Our trip to France couldn't really have started any less well: horrible thunder storms, and the car park flooded at Thurrock as we were trying to leave. But it was at Dover where the shit spattered itself all over the fan! I don't know who should take more responsibly. P and O suggest getting to the port 30 minutes before a crossing. We got there 1 hour and 20 minutes before ours. And sat. And sat. Apparently we were in a queue waiting for the French border police, who were taking their own sweet time. Maybe it was because of the European cup but I assumed we were being shown how difficult it's going to be from now on to get into Europe. The British police were just standing around saying there was nothing they could do. Blaming the French. And P and O couldn't have cared any less. Everything was someone else's fault. These days it's always someone else's fault. I spoke to a woman in hi viz: "you need to start telling people to get to the ports with two hours to spare..." I said. The response was bizarre, "we always tell people they should leave a reasonable amount of time..." "yes, you advise half an hour!" "And we have no control over how long the French police take..."
So we missed our ferry by seconds and had to sit in a dingy ferry terminal until the next crossing at 3.20am. We weren't the only ones. A large number of other coaches were booked in with different ferry companies and, because they'd missed the last crossing of the night, had to fork out hundreds of pounds for a ticket on the next P and O boat. This is a miserable glimpse into the post-Brexit world. I spoke to bus drivers who said it would no longer be tenable to do day trips to France because the waits at the ferry terminal would eat into their driving hours by too much.
We tried to make the most of it. We rehearsed music. The four trumpeters stood in the car park against the darkened famous white cliffs, and then all the singers got together and sang. Our wonderful drivers, Paul and Cliff, from Abbott's of Leeming, swore they'd go hell for leather to get us to Serre for our ceremony at 7.30am. But at 3.20am, word got around that a "technical issue" involving a life boat on the ferry, meant that we'd be delayed. We eventually left Dover at 4am, with no hope of getting to Serre for 7.30am. Turns out the issue with the life boat was that they'd decided to launch a boat as a "test" at 3am which they couldn't get back onto the ferry. They'd had to cut the lifeboat free and then limit the number of passengers on the ferry accordingly.
I was so depressed. I'd dotted every i and crossed every t in organising this trip and had fallen at the last hurdle through no fault of my own. Instead of watching the sun rise at 6am on a French battlefield, we watched it rise from the ferry. It was the most beautiful sunrise. Bright red streaks across the sky. "Red sky in the morning, shepherds' warning," I thought, and called out to the universe to make the rain it promised hold off, at least for the morning.
The drivers were true to their word, and sped through France. Who knows if they broke the law for us. I was so so grateful.
We arrived in Serre at 8am. We'd missed the zero hour, but, we were all there safely, and, more crucially, there was still no rain.
As we walked up the dusty track towards the little cluster of cemeteries around the Sheffield Memorial Park, the air felt deeply charged. The young cast were soaking the atmosphere in, looking at every detail: the position of the sun in the sky, the gradient of No Man's Land... We stood in the first of the cemeteries looking at gravestone after gravestone belonging to Leeds Pals. A silence descended as they tried to comprehend.
We walked to the Queen's Road Cemetery which is where we ran our little ceremony. It's such a peaceful place. The only sounds we heard from nature were the rustling of trees and the noise of a blissfully happy skylark. The trumpeters played The Last Post in a glorious canon. They wore their banding uniforms proudly. The cast did wonderful readings. We sang "You'll Always Have a Friend" to the Pals as a sort of lullaby. And I know they were listening as they slept because the sun came our from behind a cloud and bathed everyone in the most beautiful light.
The Sheffield Memorial Park is a bitter-sweet place. It commemorates a number of the Pals regiments. Accrington, Barnsley, Sheffield... But the Leeds and Bradford Pals were apparently the "wrong regiment" despite having gone over the top in the vicinity. I have pleaded with the owners of the land to put up a little plaque for the Pals. Their response is that "we can't remember everyone" and that they have "standards to uphold." It makes me very angry.
We went to Serre Road cemetery number 2, where Robyn did a deeply moving reading and Ben Jones, now Mabberly, became incredibly emotional at the grave of my Great Uncle, William Mabberley, after whom I named the central character in the show, which Ben has portrayed so beautifully in two productions. God, it was moving.
And as we headed off to Beaumont Hamel, the promised rain still didn't fall. The Newfoundland Park at Beaumont Hamel is a lovely place. The area was purchased by Newfoundland immediately after the war because they knew it held the remains of so many of their people, who were slaughtered on the first day of the Somme. They left the area as it was, and, over the years, it has simply grassed over. We should all have a real sense of gratitude to the Newfoundlanders because, by purchasing this land, and leaving it the way it's been left, we can all gain a great deal of understanding about the layout of First World War battlefields, with their networks of support, front-line and communication trenches. Every year hundreds of Canadian students come over to the area to give visitors free educational tours, which are really very interesting.
