There are few better ways to get a real feel for the spaces and places of the recent past than through a walking tour.
Clearly recognising this, Birmingham lens based media (and more) arts organisation Flatpack Projects have produced several as part of their current Wonderland Birmingham cinema going history National Lottery Heritage Fund Project. The project also comprises part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival and the walking tours are produced with support from Roundhouse Birmingham.
On Saturday 2nd July I joined one led by Chris Maher the Wonderland project’s Producer.
The challenge of conveying modern and contemporary history is the sheer volume of it. Both in terms of the explosion of media and record keeping – even long prior to the internet – and in terms of people’s memories. This can make it incredibly tricky to whittle down and settle on a narrative, especially when it comes to something as evocative and important to people as cinema going heritage.
Through careful and judicious editing and curation, Flatpack’s Wonderland has succeeded in creating a walking tour which captures and conveys – in around 90 minutes – something of the rich tapestry of central Birmingham’s cinema history.
The story begins just outside the semi-subterranean 1980s bunker of Snow Hill Station. With attendees peering towards the site of the former Gaumont Cinema, once amongst the city’s largest, which has now been replaced by the chunkily spectacular, late 1980s PoMo, confection that houses Wesleyan insurance.
From there the walking tour’s narrative continues – in broadly chronological order – down Colmore Row. Stopping off at the location where the firm of architects who built many of the iconic interwar ODEONs was located. Before briefly pausing close to the site where the material that became celluloid was first synthesised by a Birmingham manufacturer in the mid-19th Century.
Then it calls in briefly at the Wonderland exhibition in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery before continuing to the first set of still surviving cinema building on the tour, situated towards the upper end of New Street.
This includes the site of what today is the Piccadilly Arcade, which in the 1910s and 1920s was an early example of a plush inner-city cinema, before conversion due to being outmoded in size (it was too small…) into the retail space, and handy cut-through for Stephenson Street and New Street Station, it remains to this day.
From there the walk wends it’s way to the ODEON on New Street, a rare – and not just in Birmingham – example of a big interwar city centre cinema still performing its original function. Albiet now, sometimes idiosyncratically, carved up into a multiplex.
The tour was enlivened by the organisers’ decision to encourage those present with memories of the cinemas along the route, or knowledge about Birmingham’s cinema history gleamed from elsewhere, to chip enroute. Something enabled by a seemingly simple but ingenius system of amplification through microphones and earphones. This democratic approach to sharing stories along the way brought people’s memories, experiences, and how the cities cinemas shaped them to the fore.
Having been born after all the city centre’s regular public cinemas – bar the ODEON and The Electric shut – I did not have anything to contribute. But it was excellent to hear others detailed memories of layouts, programmes, bands seen on stage, promotional wheezes (such as a replica Herbie) and more personal anecdotes as well.
The latter stages of the tour tell the story of the persistence of city centre cinemas in post-war Birmingham. Something which can be a little overlooked.
This included the Scala Subway, named for a venerable early picture house demolished for the inner-ring road in the early 1960s, a poignant example of a cinema being memorialised in the city’s fabric, and the still existing (for now…) site of the ODEON Queensway. Walled up, but with the brackets which one held its sign still in place, 35 years after the cinema shut.
A new one to me was the existence, or rather former existence of The Futurist on John Bright Street. Once pointed out it is blatantly a former early cinema, with a rather well preserved facade, housing a Mediterranean restaurant recently named in the former cinema’s honour.
The Futurist, based upon the reflections of a fellow tour member, had persisted as a cinema until 1989 or 1990 at least. During the period when IKON was based on John Bright Street. Making it one of the great holdouts amongst the city centre cinemas.
After old Futurist building the tour concludes at the most venerable of all Birmingham’s cinema venues: The Electric.
Which has a rather nice ghost sign, from one of its many former incarnations, which I had previously completely failed to spot, still visible on the back of the building.
The tour concludes at the front of The Electric. A fitting end to the journey given that whilst it is – perhaps – the oldest working purpose built cinema in the country, it recently reopened under new post-COVID management seemingly securing the venue as a cinema for the foreseeable future. An indication that public cinema in central Birmingham will persist.
This brings together a concise, yet effective, immersion in the situation of central Birmingham’s cinemas past and present, as well as some aspects of the city’s wider cinema history stretching back to the 19th Century. A tale invigorated through the stories of some of those who have passed through the venues’ doors, whether uncovered through Wonderland’s research phase, or shared by participants on the day.
Flatpack Project’s Wonderland Cinema Walk will run again 18:30-20:00 on 14th September 2022. At the time of publication there were tickets remaining.
If like me you are a big fan of walking tours, especially contemporary history focused ones, you might want to check out Flatpack’s Balsall Heath Cinema Walk 11:30 – 13:00 on 31st July 2022. It comprises part of Flatpack’ Project’s Balsall Heath Film Festival – which sounds great. At the time of publication there were tickets remaining for the Balsall Heath Cinema Walk.