Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 10: 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.

Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 6: Aston Villa’s sarcastic advertising hoarding

We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.

I’m a Birmingham City fan, so I’ve always been happy to enjoy the bedsheet painting, cabbage throwing, Tim Sherwood employing comedy that comes straight outta Aston. But I actually have a lot of love for the outfit, I grew up in one of the rows of terraces in the shadow of the monolithic North Stand.  I think of them much like the Harold Lloyd films I used to see on the telly on before the News until the BBC bought Neighbours. Lots of falling down, running aimlessly and even sometimes Paul Birch dangling from the clock on the Witton Lane Stand.  

I used to go to a lot of Aston Villa games with mates and family, and there was always fun to be had – but looking back two things outside of matches really stand out as the comic events that make me love the Villa. And by extension delight me about Birmingham: because while we might have one of the most violent fan rivalries going, it’s built on slapstick and fun. 

Villa in the late eighties didn’t win many trophies, which may have made their team photos a little dull — until in stepped sponsors Mita copiers and made sure that they looked like they’d got a few gongs. 

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 5: Tony Hancock not giving a fuck about Birmingham

We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.

“Things just went wrong too many times” has always seemed the ultimate sad end. Sadly it’s from Tony Hancock’s suicide note rather than the council statement on deciding not to bid for the Olympics for the third time in a row.

A sculpture / statue of Tony Hancock by Bruce Williams made in 1996, in Old Square, Birmingham. Photo by Elliot Brown

The statue of Tony Hancock in the middle of Old Square in town is one of Birmingham’s genuinely interesting pieces of public art. The use of space to give the impression of a photograph printed with half-toning echos that the square would once have been awash with nicotine-stained journalists from the Post and Mail building that used to throw a shadow there.

Anthony John Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, but, from the age of three, he was brought up in Bournemouth and pretty much never gave us a second thought. This would not be unusual, in fact most of us remember virtually nothing of anything that happened before we were three. Infantile amnesia, is the inability of adults to retrieve memories of situations or events before the age of two to four years. That there was no attachment to his birthplace at all would seem to indicate that his parents didn’t care much for Brum either — they moved for ‘the good of [his father’s] health”.

But Tony’s performances — embodied by the Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock version of himself:  ‘the comedian Tony Hancock’ — have a great deal to tell us about our attitudes and our city.

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 4: Camp Hill Flyover

We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.

JG Ballard was famously inspired by The Westway in London, a road he considered central to some dystopian future that we were actually living in. But If you go to London and travel the Westway, you can see that it is nothing more than an extended Perry Barr flyover — and has absolutely nothing on the wonder that is our very own Spaghetti Junction. Ballard’s Concrete Island doesn’t have a beach.

But if you like your driving urban, elevated, thrillingly unsafe then Birmingham had something that could help create a thousand unsettling novels. If Digbeth is our Faraway Tree, then the Camp Hill Flyover was our — rattling and juddering — slippery slip, a helter skelter to the Stratford Road, via sheer terror.

Nicklin, Phyllis (1968) High Street to Camp Hill flyover, Bordesley, Birmingham.

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 3: Everywhere in Great Barr looking the same

We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.

Birmingham is the highest point west of the Urals. Great Barr is as hilly as all hell, the pubs are all big and on the verge of kicking off, or big, closed, and on the verge of burning down. I don’t think there’s a trendy coffee shop for miles, and good luck with seeing any art other than a tribute act since The Kings isn’t there for basket meals and The Barron Knights.

During the Second World War they removed road signs to confuse any Nazi paratroopers that might land, in suburban Birmingham they just built road after road of identical semi-detached houses that wind round on each other in a way that makes you sure the estates were planned not by the Public Works Committee of the Council but by M.C. Escher.

Never sure where you are until you turn a corner onto a wider road and see a landmark, lost on a walk of shame, navigating by incline alone: the sheer delight in being able to get lost yards from your front door is a feeling akin to driving fast over the hump-backed bridge by Highcroft as you race into Erdington. 

Did the city planners just see one semi-, with a box room at the front even that stretched the definition of ‘bedroom’ even in those days when people were smaller, and say:’ Yeah, thousands and thousands of these randomly all around the place, around the outskirts of town please.’? Sort of. And it’s to our credit that they did. 

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 2: Cliff Richard

We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. In our new book we lay out the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.

Cliff Richard is not from Birmingham; reason for celebration enough some might think, but they are cynics and have no place in this discussion.  A fleeting mention of Cliff Richards makes me think of Birmingham and smile, for Cliff is somehow part of Birmingham — almost is Birmingham on another plane of existence.

The parallels are huge. We, as a city, are Christmas – we shine and glitter in a gaudy way. Cliff is too – he’s had four Xmas number ones to our one. We both love Eurovision – Cliff’s two appearances to our one outranks us – we both love women’s tennis and we both don’t get much sex.

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Birmingham: It’s Not Shit — Reason No. 1: The Brummie’s Love of the Number 11 Bus

We all know that Birmingham isn’t shit. We’ve spent nearly 20 years telling people, showing the world, and often undermining our case. Tired of falling back on the same old cliches, or past achievements, we look at the ineffable reasons why we say ‘Birmingham: it’s not shit’ and attempt to eff it.

It’s been going round and round for way longer than you thought possible, has the affection that the people of Brum have for one of its 200 or so bus routes.

I have a commemorative reprint of a brochure advertising the delights of the Number 11 bus route — the reprint from 2004, the original from ‘the early 1930s’ — that invites people to “see Birmingham’s charming suburbs by ‘bus”, and presumably some of its least charming ones too as the joy of the thing is that it cuts right through us and opens us up to the honest scrutiny.

By Pete Ashton

Joining two routes — the 10 and the 11  — and becoming one in 1926, going all the way round pretty much straight away became something Brummies did: ‘25 miles for fifteen pence’ as the guide says, and special Bank Holiday services. But why do we love it so much?

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