2008 National Championships of Great Britain - Postcard from Kensington


Misplaced optimism or the first signs of longer term decline at the Royal Albert Hall this year? Some things were not quite right that's for sure.

Albert Hall
Glamour venue but glamour product this year?
Picture: Ian Clowes

”Brass banding is back!” That was the rather misplaced cry of optimism from Philip Morris of Kapitol Promotions at the end of the 2008 Nationals this year.

Misplaced, because the 2007 hopes of a possible return to the contest being held in a hall full to the brim with brass band lovers, has been substituted by a rather desperate sense of nostalgia for better days 12 months later. 

Credit crunch

Perhaps it’s the effect of the credit crunch, but there was no mistaking the fact that there wasn’t exactly a clamour for tickets this year. The rows of empty seats at the Royal Albert Hall showed that all too clearly.

If brass banding is back, then it better be careful, because it is nowhere near climbing off the critical list just yet like a latter day contesting Lazarus. 

Hoping people will keep turning up to the major contests (numbers were also visibly down at the British Open) out of respect and habit isn’t enough. The need to attract a younger audience is the key to long term success – an audience that wants more than just time filling entertainment for their money though. .  


The nostalgics, who come here year after year are getting older and less willing to pay London prices for a contest day, that this year, never caught the imagination - and imagination is what is needed to make sure this particular brass band contest remains a viable proposition at the Albert Hall. 

Au revoir?

For instance, was it just 4BR, but didn’t the announcement of thanks to the sponsors York, sound very much like it was more of an au revoir? 

Without substantial sponsorship, ticket sales on this evidence won’t cover the costs of hiring out the old place for a day, and it will also mean that the rather shameful prize money on offer (still no change now for close on 25 years or more) won’t be increased too.

Twelve months is a long time in any business, and thinking that more of the same is a recipe for continued success is as misplaced as people’s faith in merchant bankers becoming disciples of Clause Four of the old Labour Party constitution (although some may have too after Gordon Brown nationalised some of them on the weekend).  

Stale and overlong

That was self evident in the post contest entertainment and awards presentations. Last year it was slick and imaginative, this year it was stale, over long and verging on the farcical.

Sheila Tracey was awful – flustered and rambling. Not knowing names is one thing, not getting the sponsors name right quite another. The announcement of the results was a real anti climax. Time to say au revoir and thanks for past efforts too?

The Fanfare Trumpeters of the Welsh Guards looked great and played brilliantly for all of the 15 seconds they were under utilised for (they also gave up their time free of charge too, so it would have been nice to give them a bigger part to play) and it says something for their professionalism that they were able to come in just in the nick of time after Sheila Tracey fumbled the announcement of the winners.

Fanfare Trumpeters Welsh Guards
Don't look back in anger:  The Trumpeters play their small part
Picture: Ian Clowes

Double Queen

Before all this Grimethorpe’s long old day sounded just that with their short post contest concert, which rather cruelly as fate would have it, featured them playing Freddie Mercury’s ‘Queen’ some seven hours after they had to perform the real one’s signature tune off the number 1 draw. 

Grimey sounded tired and a little disinterested. Hearing 30 red blooded ‘mens-men’ trying to sing like a raving old camped up gay hoofer like Freddie Mercury in his prime was painful, if enjoyable, in a surreal sort of way.   


The contest retains its glamour of course – although it is in danger of fading into becoming an inconsequential part of a day out for many in the capital city if things stay the same. People are not going to hang around at the end of a long day, when what they want is the results and the chance to get back to their hotels in plenty of time to get ready for a night out in London.

Less bands and more emphasis on quality rather than quantity (which meant a truncated version of what could have been a substantive test piece) is the only way forward. A radical approach is now needed, because as was shown by the flow of people out of the hall, there are other attractions around these parts that are certainly more appealing to the occasional listener at these prices.

Original form

The test piece did its job, but it deserved to be heard in its original form – would we ask an orchestra for Beethoven’s Ninth without the ‘Ode to Joy’ just so we could finish a concert in time to listen to an hour or so of speeches – and then call it his ‘Eighth and a bit Symphony’? 

Top trio

That said, congratulations do go to the organisers for the adjudication team this year. It was nice to see James Gourlay join with David Read and David King – a super mix of varied and knowledgeable brass banding experience. This was a top class trio who did a top class job – and not just because we agreed with their top three placings come the results!  David’s analysis on stage gave enough indication of just what the three were looking for.

It would perhaps be helpful though if the box was moved closer to the stage (and possibly dressed up in colours other than red, white and blue, which made it look like an ice cream tent on Porthcawl beach). With a piece that demanded such clarity of detail, the judges should get the best acoustic position of all in the hall – and where they were perhaps isn’t it at present.

Good value

Meanwhile, the programme was good value once more for £4.00, whilst the study scores were also worth their £10 price too.  The bands also got on and off stage with the help of the slick back stage work of the helpers and organisers, but that type of thing should be taken for granted and should not come as a surprise.


Finally, talking of glamour, 4BR once again had the chance to meet up with the delightful Melanie Sykes, who just happened to be in the box with friends next to us all day.  

Rumours that she will now take a restraining order out on us to stop us from coming within 250 yards of her are without foundation though. It just happened to be a very lucky coincidence – honest! It also made you wonder that it would have been well worthwhile asking her to conduct the awards ceremony too.

On a day when a bit of glamour and imagination was in short supply a quick whip round would have surely come up with enough money to tempt her to have done just that. 

Misplaced optimism

That sense of misplaced optimism, which came from Philip Morris, was perhaps said in the hope that like a London Palladium audience, the vast throng of brass band lovers who had waited patiently for well over an hour to get the results would have shouted back with an enthusiastic positive response.  What it actually got was a lone, and rather embarrassed “Yeah!” from one person in the choir stalls at the back of the stage.

That rather summed up most people’s feelings on the day.  

Iwan Fox


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