2009 English National Championship - Postcard from Preston


The English National was well run, compact and enjoyable - but is it still one contest too many?

Revved up! Formula 1 comes to Preston?
Picture: Rob Fletcher

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After an enjoyable, but rather inconsequential day in the great scheme of things at Preston Guild’s Hall on Saturday, you are left wondering whether the English National Championship is one contest too many.

Diverted attention

Despite an equably enjoyable test piece, a fair line up of top English bands, a sensible contesting format and no real sporting event that would tempt the English masses to decamp to the nearest bar mid afternoon (this year the Scots were interested in supporting one of their own at Wimbledon, whilst the attention of the Welsh and Irish was on the high veldt in South Africa), there was still a rather deflated feeling about the event.

It seemed the audience was slightly up on last year, but the rows of empty seats told their own story. 

Tried hard

The BFBB has tried hard with the English National – but they do not have the resources to force its profile to the forefront of the banding consciousness. A contest, whose sole purpose is to find a qualifying band for yet another contest, is not one that instils a desire from occasional listeners to leap from their apathetic torpor. 

High energy

Talking of which, there wasn’t a great deal of high-energy interest at the event from official EBBA sources either. Was anyone from the EBBA Executive Committee (Derek Atkinson – England’s representative apart) there to show support? It didn’t look like it.

Try as they might, the writing is starting to appear on the wall for the BFBB – and what is being seen is a message that makes for uncomfortable reading: Contesting supply far outreaches customer demand – be it from bands, conductors, supporters, the occasional listener and even EBBA and sponsors.

Enjoying the day - three members of the Preston audience
Picture: Rob Fletcher


For instance, Besson’s support of the event is much appreciated, but in reality a local branch of Preston undertakers could more appropriately sponsor the contest.

And why not?

Does anyone really think Besson get a substantive return on their investment from Preston or the British Open for that matter, in increased sales?  Do bandsmen, conductors or listeners, really worry about who gives a financial lending hand to help underwrite a contest such as this? Not on your nelly.

Besson has bills to pay and workers to keep employed – sinking money into events such as this won’t do that for long. Bands meanwhile just want the prize money – its source doesn’t worry them one jot.

Shiver down the spine

The short speech from Besson’s Lyndon Chapman at the end of the contest was one that should send a shiver down everyone’s spine. In essence he was obliquely saying that the days of largesse and noblesse oblige are long gone. Sponsors have to justify their promotional spend on a positive return on the balance sheet. 

As for the bands?

In a peculiar way, losing Grimethorpe, Rothwell and Aveley & Newham did the contest a favour. 14 bands at a major contest is perhaps the ideal number – it allows for the event to be structured compactly.

PLC meets the Major - The composer and one of banding greats - Peter Parkes
Picture: Rob Fletcher

Nearly bang on

The BFBB nearly got it bang on this year – just let down by an overlong presentation ceremony. The backroom organisation was slick (bands were on and off stage in a flash) and the split draw (with bands notified in advance which of the two sections they would appear in) worked well too.

All that is now needed to bring the contest into the 21st century is to copy the Norwegians with open adjudication and a bit more audience participation (ie. getting the judges to tell them just how they came to their result).   

Storm in a bucket

The storm in a bucket that was the perceived unfairness of the test piece selection was just that too. Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s work was popular and accessible (if a little overlong) and the conspiracy theories died a death as soon as the first note was blown.   

Now the BFBB has the chance to really do something radical and invite young composers to write future test pieces for the event – there is plenty of talent out there too, such as Simon Dobson, Peter Meechan, Lucy Pankhurst, Gavin Higgins etc.  PLC certainly gave us something fresh and different, and so will these young tyros.

Wishful thinking

That though may be wishful thinking for a contest that in its short history has battled against some pretty tough odds. The trouble though is that time, money and support appears not to be on the English National’s side.

With the National Finals in London offering a system that can also send an English band to the European without the extra cost, the bands themselves are weighing up the balance sheet options.

Do without

Many now see another contest in the middle of the contesting year as an expense they can well do without (as at least 12 of the 14 will certainly have done if they had won and had to try and find the £18,000+ to get to Linz next year). As we said before the event started – banding democracy comes at a very high price.

Four years after its birth, amid unrealistic claims of contesting innovation and long term sponsorship support, it appears that the very mundane factors of profit and loss, rather than musical pros and cons may well decide the English Nationals future.

Iwan Fox


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