Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 11: The Electric Cinema still hasn’t burned down

The Electric Cinema is very flammable. 

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
Image CC duncanh1

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.

When I first wrote this for the publication of Birmingham it’s Not Shit: 50 things that delight about Brum, it seemed that The Electric would continue again. New heroes emerged to bake the cakes and load the projectors, in the form of the Markwick family who owned a not-quite-as-old cinema in East Sussex. The Marwicks took on the Electric and successfully reopened it in January 2022.

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.

Birmingham: It’s Not Shit – The Book – Buy Now

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

Foreword by Adrian Chiles,  cover by Foka Wolf

Out Now, Buy Here  >>

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World. No. 97: Going to the Pictures

It’s an incontrovertible yet nonetheless contested fact that Birmingham’s Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Birmingham can, then, claim an important part in the history of cinema in Britain. The Electric, though, is a peculiar beast. Those who would dismiss its claim to be an historic venue might point out that very little remains of the building of 1910, and so look instead look to the South East – to Brighton’s Duke of York’s or London’s Phoenix (née the East Finchley Picturedome). Of course, it better suits the accepted narrative of arts and culture that such things would belong to the capital or its artistic dormitory town, so The Electric is easily brushed aside by historians and journalists.

In explaining to you how Birmingham invented going to the pictures I will also brush aside any mention of The Electric because going to The Electric is not, you see, going to the pictures.

Continue reading “101 Things Birmingham Gave the World. No. 97: Going to the Pictures”

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 91: Pointless kitchen appliances

Everyone has a guilty secret tucked away in the hardest to reach cupboard of their kitchen. Is yours a donut maker, a Breville or a pasta machine? The answer will depend very much on your age, your class, and when you reached key milestones in your life course but most certainly you have them. Did you marry in the 1970s? You have a fondue kit. Were you a student in the noughties? You have a chocolate fountain. Hit 30 in the late 1990s? That sudden paunch made you invest in a smoothie maker (but didn’t make you stop to think about quite how much sugar there is in a smoothie).

Let’s go through the Kay’s catalogue of the mind and think about some of the other ridiculous single-use gadgets that have come into our homes, been unboxed, used once and then packed away to the high shelf: bread machine, cup cake maker, slow cooker, rice cooker, coffee percolator, milk frother, ice cream maker, food processor, coffee grinder, spice mill… an endless list of useless crap. Most of these things duplicate things that our main appliances already do: the cooker, the kettle, a fucking knife. We buy, we use, we realise our mistake and we swear we’ll never again be seduced by the marketing patter of ‘convenience’, the marketing patter that started here in Birmingham. People can <a href=”>ee Pittsburgh Appliance Repairs for oven repairs, here!

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101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No. 85: Airside Shopping

Plane chocolate at BHX

The amount of time that we spend airside seems to go up year by year, increasing at a faster rate than the processor power increases on new computer chips. It really needs a ‘law’ — and, considering it seems like you are stuck in a place that pretends to be holiday when it is not, maybe we can call it ‘Keith Barron’s Law’.

Whilst we have the response to existential threats of terrorism to blame for this it really couldn’t have all happened without Birmingham.

You see, the reason why we have to get ourselves to the airport so far in advance of our flight is so that we can be screened – for bombs, nail clippers, bottles of water and moisturiser. The fact that we are processed and dumped airside swiftly is just a happy quirk of the system that works very well for the small town of traders we find in what once was ‘departures’. And we wouldn’t get airside so quickly were it not for the x-ray, invented here in Birmingham in 1896 by Major John Hall Edwards.

There are many applications of the x-ray, but none are quite so profitable as their use in airport security to screen our bags, and increasingly our bodies too. It’s the x-ray that gets us into the airside mall with hours to spare; precious hours in which we can enjoy the unique shopping experience. And what an experience it is, friends. For here, airside, we find high street names trading with ‘gotcha’ mark-ups on all the essentials that you couldn’t bring through the security checks: deodorant, water, toothpaste. They’ve also seen you coming and know you’ve forgotten socks or pants so those are heavily marked up too. And once you have done all the emergency shopping you can manage there’s still time for a burger and a pint deal, again charged above the going rate.

