IT’S the final countdown and Mike Johnson is blowing his heart out – just as he has for the past 65 years.

After managing to stay in tune throughout the challenges of lockdown, the members of Spennymoor Town Band are ready for the big day they’ve been patiently waiting for.

On Sunday, in Cheltenham, they’ll represent the North of England at the National Brass Band Finals of Great Britain and, as the band’s longest-serving member, Mike’s hoping it’s sixth time lucky.

Mike first joined as an eight-year-old boy in 1956 and has played cornet in all five finals the band has reached – in 1966, 1970, 1989, 1991 and 2018.

“We haven’t won yet but I hope we’ve got a good chance this time,” says the grandad-of-four. “If we come off stage feeling a buzz about our performance, we’ll have done ourselves justice.”

The band’s history can be traced back to the early 19th century when it was known as Whitworth Band. During the Boer War, it became a volunteer band, adopting military dress, although members didn’t go into battle.

For many years, it retained close connections with the mining industry, until the closure of Whitworth Colliery in 1974, but the band has continued to be the cultural heartbeat of the community.

Spennymoor born and bred, Mike yearned to be part it from being a small boy, but wasn’t allowed to join the junior band until his eighth birthday. Once he had his foot in the door, he quickly impressed, playing his first competition with the senior band within two years.

Mike and his cornet have been part of the furniture ever since, apart from a break in 1978 when it was announced that the band room, near the North Eastern Hotel, was to be demolished. Shildon Brass Band was short of a cornet, so Mike was snapped up, on the condition he he could return to his first love once Spennymoor was reformed.

That happened 18 months later when a new band room was provided at the Town Hall, and Mike is quick to acknowledge the support given by Spennymoor Town Council, not least when the band was presented with a £16,000 civic grant for a new set of instruments.

“Up until then, we were using old instruments that had to be taped together,” he recalls.

Another “unforgettable memory” is when, as a 10-year-old, he and a fellow junior member, Keith Robertson, were allowed to travel to London, just to watch the National Brass Band Championships at The Royal Albert Hall, before catching the midnight train home to Durham.

“I’ve had so much personal enjoyment from the band over the years: the thrill of entertaining, and bringing music to so many people, young and old,” he adds, during a break from rehearsals.

There was the time, in one of the national finals, at Hammersmith Town Hall, when tenor horn, Donny Lavery, confessed to suffering from nerves. Bass player Neil Jackson promptly gave both Donny and Mike a tablet to calm them down.

“Afterwards Donny announced that the tablet had been “fantastic” – only to be told it had been a jelly bean!” chuckles Mike, who also served for 30 years as treasurer.

Since November 2017, the band has been conducted by Fiona Casewell, going on to win a number of contests under her leadership. Originally from Rutland, and a talented euphonium player, Fiona relocated to the North-East in 2011 and works as a brass teacher for Durham Music Service.

Fiona has brought in some young talent and it’s the blend of experience and youth that fills Vice President, Hugh Stephenson, with optimism for the final. “It’s really gelled but we don’t want to count any chickens. Let’s just say we want to do Spennymoor proud,” says Hugh.

The band qualified for the national finals just before the pandemic took hold in March 2020, with the final scheduled for last September, only for Covid to force its postponement.

Instead, when it was decreed that brass bands could play outside in groups of no more than six, the Spennymoor musicians practised in shifts on the bandstand in Jubilee Park. Sunday morning virtual “play along” sessions, via Zoom, were also arranged, with musicians from bands around the country joining in.

As lockdown restrictions were eased further, socially distanced rehearsals started in a spacious workshop at Shildon. Then, with the Town Hall still felt to be too tight for comfort, Spennymoor Settlement has become a temporary home venue for the past few weeks.

This year’s Town Mayor, Neil Foster, a former miner, has been a regular supporter at rehearsals and has made the band the sole beneficiary of his charity fund: “It’s at the heart of a lot of good things that happen in the town,” he explains.

Tickets will soon go on sale at the Town Hall for the band’s Christmas Concert on December 4, by which time the audience might just be watching the national champions.

But for now, the focus is on Sunday’s final. ‘An Elgar Portrait’ in three movements will take ten minutes to play, before the judge decides who gets the £2,000 first prize.

“It’s very subjective but, whatever happens, it'll be an honour to represent Spennymoor and the North-East on the national stage,” says the evergreen Mike Johnson. Then, he pauses and adds with a smile: “But, if we win...well, that would be the crowning glory after 65 years.”

With so much at stake, they might even need to dish out the jellybeans.

I READ with interest last week’s Northern Echo interview with Hartlepool United chairman Raj Singh, looking back with a fair degree of bitterness at his tenure at the helm of Darlington FC, which ended when he placed the club into administration.

The interview included a cheap and wholly unfair attack on the town’s MP at the time, Jenny Chapman.

“She’d done absolutely nothing to save the club…It just suited her at the time to get a few people behind her to give the impression she had the club at heart,” he alleged, choosing to rake over the coals a decade on.

As editor of The Northern Echo, I was one of those people, and I saw how hard the MP worked to try to save the club.

I also know she ignored political advice to not get involved with the club at all. Instead, she chaired meeting after meeting to try to find a way out of the financial mire.

For The Northern Echo’s part, we gave daily publicity to fundraising appeals, and handed over a £10,000 cheque of our own at a difficult time for local newspaper finances.

The truth is that we all did our best.

My question for Mr Singh is this: “What else does he think an MP could have done?”