character goes back to shut the garden gate of his house even though the rest of the fence has collapsed, and his wife is chucking crockery at him.

The colliery band we used still perform today. They’ve made albums and played at the White House. In the Halifax Piece Hall scene, where the band plays the Florentina March, my parents appear as extras. My dad loved the music so much we had it played at his funeral.

Tara Fitzgerald, actor

When I got the part, I drove my neighbours mad because the first thing I did was hire a flugelhorn. I was playing the only female performer in the band and practised endlessly in the two months before shooting. Luckily, the neighbour who lived on the side of the house I practised on was quite deaf.

I remember the first time we rehearsed with the Grimethorpe band in the Abbey Road studios, where the soundtrack was being recorded. When they started to play, I got goosebumps sitting among all that power. There’s a yearning, pining quality to brass band music although, of course, it’s not me actually playing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But I was very fastidious about getting my fingers right. It’s such a pivotal moment in the story.

Watch the trailer for Brassed Off on YouTube

I didn’t know any of the other actors, since most of them were from the north and I was from Sussex. But Ewan McGregor and I became like muckers. After being away from London for weeks, it was funny coming back to shoot the Albert Hall scenes – playing someone from Yorkshire behaving as if coming down to London was a rare thing. The final scene, on an open-top bus, was filmed at three in the morning. We drove round and round Parliament Square trying to get the shots and being thwarted by technical glitches and hiccups.

It’s a beautifully crafted story with a genuine message, but I never expected people to still be stopping me today, telling me it’s their favourite film.

• Brassed Off Live is at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 9 May, featuring a pre-show talk with the cast and music from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.


Interviews by Jack Watkins

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