Big City Culture

I want to talk about Birmingham’s bid for Britain’s City of Culture. Now this shouldn’t be confused for the European City of Culture bid, which if won brings money, tourists and actual prestige, That’s going to the South Hampshire region in 2022 which by then, if Internet idiots are to be believed, we will all be destroyed by an alignment of planets as predicted by the Mayans*. No this is the British city of culture, a knock off basically.

So if Birmingham is successful what would we actually win? Well, potentially holding the Brit awards and the Turner prize, although not even that is not definite. And I’m not sure how this would be that even be beneficial. Do we want the Turner prize? Recently it’s turned into an attention grabbing oddity choosing deliberately challenging pieces for the sole reason of angering Sun readers and inciting headlines. And lets face it the art facilities in Birmingham are embarrassingly small, although what we do have is excellent. Including the always interesting Vivid, the young but ever growing Eastside projects, and the only venue really large enough to hold the Turner prize, the Ikon.

And the Brits, who watches the Brits any more? Can anyone, without Googling, name any winners of this years Brits? (and for that matter the Turner prize) and if we do get the Brits, it’ll probably be held in one of the convention centres, squirrelled away from the public. I can imagine the only coverage Birmingham getting will be quaint and condescending ‘Birmingham’s quite nice, that’s a surprise’ pieces using stock footage of the Selfridges building.

Big Heart of England by Phil Davis

So say we do get the bid AND it does bring people in from out of the city, how are they getting here? New Street station will be a building site by then, and Digbeth coach station, while being shiny and new, is still in the middle of an area in the process of rejuvenation. Any wrong turn, which is frankly likely given the signage in Birmingham, could end them in a depressingly industrialised maze fulfilling every stereotype of Birmingham people could have.

The other prize, I swear to god, is rights to use the logo and label of Britain’s city of culture. Thus making the whole process a promise pissing contest for a graphic design solution.

Britain has 66 official cities, and lets be honest there are probably only half of them that could feasibly host the British city culture without making it look like a teachers smiley sticker given to anyone who tries hard. And no matter how low your opinion of Birmingham were defiantly in the top 20 percent, so inevitably even if we don’t put that much effort in, we will be hosting the thing in the next 5 years or so anyway.

The only good I can see if we do get it is, not only will the council will have had to had a good look at our really interesting, worthwhile things that creatives in Birmingham are all ready doing but also they will probably be obliged to make good on all the promises they’re having to make in the bid. Which in the current economic climate of art budgets being cut everywhere is a great move. During the great depression Teddy Roosevelt was applauded for seeing that spending on the arts actually helps resolve economic decline, when he established as part of his New Deal package. Perhaps if Birmingham does get the bid this year (and if you look at the list of competition, the only strong competition is Manchester) the money invested will mean we can grow to be one of the stronger economic cities in Britain and then become a city that will attract tourists anyway.

*This, any right minded person knows, is utter tosh. The apocalypse is a uniquely western idea, the Mayan calender merely resets as part of a cycle, and the ancient Mayans didn’t have the good sense not not eat their own rotting children’s hearts let alone predict the future.**

**actually this is exaggeration, the Mayans were a sophisticated and surprisingly knowledgeable people, and another good example of religion ruining a perfectly good culture.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Illustration by Phil Davis

100 years of The Electric Cinema

The Electric, Birmingham Originally uploaded by new folder

A cosy evening at The Electric with a ‘This Is Your Life’ of Britain’s oldest working picture house in the company of owner Tom Lawes to celebrate its 100th birthday. Opened in late 1909 it was, we heard, one of the first opened with knowledge of what the 1909 Cinematograph Act would require — which is one of the reasons cinemas had to be specialist buildings.