Next, take in the ‘duty free shopping’ area. Here you’ll find a bewildering arrangement of ‘airport exclusives’ – products that you can’t buy on the high street at all, so you can’t tell if they’re actually a bargain or not. Finally, if you still have time to kill, you can enter the raffle to win a high performance sports car – something which can only be done airside. This truly is the land of opportunities, and I for one am glad of Birmingham, glad of the x-ray, glad that I got here with time to spare.

Now then, I need to grab some spare socks…

101 Things Birmingham Gave the World No.84: Wankers

This is a wanker parked in Lichfield. Absolute text book. Image CC Kevin Boyd

You’ve seen him on the motorway: coming in off the junction, he could drop in safely behind you and still keep the needle at 70 but instead he drops a gear and punches it past you to win a racing line on the last yard of the slip road. Firmly in front of you now, he jerks the saloon straight and into your lane, robbing you of the stopping distance you’ve calmly maintained for the last fifty miles. With nobody behind you, your foot is coming over to the brakes to get some space but before you hit the pedal he jerks right again. Now he’s into the half car length between a white van and a people carrier in the middle lane—and your heart is in your mouth. He won’t make it. But he does. He bursts through to the fast lane where once again he snaps the power steering hard to his left, bringing the car in line with the rest of the traffic. And there, having gained all of two cars length on you, he sits in the steady flow of motorway traffic which is all moving at basically the same speed as you. And there he sits for the next 20 miles before finally his moment comes to reverse the maneuver. He slaloms back through two lanes just in time to make his junction, cutting you off in the process as you try to make the Castle Brom exit. You seethe all the way to Spaghetti Junction. What an absolute—

You’ve seen him at the supermarket: coming towards you it’s 50/50 who has priority as he guns the two litre injection into the empty bays between you. 19 inch alloys either side of the white line, he takes up the last two spaces. Is this a calculated move to allow more space, to ensure nobody scratches the metallic paintwork he so carefully chose from the options list? Maybe, or perhaps it’s because the disabled bays he usually uses were already full. Either way, there’s no space for you, and so you begin to slowly circle the car park, as he leaps out and walks briskly off, Ted Baker suit jacket swishing and his thousand yard stare ensuring he doesn’t even connect with your eyeline as you gesture to him, rhythmically.

And you’ve seen him on the school run: one hand on the wheel, one hand on the phone, he guides two tonnes of German steel up onto the pavement and deftly steers on Continental all weathers towards kids, parents, buggies, and the school gate. Well he has to, right, it’s just not safe for the kids to walk these days. What a w—

What you haven’t seen is his LED indicators work, or him thank you for letting him out at a junction, and you couldn’t see anything at all after his xenon headlights blinded you with the ferocity of an arc welder. You may well have heard him, with the panache of a cut price Clarkson, boring on about how much power there is under the bonnet and you have definitely heard him tell you how much he pays on his tax bill for the privilege of being an absolute wan—

He’s a wanker, and he wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for Birmingham, for it was Birmingham which gave us the BMW, and with it wankers, driver assisted middle managers, climate controlled centrist dads, and statement cars you’ll never own.

When the first BMW, the BMW 3/15, also known as the Dixi, rolled off the production line in 1927 it was simply a licensed Austin 7 — the original family car whose design, of course, was developed in Birmingham. The Austin 7 offered pseudo-individualisation to the aspiring middle classes, and indeed the BMW badged version was available as a coupé, roadster and sedan, all of which screamed “look at me, I’m bang average” but made the driver feel like a discerning motoring consumer.

While the engineering was unashamedly British, we do have to give some credit to BMW for branding: the 3/15 model number designated the tax rate and horsepower of the car, the sort of stuff wankers love to compare notes on today.

Instead of a set of monogrammed golf balls, get them the 101 Things Book for Xmas

Paradise Circus says: Vote Brumain

Local satirical miscellanies, so the mainstream media says, are not doing enough to get out their core constituency for the Remain vote.

We want to, we really want to. But a harder question than the one on the ballot is: is it possible to be funny about it? Sure it’s possible to do tiresome Python-referencing knock offs listing the shiny buildings we’ve built and placed plaques with european stars on them. But the rhetoric is dire, self-satirising, and so far removed from a rational debate that it’s hard to get purchase on.

