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An Analysis of the Film "Brassed Off"

Hausarbeit 2013 20 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The British Working Class
2.1 The Traditional Working Class and a Very Brief History of Brass Bands
2.2 The “New” Working Class

3 The Depiction of Working-Class Characters in Brassed Off
3.1 Living Conditions
3.2 Relationships
3.3 Working Class Identity
3.4 Regionalism and Spatiality

4 Conclusion


1. Introduction

In 2001, Paul Marris argued in an essay which appeared in Cineaste that the tradition of “northern realism” could be traced back to Elizabeth Gaskell’s social problem novels which

announced many of the themes and approaches that have underpinned the traditional representation of the North up to the present: a documentary interest in the industrial urban districts; a realism which is in tension with melodramatic devices; the incorporation of elements of demotic speech; a continuing association between northerness and the industrial working class; [and] a portrayal from the vantage point which is not wholly within. (47)

The reliance on stereotypes is probably partly related to the fact that most works of art, documentaries and studies concerning the northern working class have been written and conducted by members of the middle class.[1] Therefore, general notions about the working class are often arrived at by following track of “what the middle class thinks of it” (Storry/Child 188).

According to Ian Christie, “British cinema’s most successful genre of the 90s [was] the tragi-comedy of urban survival” (71). Particularly “northern film always [aroused] certain expectations [and was often] a site for debating serious moral, economic and social issues” (Russell 181). Along with films, such as Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997), the movie Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) certainly belongs into this genre of northern tragi-comedy. It is a Channel Four film production which made use of “a popular . . . format with two or three star names and a host of British character actors [and] is situated at a moment of closure of one of the Yorkshire coalfields” (Bromley 61). Interestingly, Brassed Off is set in 1992 but was in fact produced in 1996 and one might argue that some “extra sharpness . . . might have been acquired [if the] script had been made in the 1980s, when the industrial north was truly in the grip of recession” and that Brassed Off is “almost a period piece” (Brown 33).

Bromley states that Brassed Off ’s “works within a number of staple and formulaic conventions of working-class representation: regional, masculine, industrial, brass band” (61). This alleged fall-back on stereotypes seems all the more interesting since the film has been “based on real events that were very high profile in the media[. Therefore, it seems certain the at least the British audience] watching the film would have seen footage of the events in both news and documentary programmes” (Film Education for the British Council). The challenge of creating a movie, such as Brassed Off, lies therefore in the making of it, which is equally interesting to people who have personal knowledge of the historical events and for the idea of “projecting critical images of contemporary life in post-Thatcherite Britain to international audiences” (Hallam 266) simultaneously. Brassed Off ’s writer and director Mark Herman probably felt obliged to meet the audiences’ expectations about the northern working class. The paper at hand deals with the question of whether he has employed “tired clichés” (Russell 188) and “standard, albeit often increasingly outmoded (and inappropriate) signifiers of working-class culture” (Russell 186) dating back to Gaskell’s social novels[2], or in fact new, innovative, and up-to-date notions of the working class, and the question how Herman chose to construct and represent working-class “reality” (Cooke 298). The main emphasis will be on “the notion of typicality [which deals with] discussions of stereotyping, a process whereby particular groups in society are defined in a highly simplified manner” (Dyer qtd. in Cooke 299).

2. The British Working Class

2.1 The Traditional Working Class and a Very Brief History of Brass Bands

The British working class has traditionally been associated with poorly educated white males who speak with strong regional accents, are employed in heavy industries such as coal mining, and own a trade-union membership card (Storry/Child 187). According to sociologist David Lockwood[3], traditional signifiers of working-class representatives are furthermore a strong sense of community, solidarity, and fraternalism, and a strong attachment to fellow workmates. These characteristics probably stem from intense working conditions, which were often endured in small, cohesive working groups. The “emotional bonds of fraternalism [formed at work, are] often carried over into life outside where whole communities are often grouped around a single source of employment such as the village pit” (Lockwood qtd. in Saunders 108). Stereotypically, these working class representatives live in these kinds of close-knit communities and ‘two-up-two-down’ houses. The men spend their free time in the local pub, share a love for betting and football matches, and enjoy eating out in the local chip shop (Storry/Child 187). Furthermore, as the term working class already implies, work is “significant in defining identity for the working-class male” (Kirk 22).

