Memories : Birmingham, 1981

Video-Birmingham

It’s difficult to decide whether you should laugh or cry watching this video of Telly Savalas’s ‘visit’ to Birmingham. First shown in cinemas in 1981 and introduced to me by the wonderful Clive James in Clive James on TV in the mid-1980s, this Harold Baim short did a brilliant job of showing Birmingham in all its shiny – and clean – glory.

On one hand, the hammy commentary (‘the view from up here nearly took my breath away’) and wonderful backing music (Giant Dwarf, by De Wolfe) are pure comedic genius in Harold Baim’s Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham. However, on the other, the modernistic vision of Birmingham during the summer of 1980 when this was filmed, is put into sharp relief by how it looks today – epecially considering the town planners’ later intent to undo all that Brutalist architecture so optimistically erected during the 1960s and ’70s.

For a car-spotter, this is a wonderful little vignette of life in Birmingham at the turn of the ’80s, too. The roads (or should we say ‘multi-lane highways’) are chock-full of delightful home-made metal – and, if you like your Austin Allegros, Ford Escorts and Minis, this is the video for you. There’s also a brilliant moment when a Ford Transit rounds a blind corner to almost hit our camera car, which is clearly blocking lane one of the Queensway Tunnel. Those with more refined tastes will probably love the appearance of the Rover SD1 police car door-handling out of Brum ‘nick’. A joy, a real joy.

Where, though, is the mention of BL Longbridge or even Cadbury’s at Bourneville we hear you cry? Well, Baim had a habit of leaving things to the last minute before putting in filming requests. Both BL and Cadbury’s refused to co-operate at such short notice. The same applied to Chad Valley which, at that time, produced children’s toys for export all over the world. Harold Baim produced a number of cringingly but affectionately naff short films of other places including Aberdeen, Nottingham and Portsmouth, but by a long chalk Birmingham remains the gold standard.

We’re tempted to revisit this video 2020-style, and I suspect Mike Humble and I will do just that as soon as we can to see how it would look now. However, for now, just enjoy this masterpiece.

So long, Birmingham, here’s looking ‘atcha!

Video-Birmingham

Keith Adams
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29 Comments

  1. I think I’m correct in saying he never actually visited the city.

    More recently the council issued a publicity leaflet showing a picture of Birmingham Alabama, and didn’t notice…

  2. Birmingham as I remember it as a child – parts of it really were grim, and yet I can imagine how good the old Bullring must have looked on opening in the 60s. Being dragged around the outdoor market on a damp Saturday afternoon by my grand ‘rents, I must admit I often wished the pace could be bombed again. Huge improvement now – but will people look back on today’s Brum in 32 years time, and think it just as grim as ’80s Brum? Another thing – does anyone honestly believe that Telly Savalis ever set foot in Brum?

  3. well,he must have had a bung to do this,i bet the “old boys club” at the council would have had thier palms greased to give the go ahead! enjoyed it so much i downloaded it onto my realplayer library!

  4. …’Its like being teleported into the 21st Century’…

    Well, here we are in the 21st Century and thank god it doesn’t look so much like it did back then.

    Oh, the irony of those ‘over 40s’ disco dancing to a song with the lyrics ‘Can’t get it up’…

    Well, back then when you hit 40 you were well and truly middle-aged, and they didn’t have Viagra…

  5. I think there’s a longer version with shots of Indian restaurants, which I remember was shown on a programme tracing the original of Balti curries.

  6. Having spent life working in Corporate Film, Video & TV, this is very typical of promo productions that were made for Councils & Local Authorities in the 1970s.

    It wasn’t unusual for Producers to hire a celebrity voiceover without the cost of having them in vision on location. Getting someone like Telly Savalas would be seen as a coup back then.

    Nice to see an old branch of Dixons – my first job, I worked there for 2 weeks before a better offer came in.

  7. I’ve not seen this for years. I think it was on one of Clive James’ shows (such bad news about a brilliant write and broadcaster) where he added his usual dry wit inbetween the interludes of Telly.

    Have to say though that even then there was a lot of foreign hardware on the road – just take the short section on the roundabout – had Britain had enough of the rubbish toshed out by the british factories by then?

  8. Hello from the toilet.

    This short film was one of a series that included Leeds and other UK cities that were made in the mid-seventies for cinemas so that they could fulfill their obligation to show the required percentage of UK made films, at a time when there was a quota introduced for such things. Telly Savalas narrated all of them.

    The flawed bullring is gone, and the new one today is as popular as ever, and will probably be so 32 years hence, as it was properly constructed with the hindsight and experience of 40+ years of public planning.

    Much of the buildings created in the 1960s and 70s remain,however, including the wonderful Rotunda, together with many new ones from the last decade.

    Birmingham city centre is a much nicer place to be than 20 years ago. In fact it’s a great place to be, and with a refurbished New Street Station, it will be even better!

    • “as it was properly constructed with the hindsight and experience of 40+ years of public planning.”

      “as it was properly constructed with the hindsight and experience of 40+ years of FAILED public planning.”