It kicked off with this (DW Griffith!) very early public information film:

We then had some top flight silent physical comedy, when one of the technicians fell off the stage in the dark, and also a bit of Laurel and Hardy accompanied by a organ played by Steve Tovey, the last full time cinema organist in Britain. A real treat was footage of the re-opening of the cinema as a ‘Tatler News Theatre’ in the early 30’s — these showed newsreels and cartoons and locally shot news. The archive was found in a shed on the roof during work in the 70s and must contain a load of local Brum footage — sadly I can find none online, maybe the owners can be persuaded (or helped) to digitise it.

There’s a great quote from one of the staff at the time on this page on Cinema Treasures (which also give a detailed history of the many ownership and name changes over the years):

“The Tatler, I worked at that cinema 1940-1941 as an operator having previously worked at the News Theare High Street, both of these cinemas being owned by Joe Cohen of Jacey Cinemas. At this time it showed cartoons, newsreels and interest films all with the credits cut out to bring the programme down to 70 minutes and if there was a queue one of the shorts was also taken out.
The staff during my time there were manager La Campe, Billy Watts (star screen reporter and later manager of Percival Mackies Band. A dogs- body Schuman. Lesley Tonks was “General Manager” I have many memories of my time there. I remember a Czeckoslovakian refugee starting there, he was the poster writer named Andre Druker, he went on to open all of the coffee shops in Brum.”

Other treasures found around the building include the master print of Eskimo Nell — funded by The Electric’s then owner Berry Jacobs who was a big noise on the ‘continental’ film circuit.

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.

But what has happened to the ‘statues’ that adorned the front in the ‘art’ days? Called ‘Thatcher’s Children’ representing child poverty, they were removed (without care we heard) by the artist John Buckley (creator of the Headington Shark).

Electric Cinema, Birmingham by Ruth and Dave
Electric Cinema, Birmingham by Ruth and Dave

“modelled by unemployed people hung up on coat-hangers.” – will we ever see their like again? We’ll try to find out.

Danny Smith’s Guide to 2008 Pt12

Danny Smith was writing lots of guides to Brum for the Itchy guide, last year. It never happened, so we present his guide to the past in a number of parts (see all the parts):

5 Dalton Way
(0121) 2363791

Costers is a dinosaur of a rock pub and one of the last in Birmingham that makes up for its unwelcoming atmosphere by having a very loyal set of regulars. It is underground in both the musical and very physical sense of the word but is one of the few pubs not to benefit by the smoking ban because now you can see the shoddy vandalized décor and smell decades of stale beer. Costers is also home of the most uncomfortable seats and ugliest toilets in Birmingham. Treat this place like a historical theme park.
Mon – Wed, 12noon – 11pm
Thu, 12noon – 12mn
Fri – Sat, 12noon – 1am
Sun, 5pm – 10.30pm

The Black Horse
22 Jennens Road,
B7 4EH
Tel, 01213597108
Kurt Cobain delivered the lethal blow to Heavy Metal in the early nineties; by all accounts it was a mercy killing. Just over a decade later every city harbours the refugees in little die hard pockets. One of these last bastions of the Metal subculture in Birmingham is relatively new and despite its unfortunate location – that’s quite a stomp away from the city centre- it’s thriving due to its community atmosphere, friendly staff, cheap prices and ongoing support for local music. For more detail we highly recommend you pop in for a chat.

Check out The Shouting Gypsy – Danny’s ‘wordcast’

Danny Smith’s Guide to 2008 Pt8

Danny Smith was writing lots of guides to Brum for the Itchy guide, last year. It never happened, so we present his guide to the past in a number of parts (see all the parts):

International stock
1a Silver Street, Kings Heath
Birmingham. B14 7QX 
Tel: 0121 443 3232
King heaths best kept secret but not in a good way, secret in the sense of the deformed half brother kept in the loft as not to embarrass the family. Depressive tat emporium that sells stock from bankrupt, fire damaged or flooded shops, frequented by haggard old ladies, pinch-faced wives and bored men listening to the football scores over the music system, the chances of getting a bargain here are slim, but it does happen. Visiting here will instil such a large hatred of dull commercialism that Al-Qaeda should set up a recruiting stall in the car park.
Mon-Fri, 9am-5.30pm; Sat, 9am-6pm

