During the opening credits a brass band plays Death or Glory as the grimy coal miners return from the depths of the earth at the conclusion of their shift and head for their locker room to shower the coal dust from their bodies (but not from their lungs). As they leave the colliery, they wave at their neighbors who are keeping vigil outside the mines property protesting the anticipated closure of the pits.
As the music ends Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald) enters a boarding house, The Lantern, with her luggage. The house-lady notices Gloria is carrying a horn case a flugelhorn which she calls a flugel. She had hoped to do some practicing. Not wanting her to disturb her other boarders, the house-lady suggests Gloria find the Grimley Colliery Bands rehearsal hall. She is certain the band would welcome a lovely young lady. Gloria has been sent to her old hometown by the British Coal Board to prepare a report on the Grimley mine. In the next scene, Vera (Sue Johnston) and Ida (Mary Healey) talk about their husbands, Jim (Philip Jackson) and Ernie (Peter Martin), playing in the band again. One laments if the pit closes the band will also fold. Jim and Ernie, a couple of tuba players, head for band rehearsal, but agree to tell Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), the groups director, that under the current economic conditions they cant afford the bands dues, so they will resign. Dannys son, Phil (Stephen Tompkinson), a trombonist in the band, is badly in debt and his wife, Sandra (Melanie Hill), hounds him to take the redundancy money that is being offered like others have done in other coal mining communities. Phil makes a little extra money as Mr. Chuckles, the clown, at birthday parties. His father picks Phil up on his bicycle on the way to band rehearsal.
On the way, Danny sings his part to The Floral Dance and when they arrive, the band rehearses the piece. When the number concludes, Danny berates the groups playing as a load of bloody crap. The players contend their minds are distracted by the threat of the pit closing you cant have a colliery band without a colliery.
Just as Danny is passing the hat for the weekly dues, Gloria walks through the door of the rehearsal hall. She tells them the lady at the boarding house had suggested they might let her practice with them. Danny politely tells her they dont allow outsiders, but Gloria responds that she is originally from Grimley and her grandfather was a former conductor of the band. Under those circumstances, she is welcome to rehearse with the group. She sits next to Andy (Ewan McGregor), but apparently doesnt immediately recognize him as one of her former romances. The flugel she plays is inherited from her grandfather. Danny cant wait to hear it played again and asks what she knows. She has been practicing Rodrigos Concerto Aranjuez (Concierto de Aranjuez), so they immediately rehearse the number with Gloria as soloist (dubbed by Paul Hughes). At the end of the piece everyone is suitably impressed.
Jim and Ernie give in and contribute their dues. Later, their wives are convinced their husbands change of heart is due to a beautiful young woman joining the band.
Gloria is invited to join the band for fourteen contests in fourteen villages the following day. It is a chance for the band to make some money towards their expenses.
The next day as Danny is preparing to leave, he has a coughing attack and spits up blood the first sign of pneumoconiosis or what is more commonly known as black lung, an affliction caused by inhaling coal dust for many years.
At a union meeting, Phil complains that he was one of the strikers back in 1984, and as a result, he was suspended. It took a year and a half to get reinstated. He hasnt been able to get out of debt in the decade since. The workers must vote the following week on whether to accept the redundancy offer or for a review procedure, which is the option their union representatives are pushing. They feel thats the only chance to keep the pit open. When the band arrives at the first village, all the bands march through the town playing March of the Cobblers. The winner of the competition at Dobcross is the Yorkshire Building Society Band, so the Grimley group moves on to Uppermill Village; the winner there is Delph Band. At Diggle the winner is Fairleys Band; at Lees it is Brighouse & Rastrick Band, and things get worse for Grimley. Ernie, who like the others has downed several beers, plays behind the beat and Phils ancient trombone comes apart. (The same music continues throughout this entire sequence.) Back in Grimley, Danny reprimands the players for their lackadaisical attitude towards the band and its history of excellence. He is certain if they play up to their potential they can win the regional competition and advance to Royal Albert Hall in London for the finals. During this meeting, Harry (Jim Carter), one of the euphonium players, speaks for the other members: they will agree to continue with the band until the pit closes, but when that happens they will pack it in.
After everyone else has left the practice hall, Phil returns to give his father some reassurance. Danny encourages him to purchase a new trombone to replace his instrument that keeps falling apart, but Phil cant afford a better instrument. During their conversation, Phil notices his fathers bloody handkerchief and recognizes the sign.
When Andy and Gloria go to dinner together at In Cod We Trust Andy confronts Gloria that she works for management. She claims she wants the pit to remain open and can help the situation with her report. He is skeptical that her report will do any good: Its just a bloody PR exercise. Theyve already made their decision while you were at bloody college. However, the two of them reconcile their differences. Later as he is walking her home, she admits is remembered him but didnt want him to think he was etched forever on her brain. Then, she invites him up for some coffee he doesnt drink coffee and she doesnt really have any coffee to offer.