The “close-knit communities” mentioned above do not, however, include factory owners. Since the manual labourers “rarely catch sight of managers or owners of the enterprise . . . [they share] a dichotomous view of society in terms of a clear class division between ‘us’ (the workers) and ‘them’ (the bosses)” (Lockwood qtd. in Saunders 108).[4]

In order to encourage loyalty in the workplace and to establish a sense of identity for the workplace, a great number of factory owners launched sports clubs and other possibilities of collective leisure activities, such as brass bands. As the process of industrialisation continued throughout the nineteenth century, brass bands became increasingly popular to the point of almost every industrial town having its own bandstand. Reasons for the spread were that brass instruments are very robust, long-lasting and playable even by manual workers with large or damaged hands, that a reasonable standard can be achieved quickly, that they can be played outside which offers good compensation for indoor working, and finally that brass bands supported co-operation since the band members played alongside their workmates (Film Education for the British Council).

2.2 The “New” Working Class

While poverty played a dominant role in the working class of the ninetieth and early twentieth century, the manual labourers entered a period of unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s.[5] The working class became “more affluent and owned a range of goods which was out of its reach just a short time ago[. Thus, the traditional working class was decreasing with its very nature changing, and incomes] and living standards rose continuously through the twenty years following the Second World War” (Saunders 106).

Since the working class seemed to become part of a consumer society, the question was raised of whether it was “undergoing a process of embourgeoisement[6] ” (Saunders 107). Some feared the threat of an Americanisation of the British society, combined with an increase in hedonism, efficiency, cash-obsession, and competitiveness (Quart 21). This focus on monetarism and entrepreneurism was intensified during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (1979-90); Thatcher’s policies of privatisation, deregulation, and deindustrialisation reshaped the working class immensely, and possibly even beyond recognition. Heavy industries such as coal mining, or shipbuilding, were particularly affected by the deindustrialisation, and resulted in “the collapse of industrial production” (Quart 18) which ultimately led to mass unemployment[7] and deepened the social divide enormously. A “society of ‘two nations’[8], one wealthy and the other one poor” (McDowall 180), developed, and since the north was – due to its narrow industrial base – particularly hard hit, a north-south divide became abundantly clear. In fact, “[n]inety-four per cent of the jobs lost since 1979 had been north of a line running from the Wash, on the east coast, to the Bristol channel in the west” (McDowall 181).

The traditional working-class identity was additionally shaken by Thatcher’s antiunion politics, which included a series of antiunion laws and which reached its violent climax in the coal miners’ strike of 1984-85[9] resulting in an immense reduction of the power of unions (Quart 18). “Der Miners’ Strike gilt als eines der einschneidensten Ereignisse der britischen Sozialgeschichte der Nachkriegszeit [und bedeutete] das Ende der alten ‘working-class‘-Kultur“ (Schmid 131). Due to the changing nature and restructuring of the working class, some argued that it was really de-constructed (Kirk 2) and altogether abolished.[10] Indeed, the traditional working class as it had been established in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was increasingly vanishing. Deindustrialisation and technological innovations had changed the market fundamentally due to the fact that they had led to a mass unemployment. Since manual labourers were primarily male, the loss of work resulted in the loss of their traditional roles as the breadwinners and family providers. In 1979, at the beginning of Thatcher’s rule, the majority of the workforce was still formed by white, male manual workers. About twenty years later, in 2002, almost half of it was either female[11] or stemming from an ethnic minority (Storry/Child 188-189).

Even though Margaret Thatcher was replaced by John Major in 1990, the socio-economic situation of the working class did not improve since he “did nothing to foster a new, closer relationship with the trade unions, nor did he seek to provide workers with greater employment protection or job security” (Dorey 183). Instead, Major’s term in office was characterised by “down-sizing”, increasing working hours, decreasing wages, job insecurity, “delayering”, and “macho management” (Dorey 196).

Being out of work is clearly traumatic for a class which defines itself as working (Storry/Child 87), and renders the term “working” in working class meaningless. Therefore, new labels, such as “negatively privileged” (Bromley qtd. in Kirk 19) or “underclass”, were invented in order to describe the unemployed members of the lower classes more accurately. Claire Monk defines the latter as purely “descriptive, denoting a ‘subordinate social class’ [which is] a post-working class that owes its existence to the economic and social damage wrought by globalisation, local industrial decline, the reconstructing of the labour market and other legacies of the Thatcher era” (Underbelly UK 274).

All in all, the iconography of the working class seems outdated due to the historical changes since the Second World War. Nevertheless, it appears as if “a highly [stylised] and stereotypical set of class images seem to be marketable as [‘recognisably] British’” (Bromley 52).

3 The Depiction of Working-Class Characters in Brassed Off

Brassed Off deals with a group of miners living in a post-industrial society in which millions of other workers have already lost their occupation[12] The movie describes the initial process of the closure of the men’s workplace: the local colliery. The main focus of the movie is not the problem of being unemployed per se, but rather its consequences.