The Manic Organic Café
45 Poplar Road, Kings Heath 
Birmingham B14 7AG 
Tel: 0121 441 3802
Charmingly eclectic vegetarian organic café just of the high street, a cosy little place that feels like a friendly hippy’s living room, but clean. Made all the more welcoming by free WiFi access and walls covered with cartoons and art for sale. A seasonal menu with tasty food which in my opinion needs meat, but hey each to their own I suppose. It can get busy during weekends though. A good place to work on a lap-top without the distraction of booze, especially if it’s warm enough to use the sun terrace hidden out the back.
Vegeburger served with salad, kettle crisps and coleslaw – £5.95
Mon-Weds, 9am-5pm; Thurs-Fri, 9am-6pm; Sat, 10am-6pm; Sun 10am-2pm

Check out The Shouting Gypsy – Danny’s ‘wordcast’

Danny Smith’s Guide to 2008 Pt7

Danny Smith was writing lots of guides to Brum for the Itchy guide, last year. It never happened, so we present his guide to the past in a number of parts (see all the parts):

The Wellington
37 Bennetts Hill
B2 5SN
Tel: 0121 200 3115
No music, a huge range of ales, friendly staff and traditional décor, make this a perfect “Dad crèche” while you go shopping, where his bored sighs and niggling comments about your overdraft could distract you from buying that perfect pair of trainers. They don’t serve food – unless you count Pork Scratchings, which I certainly do – but you are welcome to bring your own in and use their plates and cutlery, which is a nice touch. Bonus points for spotting their cat “Welly” who some times prowls around wondering why there are so many ooomans in her house.
Open Mon-Sun, 10am-12midnight

Lickey Hills
The Visitor Centre
Warren Lane
B45 8ER
Telephone/Fax 0121 447 7106
Arrrrgh where’s all the buildings gone? What’s that green stuff? What am supposed to do here? Why do those trees look different? There are how many different types? Why? I need litter or neon or something! As you can tell we are more city boys and girls but if nature does call you could do worse than taking the short bus ride to the Lickey Hills. Over 500 acres of woodland and green stuff including a golf course, tennis greens and nature centre with activities and guided walks.
Open – all the time apparently, the countryside doesn’t close for some reason

Cramps? Best Brum gig evah?

Birmingham Music Archive is teaming up with BiNS to find out What has been the best gig ever to take place in the city and what was/is the best venue. Jez from the BMA is kicking things off, argue the toss here and in the forum.

My favourite gig was The Cramps at the Birmingham Odeon. My memory is not what it was but the gig was either April 25th 1984 or April 30th 1986, I’m tending to go for the 86 one due to me age, but anyway.. For those of you who don’t remember the Odeon before it became a 400 screen cinema, selling 2 tonne bags of sugar to kids who need no encouragement whilst showing Rambo 55, it was a fabulous art deco music and cinema hall.

For the gigs, there was a huge orchestra pit which doubled as the mosh pit (well not if you were watching Ultravox or The Thompson Twins), then those lovely plush velvet seats and above, a balcony were assorted punters would cover the crowd below in piss and beer – luckily they were often indistinguishable from one another!

So there I am, fancying myself as a bit of a psychobilly, knocking around at the Barrel Organ, Powerhouse, Zig Zags and all the others when news comes through of The Cramps coming to town to play at the Odeon. Immediately it’s THE ODEON! Who on earth has booked The Cramps to play there? Have they not seen or heard of the mayhem that normally occurs when the play. This reputation was justified. For me The Cramps remain one of THE live music bands. Raw, threatening, chaotic but always brilliant.

As I say above, my memory is no longer functioning as it used to, but this night The Cramps were late on for some reason and literally ripped through the set. Main man Lux carried around the entire audience, climbing right to the top of the pa system, Poison Ivy machine gunning the crowd with her guitar, legs akimbo, hardly, if any, talk by the band and then 30 minutes later they were gone.