The following sequence shows Andy and some other lads going to work, Gloria working on her report, the miners voting, scenes down in the dingy depths of the mine, and some workers returning from the mine and bathing to rid themselves of layers of coal dust. Gloria asks her boss if her report is immaterial, but he assures her that it is vital, especially if the workers vote for review.
Soon, some of the other band members notice managements logo on Glorias key ring and accuse Andy of screwing management its about time, they say, management has been screwing them for years.
Next, we see Phil as Mr. Chuckles at a childrens birthday party. He isnt a very good clown and most of his tricks go awry. He uses the money he makes to purchase a used trombone at a pawn shop, but when he arrives at home, some men are repossessing their TV set. If he doesnt pay what he owes, they threaten to return with a truck and repossess the entire contents of his house. Phil fights one of the men and ends up with several scrapes and cuts. When Sandra realizes Phil has purchased a trombone when they dont have enough money for food, she is speechless.
As the band loads onto the bus for the next competition, Andy wont speak to Gloria. The next competition is the Yorkshire Area Qualifying Contest for the National Brass Band Championship. The band plays Florentiner March and they win! During their performance the film shows Sandra finding the ticket where Phil had paid $50 towards the trombone, but still owes $250. We also see the announcement of the vote results at the mine, which were overwhelmingly for redundancy and Glorias boss smiling when he receives a phone call about the vote. True to their word, the men return with a truck to repossess the contents of Phils and Sandras house.
When the band returns to Grimley, they see funeral wreaths and crudely painted signs like We Fought and Lost. To make matters worse, Danny collapses as he is walking home and is taken to the hospital. Ernie makes it plain to Gloria that the band members, including Andy, dont want her around. Then matters get even worse for Phil; he arrives home just in time to see Sandra leaving with their four children.
As Danny lies semi-conscious in his hospital bed, the band gathers on the hospital lawn to serenade their colleague with a beautiful arrangement of Danny Boy. Andy, who had lost his horn playing pool, whistles his part. When the serenade ends, a nurse tells them Danny is conscious, so several of his best buddies visit and present him with a new conducting baton.
The next day Gloria confronts her boss again. She questions if her reports that will never be read or considered. She also claims the Grimley pit has been profitable. And, she wonders if the decision to close the mine had been made weeks earlier. When her boss admits the decision was made two years ago, she throws her report at him and stalks out of his office. When she tells Andy that she told management to stuff it and is as unemployed as he is, he admits her heart was in the right place, but still cant get past her working for management. He also tells her the band isnt going to the National Finals because it costs too much.
Later Phil goes to the hospital, but when his father gives him the manuscript of a new arrangement he had stayed up all night writing, he doesnt have the heart to tell him the band had broken up. To make a little money, Phil appears as Mr. Chuckles at a Harvest Festival party for children at a church, but, in one of the films darkest scenes, he scares the children by ranting about the Tories and Margaret Thatcher. He says, So God was creating man. And his little assistant came up to him and he said: Hey, weve got all these bodies left, but were right out of brains, were right out of hearts and were right out of vocal cords. And God said Smack smiles on the faces and make them talk out of their arses. And lo, God created the Tory Party. Later, Phil, still dressed in his clown outfit, attempts suicide by hanging himself from the mines riggings.
Even though Danny was half asleep, he recognizes Mr. Chuckles huge clown feet as Phil is rolled past his room. Danny immediately gets out of bed to see what had happened. When he asks Phil why he attempted to kill himself, he explains he has lost everything: his wife, kids, job, and self-respect. During this conversation, he finally finds the guts to tell his father that the band members have packed it in.
The next day while several of the band members are drinking beer and talking about breaking Dannys heart, Gloria enters the pub and presents them with a $3,000 bank account to pay for the trip to the National Finals. Andy quickly wins back his horn in a pool match and Phil leaves a note for his father at the hospital: Were Going.
The entire village turns out to see the band off to London. During the bus trip into London and their arrival at Albert Hall, we hear Clog Dance.
Just as the band is preparing to play at Finals, the nurse discovers that Danny has left the hospital.
Harry conducts the band in the competition as they play a stirring rendition of the William Tell Overture. About half way through the number, Danny appears behind the band and Harry calls Phils attention to his father (Phil also notices his wife and children in the audience). Grimley is announced as the winner. Danny steps forward and tells the audience they are refusing the trophy. As much as he thought winning the trophy and music were the most important things, hes discovered that its human beings that matter. He berates the government that over the last ten years 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. As they leave the stage, even though Danny had said they were refusing it, Harry retrieves the trophy.
During a celebratory double-deck bus ride through the streets of London, Gloria accuses Yorkshire men of hiding their feelings, so Andy takes the challenge and kisses her. As they pass the parliament building, Danny says, Lets make them listen for a change. Land of Hope and bloody Glory, eh? (Sir Edward Elgars Pomp and Circumstance). From the top of the bus the band plays an emotion packed rendition of Pomp and Circumstance, which continues during the closing credits.