3.1 Living Conditions

The establishing shot of the main characters depicts them as emerging from the pit. The film, however, actually begins with a marching tune. Thus, music can be heard before anyone or anything is visible.[13] “A number of rapid establishing shots – miners’ helmets, light and darkness, the pithead, communal showers, men laughing and joking together, placards opposing pit closure – combined with the brass band soundtrack situate the themes of the film with the opening credits: a traditional way of life under threat” (Bromley 61).[14] Another emphasis in the establishing shot is placed on the fact that not one individual protagonist is singled out, but that it is rather a group – at least the five men who are playing in the local colliery band (namely Harry, Jim, Ernie, Phil, and Andy) – in which each individual is equally important. Herbert Geisen argues that “[die] Fülle der Nebenfiguren keineswegs zur Fragmentierung des Films [führt], sondern in erheblichem Maße zu dem Eindruck der Authentizität und Geschlossenheit des Films [beiträgt]“ (157). Additionally, the quantitiy of characters „dienen einerseits dazu, das Geschehen durch komische Szenen aufzuhellen, andererseits geben sie dem Autor Gelegenheit zu einer milieugetreuen Schilderung der sozialen Verhältnisse und klassenspezifischen Verhaltensmuster“ (159).

The workers’ overall good mood which is shown in the first scene changes after they leave the pit and it becomes clear that a ballot has been announced which gives them the chance to vote either for a redundancy payment (and the closure of the pit) or a viability study (studying the pit’s profitability). All of them are pessimistic about the result of the vote and furthermore, about the “viability study” which they regard as merely cosmetic and “a bloody PR-exercise” (0:40:09). None of the miners are of considerable means and have nothing to fall back on, and living in mining community, thus in a mono-industrial area, reduces the changes of finding a new employment any time soon significantly and it does not come as a surprise therefore, when a woman talking to Danny mentions that the whole town is bothered about the result of the redundancy vote since they “can’t do wi’out pit” (0:54:34).

There is one miner among them who is about to be hit particularly hard by the financial consequences of the imminent unemployment[15]: Phil, father of four children and deeply indebted due to his involvement in the miners’ strike ten years prior. Phil has to fear the loss of his home, and constant threats issued by his wife Sandra add some extra pressure to his situation. (Phil might not be a “good father” in the sense that he not a good provider for his family and thus does not fulfil the traditional breadwinner role, but it is obvious that he cares about his children and would find it hard if Sandra was to leave with them.) The family’s poverty becomes painfully obvious when Sandra struggles to pay a small bill in the supermarket (she is sixty pence short). Quite symbolically, it is Vera, the wife of a miner and a working-class representative herself, who works behind the cashier and secretly hands Sandra a five-pound-note. This small gesture depicts the intense community spirit and solidarity among members of the working class.[16] There is other scene in which the two women are seen each other’s company and the degree of acquaintance is not commented upon. Therefore, the scene might be read in two different ways. Firstly, they could know each other well since Grimley is a small town and their respective husbands are both employed in the pit and play in the colliery band. In this case, Vera would probably be aware of Sandra’s financial difficulties and hand her the five-pound-note in a gesture of friendship. This would emphasise how tightly knit the community actually is. A second reading could be that Vera does not know Sandra well and is just assuming that Sandra has financial troubles by situational circumstances. In that case, the secret handing of the money would stand for an unconditional loyalty and solidarity among members of the working class.

The financial situation of Phil’s family worsens even more after he loses his job at the colliery and is unable to pay off the debts which he acquired during the miners’ strike of 1984/85. Bailiffs threaten him physically and seize all possessions, including the furniture.[17] This and the fact that Phil has bought a new trombone in a moment of immense financial pressure and difficulty results in Sandra leaving him.[18] Sadly enough, Phil has not bought the instrument out of a selfish impulse but rather because of his devotion to the local brass band and the pressure of his father Danny, who is the conductor of the band. Being the son of Danny, whose entire life revolves around music, adds even more pressure for Phil since he is the one the band has put in charge to inform Danny that they will not continue with the colliery band when/if the pit closes. The financial difficulties, the break-up of his family, the fear of losing the house, and the problems with the band finally drive Phil to attempt suicide.[19] Talking to his father, Phil reveals how far things have proceeded and that he has lost everything – “wife, kids, house, job, self-respect, hope” (1:23:58). This illustrates that unemployment does affect every area of life, and no aspect is to be spared. The fact that one cannot even take one’s family for granted in the face of impoverishment renders Phil’s character central to the narrative of the film and makes him the embodiment of the “downside” of deindustrialisation.


[1] A famous example for bourgeois writing about the working class is George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.

