Because of the celebration of the city in Friday, Saturday morning came, and I was running a bit late for the second part of the Still Walking festival. 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 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, probably back down the street, and round again. Just as it should be. It is the time of the Still Walking festival after all.