Brassed Off!

5 01 2011

On the first day of 2011, sadly, Pete Postlethwaite lost his battle against cancer, aged just 64.

Pete was a versatile actor of stage and screen but never a star, which would have been most out of character.

His craggy features, instantly recognisable to theatre and film goers, might best be described as distinctive and full of character. ‘No oil painting,’  it might be said but actually his portrait (oil on canvas by Christopher Thompson-2002) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Not surprisingly, when director Stephen Spielberg, who Pete worked with on The Lost World – Jurassic Park, famously described him as, “probably the best actor in the world today”, everyone sat up and took notice.

Pete’s response was typically witty and self-deprecating, “It sounds like an advert for lager and it’s only one man’s opinion”. Despite the blockbuster movie parts that came his way, in the latter part of his career, Hollywood, actor status never turned his head and he always remained very much a man of Warrington.

In the 1970s he started out treading the boards, at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, along side colleagues who would also later see their names up in lights; Anthony Sher, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy and a former girl friend, Julie Walters, who has described Pete as, “the most exciting, exhilarating actor of his generation.”

A Shakespearian actor and long time member of the RSC, Pete made an emotional return to Liverpool, in 2008, to play King Lear in a Capital of Culture production. He described the experience as, “coming back to the womb.”

It wasn’t surprising, that yesterday, the Everyman artistic director Gemma Bodinetz summed him up as, “one of us, he never had that lofty great actor feel about him.”

Pete also played Shakespeare, Hollywood style, in Baz Lahrman’s hip 1996 version of Romeo & Juliet with its gun-toting mobsters (from the houses of Montague and Capulet) set in modern-day Venice Beach, and starring Leo DiCaprio with Claire Danes in the title roles.

He featured as Friar Lawrence, a cameo role (but crucial to the plot!) in which interestingly he is the only actor who speaks in the bard’s original iambic pentameter.   

Pete will also be remembered for his roles in the Usual Suspects and In the Name of the Father, the biographical movie about the Guildford Four, falsely convicted of IRA pub bombings.

He received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Giuseppe, father of Terry Conlon (played by Daniel Day-Lewis). The film was ideal for an actor with his strong social and political conscience. As was his role in a low budget Channel 4 movie for which I, and many like me, will always associate him, Brassed Off.    

This very human film, in turn both comic and tragic, is set in the fictional South Yorkshire Village of Grimley, based around real life events in Grimethorpe where it was filmed on location with the famous colliery band.

It takes place ten years after the ultimately unsuccessful 1984-5 miners’ strike against a Thatcher government set on decimating the British mining industry and instigating mass redundancies without a care for the associated local communities. (Don’t get me started on Thatcher and the myth of the greatest post war British Prime Minister!)     

Pete plays band leader Danny for whom music is seemingly everything. The local pit is undergoing closure but despite suffering with pneumoconiosis he keeps the community band going and leads a disparate but talented group of brass musicians to the national finals, at the Royal Albert Hall, where after winning the competition he refuses to accept the trophy.

In an emotional finale Pete’s character makes an unforgetable tear jerking speech where he denounces the trophy and the importance of music compared with the lives of people: “government has systematically destroyed an entire industry, our industry, and not just our industry – our communities, our homes, our lives – all in the name of ‘progress’ and for a few lousy bob”.

Pete even appeared at number 2 in the pop charts! A further line from Danny’s speech was used by one hit wonders Chumbawamba, who famously drenched Prezza at the 1998 Brit Awards. At the beginning of their Tubthumping number it is Pete’s voice saying, “Truth is I thought it mattered. But does it b——s! Not compared to how people matter.”     

Judging by the tributes rolling in it will be Pete Postlethwaite the man who will be missed, every bit as much as the accomplished actor. Down to earth, he never forgot his roots and had no pretensions of stardom.     

With regard to his art, he summed it up in brilliantly succinct fashion:

“At the end of the day, acting is all about telling lies. We are professional imposters and the audience accept that. We’ve made this deal that we tell you a tale and a pack of lies, but there will be a truth in it. You may enjoy it, or it will disturb you.”

Peter “Pete” Postlethwaite (OBE) 1946-2011; RIP




One response

21 02 2011
Slytherin Dragoon

Very nice tribute, thanks.

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