Shaping Cinema

Because of the celebration of the city last night, I was running a bit late. After last night, the openings of the new exhibitions at Eastside Projects and Grand Union, the superb Bring Your Own Beamer at Vivid event, and the first in the series of the always great Outer Sight events at The Edge had left some of us a bit worse for wear. Because of this, psychogeography, the derive, and the flaneuring that makes the urban explorer had to go for a burton, and I got a lift in the car to the vicinity of Digbeth High Street. However, the Universe was on my side, and as we pulled up to the traffic lights opposite the Old Crown, the oldest inn in Birmingham, I saw Ben Waddington crossing the road. I said my goodbyes, and got out to meet him, and looking at our watches, we decreed that we’d have enough time for Eggs Benedict and freshly squeezed orange juice at a hostelry that will remain nameless. Of course I didn’t have that 500ml can of Irn Bru and a Tracker Bar, what on earth are you thinking? The tour was due to start in Pickford Street in Digbeth, in the shadow of the old site of the Typhoo factory, next to industrial complexes, colleges and behind us, the Custard Factory. Today the Still Walking festival was hosting a walk entitled ‘Shaping Cinema’. After last night, the city of Birmingham was now singing its own praises and celebrating its history, and this was being reflected within the ethos of the Still Walking programme as Ben noted, “the sheer excitement you can get by having a passion about the world around you.” He introduced us to the leader of todays walk, Martin Parretti , who was going to introduce us to the founding fathers of cinema design and architecture within the city. He was going to tell us the story of how Oscar Deutsch, Harry Weedon, Victor Saville and Michael Balcon shaped the way in which Brummies were able to engage in the burgeoning world of cinema in the early 20th century, and experience the world around them as never before.

Parretti started by recounting the life of Harry Weedon who had schooled at the old King Edwards school on New Street. After being de-mobbed from the First World War, he moved to Leamington Spa, and after a scandalous double divorce moved back to Birmingham, where he picked up on his love of architecture and design. He met Oscar Deutsch, who came from a family of scrap metal dealers. Weedon’s passion for architecture and his innovative designs motivated Deutsch to think about the cinema business; not to make films, but to show them to the public. The first cinema that Weedon designed was in partnership with the Mendelson Brothers, a firm of grocers. On seeing the success of the venture, Wedon realised that this new fad was here to stay, and a further cinema was built in Perry Barr, the first to carry the Odeon logo. On seeing Weedon’s designs, Deutsch commented that “This is the template of what the cinema is going to be.” Deutsch wanted the world to fall in love with cinema; Weedon wanted the world to fall in love with the design and architecture of buildings. In doing this, the two not only were going to shape the way in which we saw the city, but also in the way we saw ourselves. We went up Bordesely Street, past the M.Latif and Sons wholesalers and units operating from the cluster of lock-ups. Carpet warehouses which tinny bhangra sounds, and signs boasting of pub sandwich delivery services, and Italian car specialists. We got on to Shaw’s Passage, slipping and twisting eager ankles on its cobbled streets, averting our eyes from the Taboo Cinema Club which was emphatically not part of Martin’s tour. Making our way onto Park Street, just left of the tattoo parlour, we saw the familiar sight of the Selfridges building, and the Bull Ring Tavern. Looking up, I saw another in the series of the ‘there’s a rumour…’ tags that have adorned the city over the last few months, this time, up a staircase on a side door that led into a back room of the old Royal George pub which had been closed for a good few years now. But after navigating the urban motorway and getting safely to the other side of the road, on the new Spiceal Street, we discovered that the Royal George venue in fact had a previous life as the Coutts Music Hall, which had a reputation as one of the rougher music halls; indeed, the senior manager had been murdered on stage during a performance. However, in 1910, this had been converted into a silent cinema called the Bull Ring, later, it would turn into the much missed Royal George pub, which had been the host to many delightfully sweaty gigs later on in the century, before being closed due to a discrepancy in the licensing laws, for want of a better phrase. Our group made its way up through the Bull Ring, into the path of a multitude of Saturday shoppers. To our left, New Street and to our right, the site of the first News Theatre in Birmingham. As we looked on at the site, now a Card Factory, we were told News Theatres were of a time that didn’t have 24 hour rolling news or 3G access. A News Theatre was dedicated to showing just that, news, and other cinemas were designed for particular niche programming, including cartoon theatres, which in modern society could now easily be found on Nickelodeon, not with the bother of having to go out to the Odeon, which is where we were headed next. As we walked onto busy New Street, a giant hoarding above us showed adverts flickering slogans for smartphones. “It’s a wonder ful world. Explore it.”

