SCMP Monday, January 1, 2001

TV viewers yearn for creative local projects

The effort to ensure local television screens are occupied entirely by rubbish is interrupted by occasional accidents, in which some little gem slips through the net and surprises the audience. So it came about that one night last week the select band of insomniacs still tuned to Pearl at 1am were treated to the film, Brassed Off.
This is an unassuming little number, and I fear Pearl bought it as part of a job lot without realising what it was. Otherwise the movie would have been shown at a more sensible hour.
The piece has little plot: miners vote to take redundancy, pit closes, their brass band wins contest. There is also a little romantic thread with overtones of Romeo and Juliet: he is a miner, she works for the management. Love triumphs. Of course.
The fascination of Brassed Off is the way in which this minimal structure is used to explore some of the strange things about miners and mining. Miners are heroic men. Their work is hard, dangerous, demanding and noisy. The sheer violence of the work is intimidating. Rock is torn from the wall and smashed into manageable lumps. This is done in a confined space and near-total darkness. The senses should be numbed.
Yet in their off-duty hours miners have, at least in a British context, displayed a mysterious delicacy. They cultivate their gardens, rear pigeons, race fragile dogs called whippets. And most mysterious of all, they form brass bands of spectacular size and proficiency.
Now it must be said at this point that brass band music is not to everyone's taste and Brassed Off offers a great deal of it. There is, for example, a version of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with a flugelhorn playing the guitar part and exquisitely modulated brass as the orchestra. If this sounds to you like the musical equivalent of having the Mona Lisa reproduced in icing sugar on top of a cake, then this is not the movie for you.
Besides a gentle exploration of the role of music, the film also looks at the ambiguities of miners' attitudes to their own work. Mining has always been dangerous. With modernisation in the 1960s it ceased to be the most dangerous industrial activity in terms of accident casualties - a title taken over by deep-sea fishing - but mining also has a high incidence of occupational diseases.
Parents in mining villages are commonly keen on education because it offers an escape from a career "down the pit". And yet the village depends on this work. The male population works in the mine. If the mine closes the village dies.
A mining village is an extreme case of the single-industry town because of the mutual dependence fostered by the perils of work underground. There is a tight-knit community woven around pit, union and club. So it is peculiarly wrenching to be offered, as so many of these communities have been, a deal in which the men take a pile of money and the pit is closed. The usual result, as it is here, is that everyone takes the money and feels thoroughly ashamed.
None of these themes is explored explicitly in the film, except in a brief speech from the band leader at the end. This is just as well because the dialogue is broadest Yorkshire. For Hong Kong purposes a more thoughtful station would have provided subtitles.
But this is a movie for adults, not in the sense of offering sex, but in the sense of not offering easy answers. A sad syndrome is shown, lamented, and left with you, softened only by great slabs of that haunting music.
I have described this not so that you can look out for it - lightning rarely strikes the same place twice; if you missed it you missed it - but because of one peculiarity revealed at the end of the film.
This was not a Hollywood movie. Nor, despite the passing resemblance to The Full Monty, was it a product of the British film industry. It was produced on a freelance basis for British television's Channel Four.
This is, as you might gather from its number, not by any means a mass market. It will not become one, I fear, by broadcasting one-off items like this, instead of predictable assembly-line products which grind on for week after week.
The channel was strenuously discouraged from setting up its own production facilities, in the hope that it would foster an independent programme-making sector, as to some extent it has. No doubt the quality of the results varies, but at least there is variety.
And the question which then arises is: as television channels of all kinds proliferate in all directions, when will something like this happen here? Hong Kong produces plenty of creative people. There is plenty of airtime waiting to be filled. Yet the industry seems to have trouble seeing any alternative to commercial tat, imported or imitated.
Television is a commercial medium. That does not mean it has to be a Philistine one. It is possible to make programmes which leave an "artistic impression" that survives the next commercial break. If you really want to.
Tim Hamlett ( ) is an associate professor in the Deparment of Journalism at Baptist University.