Now I wasn’t in the mosh pit that night for some strange reason but they were going wild, calling for encore stamping their feet and so on. But as it became clear The Cramps weren’t returning they had nothing to really vent their anger on. For us in the seats it was different.

I’d never felt such adrenaline or emotion or basic wildness in a live crowd before. As the shouting got louder I can just recall a shower of seats reigning down towards the stage, missing it by some distance and nearly decapitating several hundred pyschobillies (or at least their quiffs). It was over in minutes but seemed like forever, even as everyone filed outside it was as if the whole crowd had become feral.

For the music but mainly for the crowd I think this has to rank as one of my all time favourite gigs in Birmingham. If anyone else was there and would like to dampen my recollection or even agree with it then get it on here and at, and then add your own best gigs/venues

Nirvana at the Barrel Organ, Oasis at The Jug Of Ale, anyone remember the Birmingham Rock festivals of the mid 70’s, saw the Pistols or Dexy’s at Barberella’s or Rum Runners, Eek-a-Mouse at the Porsche Club anyone?

Signs of the times

We mentioned the Type Tours before, but I couldn’t pass up a chance of a private mini-tour for myself:

Ben Waddington outside Baskerville House

Ben Waddington is one of those people who wants others to appreciate their surroundings. An exiled Manc, he’s been running tours of some kind round Brum for a couple of years – I went on Ben’s tour themed around John Baskerville last year, and was impressed with his research and amiable guiding if not our city’s treatment of Baskerville’s legacy. If we must have a new library (when the current one works, no matter how you consider it looks) then it should feature some tribute – it will be on Baskerville’s old land after all.
As part of the Plus International Design Festival, Ben is running his Baskerville Tour again – as well as ‘Type Tours’ of Digbeth and the city centre. A man who knows Brum well enough to give you a guided tour, as well as being a bit of a font geek? This is someone that I really should get to know, so despite my aversion to meeting strange men in pubs having contacted them over the internet, I popped out to The Old Contemptibles last week where I found Ben, Erdinger in hand. I plumped for a very acceptable Amstel.

We retired to the back of the pub, which now has a gentleman’s club vibe going on, to talk of Birmingham, design, architecture, the M6 and LCL Pils. It turn out that Ben has been posting on the BiNS forums (see if you can guess what name he posts under) pretty much since they started. Looking back it’s obvious that this was a man in possession of facts as well as the sense of righteous indignation that seems to infect the Brum-based internetter.

The first tour of hidden Birmingham that Ben organised was a walking tour of Digbeth’s forgotten pubs, putting adverts in CAMRA magazines and the like. What he neglected to mention in his pre-publicity was that a lot of those pubs were so forgotten that they were no longer open. Despite the James & Lister Lea goodness, some the tourists “were interested in walking to pubs, not so much in walking away from them. There are pubs in Digbeth that are still surviving purely on the indigenous industry, though slowly those are closing.”

We discussed how pubs are in danger as an architectural genre from all sides, the large suburban ones that formed the centre of the community on the post-war estates are fast becoming Chinese restaurants or McDonald’s as they are more and more difficult to profit from and license, squeezed by breweries and the police. In the city centre where pub culture is seemingly still thriving it would be unthinkable to actually design a purpose built pub, Ben says “the most recent one in Birmingham is, I think, The Yardbird – and that’s just a box.”.

Curiously we found out that we’d both got, wildly different, books about Brum that we’re working on – not that I’m about to reveal what’s in either of them – but they both in a way are searching for a reason why Birmingham lost the status as the industrial and creative powerhouse it had during the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

“It was lost a little as creativity and industry separated, Birmingham got industry and that then faded. Birmingham is ready for some sort of renaissance of perception. Maybe that can come though art or music.” Do we need the fabled ‘Tony Wilson figure’? “Capsule are about the closest we’ve got to that.”

