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.

Welcome to Freedonia

Mask on, gloves off. As covid restrictions drop, and we head into ‘normal’ (whatever that is), we wanted to see if normal was, normal. We sent our ‘normal’ correspondent Danny Smith to see if the pubs are on track, or lost without trace.  We did not pay him billions of pounds. 

In the 1933 film Duck Soup an incompetent huckster becomes leader of a tiny country through borrowed wealth and inherited money and proceeds to bumble it into war and potential ruin.

Why mention that? 

No reason.

Welcome to ‘Freedom Day’ where the only thing stopping you acting exactly how you want is common decency, and to paraphrase Voltaire – common decency ain’t that common. 

a pub door with two posters 'Long Live Local' and 'We're Closed'
Long Live The Local

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I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal

Charlie Hill’s I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is a book about  work, identity, sex, politics, drugs, homelessness and dissolution,  but we feel it’s mostly about Birmingham at the end of the twentieth century. Enjoy this exclusive excerpt, and then go get more.

Working in a Victorian factory in Digbeth that made pelmets and curtain accessories, I bet every day with poor Irishmen in Bartletts bookies. During my first shift, I noticed a strong smell of almonds so I asked the gaffer, a bull of a man with mildewed suit cuffs and dried egg yolk on his tie, what it was. He pointed to two enormous open vats in the middle of the floor and said “those are cyanide baths”, and I heard them hissing. 

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Brummie of the Year 2021: Nigel “Ian Buckells” Boyle

For many of our 18 years we have asked and answered the question: who is the most quintessential brummie of the moment. As we celebrate the moment of our 18th birthday, it’s time once again to crown a new champion for our city.

We didn’t announce a Brummie of the year in 2020 because… Covid, I guess. Shall we say it was Covid? It was Covid. But the thing is, The Brummie of the Year, the award itself, was always there waiting patiently… much like this year’s winner. Step forward (fourth) man of the hour, Nigel Boyle, aka Ian Buckells off of the very brummie telly bollocks Line of Duty.

Brummie of the Year 2021 Nigel Boyle as Ian Buckells in Line of Duty

He was there in 2020, when you were so busy looking for toilet roll you didn’t stop to ask “who is the best of us?”. 

He was there in 2019 when you thought we’d forgotten about this feature but we said it was Stephen Duffy

You didn’t see him much between that and Kevin McCloud’s controversial crowning in 2015 but he was there somewhere,—probably playing golf. How about back in 2005 when we gave it to a Red Panda? He was around, serving beer to underage kids in The Inbetweeners.

So why Nigel Boyle? And why now?

Nigel is as brummie as they come, that’s a given, but here’s the sizzle reel for how he embodies brummie ambition and attitude as it is today in 2021:

  • His signature character, Ian Buckells, never blew his own trumpet. He just quietly got on with being a bit crap until he was in charge of… well everything. The OCG. Major police investigations. All of it, and he always looked a little worried about it all and like he hoped you’d fuck off and leave him alone a bit. That’s hardcore brummie posturing.
  • Buckells turned out to be the final boss in long running police procedural The Line of Duty, which is Birmingham to its core. Crimes in the first series took place on our estates and in the old Aston fire station—and the original AC12 mezzanine leans were near the escalator that goes both ways in Millennium Point.
  • For extra brummie points, the show moved production for its later seasons (following the public money trail that had probably brought it here in the first place). How brummie is that?
  • Despite being filmed in Belfast, the reality of the show remained in a sort of Birmingham of the imagination (you can still maps of Sutton Coldfield Constituency, where someone got merced in season 1, hanging on the investigation wall right at the end)
  • Nigel, who was born in Moseley, trained at Birmingham School of Acting (now part of Birmingham Conservatoire) and is so proud of his city right now
  • As far as we can tell, Nigel has buggered off to London. 100 Brummie points, our kid.

So that’s why it should be Nigel. As to why it should be now…we’ve got a book to sell, to be honest, and we needed your attention for 5 minutes.

You can back Birmingham it’s not Shit: The Book on Kickstarter today.

This is Bollocks. Total bastard bollocks

Is this controversial? Maybe. Is it satisfying? If it’s not then you’ve not really been paying attention. Ian Buckells is the best of us, in a lot of ways, and Nigel Boyle is Ian Buckells, Fourth Man, H, and Brummie of the Year. Definately.

Cheers, Nigel.

Nigel as the barman in The Inbetweeners

Paradise Circus Live – full live show

Like an old Monty Python cash-in LP: for lockdown listening the full live show the Paradise Circus troupe did at the mac a little while back. 90 mins of hyperlocal satire now available to listen to in your home.

