Picture the scene: a gloomy Saturday evening in Manchester and the rain pours down like shoals of silver fish from a glowering, diluvian sky.
Inside The Stoller Hall, however, The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, their instruments Brassoed to within an inch of their lives, unleash a sublime wave of gleaning golden sound that thrills and cheers a full house with an evening as varied as it is memorable.
Under the adroit baton of Ian McElligott, the first half saw the band demonstrate its impressive range, and things kicked off with a thrilling and grand rendition of Strauss’s Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare. Stoller Hall’s excellent acoustics assisted in leaving many in the audience temporarily sockless as the sheer musical power of the band was dramatically established.
With the audience suitably impressed, the band slipped into Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which was once notably described by Lev Lebedinsky as a “brilliant effervescent work, with its vivacious energy, spilling over like uncorked champagne”. In the hands of McElligott and the Brighouse & Rastrick, it lost none of its fizz.
Up next was Robin Dewhurst’s Brasilia. This Latin, upbeat piece saw soloist Ellena Newton give a fine performance on the trombone, and following this we had a splendid performance of the pacy, flamenco style piece Malagueña by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona.
Then, effortlessly changing gear, came the evergreen jazz classic Misty, where soloist Mike Eccles charmed the audience with an excellent performance before the first half was brought to a close with a fascinating trip to Tenth Avenue, where there had been slaughter and a ballet.
On to the second half and the screening of a new silent film, Echoes of the North: Four Chapters in Time, made from more than 100 fragments of archive film shot in the North of England, taken from the vaults of the Yorkshire Film Archive, North West Film Archive, North East Film Archive, and London’s Archive Film Agency
Accompanied by a new score, the 60-minute film is apparently the first all-brass soundtrack for a silent film, composed by the composer, musician, writer and broadcaster Neil Brand. The film and score took the audience back to the North of England of the silent movie era, beginning with the epic industrial grandeur of the Tyne shipyards.
In dark, forbidding steel mills, iron is melted and molten steel is poured, forged and relentlessly rolled. In the shipyards, the skeletons of new merchant ships are swarmed over by legions of shipwrights, labouring tirelessly to build the vessels that will carry the commerce of the greatest trading nation in history.
The score was suitably imperious – here and there the clang of metal or the clatter of hooves, all cleverly recreated and perfectly synchronised to the screen. Such orchestral innovations are commonplace in the score, and the changes in mood and tempo were skilfully rendered by Brand and beautifully delivered by the band.
All the great Northern power houses are visited, from the banks of Mersey through to Cottonopolis and on into Yorkshire, in a tableau that takes in both urban and rural lives across the North. We see enormous looms in endless rows clattering endlessly back and forth, trawlers struggling against all odds in mountainous seas, men climbing down sheer cliff faces to find seabirds eggs in abundance, shopworkers, factory folk, farmers and nannies.
Looming above it all, funding all, fuelling all, we see the founder of the feast, King Coal itself. Miners hack coal from the earth, deep underground in tunnels only a few feet wide, pit brow lasses sort coal on the colliery surface, coal is transported, delivered and sold. And everywhere there are chimneys great and small, burning the coal to keep everything going.
But the film isn’t just about industry and the world of work, it’s also a record of how the people of that time played, how they enjoyed themselves. We’re taken to football matches with enormous crowds, to picnics and cricket matches on village greens. We go on hikes with cheery walkers, and play leapfrog and cycle with adults and children alike. We smile as 30 smiling Northern souls skip for their lives over a single rope, and we watch agog as a line of Edwardian ladies zip line into a funfair.
All human life is on display and it’s striking to see just how much fun they had. Seen from today’s atomised world, it’s also striking how much of what they did, whether at work or at play, was a collective, community endeavour.
Inevitably, a deep shadow falls across the land and, in the summer of 1914, from the Mersey to the Tyne, the men of the North of England answer their country’s call. Vast lines of men, at first in their Sunday best but later in khaki and webbing, shoulder their Lee-Enfields and, amid cheers and tears, they march off to war.
Some return to victorious parades in their home towns; some have already returned, wounded in the great ambulance trains that run week in, week out for years on end. Some don’t return at all.
Watching the film, you quickly come to the realisation that although it’s grouped into specific categories, whether that be time, location or activity, it’s not actually about those things, not really. It’s about people.
When we see our forebears looking into the camera, often with innocence, sometimes in wonder, we realise they’re not looking into the camera, not really. They’re looking into the future. They’re looking at us.
History is important. History is the narrative that gives us a sense of belonging, a collective identity that sustains us in good times and bad. It’s the thread that binds us, to our shared past and to the future for those who will follow us.
More importantly, it binds us to one another, in the present. A nation without a history is a nation without a future.
We have a history. And if we want a future, we had better remember it.
Main image: Echoes of the North with The Brighouse & Rastrick Band – credit Timm Cleasby
For more information about the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival (soon to be Northern Silents), click here.