We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. We lay out the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.
We’ve compiled 50 of the biggest things, places, people and feelings that delight us about the second city. Jon Bounds, Jon Hickman and Danny Smith will take you down Dale End and up The Ackers. If you want to find out more about Aston Villa’s sarcastic advertising hoarding, the Camp Hill Flyover, or even come with us on a journey up the M6 and find out why all of our hearts leap when we see Fort Dunlop, then come, meet us at the ramp.
Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — 50 Things That Delight About Brum
There was a time when all cinemas were highly flammable. In olden times all buildings were tinderboxes, of course, but cinemas had the added flair of being full of nitrocellulose (that’s film stock to you and me), a substance capable of spontaneous combustion and which, once lit, actually feeds itself by handily producing oxygen while it burns.
The Electric Cinema opened in 1909 and still has not caught fire.
I first knew The Electric Cinema in its late 1990s incarnation. Painted in dappled burnt orange, with zany 80s signage, and featuring the terrifying art installation Thatcher’s Children by John Buckley (a series of macabre mannequins, hanging out of windows on the same level as the old New Street Station exits) it was quite an intimidating proposition from the outside — like the weird new kid at school with the too-big leather jacket, dyed hair and anachronistic musical tastes inherited from his older brother who lives away (is he in prison? The Army? Dead?). But much like that weird new kid, if you could get close to it, it was actually lovely. Weird but lovely. At The Electric in the 90s they had homemade cake alongside their terrifying statues.
It’s the oldest working cinema in the country. This is a fact. It’s a fact that is frequently disputed, but it’s a fact nonetheless: The Electric is older than the rest, and also has not burned down yet.
In the early 2000s The Electric closed down. It left a hole in Birmingham’s cinema scene as there were few other venues programming anything much outside of mainstream multiplex fare. It also left an empty and somewhat combustible building on a plot of land bang in the city centre.
Empty buildings have had a habit of burning down in Birmingham, especially those that might be in the way of progress (progress in the form of city centre apartments and mixed-use developments). It’s a fate that has befallen many old pubs, factories, and cinemas too so you’d have been forgiven for expecting to read some sad news about The Electric back in 2003 but, like a phoenix without flames, The Electric came back from closure unharmed, renewed even. Restored and resplendent in an Art Deco makeover-cum-restoration, The Electric surged back into business in 2004 with a mix of mainstream movies, arty stuff, and they even still had cake!
Under the ownership of a chap called Tom Lawes, The Electric saw its way through to its centenary year in 2009. Our own Jon Bounds attended a special 100th birthday party at the cinema and reported back:
Tom showed a great deal of the refurb work that’s gone into turning the cinema back into an inviting place in recent years — the roof and the plumbing seem to have contributed to it pretty much falling down. I felt a bit uncomfortable with the way in which the previous owners/management were obviously seen. Business-wise they were crap no-doubt, but for a while at least they brought all manner of esoteric, odd, niche and arty films to Brum — I have fond memories of dozing during triple bills of Italian films in the mid to late 90s.
To further celebrate, Lawes put together a film about the history of British cinemas, and The Electric’s place in that story. The Last Projectionist, which came out in 2011, has been described variously as an award-winning documentary and a “nostalgic advertorial” for The Electric but further cemented Lawes’s stock as Birmingham’s charming man of cinema.
The Electric of this era brought a sense of occasion back to going to the cinema. As a visitor you wouldn’t need to know the deep lore of the place for it to feel special — the history is there in the bricks, it’s palpable. Beyond the mise en scene, The Electric worked harder than most for you to have a nice time, with little extras like bar service to your seat and the big squishy sofas at the back of the room. Chains such as Everyman — which opened a Birmingham cinema in 2015 — compete with this luxury experience, though, offering more and squishier sofas, drinks and food service, and that weird thing where a handsome man stands at the front of the room before the film to introduce it. Everyman’s interior designers have reached for opulence: it’s all dark wood paneling and chintzy lights, a sort of speakeasy 1930s vibe — like someone poured the aesthetic of a George Clooney Nespresso ad into a multiplex — but they’ll never have the history The Electric has and so Birmingham’s Everyman will forever be a concrete unit in the Mailbox doing dress-up.
Slightly more expensive seats and a slightly more curated programme made this era of The Electric a pretty safe bet for date nights for the well-heeled, and the restoration style of the refurb perhaps helped it catch an updraft of cool cachet, as the whole vibe chimed well with the growth of interest in all things vintage.
