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Is the end of the contest day programme nigh?

With three major British contests looming on the horizon, Tim Mutum wonders if the days of the treasured contest programme are numbered.

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Will the souvenir programme soon be lost for good?

It was recently announced that football programmes could well have disappeared.

The English Football League voted on whether the production of a traditional printed match day ‘souvenir’ should  have continued to be compulsory for its 72 league clubs, who until now  had an obligation to do so.

The arguement was that the advent of social media had led to declining sales, and that with increased printing costs many had become a burden for clubs. 

Comparisons

Comparisons between football and brass bands are often made, and a similar problem is certainly faced by contest promoters.

The proliferation of digital and social media has made the dissemination of contest information much more cost-effective, arguably making the need for a comprehensive contest day programme increasingly redundant.

For decades the purchase of the contest programme (and occasional study scores) has formed part of the ritual of the competition listening experience.

But should we be wary of possibly losing an integral part of the activity we love; one which has also served as an important reference document for social historians?

For decades the purchase of the contest programme (and occasional study scores) has formed part of the ritual of the competition listening experience.

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The back of the 1952 British Open programme even catered for football fans...

And although the British are renowned for their politeness in queuing, it was always fascinating to see the early morning scrum of aficionados pushing like well mannered rugby players to get their hands on the programme - all to find out the identity of the judges, moan about the paucity of the prize money and find out a little more about the test piece.

It was followed by the announcement of the draw.

And although the British are renowned for their politeness in queuing, it was always fascinating to see the early morning scrum of aficionados pushing like well mannered rugby players to get their hands on the programme

Fixed to the nearest door like a Wild West ‘Wanted’ poster, it signalled innumerable requests to borrow a pen and the start of a forensic examination of the fates of the top bands - debates that  invariably bemoaned the chances of the unlucky band drawn number 1, and discussions over those who will be your personal ‘cup of tea’ competitors. 


The ritual of filling in the draw has never changed...

At the major championship events, study scores could be purchased for a few bob more - resulting in the now long-forgotten aural contest phenomenon of the papery sound of the communal turning of pages in the hall.

Social changes

And whilst brass band contests themselves have remained rooted in tradition, the progress of time as seen through the prism of the contest day programme sheds a fascinating light on the immense social changes that have taken place around them.

Take for instance the very first National Championship held at the Crystal Palace in July 1900.

Costing 2d (around 66p in 2018), it included many of the details you would find today – even though the first prize came with the title, ‘The Championship of Great Britain and the Colonies’.

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The 1900 National programme listed the bands and their players

First prize was £75 (approx £5,900 in 2018) whilst other awards saw gold medals presented to the best cornet, euphonium, trombone, soprano and horn soloists.

The Cat King

In addition to the names of the competing bands and their players, came the adverts of the other attractions found on offer on the day – including ‘The Flying Lady’ and ‘The Cat King’ Leoni Clarke, and her ‘marvellous cats, rats, mice, canaries, rabbits, monkeys and cockatoos’ - described with no little sense of Victorian irony as, ‘The sight of a lifetime’.

All this and there was a mutoscope (an early motion picture device), a grand fireworks display and the chance to see a performance by the American comedy duo of James Howard and Fanny St Clair presenting their ‘brilliant repertoire of polite comedy sketches’.

All this and there was a mutoscope (an early motion picture device), a grand fireworks display and the chance to see a performance by the American comedy duo of James Howard and Fanny St Clair presenting their ‘brilliant repertoire of polite comedy sketches’.

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Artistry from a different age...

Different place

Half a century later – two World Wars, a General Strike and a King’s abdication and the world was a very different place – even if the contest programme, now costing 1 shilling (£1.50 in 2018) from the first year of the new Elizabethan age of 1953 seemed all too familiar. 

Band names and conductors, a miniature précis of the test-piece (‘Diadem of Gold’) and the prizes (the winner took home 200 guineas) still appeared. 

And although the Empress Hall at Earls Court couldn’t quite match the attractions of Crystal Palace (which burned down in 1936), you could still get your hands on the latest Besson ‘New Standard’ cornet, your band music from Paxton, and uniforms from the Army & Navy Supplies Stores.

And although the Empress Hall at Earls Court couldn’t quite match the attractions of Crystal Palace (which burned down in 1936), you could still get your hands on the latest Besson ‘New Standard’ cornet, your band music from Paxton, and uniforms from the Army & Navy Supplies Stores.

By the new millennium the programme cost £3.50, came in glossy paper and featured adverts for music from Egon, CDs from Doyen and with a sense of things to come - e-commerce solutions for mortgage advice and widescreen televisions from Buy As You View.

The winner got £2,000 (now worth a tad over £3,000)

British Open

The British Open has also reflected social change – even if its sense of contesting tradition has remained even stronger with its contest programme. 

And whilst the days when the audience could pay sixpence for a printed newspaper on their way home from Belle Vue for an updated list of the winners of its various contests from 1853 to the new champions are long gone, the famous programme cover (which first appeared in 1952) is still used today (with the exceptions of the Daily Mirror newspaper sponsored years between 1980 and 1984).

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Belle Vue punters could leave for home with their own printed souvenir paper

Smokers and Chop Sauce

Meanwhile, the most significant change in social norms shown through the Brass in Concert Championship programmes has sure been the end of cigarette advertising (although the demise of Hammonds bottled Chop Sauce comes a close second).

In 1977 Carreras Rothmans started putting a great deal of money into the event (and even gave players free cigarettes as they came off stage). 

The contest ‘test-piece’ was called ‘King Size’ in honour of one of their most popular products, and one advert even extolled the virtues of smoking and knitting.

How things have changed. 

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Health & Safety?

Lasting memento?

So will the contest day programme go the same way as the ‘Lap of Honour’ performance and ‘Insignia of Honour’ at the National Championships, Bob’s Racers at Belle Vue and packets of free cigarettes at Brass in Concert? 

Hopefully not - despite the programmes at each now costing £5.00, and the identity of the judges, the draw and full results being readily available to you via your mobile phone within seconds of them being announced.

For all the advances in technology, we will have surely lost some of the romance of the events in the form of a physical, lasting memento, if all we come away with is memory that can only be recalled by surfing the internet.

For all the advances in technology, we will have surely lost some of the romance of the events in the form of a physical, lasting memento, if all we come away with is memory that can only be recalled by surfing the internet. 

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The last of its kind?

So I for one will keep buying a contest day programme, for no other reason than to add it to my own collection.

One day they may find a home in an official national brass band museum, but for the moment there is no risk of the garden shed blowing away in a gale given the number of boxes of them that are piled up there. 

However, more seriously: If you are going to the Open, National or Brass in Concert spare a thought for those keeping these events alive. 

For not much more than the price of a cup of overpriced coffee, buy a programme and have a read, even if you still end up relying on your mobile phone for the results. 

It may well save us all from losing another great link to our contesting heritage.

Tim Mutum



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