2009 English National Championship - All quiet on the Preston Front?


Has the English National got a long term future? Malcolm Wood asked for the opinions on the weekend.

How do you want your English band to qualify for The Europeans?

Too many contests or not enough?  It's an old debate that constantly gets talked about in the bars and bandrooms up and down the country.

Some say yes, others, no, but for bandsmen and women, the sport that is relished and loved is in danger of becoming all a bit of a bore – despite the bragging rights.

The cost of attending a major band contest is constantly rising and whilst attending these events is recognition of a band's status, it is beginning to cause a headache for players, conductors and treasurers alike. 

Time for research

The English Contest has provided plenty of debate since its inception, and with the winning band facing the prospect of having to raise around £18k in under nine months (not including the 5k donated by the BFBB) bands are starting to think differently.

With Grimethorpe and Rothwell pulling out, followed by late replacement Aveley & Newham, 4BR wondered what the thoughts were of the people involved, and whether or not they were happy with the current system of qualification or another preferred option?

Varied opinions

Nobody should be surprised to learn that people had varied opinions.  The issue of actually financing a band’s attendance (rather than competing for the title – which in context many now think is only a realistic outcome for a select few) is rapidly becoming the priority. Gone are the days when invitations are accepted by return of post. 

Bob Childs
Interested listeners? Bob & David Childs check out potential European rivals
Picture: Rob Fletcher

The History

There is of course a bit of history behind the English contest.  The Scottish and Welsh send their European representative from their regional contest, thirteen months earlier than the six Regions in England. For years, the ‘English’ representative was the highest placed band at the National Finals in London.

There was the possibility of the ‘Masters’ becoming the qualification event, but a series of almost comedic episodes of farcical ‘empire’ building caused that to become a non starter.

On the weekend then 4BR’s plan was to ask anybody who wanted to share their thoughts about the current system - from players, conductors, band secretaries, adjudicators and members of the general public alike.

We asked any players questioned to give an individual view, and not that of their band, and we reassured them of their anonymity, which of course gave them the opportunity to talk with greater freedom – and many did.

Reg Vardy
Ecstasy? Not quite on this occassion for Ray Farr and Reg Vardy
Picture: Rob Fletcher

Back to London

So. “How would you like an English band to qualify for the Europeans?”

Most of those questioned, favoured a return to the old qualification system of selecting the highest placed English band at the National Finals in the Royal Albert Hall. 

”I never understood why it had to be changed and add an extra contest,” said one leading player, whilst his colleague added: “Get it back to London. You worked hard to qualify for the Nationals and it proved to be a successful system. Did it have really have to be changed?”

Touch of envy

There was even a touch of envy of how the Scots and Welsh do things. 

To quote one player we spoke to: “The problem with England is we have so many regions that it doesn't matter what system you have. People will always gripe, but the Scots and the Welsh have a system that works for them and they have twelve months to plan ahead and budget.  Bands in England have nine months to raise the money and looking at the venues for the next few years, the European isn’t heading to Scotland is it?”

Others favoured the British Open being used: “…that’s where you have the best English bands competing against each other,” as someone pointed out, whilst a competing MD stated: “Why not the Masters? A ready made contest until they started messing it about.”

There were those though who were quite content with the English National as the qualification method. 

As one punter in the audience commented: “In London, you don’t get the best bands, but here, you’ve got all the regional winners and those that have had a good year in the rankings.”

Waiting his turn: Allan Withington takes a whiff before Brighouse set off
Picture: Rob Fletcher


The delight of winning the English contest comes with the realistic concern of how the money can be raised to attend the European. 

Bands love competing, but the costs involved in the top ranked bands attending events such as Butlins, the Areas, Cambridge, British Open, National Finals and Brass in Concert in a single year, are beginning to become prohibitive.

One player told 4BR:  “Based on your quote in the preview coverage of it costing around 18-20k to attend Linz next year, with the £5,000 we’d take from winning here, it still means the band would have to raise another 13-14 grand in around 8 months - and that is without financing those other commitments.” 

He continued: “ It would be great to attend the event and our band would no doubt look at it, but if I'm being honest, I can’t see our band attending, and if you offered me second place, here and now, I’ll be delighted.”

Realistic viewpoint

The above comments are certainly not isolated, but many of those 4BR spoke to said that contest organisers need to be realistic and accept that despite good intentions, bands will become more selective as to which events they attend because they have not got the money. 

The issue of finishing in the top four in London and then having to go to the Regional qualification process the following March raised its head again and there were pleas to sort it out once and for all.

As one leading player told 4BR: “Of course you can understand why the organisers want you at their regional contest, but if you've finished in the top four, a straight invitation to return to the finals should be all that is required.  Bands could look at doing a concert to raise funds for the event and the other qualifiers who'll head to Harrogate in London, but it should be looked at.”

Animated Aussie: Jason Katsikaris leads Leyland
Picture: Rob Fletcher 

Borrowed players

Meanwhile, the English National allows bands to utilise two borrowed players, and in an ideal world no band wants to take advantage of the rule - but it seems they are glad it is there. 

One MD told 4BR: “I want a settled line up like everyone else, but unfortunately things happen and the only alternative to pulling out is to borrow. I think it is something that the Open and National Finals have to seriously consider.”

They added: “What is needed is common sense, an amnesty on the rule if you like, and for bands to borrow for genuine reasons.  The loser won’t just be the band, but the contest organiser as well.  Times are changing, people are losing their jobs daily, other things are taking priority.”

Derek's view

4BR spoke to the Contest Controller of the English Nationals, Derek Atkinson and there was an understanding about the financial situation that bands find themselves in.

He for one certainly accepted this. “Bands had to look at what is most beneficial to themselves”, he said.

Derek also added: “The Guild Hall in Preston is booked for the next three years, but we would encourage all the prospective bands to speak to us well in advance of the contest to see if we can help in anyway with potential problems. Please talk directly to us – and not just through internet sites. We do listen and we do want to help as much as we can.”

Derek also stated that the current system of qualification to the English Championship is one the organisers are happy with at present. “It seems the system works well at the moment – allowing time for bands to know where they will be competing in advance.”

He also stated that all competing bands are members of the BFBB and that the feedback they had received so far about this year’s contest was on the whole very positive – especially in respect to the contest format and test piece.

”We are always open to discussion and debate, and we do want to hear directly from those involved to see how we can make the contest better.  The English National is an important contest and we all want it to succeed.”

Malcolm Wood

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