Whilst it relied on bankable fare from blockbusters that were lighting up the box office, it kept a toehold for itself and for the city in the more artistic and alternative end of cinema too. For example, my all-time favourite cinema trip was to see Oxide Ghosts by Michael Cumming at The Electric.
Oxide Ghosts is a documentary about the Chris Morris TV show Brasseye, which was made with Morris’s blessing, on condition that it was only ever shown in cinemas and only if Cumming physically took it there himself and spoke about the film at length before and after it was screened. The whole setup for this is an incredible piece of self-curatorship by Chris Morris which, for me, beats even Morrissey’s insistence on having his autobiography published under Penguin Classics as an example of artistic shit-housing. Oxide Ghosts could only really show somewhere like The Electric because The Electric can make decisions locally, flex its programming to suit, and is big enough to make the showing worthwhile but also small enough to sell out such a weird event.
This is what is so delightful about this historic place: it allows Birmingham to stay connected to a world of film outside of what’s on offer at Great Park Rubery or Star City. And as a fixture of Birmingham for over 100 years, almost everyone has stories about going there, but if your dad has stories from the 70s they’re mucky ones…
If the post-2004 Electric was loved, its new owner, Lawes, was too. Saving The Electric (and serving fancy gin and lovely cupcakes) keeps you onside with the Evening Mail and would also go on to delight the slightly breathless #WowBrum faction of content posters who emerged in the 2010s to catalogue the nightlife and culture of our city. But Birmingham does love to build people up and knock them down, and some people like to bring their own hammer to help. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced cinemas to close, Lawes made his staff redundant when they could have been kept on under furlough and was roundly called out for his behaviour. Worse would be still to come, as the website for the cinema was replaced with a message that read:
The future of The Electric Cinema Birmingham faces an even bigger issue than that of Covid due to the impending end of its 88 year lease.
As the freeholder has yet to make a decision about its plans for Station Street, we are not currently in a position to reopen the cinema.
This uncertainty has also meant we have been unable to apply for the Cultural Recovery Fund or other financial support to assist us financially through the period of closure.
The subtext in the note: they’re coming for this historic and flammable building, I’ve lost.
Tom Lawes had been more than happy to criticise the business acumen of The Electric’s prior stewards, but it seems he may have succumbed to the same problems in the end. It will always be true, though, that he saved the UK’s oldest working cinema from dereliction (and probably a fire) at least for a while.
As with a disgraced pop star or movie maker, even if ultimately we feel let down by Tom Lawes we have to say: his work still speaks for itself, his work still stands — and The Electric still stands, un-burnt down, flickering its story onto the screen again and again, its projector a light that never goes out.
Unfortunately, their tenure seems to be coming to a close—and for reasons Tom Lawes foreshadowed, around the end of the lease, according to Flatpack
At the end of March the building’s current 88-year lease will come to an end. We understand that a property developer intends to apply for planning permission to demolish most of Station Street – except for the Grade II listed Old Rep Theatre – to make way for a fifty-storey apartment block.
Nonetheless, at the time of writing, The Electric Cinema has not yet caught fire.
You’re not meant to answer your phone at work, you have to do it surreptitiously. Which is why, despite Benjamin Zephaniah phoning me up to tell me just why he’d turned down an OBE in the Queen’s Christmas honours, I’m not quite sure why he did it. Phone me up, that is.
It was undoubtedly the right thing to do — good people do it, J.B. Priestley, Alan Bennett, Harold Pinter, David Bowie, Glenda Jackson as well as some absolute rotters like Evelyn Waugh the vile body who declined a CBE in the late ‘50s because he wanted a knighthood instead — but it would have been fantastic to hear the reasons this great Brummie did from him directly. My attention was not only compromised by taking the call in an open-plan office but by the fact I was hiding something from Ben, or being politic about it at least.
He tells of nights at Mexico’s famous luchador wrestling, lost passports and drug busts, and a near-death experience almost drowning when swimming alone.
Danny was lost, nearly forty, without his partner, and surrounded by bin bags full of his clothes in his parents’ spare room in Northfield: his thoughts turned to death.
If he’s got to start his life over, he thought, he may as well start at the end and work back. Find Death and become, if not friends, then at least on nodding terms. It’s not a good plan, but it’s the only one he’s got.
Danny decides to stalk Death to Mexico. Home of The Day Of The Dead Festival, Santa Muerte the patron saint of drug dealers and the dispossessed, and a bloody cartel drug war that’s been going since the 80s.
