‘What I think many people today find difficult to conceive about cinema-going in the past is its sheer scale as a collective experience. In one of Birmingham’s larger cinemas in the mid-twentieth century you would have 2,000 people gathered together at the same time, all watching exactly the same thing. Very different from attending a modern multiplex where there may be an audience of hundreds or thousands, but they are spread across a dozen or more screens.’
I am talking to Ian Francis, the Director of Flatpack Projects, about his current National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Wonderland: a people’s history of cinema-going in Birmingham, from its earliest days at fairgrounds and musical halls in the 1890s to the present. Showing how cinemas have brought people together, forging collective bonds and firing imaginations for the past thirteen decades, it comes at a critical juncture for Birmingham’s cinemas. As Francis observes several times during our conversation, 2020 and 2021’s Covid-19 induced intervals were the longest time in Birmingham’s nearly 130-year cinema history that gatherings for public film screenings have been prohibited. In the wake of this experience, the future shape of cinema exhibition in the city has seldom looked so uncertain.
Wonderland’s centrepiece is an exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) until the end of October 2022. It forms part of a tableau of five different pop-up exhibitions, each very different from typical civic museum fare, that form part of Birmingham Museums Trust’s mission under recently appointed Co-CEOs Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah to recast what Birmingham’s local museums should be like. At the heart of the Wonderland exhibition is an interactive three-dimensional map illustrating the trajectories across Birmingham’s urban realm taken by key figures in the city’s cinema history, created by Spaceplay. The project has uncovered a dazzling array of material from public and private collections alike, bringing Birmingham’s cinema history to life.
But this is only one facet of the project. In addition to the exhibition at BMAG, throughout the summer Flatpack are programming walks, talks, workshops, and screenings. There is also an ongoing call for people who have experienced the cinema in Birmingham to share their experiences, and an online map listing the more than 150 venues which have housed cinemas since film’s earliest days.
That Wonderland is a history of Birmingham’s cinema-goers, rather than its cinemas, is emphasised in the exhibition’s strong focus on individuals, their stories, and how they relate to the collective historical whole. The significance a big night out at a plush, modern, city-centre cinema could have in the 1940s is told through the story of Cyril Barbier, a diamond-cutter in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Later in life Barbier memorialised the New Street ODEON using the meticulous eye and dexterous hands he employed in his work to create a stunning scale model of the venue where he went on a first date with his wife. This work of art is a standout exhibit in the exhibition, a stunning monument to cinema’s importance in working people’s courtship and other aspects of their social lives.
The experience and labour of cinema workers is also made visible. Francis tells me ‘cinemas have always attracted young workers drawn to the glamour…Another constant being they’ve often been very poorly paid’. That does not mean that cinema workers have always been a completely disorganised and passive workforce. During the project’s research phase the papers of Gwen Berry, a cinema cellist in the late 1920s and early 1930s, were unearthed. She took strike action with other cinema musicians as part of a vigorous but ill-fated attempt to save her trade amidst the advent of talking pictures.
During our discussion, Francis explains that class emerged as an important strand running through the project’s research. He tells me ‘there is relatively little cinema-going history from Edgbaston and Harborne’, two perennial upper-middle-class enclaves near Birmingham city centre, and ‘an awful lot’ from blue collar inner-suburbs like Balsall Heath and Small Heath.
This spatial dimension comes through in the exhibition, which shows how, in the fifty-year period between the end of World War I and the late 1960s, neighbourhood cinemas of all shapes and sizes mushroomed in Birmingham. Between 1919 and 1939 Birmingham Corporation constructed 51,000 council houses, with speculative private builders creating tens of thousands more. Cinema chains were hastily opening opulent, cavernous venues serving both new municipal estates for affluent manual workers in the north of the city like Kingstanding and Sheldon, and emerging semi-detached-dwelling lower-middle-class communities in areas like Quinton and Longbridge to the south. The number of cinemas expanded so rapidly it was joked that ODEON, founded by Oscar Deutsch in Birmingham in 1928, built cinemas in advance of houses going up in rapidly urbanising locations around the edge of the booming city.
A well worn post-war tale is that from the 1960s the spread of television sets and other changes favouring individualistic and privatised leisure pursuits led to the inexorable decline of neighbourhood cinemas, and their eventual disappearance by the early 1980s. Wonderland complicates this narrative in Birmingham by showing how migration saved many dilapidated inner-city neighbourhood cinemas.
By the 1960s, areas like Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath just south of Birmingham city centre were home to a large South Asian diaspora who had come to work in the city’s factories and foundries. As these communities grew and became more established, they began hiring cinemas to screen South Asian films. In time, entrepreneurs such as Avtar Singh Randhawa and his family began buying failing cinemas, like Sparkbrook’s venerable Waldorf, first constructed in 1913, and showing the films the area’s new inhabitants wanted. In our discussion, Francis explains that these pioneering film clubs, and later cinema venues, drew attendees from across the Midlands. This in turn drove the establishment of other businesses catering to the South Asian diaspora and their families, rejuvenating inner-city high streets and creating thriving districts which endure to this day.
South Asians were not the only new arrivals in Birmingham using cinemas as a means of forging community and establishing themselves. Cecil Morris, who travelled to Birmingham from Jamaica in 1962, breathed new life into Handsworth’s Elite Cinema in the 1970s by screening Blaxploitation and Caribbean films, catering to the city’s Afro-Caribbean and other Black communities whose specific cultures of filmmaking were otherwise completely unrepresented in the city at the time.
What cinema-goers should take from the stories collected by Wonderland is that cinema and the unparalleled communal experience of imagination, discovery, and the potential for individual and collective transformation that it offers has always adapted and made itself relevant in new ways. Despite cinema screening’s Covid-induced uncertainty, the final panels of the BMAG exhibition point to the recent resurgence of DIY and pop-up screenings, and the resilience of the city’s smaller independent venues, as cause for future optimism. The cinema’s future could look rather like its past, with communities built around collective interests, identities, and dreams assembling to enjoy films together.