2007 English National Championship - Postcard from Preston


Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither will the English Nationals, but there is time on their side and plenty of encouraging signs.

The rather quaint saying that, ‘Rome was not built in a day' implies that things in life cannot be achieved hurriedly in a short span of time. The inference is of course that even the greatest achievements need to be nurtured along the way. Success doesn't happen overnight.

It is natural that, in this age of instant results (and we are not talking about the 4BR text service either), people demand perfection almost immediately – usually with out labour. Anything worthwhile necessarily demands time and trouble, haste is waste and patience and perseverance can overcome mountains.

In glorious isolation: Grimethorpe's Martin Armstrong feels a bit out of it at Preston's Guild Hall

With these thoughts in mind, you can fully appreciate why the BFBB's Chairman, Robert Morgan asked for patience in letting the organiser's get the format of the English Championships right.

There's no doubt about it, but the English Championships held in Preston on Saturday is still in its early days but there is plenty of promise and potential, not to mention, passionate determination that, given time, the contest will build on the first two years and become a firm favourite for all on the contesting calendar.

The move to Preston's Guild Hall gives the organisers that chance for stability over the next three years.  The venue is used to holding brass band events and its familiar ground to the contest controller, Derek Atkinson and his army of helpers from the BFBB and North West Counties BBA.  Hosting Brass at the Guild in February, Derek and his team know that the Guild Hall is a more suitable venue than last year's Lowry in accommodating the bands with their needs on the day.

Any venue though costs money and the hiring the Guild Hall comes at a price (although in this case it is understood to be nominal) and despite sponsorship from Besson, the organisers must recoup those costs incurred. 

Open adjudication: Steven Mead and the 4BR team listen intently
Picture: John Stirzaker

Sadly, banding folk just vote with their feet and whilst the attendance on the day was an encouraging increase from last year, people just didn't want to pay £20 for the chance to listen to fifteen bands and a Gala Concert.  No doubt this is a key area that all concerned with the organising of the event will ponder.

If £10 was charged it would surely entice more people to come along on the day, as would family tickets etc. There was a lack of real young faces to be seen in and around the hall on the day – so what about involving kids in workshops etc and then getting them to perform before the announcement of results. To be cynical for a moment: kids mean parents, mean ticket sales, mean profit.

Thomson twin? Not Vic Reeves but the brilliant tuba star Ben Thompson
Picture: John Stirzaker

How depressing for bands such as Grimethorpe, Brighouse, Leyland and Fodens to play in front of around 300 people?  With few exceptions, it has become the norm for the bands to play in the presence of a smaller audience than people would prefer (and not just here) but an innovative approach to getting people in to the hall may help.

The introduction of bands knowing in advance whether they'll play in the morning or afternoon section helps them with planning their day but this is certainly another contributing factor to people not wanting to pay £20 on the day.  If drawn in the morning, the majority favour the social side of the day, whilst those who feature in the afternoon concentrate on the job in hand before catching up with friends. It's a difficult balance for the organisers to achieve.

That said, those who were in the hall at 10.30am in the morning stayed in till lunchtime and returned at 2.30pm, whilst those who came in at 2.30pm for the first time were happy to stay in till the conclusion of the contest.

The lunch break gave everybody the chance to relax, get some food and come back refreshed, but having over an hour for some is to long.  It's one of those things that could be reduced by a few minutes perhaps but credit goes to the caterers who served up some delightful Lancashire hot pot – it certainly got the thumbs up from all concerned at 4BR.

Another issue that created plenty of debate was the anticipated 90 minute break between the end of the contest and the Gala Concert taking place.

The movement is used to continuity - a contest finishing, then within a few minutes the results before everyone can then return home.  Whilst Fodens needed time to rehearse and the BBC do a sound check – they were recording the concert for Listen to the Band, the time span between the contest and concert needs addressing, as does the real need for a Gala Concert in the first place. Ben Thomson (he does pass a resemblance to Vic Reeves does he not - according to Iwan Fox in his concert review anyway!) and Fodens were on fine form. Remember those kids though – they fill a hall with bums on seats.

Last year the judges had the opportunity to listen to recordings of bands performances if they desired and that certainly influenced the need for the length of the break, but this year that facility wasn't available to the men in the box.  If the concert is recorded by the BBC (and they're not recording the contest) they'll need time to set up, but if not, surely a break of no more than 20 minutes before the concert begins would be better for everyone waiting for the results?

The contest itself was an enjoyable one.  Peter Graham's ‘On Alderley Edge' is a tough test - and having not been heard on the UK contest stage for a while, you did forget just how tough it was. Many a band's performance being influenced by the opening off-stage horn call – not many got away unscathed, with Polysteel's Vicki Reynolds, nailing the solo the most convincingly for 4BR.

The positioning of the horn player was also a source of amusement too – with some ending up in glorious isolation in the wings of the hall, others standing on stage and a few being deposited in the stairwell exits. It made little difference to tell the truth.

4BR readers will of course have been interested to read the comments of each bands' performance by Steven Mead.  The well documented decision not to have Steven in the box was one that was too good an opportunity not to miss for the benefit of 4BR and Steven thoroughly enjoyed his day.  Whilst he knew which band was which, Steven wrote his comments as if he was in the box and these certainly found favour with those who read them – and with his top six being identical those of the men in the box, not too mention the top two being spot on, it would take a brave person to make him change his mind though!

Foden's did a professional job in the Gala Concert as did the BBC Radio 2 Young Brass Soloist, Ben Thomson and you'll be able to hear highlights in September. Meanwhile, the day got the thumbs up from EBBA President, Ulf Rosenberg and other visitors from overseas, and it was encouraging also that Besson through their representative made sure their presence was felt.

It is not often you get a Frenchman waxing lyrical about something so English is it now as was the case here. It was also noticeable (as Frank Renton pointed out with a caustic quip) just how better dressed they are than the average Englishman who buys his suits at M&S! The women in the hall loved the accent (many went wobbly at the knees as soon as he started speaking) and it is not often Robert Morgan gets to be introduced as ‘Rrrobere' with a roll of the tongue that sounded as if he was tasting a good Burgundy wine at the same time.

There are areas of the event that need some fine tuning, but change does take time and that requires patience. If that patience is given then the BFBB will get this contest to where they want it to be. If they don't then it will soon die a death – something nobody surely wants.

The BFBB are asking for patience to get things right and after two years it appears on the evidence on Saturday that they are heading in the right direction. Next year's contest will be interesting to say the least to see if the lessons of Preston 2007 have been learnt. 

Malcolm Wood


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