I’m not going to argue that the German Market isn’t shit. Its shiteness is self-evident and widely talked about. It’s easy to slag it off, so first I will. There are crowds of people with no idea how to act or move in crowds. There’s the eye-damage from stray umbrella spokes. And there’s overpriced tat and foul tasting sweets sold from the same five or six stalls repeated over and over again. Over and over again like a twisted parody of the shops in your pisshole suburb’s high street. The high street that you’ve just come from on a bus that manages to be both clammy with condensation and uncomfortably full of coat. To drink, there’s headache beer and migraine wine liberally over-served to once-a-year drinkers. The weather is almost consistently a mixture of sleet and hail, so perfectly calibrated for its bleakness it’s enough to make you believe in an intelligent creator; and that he hates us.
For the longest time, people loved the German Market. To all Brummies it’s ‘The German Market’ no matter how hard the PR hacks push its real name, or how large they print the words on the banner. People would meet after work, parents would bring their kids, and hating it became akin to labeling yourself Scrooge McBastard and filming yourself buggering an elf on a shelf. But hate it I did. It’s unfair to label me a contrarian because that would imply some reactionary element, I’m not a contrarian, I’m just a weirdo.
But the German Market lost its shine. The prices, that were always a little high, carried on inflating while peoples’ wages were stretched a little further. Its popularity grew but the infrastructure to support it lagged. The local shops came to resent the two full months of having a carnival full of office drunks on their doorstep, and there’s only so many wooden croaking frogs you can buy your other half for Christmas before they start pissing in your morning coffee.
Birmingham’s new motto seems to be ‘fuck it, put up a statute’. The latest is Tat Vision’s immortalisation of the ‘Four Lads in Jeans’ outside All Bar One. Tim Mobbs is ready to defend it with his life and discovers a new awful discourse at Grand Central.
At the dawn of the 2010’s, I was in my early twenties and knocking out 80,000 word dissertations and contributing bits of writing towards various music publications on the internet. Even back then, over a decade ago I knew that the idea of pursuing journalism, or indeed writing longform in exchange for money, was about as far-fetched as becoming a pop star. Like the music industry, it was obvious that the trade (or at least the idea of it being an accessible career path) was dying, if not dead already.
Even after the Brexit referendum, when half of the population seemingly snorted cocaine off of a toilet in Wetherspoons and the other half smoked the kind of weed that makes you think writing “cockwomble!” on a protest banner is both hilarious and worthwhile activism, writing about anything seemed futile. Everything was too nuanced, people’s attention spans were too short and nothing seemed like it was worth fighting for. That was until I saw local artist Tat Vision’s statue, Four Lads in Jeans, unveiled at Grand Central. Or, more accurately, when I saw the online response to it.
The Paradise Circus view on the legacy of the Commonwealth Games.
Adrian Chiles does not miss when he (often) praises Birmingham for not being boastful. Stephen Knight and all the other creative collaborators around the Commonwealth Games resisted the call to bang drums and blow trumpets while shouting loudly and removing bushels. Instead they just sort of got on with it, and produced something very special. Continue reading “Pulling our legacy: and being not shit”
Birmingham has gone bull crazy during the Commonwealth Games, as well as rhythmic gymnastics crazy and admitting Birmingham is OK crazy. These are all good things, but why is our latest bull the first to really represent something about us, and what next?
“It’s been years since there was any bull baiting here… colourful markets remain.” says Kojak in the 1981 short film Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham. At the time he was talking about the ‘old’ 60s Bull Ring. Not the old, old, one. He was talking about the concrete walkways and sidings, the bridge next to the island by the Rotunda, the one featuring the lost nine-tonne bull sculptures cast by Trewin Copplestone. The ones that many a kid thought looked like dinosaurs.
We love to send Danny Smith into the heart of the action. The big heart , obviously. But this time he’s sent himself. Here are some direct live What’s Apps from up town, where he’s now wrangling kids for the day job.
[9:02 am, 29/07/2022] Danny Smith: Being in town is weird, uncomfortable… This is exactly how I felt when Diana died… Everybody caring so much and me not giving a solitary shit… Civic pride is odd, what have we actually got to be proud of? The same bars and restaurants as every other major city… Highest portion of kids on free school meals (Northfield)… Knife violence… Homelessness… University’s that have essential priced out local students and now are funded by foreign students? I’m tired of celebrating how mediocre we are… Great things happen in Birmingham despite of the city and these should be celebrated like any flower that can grow between the cracks in concrete.