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British Open Championships 2003

2003 British Open - Retrospective

If you believe in that sort of thing, then the 2003 British Open was all about numbers.

David King and the Mortimers
David King and the Mortimers

Yorkshire Building Society won their fourth title in seven years, as did Professor David King, who now stands as joint 9th on the all time list of winners at the Open; they won off the number 10 draw, as they did when they won the title in 2001, and they now have a series of numerically odd numbered wins that reads 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003. (Although for some reason their own website says they won in 1998)

At the other end of the scale, poor old Travelsphere drew number 1 for the third time in six years and found their chances of making a mark on the contest disappear faster than a Labour majority at a by-election, whilst Leyland and Besses racked up a total of 25 points from their placings of the last two contests and will now sit and wait 14 days to see if they drop through the relegation trap. Numbers, numbers, numbers...

The truth of the matter though was that YBS took the Open title because on the day they once again showed that they are possibly the best contest performing band around. You can try and look for all sort of numerical precedents to explain their victory if you want, but come results time at Symphony Hall, the name on the lips of a large majority of the audience was David King’s band. Nothing to do with the mysteries of numerology - it was great brass band playing that won the day.

In years to come the 151st Open won’t be a contest that will linger in the memory banks though - this was a strangely subdued affair. Much is made that our greatest contest is always a sell out - and once more the “Full House” signs were put up in the box office window, but a strange human phenomenon now seems to pervade the contest. People may buy all the tickets, but for some reason the Hall is never, ever full. The purchasing habits of the British public have certainly changed over the years but the fact of the matter is that the days of packing your sandwiches and a flask of tea and settling down in the hall to listen to 18 bands for over 8 hours is a thing of the past. People, supporters, brass band lovers, the general public, whoever, no longer wishes to sit on their backsides even in plush well upholstered seats and listen to bands for extended periods of time. David Blaine may be able to sit in a box for 44 days and even adjudicators may do it for half a day, but a brass band audience it seems can only sit still and listen for a maximum of about three performances before the urge for a cup of tea, cake or a pint of lager overtakes them. It is a very worrying trend.

The All England Masters Champions, Leyland for instance had to perform to a hall that was less than half full, whilst for some bands you could have sent out personal invites. Even for the likes of Black Dyke, Brighouse, BAYV Cory and YBS it wasn’t more than two thirds full - or for the results. Selling the tickets is one thing - getting people to actually go and listen nowadays is another.

Last year people blamed the test piece, so what was the excuse this time? Stephen Roberts brass band arrangement (and it was in his words a brass band arrangement – not a transcription or realisation as the PC brigade nowadays say) of two movements from Holst’s “The Planets” was a popular choice, but just playing two of the movements made for a slightly uninspiring listening experience. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, and although that wasn’t quite the case here, the familiarity of the original orchestral work made this bland and monochrome in comparison. The first movement “Venus” subtitled “The Bringer of Peace” was certainly not a “piece of peace” for the players - it was a stern technical test for sure, but it so lacked colour. Brass bands don’t do tranquillity very well, the sense of inner peaceful luminosity doesn’t suit the medium and there just isn’t enough difference in the timbres (even with a huge eclectic choice of mutes on display). A flugel horn playing a top Bb entry marked piano sounds just like that - it cannot sound like anything else, so why you ask put it on the flugel in the first place? Colour? Timbre?

It just sounded as if it was there to test the player to the limit - and the music didn’t need it. That being said, this was a very clever and at times thrilling brass band work and Stephen Roberts should be congratulated for it (despite the numerous errata - that should have been sorted out by the organisers and music panel, with him a long, long time before the contest). “Jupiter” was a fine movement even with the cornets and Glock trying to sound like a harp at the end, so overall it worked - just. It would have been better though if there were less bands and a few extra movements.

The conductors should also take a little of the blame as well, as many thought they had found the secret missing ingredient in their interpretation that would ultimately unlock the secrets of what on paper was a pretty straightforward score. Some performances made the piece sound as if it was Shostokovich rather than Holst, whilst the sometimes clumsy attempts to change tempo were so obvious they could have been picked up on Birmingham's airport radar. Sometimes, just doing what it says on the tin is the best policy.

Back to the contest though. The draw made for good reading for some, uncomfortable reading for others and almost suicidal reading for Travelsphere. Being drawn number 1 twice in the last three years is something, but three times in six years takes the proverbial biscuit and it was an undeserved slice of ill luck. In the end they performed well and possibly should have been higher; but when the Gods are against you.