[2] One aspect which has become increasingly hard to depict is i.e., the traditional “enemy” of the working class, such as the mill owner John Thornton in Gaskell’s North and South. Historical changes rendered the notion of the management being the embodiment of social injustices questionable.

[3] Lockwood carried out the Affluent Worker study in 1966, analysing the British class system. He differentiates between three different types of working class representatives, namely traditional proletarians, traditional deferential workers, and privatised workers. Since the so-called traditional proletarians seems to embody the common stereotypes regarding the working class best, the following description will only go into detail regarding them.

[4] This division also exists in geographical terms (north-south divide).

[5] Clearly this does not mean that they were “rich” but rather that living conditions were greatly improved – within certain limits.

[6] Meaning “the adoption of middle-class (bourgeois) values and attributes by members of the working class as a result of increased affluence” (Cooke 301).

[7] A plethora of films dealing with unemployment and the social issues related to it was released. These films “resembled [movies] of the late 1960s . . . in their focus on under-represented social groups and social fragmentation” (Landy 74). In contrast to the 1960s British New Wave movies the working-class films of the 1980s and 1990s had “little sense of the corrupting effects of affluence or embourgeoisement [and were rather concerned with] the damage wrought by de-industrialisation, mass-unemployment and poverty typical of the Thatcher years”(Hill, British Cinema 178).

[8] This term was originally coined by Benjamin Disraeli’s social problem novel Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845).

[9] Brassed Off is set in the year of 1992, which is almost ten years after the strike. The whole coal mining industry is under review, many pits are closing and the protagonists (= miners) have to deal with the label of being a “dying breed” just like “dinosaurs [and] dodos” (0:50:11).

[10] A representative of this notion is, i.e., social thinker André Gorz, author of Farewell to the Working Classes (1982).

[11] The “feminisation of workforce was substantially founded in the flexibility of women in tolerating work which was part-time, insecure and ill-paid” (Monk, Men in the 90s 159).

[12] A direct link between the living conditions of the miners and Margaret Thatcher’s neo-Darwinian politics is established in the Italian film title Grazie, signora Thatcher. Even though Brassed Off is set in 1992, which is two years after Margaret Thatcher’s replacement by John Major, the Italian title is still appropriate since the miners are struggling with the “indelible mark [Thatcher] left on British politics and society” (Quart 20), and also because Major did not change Thatcher’s course.

[13] Music provides the pun-title and is central to the plot of Brassed Off. The entire soundtrack is made up by brass music which is at times “counter-pointing the action[, and at other times] the band is playing within the action[, i.e. the] brass band competition semi-finals are juxtaposed with the ballot about pit redundancy (Film Education for the British Council). Some tunes come across like ironic commentaries on the film. The movie begins, for instance, with the marching song “Death or Glory” and ends with Edward Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” (Geisen 167).

[14] Quite interestingly, this scene is later repeated after things have had a turn for the worse. And although the structure remains the same (working down in the pit, riding the lift, walking over the court, taking a shower), the overall mood is so entirely different that the scenes appear to be on different ends of a scale.

[15] Claire Monk argues that in contrast to this, “youth-oriented films [such as Trainspotting] presented . . . male underclass not as a ‘social problem’ but as a subcultural ‘lifestyle’” (Men in the 90s 160).

[16] Another example would be when Ernie and Jim prevent Phil from stealing a trombone and, hence, from committing a crime.

[17] This might be read as symbolic for the Thatcher government, which was equally insensitive and ignorant about individual struggles (Redfern).

[18] It is never mentioned or shown where she goes. After her leaving, Sandra (and the children) are only depicted in public spaces, such as a playground or the Royal Albert Hall.

[19] This dramatic situation is lightened by the fact that Phil is wearing his “Mr Chuckles”-clown-costume and taken into the hospital in full clown gear (this accords well to Brassed Off being a tragic comedy). „Der Gefahr des Abgleitens dieses Handlungsstrangs ins Melodramatische entgeht der Autor auf zweierlei Weise. Zum einen sorgt er dafür, dass ihm bei der Schilderung der Gläubiger keine Übertreibung vorgeworfen werden kann. Zum anderen stellt er die Entwicklung Phils sehr behutsam dar und schafft ‚comic relief‘ – so etwa durch seine Auftritte als Clown, die er zu einer Abrechnung mit der konservativen Regierung benutzt . . . Auch dass es am Ende nicht zu einer großen Versöhnungsszene zwischen Sandra und Phil kommt, sondern eher zu einer angedeuteten Rückkehr, wirkt dieser Gefahr entgegen“ (Geisen 162).


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
461 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz – Department of English and Linguistics
Brassed Off Britain



Titel: An Analysis of the Film "Brassed Off"