Tooting Your Own Horn
An Interview with Mark Herman
By Devin D. O'Leary
Ever since the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher shut down dozens of coal mining pits in England in the early 1980s, writer/director Mark Herman had wanted to do a movie about how those closures affected the towns around them. He just couldn't find the right dramatic hook on which to hang his story--that is until he heard about a colliery (coal mining) town whose traditional brass band was threatened when the miners/musicians were forced into retirement. Herman found his peg. The resulting comedy/drama Brassed Off has been a huge hit in England and is now making its way to the shores of America. Recently, Weekly Alibi had the privilege of talking to Mr. Herman about moviemaking, coal mining and brass band music.
How did this story develop for you?
Well, there's an area of northern England that I used to know quite well. I used to sell bacon there in a former life. I used to go 'round up the coal mining areas. It was a thriving area. I just happened to drive through again 15 years later, in 1982, just after the pits had closed. The devastation was amazing. Shops were boarded up. It was like a ghost town. ... All this had happened with very little media coverage. So I wanted to try and tell some sort of story. But it's too depressing a story to get money to make a film (about). So we had to add humor and music and that sort of stuff to get it made.
What are those towns like now?
Well, they're past hope really. The town we were shooting in, which is Grimethorpe, is virtually a war zone now.
What was the reaction to the film in those areas?
Oh, tremendous. Really strong. As a writer you get worried that you've done too much caricature. That you've made a comedy about pit closures. The big test, the acid test, is to show that film in the heartland. The reaction has been huge. The (people in those communities) do use their humor as a defense mechanism.
The spirit of the film is very positive, not at all defeatist. Is that true of the real people?
Yes. They've got enormous spirit, even now. Five years after the pit closed in their area, the spirit of community is still very strong.
What was it like working with an actual colliery band?
It was interesting to introduce four or five actors into that band to such an extent that people can't see the joint. It's just a question of casting the actors right, so they look like normal people. I suppose the band were as good at acting as the actors were as musicians. But the story is very close coincidentally to what happened to them in Grimethorpe.
Did you get any inspiration off them?
No. That was all sort of coincidental. A sort of made up story. And then when we arrived in Grimethorpe, it just happened to be very close to what happened to them. Their pit closed the year that they won the (national) championship. So when we were shooting that scene in the Albert Hall, it was the first time they'd heard that (anti-government) speech with (band-leader) Danny and they were quite shocked to hear that. They wished that they'd done it.
Was there any concern how this story might play internationally?
I don't know. I spent years trying to write films that I thought would have appeal internationally, but they never got made. I finally just decided to write one from the heart. It's the one that got made and actually became a big hit in England. I'd always thought I was making a film about my home territory. But it does travel well. At a film festival in Germany, they really got something out of it. Testing the film out in New York, it was very surprising to me that they could get it. I think there's a sort of anti-Hollywood feeling (right now). The reaction in New York was (that) these people really are real. Their teeth might not be straight, but they're human.
--Devin D. O'Leary
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