  9. @11. These films were called quota quickies because back in the day a cinema house had to show a certain number of Britsh distrubtion films in order to be allowed to show foreign – eg American fims in their cinemas. It wasn’t specifically made for the local authorities although they did have input. Telly Savallas also did one for Sheffield too. Incidentally Birmingham has what is believed to be the oldest working electrically operated cinema in the UK – all period features. They do play highbrow, art-house and foreign films but they also show Hollywood blockbuster and was the first cinema to employ 4K digital – the format James Cameron demanded for Avatar. So despite it’s age and how amazingly gorgeous and art-deco it looks, it is does in fact have a totally state of the art auditorium and it works very well – It’s tucked in behind New Street Station.

    Another place in town to check out is The Old Joint Stock. Grandiose looking old bank, restored and turned into a great pubs. Fullers of London took it over and even more daringly, incorporated a theatre upstairs for live music and stand up.. worth seeing. Plenty of other places to check out but you cannot take this city at face value.. you have to look.

    To be honest, if people are slating Birmingham based on that film, then they really need to take another good look at the place. Manzoni’s disasters are slowly being removed and the wounds are healing. The Bullring and the Sellfridges are a national landmark and please look at the NewStreetNewStart website and see how they’re transforming the station. And of course we are soon too have Europe’s biggest library.

    Being an outsider and coming to live in Brum as a student and now laying down roots, I can honestly say I love the city, and it’s troubled history- which interestingly reflects in the goings on in the Austin/Rover/MG story. It’s forever evolving and those that still say it’s shit have never really bothered to come and actually take a closer look.

    @13 are you from Manchester by any chance..?

  10. I aren’t sure if Telly did one about Sheffield. I know part of it was used in the opening credits of The Full Monty. Most inner cities were faceless & full of concrete. Leeds for example has the dated Merrion Centre, which even today still looks dank & depressing, and the old Bond Street Centre has had more facelifts than William Shatner, and is completely unrecognisable, as now has 3 floors instead of the single one it used to have. At least the big hole in the ground is finally taking shape, but there will be nobody to take on these retail units

  11. I’d like to query why this film didn’t include some of the plusses of Birmingham- such as the internationally renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (I happen to know one of their cellists), or the extensive canal system- although it may be the case that back in those days it may not have been restored.

    I haven’t been to Birmingham for many years, but I’d be fully prepared to believe, based on news of extensive re-working of the city centre, is probably now the beautiful city that it should have been.

  12. @13 – …..been to the toilet recently have you? It’s been cleaned and a new blu added – you’d be surprised.

    @15 – The Electric Cinema – brilliant place – my cinema of choice – you can pay a little extra and sit in a leather sofa. They’ll also serve you tapas and absinthe at your seat – brilliant place.

  13. @ The Saint

    I agree, the modern Birmingham is a great place.

    You mention Sheffield, Telly diddnt do that one, but the city corporation sanctioned their own quickie called “Sheffield.. a city on the move”

    The first few minutes of which are shown at the start of The Full Monty, albeit dubbed with a different voice.

    This is a great little film about 40 minutes long. Google “the reel Monty” to order on DVD!

  14. On youtube there is a promotional film for Southend on Sea, with Johnnie Morris providing the voice over. According to the film it’s always sunny! Yeh right – bit like when Jamie and Jimmy do their filming on the pier and have sun lights outside the window to make it look nice on a rainy day!

  15. And as the sun sets in the West Midlands, we say farewell….. I don’t know about “the old Great Western Arcade”. Snow Hill station nearby disappeared in the cause of rationalisation.

    Why did my wife and I go to Kyoto for the cherry blossom (not the shoe polish!) when we could have gone to Brum?

    The most noticeable thing about the commentary was its gentleness. Would we get that today?

    What if he did not actually visit Birmingham? Kipling never saw Mandalay, whose ‘road’ was no “multi-carriageway motorway”.

  16. Other than a day trip to the old Birmingham Rep to see an A-level Shakespeare production, my only experience had been middle of the night loo stops en route from Warrington to London in the sixties. I was horrified at having to spend a week there to clear up a mess created by an ex-colleague in 1982. I promptly in love with both the city and the people and thereafter spent as much time there as possible. I wonder if that’s my emberglow Princess in the outside lane of the underpass?

  17. In the top photo, it shows even Birmingham wasn’t immune to the rising tide of imports, as I can see a Fiat, Volkswagen and Datsun, and I think the van on the slip road is a Mercedes.

  18. Hilarious that Telly obviously never even visited Brum – he’s just sat on the balcony of his Noo Yawk penthouse reading a script!

  19. ….and a wonderful little Dyane. Also lovely to hear all the support for their city by folks here who obviously have a link. Some cities have that magic. Liverpool is my favourite – yet I’m very much a ‘southerner’.
    With Tele not being in Bermingham the whole thing was a sham – a fake. Would it be any more truthful if we made it now? Of course not. Most of the documentaries we watch on TV are digitalised nonsense, cut and remixed, presented by a ‘personality defect’ that talks to us as if we’re three years old, repeats everything expressively seven times whilst waving their arms about like a demented traffic cop – and then drowns the whole thing with annoying music! I think I’d rather have Tele faking it! But I’m probably just angry ‘cos I haven’t got my Dyane any more!
    Not often I rant – but I detest modern documentaries – ahh, you guessed!

    • Oh yes – the tell what is coming up in the show at the start of the programme, and then at each ad break give you a further breakdown of what they have shown so far and what is further coming up! DO they think we all have the memory of a gold fish!

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