Cwmaman also picked a rum ‘un as well with number 2 for the second year running, whilst Fodens Richardson, hoping for their first win at the Open since 1964 found themselves with the unenviable task of trying to win from number 3. In the end Cwmaman couldn’t repeat the heroics of a 12 month earlier and fell sharply to 17th place; Fodens meanwhile played with the dislocated air of a band who wanted to win with all their hearts, but whose heads had possibly already told them that whatever they did, it wasn’t going to be enough. The numbers came would have made this clear - no win since 1964 and the number 3 draw having only produced two third prizes since 1962. Forty years of hurt to overcome next year - the draw can been a cruel mistress.

The next group of three saw the trio of Ever Ready, Leyland and Besses, and for one of them it was good news whilst for the other two the Open of 2003 was to become a painful numerical rather than musical experience. Ever Ready gave a bold and confident showing that caught the ears of the judges to come 8th whilst Leyland gave a real curates egg of a performance. Their “Venus” was different to say the least - at times stiflingly slow and sectionalised, whilst “Jupiter” was a corker. It resulted in them coming 14th - it could have been a top six one for sure if they had not messed about with the first bit. It also meant they racked up 25 points over the two years and will now have to wait with fingers nails bitten to the quick to know their fate. Besses meanwhile can also count themselves unlucky after giving perhaps the best performance at the Open for some considerable time. It was bold and certainly not bashful, but it never ever lacked confidence under Steve Sykes and they came home 12th – a couple of places too low for us, and it resulted in them also gaining the dreaded 25 points and having to await their fate. Both were unlucky.

The interesting point to note is that there is no real rule at the contest to decide what bands are relegated in the event of a tie. Travelsphere Holidays knew they were doomed, but what of the situation between Besses and Leyland? With Grimethorpe coming back next year (with a 14th place to their name, so they better play well) and the New Zealand band, Dalewool Auckland also making an appearance, it would seem that if the organisers wish to keep the contest at the manageable numbers they so desire, and ensure that the contest can start again at 12.00pm and finish at a decent hour, then it will have to be three for the drop. That means Leyland and Besses both go. If not, then someone with the wisdom of Solomon will have to make a very tricky decision.

Yorkshire Imps continued their solid progress of improvement with 10th place off number 7, and once again showed that under David Evans they are building an impressive future foundation, before Whitburn took to the stage at number 8 with a hall that was only half full. For the hardy souls who decided to get a cup of tea and slice of cake at the cafeteria before the so called big bands of Fairey, YBS, Black Dyke and Cory took to the stage with their draws 9 to 13, this was one hell of a mistake to make.

Whitburn were top notch and although at the end of the day we had them down for 4th place, their runners up spot was not a total surprise to those who had the pleasure of hearing them. Andy Duncan directed a very broad and detailed account of the piece that benefited from a tremendous “Venus” that had a fine balance, sweet tone and a group of soloists who were on the top of their form. Gordon Jenkins on soprano in particular was outstanding – every note played with security and with a lovely production and tone. It gave everything a shimmer and so by the time of a pretty good “Jupiter” they were ahead of the field by a considerable margin. It was a marker that very few bands reached or bettered on the day – so all those who thought it a shock, we have news for you – it wasn’t.

The meat of the contest though came next. Fairey FP (Music) under Allan Withington gave a thrilling account of the music, but it was one that couldn’t have had any more painful slips even if the stage was greased with lard and topped with banana skins. It was fantastic music making, but the clips just robbed them time and again, and with a real moment of waywardness in “Jupiter” their fate was sealed. 4th place, but you had the feeling the judges had this one earmarked for the top prize (look at the adjudications). This was very nearly a quite awesome performance – but on the day, quite nearly wasn’t enough.

YBS didn’t make the same mistake though. Theirs was a corker of a performance right from the word go, with Sheona White’s sound filling the hall in a manner no one quite matched all day, and with the ensemble playing more than matching the superb efforts of the soloists in “Venus”. It was those little muted effects and a quite sublime ending to the movement that possible did it for them though – again no one quite matched it on the day, so when it came to the romp through “Jupiter” it was in the bag. It was certainly beatable, but it was one heck of a show and for most people in the hall, it was the leader by a good length and a half – and so it proved.

Black Dyke followed next and opened in a manner that had the audience at the edge of their seats. It was just too good to last though and little errors in some of the solo lines just robbed them of points. “Jupiter” was thrillingly executed, but the immediate comparison with YBS was of two outstanding performances – one a little more error free than the other. At this level, every little mistake costs dearly and Dyke will have to wait one more year to take back the Golden Shield to Queensbury. It was close though.

Scottish Co-op under James Scott held their own, but like so many others on the day found that the mistakes cost them dearly and they had to be content with 13th place on their return to the Open. The basis of a very good band was there to be heard though and London could well see them close in on a top six place.

