Reporter 395, 20 January 1997


University musician scales new heights in movie world

John Anderson, Musical Director of the hit British film Brassed Off - and currently studying for a Master of Music degree at Leeds University - talks to Gill Moffett about his foray into the film world.

When John Anderson took the job of Musical Director of the world-famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band, he says he could smell the coal in the air a mile away from the town. But when he returned seven years later - after the pit had been closed - to make Brassed Off, the landscape had been flattened and he found an unrecognisable ghost town. "Like Beirut but without the sun," said one of the film crew.

"When I first saw the script I thought someone was having me on," said John. "The story of the film is virtually the same as the story of the Grimethorpe Band." In 1992 the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, with which he had a seven year association, had won the National Championships, only to be faced with the closure of their pit. The Band had been employed by British Coal and was seen as a flagship of the organisation. "Nationwide they are still regarded as the London Symphony Orchestra of brass bands."

John Anderson began playing in the school orchestra at the age of 14 to get out of playing rugby. But the music took hold of him. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he went on to become principal timpanist at Opera North in Leeds at the age of 22 - occupying one of only 15 similar percussion jobs in the country. "I don't really know how I got involved with brass bands in the first place. I'm not a brass expert at all - but it's really got to me. It does get in your blood after a while."

John left the Grimethorpe post in 1991 to concentrate on teaching and, subsequently, his Masters."But no sooner had I said I wouldn't do anything more with brass bands than the script arrived and I was drawn back in again." Liz Rymer, Director of the Leeds Film Festival, had recommended to the film's producer that John would be the ideal person to find a band to play the score. His choice was obvious - "the only band I could have chosen was Grimethorpe."

The members of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, who appear in the film as the Grimley Band, worked with John to coach the less musical actors. Pete Postlethwaite, who plays the conductor Danny, couldn't read music, so he was taught to conduct by ear in just 16 days. Although he did do a "fantastic job, bringing in all the instruments in the right places," John was there to conduct in the background to make sure everything stayed in synch. Tara Fitzgerald, a rising young star, comes from a more musical background, but had just a month to learn the fingering for the fleugel horn. "One of my fellow college lecturers - actually a trumpet player - went to see the film and said her finger movements were spot on." Ewan McGregor, of 'Trainspotting' fame, had previously played the French horn.

Many of the cast members have been converted to brass band music and Tara Fitzgerald now has an extensive CD collection. One of John's hopes is that the film will stimulate interest in brass bands, and encourage young people to take up the instruments. "The kids thought it was fantastic - they didn't realise brass band music could be like that. If the brass band movement takes advantage of the publicity generated by the film, there could be a real influx of new blood."

John Anderson worked closely with writer and director Mark Herman to choose the pieces for the soundtrack. He describes the final choice as 'run-of-the-mill brass band fare;' in reality bands would showcase newly-commissioned work at National Championship level.

The soundtrack of Brassed Off has been acclaimed for its ability to evoke a whole range of emotions. John believes this is because of the human-like nature of the sounds. "If you listen to the sound of brass bands, they sound very much like choirs. They can play really quietly, and next minute all hell breaks loose - that combination of power and delicacy gives the instruments a voice-like quality." The vibrato technique is also used, enhancing this voice-like quality. Within brass bands there is a soprano cornet, a tenor trombone and the tubas are referred to as basses - all words usually associated with singing.

John describes his involvement with Brassed Off as an interesting experience, but as far as the actual filming was concerned, he was "warned it would be boring as hell - and actually they weren't far off." It could take four hours to shoot a two minute scene. "The actors were all lovely - there were none of these tantrums you hear about". Both he and the Grimethorpe Band were delighted with the film, which is also being acclaimed abroad - it will open the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the USA this week. John expects to return to the world of brass once he finishes his Masters degree, which he is completing under the guidance of Phil Wilby, Senior Lecturer in the University's Music Department and one of Britain's most acclaimed brass band composers.

The producers of Brassed Off can only be thankful that John Anderson never enjoyed playing rugby.


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