The only issue I have with the set up, and, for some reason, I felt this acutely today, is that you'd think it was only Newfoundlanders who died on this hallowed turf on July 1st 1916, despite the fact that they weren't part of the first wave of the attack, which saw the massacre of countless other battalions, the majority of whom were British. Our tour guide mentioned the "British front line" once. She knew we were English. She didn't feel the need to tell us which battalions had died there and to make matters slightly worse, she talked about the Highlanders having the "relatively easy" task of taking the German lines a few months later when they were exhausted. The Highlanders were known as some of the fiercest and bravest fighters of the entire war, and to pass over their significance felt somewhat disingenuous. Our guide was from Newfoundland itself, so I completely understood her passion, but I think you sometimes need to know your audience and she came across as nationalists and naïve.
As we left the park, we all posed for a group photograph. When we'd taken a few pictures, I asked the kids to run at the camera to see if I could get a bit of a fun "action" shot. It was all vey lighthearted and silly, and it lasted about three seconds.
As we walked out of the park, I became aware that one of the Canadian guides was staring at me, so I thanked him. "What the hell were you doing?" He asked, humourlessly. "Asking people to charge? Have some respect." I instantly apologised but felt somewhat aggrieved, largely out of embarrassment because it was important for me not to upset anyone whilst we were in France. I was also more than a little surprised because we were simply having a little moment of fun and the young people I was there with had been utterly respectful and brilliantly behaved all day. But being told I had no respect for the men who had fallen in the First World War was very galling. I wondered how many musicals he'd written about the war. Whether he'd ever lobbied to have a plaque placed in a memorial park. I wished I'd told him that I felt he and his tour guides ought to show a little more respect for the non-Canadians who had died at Beaumont Hamel. Or that perhaps they might like to take themselves a little less seriously.
As we left Beaumont Hamel, we'd still not had any rain...
We did a little diversion to Thiepval Monument so the lovely Carol, our Barnbow expert who has been so much fun on the trip, could jump out, run across a car park and take a quick picture of the memorial. I don't know how old Carole is, but most women of her age wouldn't have been able to sprint the way she did. We cheered her from the coach!
The third and final part of our day took place at Bus Les Artois, which, I think, for some, was the most magical part of the day. The lads got a chance to walk into and explore an actual barn where the Leeds Pals were billeted. Ben and Oscar even climbed a ladder up into the hay loft. It's such an atmospheric place, which has plainly not changed at all since the war. Shafts of mysterious light were pouring through the roof.
The cast also got a chance to go to the tiny little private museum to the Pals in the town which is stacked full of curios including the little porcelain tea set which so inspired one of the story lines in Brass. I think a number of the girls were fascinated to see and hold a real life shell... Just like the ones their characters made at Barnbow.
As that was our special day. We returned to the UK without a great deal of issue and the first drops of rain we'd seen since leaving Dover fell on English soil.
I invited some of the cast of Brass who came on the trip today to write a "guest blog." The first is a joint enterprise by Maddie and Anna:
"Never did we think that at some point in our career we would be rehearsing at a coffee shop at 2am with an audience consisting of two anti-terrorist police men. All of us in the cast of Brass knew all too well that we could be sleeping, but instead we all agreed that it was more important to rehearse for what was going to be the most important few minutes of our time as a company so far. After an unplanned delay and sleepless night- or should we say morning- we arrived at Serre and walked onto what was once No Mans Land. The first thing that struck us was the deafening, but oddly peaceful silence that surrounded us. It seems strange to think that one hundred years ago this exact spot would have been deafeningly loud. As we prepared to pay our respects to the fallen, we realised how carefully the memorials have been maintained over the years- It was comforting to see how every individual solider was not going to be forgotten.
I (Maddie) had the honour to play the Last Post at the spot where my Great Great Uncle was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. While I was playing I became instantly aware of the silence that surrounded us and how vast the battlefields really were. I also experienced something that I had never felt before. Looking at the war graves around me made me feel angry. They never found his body and to me, he deserves a grave stone like every other solider, even though he is still out in No Mans Land. I also felt enormously proud to be standing when he fell representing my family. Even though I never met him, I feel as though I was with him at that moment. I felt the same when we sung the end of 'Letters'. We were no longer singing about them, we were singing to them.
After the ceremony we started to think about the events that have happened in recent days. The men that fell for our country gave their lives to ensure that we had a better, brighter future and quite frankly, with the the recent choice our country has made, we feel like we've let them down.
After an amazing and insightful day we began our journey home. As we were approaching the border at Calais, we noticed hundreds and hundreds of tents packed together on the side of the motorway. We were then informed that these were the homes of migrants fleeing their horrific situation. Never in our lives have we seen a sight quite like it and for us, this realisation came at a poignant time. Having just come from the war graves, we see how important it is for us to love and build bridges, not walls. As the younger generation we understand that it is us who have to change the way our world is, something that has become even more apparent because of our trip today. Thank you NYMT."
