I met up yesterday with Howard Chadwick and Jake Waring after watching an hour of early rehearsal for Derby Theatre's forthcoming production of Brassed Off (18th September to 10th October). I explained to them that I had seen the acclaimed film some years ago and that I wanted to ask what the cast and production team have done in terms of research for the play set in a troubled mining community.
Phil: What have yourselves as actors experienced to understand the social and political impacts on the mining industry in the UK in the early 1990s?
Howard: I feel like mining is following me a bit at the moment. The last play I did (Digging In) was commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 strike. So I have done a lot of research about that strike and about the period leading up to 1984 and the period immediately after. In our play the mining industry is in decline and tapering. The strike was categorically lost and Thatcher's government just beat them into the ground, didn't they? This play is the point where the bit of meat on the bones are just being picked off.
It was very interesting to go up to The National Mining Museum between Dewsbury and Wakefield. We all went there on the first day of rehearsal. I know you didn't Jake cos you were working on another play weren't you?
Jake: That's right.
Howard: The tour is underground and you go down in the cage and the tour is given by an ex-miner. The one that took us round was probably in his mid-fifties and therefore he would have been in his mid twenties in '84. Now of course his job is a tour guide. He was very funny, a very amiable guy and his tour takes the mining industry right back to its origins to the present day. It is really well done but... he's one of the younger guys amongst some tour guides a lot older than him. I thought about how long the museum can last with original ex-miners taking the tours with their first hand knowledge of being down the pit. Really after the mid 1990s period only a handful of existing pits remained and I believe the last one or two have just gone in the last month or so. It is quite a poignant time to be doing the play I think especially given that we have just had the 30th anniversary of the 1984 strike. So, I suppose where we are in the play is just where all the politics and social unrest hits the wall and slides off really.
Phil: In the play a character called Gloria arrives into the mining community at Grimley and gives a bit of a boost to the miner's brass band. Tell me a bit about her. What is her intention in coming into that community?
Jake: It's to reconnect with her roots I think. All she really wants is to be accepted the whole way through the story. She is from Grimley originally and what I find interesting about Gloria is that she is just a foot soldier. There is an element of guilt surrounding her and like a lot of people she thinks she is just doing her little job and they are part of a jigsaw. Then when things like pit closures come about they live with the guilt even though they weren't implicit in the dealings. I think that is what she comes with and she wants to save the pit and then to be accepted by her community. Narratively I think the device is really interesting because she arrives as the outsider. I was born in 1989 so I wasn't around during the real strikes but we had the Brassed Off video in my family and even though I was perhaps too young to watch it - I did - and it has remained one of my favourite films over the years. There was that video “I Support My Dad” that we watched as well as research.
Howard: Yes that was about how the miners children were affected by the 1984-85 strike in North Staffordshire. The play that was I was in was written by Debbie McAndrew and it was commissioned to go into schools and community centres to tell the story of the '84 strike. This was to kids whose parents or grand parents were involved in the strike so it helped them if they (the kids) didn't know a lot about it. The 'I Support My Dad' film is about the '84 miner's kids and how the events shaped them. They are seen as the adults they are these days and they are talking retrospectively. In 1984 there were only six mines still open and now there are none. There is a colliery band that survives – Florence Colliery Band. It is also interesting to hear what their attitudes are now to authority – to the Tory Party – to the police...
Jake: The knock on effect is staggering actually. Looking at the police brutality, people being locked up simply for stepping on the road when they were introducing new laws on how you can picket and things like that. All of it is not a million miles away from things that happen now which is why I think it's amazing how this is echoed in the Brassed Off play. There are speeches in the play that resonate and you almost think it's happening now. For a play set twenty years ago it is amazingly relevant today.
Phil: Is this the first time a play has been developed from the original film script?
Howard: No. Sheffield Crucible were the first to produce it not so long after the film came out and then Sheffield Lyceum toured it with Touring Consortium in about '99. Several places have done it. York have done it twice as a co-production with York Theatre and Bolton Octagon. Oldham Coliseum have produced it twice too. With York and Bolton there was a tour last year. It is a play that is often done Phil. I think it speaks to people, speaks to communities. It is about a community and that community was dependent on the mining industry. Not only for the people that the pit employed but for economy. Without all those jobs the supermarket in the play will close, the video shop will close, the pub will close because there's no heart there. The pit is the pulse of the community and in our play the voice of that is the brass band.
Phil: The actual physical band you are using and their music – what emotional impact has that had on your working on the play so far?
Howard: Massively. When people say 'when you hear a brass band' they quite often put their hand to their chests (Howard demonstrates) and that's what we all collectively do when the brass band comes into rehearsal. And for those of us who are lucky enough to sit in and be with the band and have that sound around you it's fantastic. It really gets you. The Derwent Brass band are brilliant and the sound is just beautiful. As you saw in the rehearsal today – the blokes in the locker room getting changed – going through their rough and ready routine and then they go and play this beautiful music. As the character Danny says at the end “People will remember the music long after the pit has gone.” This means the band playing miners are able to still speak through their music.
The play is based in a place called Grimley – loosely based on Grimethorpe where they had the Grimethorpe Colliery Band who on Saturday won the British Open Championship! Our fiction band are playing in the National Championships at the Albert Hall which is a different competition. They win that and Danny has a very rousing speech about how music matters but actually, it's the people that matter. It's easy to forget this.
Jake: That's one of those speeches and it's message that could easily be said now with a few word changes. Basically the same message.
Phil: Jake, this is your first experience working here at Derby Theatre as 2nd year recipient of the Brian Weaver Fellowship. How has it been thus far?
Jake: It's amazing because I found out that I'd got it in January and this is the first production I've come into. So I have been itching all year to get into it. I was doing another show at Edinburgh over the summer – a puppetry show. It had me in work since March until August and at the time I said to Sarah (director of Brassed Off) that this had come up and she said 'we want to support your career so it seems silly for us to stop you from doing another show'. There was an overlap of a week and she let me do that - hence why I have come into to this week later. In another kind of working environment that may have not been made possible so I am very grateful for that kind of support. From a logistical point of view it has been amazing that I have had the opportunity to be in work all this year. With this show I am playing six characters and I have six costume changes. It is really fun and what it does mean is that I'm in a lot of scenes without a lot of lines or a lot to do and this means that I can be in rehearsals all the time and watch very knowledgeable people like Howard who has masses of experience and soak up all that influence and acting knowledge. Equally there are other members of the cast and creative team of all ages from whom I can learn about their processes. It's an amazing opportunity. I am doing Cinderella after this and because I am from Derby, having lived in London for a few years now, it feels like a homecoming and I'm very lucky and loving the chances I'm getting through the Brian Weaver Fellowship and DerbyTheatre.
Thank you to Sarah Brigham, Heidi Mckenzie and Derby Theatre for the opportunity to interview Howard and Jake.