The Odeon was an old favourite of mine. In the 80s I remember seeing the likes of Ghostbusters and Back to the Future again and again. These days, I was often tempted to go in there and catch the latest blockbuster, my brain racing with the smell of popcorn and nachos, loud arcade machines and a choice of eight or more screens. Not so when it was the Paramount Theatre, a high art deco theatre, that could house 3000 people. Unsympathetic development had now reduced this once proud theatre into a sticky floored multiplex, and we moved swiftly on through New Street, and into the opulent arcade of the Burlington Hotel (with Bacchus Bar underneath.) This was where Saville and Balcon, boyhood friends, had embarked on their first major venture, with a young Alfred Hitchcock as assistant director. Later, Balcon would shape the world of English cinema with Ealing films, and was a close ally of J. Arthur Rank. Up Bennetts Hill, we stood opposite the offices of Oscar Deutsch. 21 Bennetts Hill, next to a building draped in scaffolding, and a taxi running its engine. Deutsch died in 1941 at a young age, but in his time he had overseen the opening of 250 cinemas in 10 years, with Odeon (Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation) opening on average 3 new cinemas per week. Going back down Bennetts Hill we got to the next arcade, and our final part of our journey on New Street, Piccadilly Arcade, now home to jewellers and bespoke clothes designers. We were in fact, standing where seats used to be in the Piccadilly cinema. To get to our next destination, the site of the Scala on John Bright Street, we would have to now clamber over seats with hushed excuse mes and thankyous, and right through the screen on to Victoria Square, a Technicolor yawn of beeping cars and fast food outlets. The Scala cinema, an impressive building, was now closed. After closing as a cinema the building had been used for more disreputable purposes, more recently, a gentlemen’s club, and even worse, club DNA in the early millennium. Scala cinemas however, had always been ahead of the game, and were the first to feature a curtain stage, and the first cinema to show ‘talkies.’ One of the group commented that it had also been fitted with the ‘Sensurround’ gimmick in the 70s, which had been used in disaster movies such as ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Rollercoaster’ where seats would shake in time to the special effects on screen, using early 4D technology, which may or may not re-surface in the years to come in the cinema experience. The penultimate part of our tour was up the steep Gough Street, and we were faced with the synagogue where the four shapers of cinema in Birmingham worshipped as children. This synagogue, this place of worship, obviously had played a critical role in the way in which Birmingham shaped its involvement with cinema. And later in life, Harry Weedon had re-paid his debt to this temple, and built an extension to the back of it. Leaving this site, we walked back down Hinckley Street, and took in an impressive scope of the city, cars zooming back and forth, pedestrians going about their business, all watched under our eye. We finished our tour at the back of the Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the country. The cinema had opened in 1909, and, like others that we had visited and been told about that day, had been through many changes throughout the years, but, despite changes to the programme and what films it showed, was still the same as it had been, a cinema. In fact, it was showing the next part of the Still Walking programme, a film called Patience (After Sebold) which I wasn’t going to be able to see, as I had to go into Selfridges, and then back up to Cheapside to The Edge. After that i'd go back to the Bull Ring, then to the Anchor, then back up Cheapside to PST, then back up Bath Row. The pavements are being well trodden. It is the time of the Still Walking festival after all.

Birmingham Gothic

The morning fog had cleared, but now, we were shrouded in the late afternoon fug from the car exhausts. Those who were attending huddled together, chins in jackets, attempting to warm themselves against the chill air. The Colmore Business District was thriving with those escaping for the day, to get buses. As we stood under 23 Whitehall Chambers at our muster point, next to Crockett and Jones, shoemakers of Northampton, people weaved past us, impatient to get their buses back to the suburbs, to seek sanctuary away from Town. The tour ‘Birmingham Gothic’ was led by Ben Waddington, the curator of the Still Walking festival. The ‘Noir’ angle to the festival had now been dropped, and we would be concentrating solely on the architecture, the gargoyles, the grotesques, and the strange goings on throughout history. The tour would have a linearity; we would start architecture with roots in the pre-pagan and go into modern-day Christianity. As we went to our first destination, seagulls squawked over the noise of bass bins and buses. The air was thick with the cloying smell of exhaust fumes and hastily smoked roll-ups.