If you enjoy it, please bung a little something to Brum Baby Bank. Oh, and you can buy our book, which has more of (in some cases exactly) the same.

Paradise Circus Live is old fashioned revue with a local twist – a host of satirical sketches, stand-up, songs, games and monologues. Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman bring a version of their popular Birmingham miscellany, Paradise Circus, to the stage with biting satire of the media and Birmingham itself — all refracted through a thick lens of Marxist critical theory. It’s funnier than it sounds. Hickman is not from round these parts and Bounds will take him through what it really means to understand Birmingham.

Learn just how to be a local Breakfast Show DJ, what happens at a Birmingham City Council meeting about promoting the latest Big Plan, and how to write a broadsheet article about Birmingham in an editorial meeting down in that London. Help us to find King Kong, discover who won the 1972 Snooker World Championship (which was played 60ft underneath the BT Tower) and work out how much the Council has paid to Capita during a stirring rendition of Mr Blue Sky.

Mark Steadman is at the piano with comedy songs like his famous 11 Bus song which mentions all of the 280 stops in order (11A of course). We may even end on some ELOke.

Paradise Circus Live may finally prove that Birmingham is not shit, or die on stage trying.

Listen now:

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Boris Johnson’s Christmas Carol

Thatcher was dead: to begin with. There could be no doubt about that. Johnson had been to the funeral himself, sat near Osborne who was failing to hold back the tears. She was as dead as a doornail. Or less metaphorically, the 96 football fans who her government smeared and denied justice after Hillsborough.

It was a cold afternoon in early December, and after cancelling another interview, Johnson was heading home for an evening with a good Russian vodka given to him by a close friend. The knocker on the door of Johnson’s temporary accommodation seemed to form a face, the digits 1 and 0 became a winking eye and a nose that seemed to follow the average wage down a graph. And was what was once a letterbox a handbag?

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Deep Impact?

We last visited Digbeth’s Impact Hub as it launched a few years ago when hardly anyone knew what it was, and those that had a little bit of a handle thought the claims being made for it were outlandish and dismissive of the existing spaces and activists in Birmingham. Despite that – and may be very much because of that ambition – it has grown into a space that is one of the building blocks of what might be termed a revival of Brum’s thinking social-conscious. And now it’s gone. 

Danny Smith went back to talk to driving-force Immy Kaur to find out what’s next and talked to her for a long time…

I arrive a little early and Immy is having lunch with a bunch of people at a big table near the kitchen area. Even while eating she is talking about the breakdown of the site, I get the impression that she never really stops. The people around the table all are unconsciously deferring to her, and I mention it although I know she’ll hate me for noticing.

Last time we talked I mentioned the bells she wears on a bangle around her wrist, I notice she’s wearing them today too. She must be both busy and stressed. The Impact Hub has been running for five years and has now been hit with a huge bill to vacate the premises they spent a fortune turning into the friendly industrial space it is today.

Did you wear the bells especially?

No, someone tweeted at me the other day – in response to your blog post – that they hadn’t heard them on me for a few weeks. Because I’ve been running into work everyday. When I run they bang on my arm and hurt me so I’ve been taking them off, and I got my running bag and took them out and put them back on.


So, Impact Hub: why is it closing?

Two main reasons: one is that it’s getting too expensive in Digbeth… 

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Eye-opener – leaked email reveals the code behind New St advertising screens

Big brother, is watching you apparently. We’re all scared of the Bladerunner-ish techno future where the big screens outside New Street station target you personally with adverts that you ignore on the way to get a train. But how do they actually work? This leaked email from one of Birmingham’s many top PR/social media/smart city conglomerates could reveal all… 

To Andy Street

Re: Code

Hey Andy,

How’s the shop doing? Nearly time for one of those adverts with the anthropomorphism, eh?  It gets earlier every year. Or are you in charge of the buses and sorting out the ever increasing homelessness problem on the streets now? I forget. And you do too, also. 

Anyway, I know it’s a bit late but, I’ve finally finished the code that makes the eye screens around the shopping centre on top of New Street Station check the crowds and respond with appropriate advertisements. Glad we kept the PR about them vague, but assuming that the tech to actually detect faces hundreds of yards away and check their sex and age and that exists and is plugged in, this should work. 

It’s a Beta or maybe earlier than that, Feta or something.  Continue reading "Eye-opener – leaked email reveals the code behind New St advertising screens"