John McArdle in Brassed Off at King’s theatre

John McArdle as Danny in Brassed Off. Pic: Comp
John McArdle as Danny in Brassed Off. Pic: Comp
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JOHN McArdle couldn’t be more different from his character in the stage adaptation of the hit 1996 box office coal flick, Brassed Off.

But the Liverpool-born actor jumped at the chance to play Danny, the single-minded bandleader who will eventually come to realise that it’s not music that matters most, but people, before going on to deliver a heartfelt speech to a packed Royal Albert Hall after his beloved colliery brass band wins a national competition.

“It’s a speech that always chokes me up, and I have to fight against it,” says the 64-year-old, who made his name as troubled soul Billy Corkhill in Scouse soap Brookside and also starred in the BBC police drama Merseybeat.

“A crack in the voice is fine, but it’s an important speech that I have to get right.”

Brassed Off, which opens at the King’s Theatre tonight, is a typically British bittersweet melodrama about a working class town that turns to music for inspiration when faced with the loss of its way of life.

“It’s about a Yorkshire mining community who have a brass band, but they rely on the mines for their well-being,” says McArdle. “The brass band could fold if the mining community falls apart – that’s what they are threatened with.

“Danny’s biggest passion is for the band to continue – no matter what. He’s single-minded and driven.

“Danny is a retired miner, so I don’t suppose he’s thinking too much about what’s going on in the miners’ lives. He only wants his band to get recognition.

“But sadly the mines are closing, and Danny comes to his senses in the end and talks about it at the Albert Hall as he gives this rousing speech.”

Nailing the speech for the show’s big finale was one thing, but another was honing his conducting skills.

“Conducting isn’t easy,” laughs McArdle. “I had to get a lot of help from people who are good at music. I’m okay myself... I play harmonica with a blues band now and again... but I’ve never played any brass instruments and I’ve never conducted.

“I got a lot of help from band members when we were rehearsing. We use a local band in every town we go to [the Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band do the honours during Brassed Off’s Edinburgh run] and they’ve given me great encouragement. I’ve been doing it for eight or nine weeks now, and I’m getting better and better. Well, I think I am!”

In the film, Danny was played by the late Pete Postlethwaite, an actor of whom McArdle is a huge fan. “I loved Pete’s performance in the film,” he enthuses. “But playing it myself is like playing any of the great parts – you try to forget all the great actors who’ve done it before you and try to bring something of yourself to it.

“I admire Pete greatly – he’s a fantastic actor – but there’s no way I could ever copy what he does. Nor would I ever attempt to.

“With Danny, though, there’s only so many ways you can do it, because he’s a very driven character. All he wants is to get his band to the Royal Albert Hall, but he knows he’s dying of lung disease, and he knows his community is being ripped apart, and that politicises him, whereas in the past he’s been apolitical.”

Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the bitter miners’ strike of 1984-85, Brassed Off, for all its dry Northern humour, still seems painfully relevant to this day.

“Nothing much has changed since and the jobs they have now are very poorly paid with zero hour contracts, so it’s especially relevant now we’ve got another Conservative government in power,” says McArdle. “People are having to go to food banks and are in similar situations to what those miners were in.”

In its early years, Brookside was an overtly political soap which dealt with some of the most contentious social issues of the day.

As such, playing Billy Corkhill for so many years was a useful experience for McArdle when it came to playing Danny.

“Brookside did reflect what was going on in Britain at that time,” he says. “It didn’t shy away from politics, which a lot of the soaps do. “There was a lot of relevance going on in Brookside Close at that time.

“When Billy lost his job, I got loads of job offers. From all over the country I got letters saying ‘We need an electrician’ at such and such.

“I think my favourite storyline was when Billy was going through his bad period and reluctantly turned to crime to feed his family. He tried to back out of it at the last minute, but he couldn’t. He had to go through with it.

“That whole storyline was really good. His despair and his anxiety over what’s happening to his family, his wife leaving him, losing his job, getting involved in crime... it’s the stuff actors love to get their teeth into.”

• Brassed Off, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tonight, until Saturday, 7.30pm (Wednesday and Saturday matinees, 2.30pm), £14.50-£29.50, 0131-529 6000