Under Birmingham Cathedral, we were told that the designs that we would see would be by design, or choice. What, Ben asked, inspired these choices that we saw? Over the cathedral, we saw a Pagan symbol, that of a green man – the animal, plant and man hybrid favoured by worshippers of that faith. Could the cathedral have taken the existing masonry and used it as a way to ease the new religion in? A young man, dishevelled and withdrawn, wandered over to our gathering, and seemed to want to join in with the conversation. Ben directed our attention to what stood behind us as he attempted to remonstrate with the young man, to an obelisk. There was a story, in 2006 a lady, a librarian in Harborne, was coming through Pigeon Park on her way home. The clouds appeared, and it was beginning to rain. She put her umbrella up, and noticed that the bus stop she wanted wasn’t there. The railings, cordoning off the park from the pavement weren’t there. How selfish of the council, she thought, and blinking, they came back into view. She looked up to fix her umbrella into place. And then she realised something was up.

We were on our way to see examples of the horned god next. Later on, Ben promised, we would see Lucifer. The young man looked to try and address us again, but he was held off. As we walked away, I looked back. He seemed pre-occupied. In amidst the commuters going back and forth to their respective bus stops, he stood still, eyes pointed to the floor.

We walked behind Cherry Street and onto New Street. A pause of relief. Surely if there are Pagan entities, or grotesques or demons about we wouldn’t see them on the high street? We were now outside Waterstones on New Street, formerly a bank. Faces amongst medallions and discs. A horned God greeting you as you came to make your deposit to your bank, now, peering down daily, at those wishing to buy books, a meeting place, a gathering. Looking down at us. We walked up Corporation Street, to the City Arcade. The three double espressos I had earlier began to wear off, leaving me with a tired sense of anxiety and paranoia. The dark was setting in, cars passed with streetlights on, youths gathered on the streets, coming back from schools and colleges. “Weird ones, f***ing weird ones. A nightmare” I could hear one saying to his friend. Maybe they’d have been looking up, looking closer.

We were invited to consider the devil opposite the Gregg’s on Union Street. If you were asked to draw the devil, Ben said, you’d draw horns, pointy ears, and a beard. It was in fact this that we were now faced with. Not the description in Revelations 13, a leopard with a lions mouth, or a talking lamb, but our very image of the devil that we were so familiar with, and had learnt since we were children. The image in fact was of Pan, Ben said, which had been constructed in an attempt to demonise the old Pagan God. We’d see Lucifer again at the end of the tour, and we walked on, back up to Pigeon Park. Grotesques greeted us, crawling down the walls of the insurance company next to the Caffe Nero. The architects would have designed this, possibly as a bit of fun, preferring the world of monsters and gargoyles rather than simple foliage. Dispelling the myth that gargoyles were there to scare away the devil, in fact, the devil would probably feel right at home here, in the building where the insurers were.

Two headless birds flanked the Royal Bank of Scotland cashpoint. They had been so finely carved originally, that water had got into the building. This had obviously been a nuisance, so the birds were ordered to be decapitated, their necks now buried within the stone, with plinths now jutting out crudely above those wishing to make their instant no-fuss transactions.

And again, I was circling around the Colmore Business District. This must have been for the third or fourth time that day. Dante’s inferno, walking within gluttony and greed. Tired and weary, outside Hotel du Vin, seeing wolves (or was it Cerberus?), snarling gryphons and knotted foliage spiralling all around. A girl came up to our throng and asked us; “What you lot looking at?” “Well, look at that. There’s an owl, a face, a wolf.” “Oh my God. Oh my God. That’s freaky.” With that, she disappeared, going past the gaping fish mouths chiselled over Clarke Wilmott solicitors.

On our way to Louise Ryland House, we passed a plaque dedicated to the surrealist inventor Conroy Maddox. The inscription read: “The work of surrealism can never be conclusive. It is more of exploration, a journey, a struggle.”

Around the council building we gathered, looking at the Edwardian architecture. Heads of lions and foliage. The council workers walked out of their doors, briefly surprised at us waiting outside (we had considerably grown in numbers) and went on their way, to the bus stops on Colmore Row. Hopefully they’d be there.