The EU isn’t perfect, but it does provide some safeguards against the worst excesses of neoliberal capitalism – especially regards workers and individual rights – and of course the Brexit line-up is full of the worst of all people.

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The football train: Villa v Chelsea, 2nd April 2016

London to Birmingham by train!

Just after 3pm today, at Aston, despondent football fans shuffled onto my train. Barely anyone spoke, or would look at one another. It was as though they’d been caught stepping out of Taboo Cinema Club by their kid’s headteacher. All that is except for two.

A beautiful couple they were, not in colours nor in football casuals but in the high end label equivalents. They looked… preppy. As my ears tuned into their talk, I picked up her Sloaney vowels, his public school consonants. Chelsea. Up for the game, now off into Bullring for a bit of shopping. Designer treats, another polo shirt perhaps? Birmingham’s a destination now, ya? Make a weekend of it. Go to the Cube. Eat some salad by the canal. Laugh.

It’s not like they expected at all — Birmingham’s changed.

Full Tilt

Brummie directions, as you know, can only be given with reference to pubs and islands. This works for us. This is a good system, or rather it is until the thing which we need to find is the actual pub itself. It is difficult to find a pub in the same way that it is difficult to find my glasses: I need the glasses to find my glasses, and I need the pub to find the pub. Such is the chicken and egg riddle of finding one’s way around Birmingham.

I’m looking for the pub now.

It’s a city centre pub, and this makes finding its whereabouts doubly hard. Firstly because there are no traffic islands, so I can’t orient myself to those and secondly because it’s not really in a bit of town that has any pubs. I’m lost, and nobody can help me.

The pub is called Tilt.

I first heard of Tilt on a text message. Apparently it’s my kind of thing.

“Where is it?”

“Near Martineau Place. In an arcade thing that didn’t really work out.”

“Ah. Birmingham’s famous Failed Development Quarter.”

Martineau Place is one of Brum’s many mixed use developments and it’s always felt jinxed. It’s currently anchored by two Poundland stores, one on each of the corners that face onto Corporation Street. Inside things have come and gone — mostly gone.

Tilt is a craft beer bar, like the kids have now.

“So is it actually in Martineau Place then?”
Continue reading “Full Tilt”

101 Things Birmingham Gave The World. No. 78: The Sound of Silence


I’ve got something I need to tell you about Birmingham. It’ll be legend…

– wait for it –


I need to tell you about Birmingham and how it invented the dramatic pause. Well, the one they have on the telly anyway.

Rhetoricians have always known that the pause is a powerful thing: it’s the white space of oratory design. Just as a graphic designer needs to balance harmony and discord to create, and then play, with tension on the page, so too the public speaker uses silence, the pause, as negative space to better punctuate their message.

In broadcasting one cannot be quiet. Radio folk talk of ‘dead air’ – silence in other words, a moment when no one is speaking, no music is playing, nothing is being advertised. The one thing a radio broadcaster can never have on their show is dead air because the moment that you are silent is the moment that you lose your audience. Dead air suggests that the receiver has lost signal from the broadcaster. Perhaps the radio needs to be retuned, or perhaps the station is off air – whatever it is it’s time to touch that dial. On most stations there is an ‘emergency tape’ (a copy of an M People record) that will kick in automatically should quiet pervade for too long.

When the BBC started to broadcast television, they essentially showed radio with pictures. The techniques of broadcasting had been shaped on the radio, and everyone who worked in television had worked on radio, so television was merely radio remediated with an extra quality: the picture. It took 70 years for the innovation that changed everything: it took 70 years for the invention of a broadcast silence.

It took Brummies, of course, to take the big risks and to bring about these changes: it took a Brummie mindset to realise that with a picture you could sustain a silence in your work because the audience could see that you were still there. This was intentional silence, not dead air: it took Brummies to bring the art of public speaking back to mass entertainment and they did that when they invented the silence.

I can tell you how they did it. I’ve got the answer here in my hand…

…but we don’t want to give you that.

Will you read on, or take the answer? You’re going to play!