Comedian Sue Perkins, who in 2008 won the BBC’s Maestro! conducting competition, has spent the winter months trying to resurrect the fortunes of a brass band
On Band for Britain on Monday, BBC Two viewers will be able to see how Perkins was recruited by the near-defunct Dinnington Colliery Band in Yorkshire to increase its membership from just five players and lead it to concert and competition glory. She tells us about the experience…
So, did trying to rescue a brass band involve picking up a cornet yourself?
I did pick up a cornet! I love it but am terrible at it. I managed to get a note out of a number of the brass instruments, but couldn’t do a lot more than that – I kept going to the wrong harmonic and couldn’t play a scale. But I kept on trying. On my very last day, I managed to do a perfect slide on the trombone, and was very pleased with that!
On the whole, then, you were just conducting…
Sort of. I was shouting, organising, making inane jokes, boosting morale… and conducting.
For how long were you with the band?
Four to five months, from the end of August through to December. I spent all weekend, every weekend with them, doing concerts, challenges, bonding exercises and all sorts – most of the band worked in factories, or as drivers or in local schools and stuff, so only get the free time then.
Did new players come flocking when they saw you were involved?
I’m certainly no Messiah for the banding world! I think my role was to be like a wet remedial Labrador, wandering around and shaking my enthusiasm onto people, whether they want it or not. All I did was say ‘this is such a lovely sound, this is great music and these people are fantastic – I’m going to get a megaphone and tell everyone about it’.
But when you started off, the band had five members and now it’s got lots. So you obviously did something right…
Kids gravitated naturally and a lot of older people who had played when they were younger came back to the fold. It wasn’t immediate, though, by a long shot. It was a slow, gradual ride.
But was the ride a smooth one?
With the best intentions, things did go somewhat awry sometimes. You have in your mind this perfect marriage of art, but it doesn’t work like that – there’s so much arguing and bickering; people go and there’s a fight; and then they come back and make up. It’s like the Corleones but with brass instruments.
Given that the mines and factories that were once the bedrock of brass band membership are largely no more, isn’t trying to resurrect the bands themselves a bit of an uphill task?
Yes, but just because the infrastructure collapsed doesn’t mean that the cultural life that developed around it has to too. What happened (in the 1980s) was appalling, wrecked people’s lives and cast a shadow over large areas of the country. However, within those communities, people used to come and make music after work and at the weekends – to lose that too would be such a shame, and would hand a unilateral victory to the hatchet job of Conservative policy of the past. I feel very strongly about that.
So would you recommend joining a band?
It’s a really nice way to spend an evening! I had to go to a lot of the band practices, not just at the weekends but also on some Wednesday nights. It made me really wish that I’d learnt to play – I would quite happily have sat down at a back desk and got something out of it.
Interview by Jeremy Pound
'Band for Britain' is on BBC Two at 9pm on Monday 8 March