101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 72: British Satire

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As Philip Larkin said about sex, British satire began in the 1960s and it has never looked back. That Was The Week That Was, Beyond The Fringe, Harold Macmillan impressions and that time when the varying heights of John Cleese and the Two Ronnies taught us all about class. Life was changing: young upstarts with just a public school and Oxbridge education behind them were bravely taking on the ruling elites that they were born to join and things would never be the same again.

But where would British satire be without the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, the comedy hothouse that produced Douglas Adams, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Stephen Fry and, erm, Tim Brooke-Taylor? Displaying all the quiet entitlement of a cat lounging on clean washing, Footlights alumni have inhabited every matey TV panel show and chortlesome Radio 4 smug-in for four decades. And where would Footlights be without that distinctive name? Possibly just a footnote in history: another boring revue club, like they have at that ‘other’ university. And without Birmingham we would not have footlights.

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101 Things Brum Gave The World No. 69: Conference centres

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Anyone who regularly travels by train between Birmingham and Coventry will know that the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is a little like Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree. As the train pulls into Birmingham International station, every train regular is wondering, which land is at the NEC this week? If the carriage is suddenly full of perfume, giggling women and designer handbags, it’s probably the Clothes Show. If it’s wall-to-wall North Face, it’ll be a hiking event (or a Christian rock concert) and if there’s a faint pong of wet dog, you know that it’s the Liberal Democrat conference.

The NEC is the UK’s largest conference centre and it is fitting that it is in Birmingham, home to the world’s first ever purpose-built permanent exhibition hall.

Bingley Hall opened on Broad Street in 1850. Designed by local architect J. A. Chatwin, who also worked on the Houses of Parliament, Bingley Hall must have wowed the Victorian public. Its interior space stretched over an acre and a quarter and held 25,000 people in five rooms. It had ten entrance doors and had used nearly 12,000 feet of 21-inch glass in its construction. Of course, just a year later Birmingham-wannabe London launched the Great Exhibition and the rather showy Crystal Palace left Bingley Hall looking small in comparison. But, the Birmingham venue outlived its metropolitan rival by five decades, before also finally succumbing to a fire in 1984.
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