As I see it no other city has that figure anyway, for Birmingham it would be the equivalent of Ashley Blake running Capsule and the Custard Factory, while continuing to be news-totty for women of a certain age. I also think that the days of music as the defining cultural force of a city are gone, splintered by downloads and diluted by Blair’s 50% University quotas. Is there a visionary around for Brum from some other field?

There have been plenty of the years, and a brief type-cum-architecture walk Ben takes me on, in rapidly fading light, helps to prove that. Surprisingly, I find that Ben wasn’t a typography expert before being asked to do the tours: “I was asked, originally, to do the Baskerville tour and researched that, then for this year to do the type-specific tours. I find I look at buildings differently depending on what tours I’m conducting. Originally it was architecture, now I’m focusing more on the signage.”

“The type-tours aren’t just about signs that are ‘printed’, the Digbeth one in particular will be as interested in hand painted notes and other letter-forms. You can talk about theory, but often you can only guess at the intended purpose of so much of it – in a way the tours will be a conversation. If people want to disagree with me, that’s okay.”

I couldn’t find any fault with Ben’s observations of what’s been done to the signage over the door of the old Eye Hospital – whatever trendy wine bar that has taken over have plonked a steel and glass canopy directly over the lettering. “It’s as if they’re frightened of you going in, ordering a drink and asking them to take a look at your glaucoma.” They’ve left the work on the corner of the building intact though, and being with someone with a fine eye for detail, I see an almost playful blurring of the letters. Can you imagine an eye hospital

While there is interesting type everywhere, Ben is most animated when discussing the old, the disregarded, ghost signs, and when it’s modern things it’s those that are anything but corporate off-the-shelf Gil Sans. He promises me “what [he] hopes will become [my] favourite piece of signage in Birmingham, but first we take a walk towards the Jewellery Quarter, and past a huge piece of graffiti acting as a sign for the café next to The Snow Hill. “There aren’t professional sign-writers so much in this day and age, you can either go and get something printed or ask some kid who does graffiti. Look at the time and care that’s gone into that, it’s ordered, planned, but that tiny bit organic.”

A building that Ben is enamoured with is the HB Sale building on the corner of Constitution Hill and Hampton St, it has fantastic terracotta lettering on it, and also had this brilliant bit of work in the window:


It’s round the back of this, and past the painted signwork on the current premises of HB Sale, that we come to the wonder that is ‘Socks Direct’. It’s not often that someone tells me something about Birmingham that I didn’t have an incling of, but I did not know about Socks Direct. Now I’ll not get my socks anywhere else. The sign itself is interesting because it’s not standard in any way, we spend a geeky five minutes pondering if the Ss are upside down. In order to get my own back I tell Ben about the Henrietta St café as we pass, of how seventies rock star Alvin Stardust was a regular there in the late nineties for breakfast. Ben likes research to much and asks for evidence – I will find some, but I don’t have any at the moment.

Proving that not even we like walking away from pubs, we pop for a swift half into the Hen and Chickens where Ben talks a little more about his plans, amongst Channel Five and bizarre alterations to the bar – he thinks there’s enough of an interest in the tours, both type and more historical for him to keep doing them. “There aren’t typographical tours anywhere else in the country, and if people are studying type then they’ll be willing to travel. For the tours of buildings there’s a constant market of tourists and Brummies that are interested – I do one every Sunday now.”

Ben Waddington will be talking to Chinny on his BBC WM show on Sunday 14 October, between 2 and 3pm. And you’ll find an article and photos in this weeks Birmingham News.

Here are the Type Tour details again:

Type Tour of Digbeth – 17, 18, 19 October, 12.30 – 14.30pm
Baskerville’s Birmingham – 20 October 12.30 – 14.30pm
City Centre Type Tour – 21 October, 12.30 – 14.30pm
All priced at £10 More Info

Ben’s Guided Architectural Tour of Birmingham Buildings run every Sunday at 10am and “ a Thursday noon tour for noon-owls”. More info or tickets from the Central Library reception (0121 303 2323) or from