We were nearly on our meeting to see Lucifer. But before we did, we passed the dirty chest clinic building on Great Charles Street Queensway. A man with arms outstretched, one hand holding a dish, with a snake feeding from the dish, and in the other hand, a hammer. The world of the medical profession, said Ben, a world that we are only trying to understand.

Our procession went through Paradise Place, a grimy, cavernous alleyway, through Congreve Passage, and then back onto Victoria Square, where there was a demonstration occurring with people bearing candles. But we were the ones who were going to greet Lucifer. A dim light in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery window. This is where he lay. We slowly walked up the stone steps to the entrance. Shut. Ben knocked, once, twice. On the third time, a lady, her face obscured by curls, bent over with a dowager’s hump slowly opened the door. She let us in cautiously, but Ben assured us that we wouldn’t be long. Up the stairs, where Lucifer stood.

And as soon as we were on the first floor, we were greeted with his presence. The depiction of the fallen angel, the one who was too big for his status in Heaven, cast down to Hell, or perhaps even amongst us on Earth. And the artist who had created this had been told that his statue wasn’t wanted in the V&A, but sure enough, we’d have it in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. But Ben reassured us that if we believed in these demons that have been carved for us around the city, that they would manifest themselves in our daily being. As we walked down the stairs, he said that there was nothing, absolutely nothing to worry about. And for the while, we believed him. The lady with the dowager’s hump stood next to the door on our way out. She no longer had the strength to hold the door open. She had been in the museum too long with him upstairs. A spent force. And as we all said our goodbyes and thanked Ben for the trip, I made my way down to Café Blend, and on onto the Electric. Into the Abyss… Writer James Kennedy was an embedded reporter on the Birmingham Noir tour. Look out for more of his essays throughout the festival.

mmm, maps: filming locations and locations of films

Here at Still Walking, we love maps… Have you seen these ones by Mark Wilson?

[googlemaps https://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?msid=215248733443353977388.0004b8b7ea9de26141769&msa=0&ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=52.481369,-1.901922&spn=0.018295,0.05064&z=14&output=embed&w=590&h=350]

Still Walking celebrates (amongst other things) meticulous research and seeing your surroundings in a new way and Mark's maps are a prime example of this. If you click on the location markers in the map above (there are quite a few of them - they may take a while to load) you will find yourself in Birmingham-as-London.

Mark's spent a lot of time on the trail of the BBC drama Hustle and the many locations around Birmingham that were used as stunt doubles for the capital city: here is an article from the Sunday Mercury, another from the Radio Times and his collections of maps and photos.

Hustle was just the beginning though: Mark has gone on to research other films and TV programmes that have used locations around the city.

Mark gets behind the scenes of the TV industry and shares trade secrets and some of the improvised approaches of the TV crews he has encountered. This walking tour has many tales of con artists, soap queens, musical legends, game show kings and even throws in a phantom flan flinger for good measure.

If you're quick, you can get one of the few remaining tickets for Mark's tours (there are two different ones to choose from) this Sunday. Ben's already been on the dress rehearsal and it seems to have gone down very well with Time Out reporter Euan Ferguson judging by his review.

On Location is one of three tours that Still Walking is running this year in conjunction with the amazing Flatpack film festival. The Birmingham Noir and Shaping Cinema tours have both already sold out, but walking fans may also enjoy Patience (After Sebald) and Made in Wolverhampton from the Flatpack programme:

MADE IN WOLVERHAMPTON (Dir: Adam Kossoff, UK 2011, 74 mins) Friday 16 March, 5.45pm at the Custard Factory theatre Framed as a letter from the narrator to his girlfriend in Cuba, Made in Wolverhampton is a quizzical ramble around the city’s margins with a combination of locked-off photography and super-dry voiceover recalling the work of Patrick Keiller. Hunting for ‘after-images of the industrial revolution’, the film builds up layers of observation, history and quotation to engaging effect, throwing Norton bikes, Che Guevara, Poundland, Galileo and roundabout-dweller Josef Stawinoga into the mix. In his day-job Kossoff teaches Film and Video at the School of Art and Design in Wolverhampton, and coincidentally we’ll also be showing a short made by one of his former students. LUV’IN THE BLACK COUNTRY (dir: Matthew E. Carter) is built around five tales of love on the canals.

PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD) (Dir: Grant Gee, UK 2011, 84 mins) Saturday 17 March, 1pm at the Electric Despite the autobiographical undercurrent of Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz, the writer behind them has always been something of a mysterious figure, so it’s fascinating to see a picture of WG Sebald start to emerge as this documentary progresses. Interviewing acolytes and friends (including Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and Tacita Dean) as well as retracing the walk around coastal Suffolk which inspired Rings of Saturn, the film’s layered approach does a great job of reflecting Sebald’s own discursive and often dark turn of mind.

Both screenings are £7/£5, booking via www.flatpackfestival.org.uk or Ticketsellers on 0844 870 0000.

Have you got Big Brum Love?

I was thrilled when I heard that Marty Taylor had been approached to lead an event for the festival: not a professional guide, but someone with a great sense of humour who could offer an interesting and entertaining personal perspective on Birmingham. When his proposal came back, it totally blew all our expectations out of the water...

We thought he could share some affection for the city he grew up in. He gave us love!

We thought we'd go easy on him and keep the numbers down for his first tour-guide gig. He gave us a procession!

We thought we were getting Marty Taylor. We got Sas & Marty Taylor and Big Brum Love!

The Big Brum Love tour will do what it says on the tin: a massive celebration of love (for all things) taking place in the city centre from 1pm on Saturday March 31st.

To make sure we nail the big bit though, we're going to need your help...

We want to gather as many people as possible to take part in this (free) happening, so come along and join us for a dollop of love, affection and general bonhomie.

There'll be a range of activities going on for those who are feeling expressive, but it's totally fine to get involved with these as much or as little as you like. The main thing is we want you to come and walk with us. The streets of Birmingham have seen a few protests in recent months, can we now fill them with a celebration?

Show us your positive vibes!

As I mentioned earlier, the event is free. You won't need a ticket for this one, however we are asking for you to add your name to this eventbrite registration to help the planning side of things. All ages welcome.

Bringing yourself is the important thing, but if you can also bring along an instrument to play that would be rather marvellous and help add to the Big Brum Love atmosphere!

Sas & Marty have set up a Big Brum love blog and Twitter account, so link up to those for updates etc. In the meantime, please mark the 31st in your diary and help spread the word. Birmingham Needs Yow.

Teach me about Erdington

A month or so ago I was given a guided tour of Corby by James from the contemporary art organisation Fermyn Woods. That the local government's website has the tag line "Building a bigger, better, brighter Corby" might confirm your suspicions about this ex steel-working town. However, as we drove around the area, James was able to relate a non-stop series of facts, anecdotes, tales and legends about the landscape and the people who have lived and worked there.

I'm fascinated by how these stories get passed on. Some are experienced directly, others may be retold to make conversation between parent and child whilst out walking the dog. It sounds like the gamekeeper would be a good person to sit around a campfire with, too!

I grew up in the New Forest, and I've absorbed something of the stories of the kings, the ghostly nurses and the World War bombs. However, looking at the programme for the Still Walking festival has brought home to me how little I know about the city and culture of Birmingham - even though I have lived and worked here for [...counts on fingers...] 15 years now.

I came here to study at university, and my experience of the city has been pretty much limited to the South West sector between Bristol and Alcester Roads. I've never been to Marston or Bordesley Greens; Perry Common remains a mystery to me; Handsworth and Nechells - places I've heard mention of on the news; Smethwick I would have to look up on a map...

I think this is why I'm intrigued by Kerrie Reading's event Swanning Around Erdington.

Erdington High Street

Kerrie has been meeting with Erdingtonites (Erdingtonians?) to pool their collective knowledge. Taking Erdington High Street as the starting point, Swanning Around Erdington will be a trail through people's memories and thoughts about the town. Kerrie's interested in how people and their collective stories help shape a place and Swanning Around Erdington forms part of a much larger body of research investigating how communities engage with their town/city. Buy your tickets for the family-friendly performance and a taster of the stories she's gathered.

I originally started this post pondering "where is the local history?", but I think maybe the question I really want to get at is how local history is transmitted and what micro-histories people want to share. I'm not so much getting at the sort of things that make it to the history books, but the more personal histories, the stuff that's significant either on a local scale or maybe even to one or two people. Individual perspectives. Mass observation day diary type stuff.

So, here's the challenge: I know nothing about Erdington. I don't think I have ever been there. What can you tell me about Erdington - the Erdington you have experienced?

I'm now handing the comments section over to you... Teach me about Erdington, please!