That left in many peoples eyes (and ears) the final contender for the title. BAYV Cory were reigning champions, and gave a performance that on possibly any other day would have taken the title back home with them again to South Wales. Technically it was nigh on faultless, but musically at least two of the judges were less than impressed. Many in the audience too were left scratching their heads – brilliantly constructed, awesomely delivered, but a performance none the less that just needed that spark of passionate musical electricity that YBS had seemed to be the conclusion. They are such a fine band at the moment that you yearn to hear them test themselves to the limit. This one seemed just a tad too controlled and refined and in comparison to YBS it was like trying to weigh up the choice between a Ferrari and a Mercedes. One will give you everything you would ever imaginably need in a car, whilst the other is a Ferrari. We had them a very close second though.

With that there was the usual mass exodus for the doors, and Carlton Main must have felt somewhat deflated having to play to a hall that had more empty seats than could be found in a first round Worthington Cup match. All bands at this level are good bands, so shame on the audience for voting with their feet. Carlton Main didn’t give a performance that lived long in the memory banks, but they certainly didn’t deserve to give it to a less than half empty hall. They were beaten before they began.

Illinois made history. A decent crowd came to listen and although they heard a performance from a very nervous band, they certainly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the players and the MD who wiggled his butt (as they say in the USA) like a lap top dancer who had just being given a 20 dollar tip. The band struggled in places to be fair, and overall you were left with the impression that in realistic terms this was a good First Section UK band rather than one of the top 18 bands in the world. However, the experience will have been invaluable and we should do everything we can to ensure they return in a few years time. If they continue to improve and encapsulate the “British” sound of a brass band they will not be out of place here. They will surely return stronger and better.

Kirkintilloch once more showed that they are now a band more than at home here and under Frank Renton they gave a solid account of themselves to come home 11th, whilst the last two bands to take the stage had slightly contrasting fortunes. Brighouse waited a long time before they gave a fine performance to come 5th, whilst Tredegar showed glimpses of real quality to take yet another top 10 place and come 9th. Both played to par in golfing terms.

Brighouse are a totally different band under Ian McElligott than they were under Allan Withington, and although they may not have that emblazoned fire power that so marked them out a few years ago, they now have a beautiful refined air to their performances that makes them a joy to listen to. The sound of the band is now so rich and balanced and they have corner men who on their day are as good if not better than any of their rivals. The MD has moulded them into a band in his image – urbane and precise and whilst this can sometimes make them sound a touch bland they are also now amazingly consistent with the quality of their performances. 5th place was about right, but you get the feeling they are about to do something big – London perhaps?

The contest was over for another year and before the announcement of the results there were some well deserved presentations to those who had given so much, and those who may well give so much to the banding world. All that remained was the announcement of the big prizes. For the record, we had a top six of YBS, BAYV Cory, Black Dyke, Whitburn, Brighouse and Fairey, but we think most people had the same or thereabouts. This is the one contest nowadays where class is so much more easily identifiable.

The soloist award went to Gordon Jenkins for his super bit of sop work with Whitburn, and whilst that was well received you could also sense the murmur that there may well be an upset in the making. Solo prizes rarely are given to players from bands that don’t make an impression on the top of the prize winners board. That murmur increased with BAYV Cory coming sixth – they could count themselves unlucky indeed, whilst Brighouse took 5th place. Fairey had to be content with fourth, on a day when they could have won it, whilst the top three started with Black Dyke taking home the Harry Mortimer Memorial Trophy and £1500.

That just left the top two, and there was an immense Scottish celebrations with the announcement that Whitburn had come runners up – the best ever result for them or a Scottish band at the Open and one that was well deserved. The celebrations themselves at their hotel were something else we were told.

British Open Champions 2003 - YBS
British Open Champions 2003 - YBS

The winners – no shocks left, and the announcement that YBS had won the British Open for the fourth time was greeted with almost universal agreement. Theirs was the one performance on the day that combined the technical and the musical to the greatest effect – it was as someone next to me commented yet another “contest winning performance” – and that is what it is all about.

Our thanks to Martin Mortimer and the rest of his team for once again making the day go so smoothly not only for the bands, but for the press and the audience. This is now a very slick operation indeed and the have taken the running of the Open to new levels of professionalism – the Hall is superb, the bands are very well catered for and the audience can’t have anything really to complain about. Perhaps then they will take the opportunity to sit themselves in the hall a bit longer then?

Finally, the 2003 British Open belonged to Yorkshire Building Society and Professor David King. For the fourth time they were crowned Champions, the second time off the number ten draw but for the second time they won’t be going to London to try and make it a “Double” – numbers again eh?

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