Emma Barry, who played Grimsby in the 2014 incarnation of Brass, wrote this about her experience at Sheffield Memorial Park:
"A thing that struck me most about today was the silence; the sense of peace and utter stillness that came from the absence of any sound bar the rustle of the wind and the birdsong. One area we visited in Serre had grown over into a miniature forest, and as soon as we entered the area (roughly on the spot of the British front line trenches) I couldn't help but notice how the trees seemed to guard the area like sentinels.
They reminded me of the soldiers, and it was almost as if the trees represented their souls - marking each spot where, an entire century ago now, a brave young man had fallen in battle, giving up his life to protect his country. It was a humbling thought, and somewhat comforting to think that even in a place which has known such chaos, new life can always flourish. When I think of Serre I will think of that forest: the final resting place of so many lives, yet the symbol of rejuvenation and peace."
The following comes from another collective:
"We feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to have gone to the place where the Leeds pals went over the top 100 years ago. It was an incredibly moving and emotional experience that will make our performance in Brass all the more real. We love this cast so much and when the sun shone brightly as we sang "Just remember my eyes and my chin and my smile" we were astounded with a sense of love and peace for all humanity for the sacrifices that so many of our own men made. Thank you for an incredible experience that we will take into our performance and will remember for the rest of our lives. All our love, Kitty Watson, Ben Jones and Oscar Garland
We love you benj!!! Xxx"
Ruby Ablett who plays Peggy in the show writes:
"Not had enough time to reflect and think this through, but feeling so strongly right now that I wanted to contribute to the blog (or at least just let you know how grateful I am for today). Too many bottles of wine so bare with me!
Right now I'm not really thinking about the show or even really about world war 1, but about humanity. We've really fucked some things up. But I also believe we have something very special as a human race. And yet last week people denied this connection, and chose, selfishly, and probably ignorantly, to think of themselves, and not the whole picture. Today I saw the whole picture; I saw the blessing of life and family and community destroyed by the pointlessness of politics and international war. We are so much more than this. As we sang today it was clear we shared so much with these men as fellow humans. Too many lives and for nothing but a few metres of field. I wish we could just pack up the weapons and collaborate. I don't know why this seems so irrational and idealistic.
Despite feeling deeply saddened by the results of the referendum, I do feel hope, because young people are seeing this now. The brass cast are wonderful and it's been an honour to spend this day with them. So thank you so much for the opportunity. It's been beautiful. Sorry if we've been loud at the back of the bus."
Tom Strang from the cast writes the following:
"Just wanted to say a huge thank you for organising one of the most insightful trips I'll probably ever experience, especially whilst being surrounded by such a fantastic group of people.
Probably the hardest part for me emotionally, was singing in the grave yard as the sun rose and shone down onto our faces whilst hearing the birds sing in the background. Also meeting all the graves of some of the characters in Brass really brought the stories to life and really hit home that these people were a similar age to most of us in the cast and from similar locations across the uk. I'm so glad that so much of it is caught on camera as I'm sure it's going to be a huge benefit for us to be able to picture everything we witnessed over the few hours whilst performing the piece on stage. A specific highlight which definitely made it that tiny bit more memorable was singing the end of 'letters' at 2am in the morning at the Dover ferry terminal. There was something very calming about that moment and at that point I think our focus really changed to why we were on our way to Serre and what we were going to do.
Again, a huge thanks for all your effort to make that a special trip for all of us. See you soon, Tom X"
And Charlie from the cast sent this to me late last night:
"I can't thank you enough for organising the special trip we've just experienced. I feel enormously privileged to have visited places that are so important (from all manner of perspectives) and to have learned from you, Nathan and Carol. The ceremony in the first cemetery we visited, in particular, shall live long in the memory. And to have stood where the Leeds Pals once stood, to have explored the real barn from the show and to have seen so much ephemera from life in the 1910s... just overwhelming. For me, seeing pictures of monstrous engines of war in the Newfoundland museum brought home just how mercilessly humans can view one of their own kind. I got much more of a sense of this from these monochrome photographs than I have ever got from images in the modern media. Perhaps this is due to my age: putting myself in the shoes of a young soldier from 1916 comes more naturally to me than doing the same with the generally more experienced soldiers of today in mind. (Nathan mentioned that you'd like reactions from us for your next blog - please feel free to use this if you want.) I (and I've no doubt everyone else, too) hugely appreciate the hard work that went into the trip. Thank you."
I would personally like to thank Karen Murgatroyd at Leeds City Council for assisting us financially with this trip, Voctoria Bracey and all of the relatives, friends and BBC people who have given us donations.