Hollywood IS in Birmingham! ………by Keith Bracey, Writer and Brummie
Birmingham’s ‘Film Triumvirate’ is made up of Sir Michael Balcon, Brummie Grammar Schoolboy and Britain’s first ‘Film Mogul’ who at one point worked for Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Victor Savile, who bankrolled Balcon and Oscar Deutsche who founded the ODEON Cinema Chain in Birmingham in the 1930’s were Brum’s three film ‘movers and shakers’ All three could at one time be found on a ride on the Inner Circle number 8 ‘Corporation Buzz’ in Birmingham’s inner city!
So we see Birmingham’s links to Hollywood are not so tenuous, notwithstanding the eponymously-named village near Earlswood Lakes!
Birmingham was almost single-handedly responsible for the world-wide film industry as we know it.
In 1858 Brummie Alexander Parkes’ invention of the first viable plastic called ‘Parkesine’ in the City’s Jewellery Quarter led directly to the development of celluloid film, also in the Jewellery Quarter and thence to the development of ‘film’ and the entire world-wide film industry, Hollywood, Bollywood et al!
The City of Birmingham is also home to the UK’s oldest existing cinema: ‘The Electric Cinema’ owned by the excellent Tom Lawes which dates from 1909. The oldest surviving ODEON Cinema is ‘The Clifton’ in Perry Barr in North Birmingham.
l well recall watching the early 1970’s BBC TV Black and White TV Series ‘Gangsters’ set in Birmingham echoing ‘The Peaky Blinders’ with an understated lead actor Maurice Colbourne (like a typical Brummie, modest to a fault!) playing the lead role opposite a Pakistani actor ‘Mal’ Malik as they prowled the ‘Mean and Moody Streets’ of Birmingham…..’Sin City’!
Back in 1974 when Cliff Richard starred in the sugary Birmingham-set and made film: ‘Take me High’, I went to see the altogether more hard-nosed Reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s Biopic ‘The Harder they Come’ at the ODEON New Street, founded by a man from a previous Birmingham generation who had also suffered from prejudice in the City, a German Jew called Oscar Deutsche, who founded the ODEON Cinema Chain, still the largest in the UK, based on the acronym ‘Oscar Deutsche Entertains Our Nation’ the Greek for to watch is ‘ODEON’ so you can see Oscar was on the ball with his marketing.
I saw WBA players Cyrille Regis, the late Lawrie Cunningham, who played for Spanish giants Real Madrid, before his untimely early death in a car crash and a young Brendan Batson walking down the stairs of The Odeon New Street after seeing ‘The Harder they Come’.
Here was a real black hero to these young black men……that typified and exemplified Birmingham in the 1970’s for me…..three young black men out for a good time, watching a violent Gangster Film aping reality in a racially tolerant City of Birmingham…….
Birmingham Grammar School Boy Sir Michael Balcon founded The Ealing Studios which gave us those great ‘Ealing Comedies’: ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’, ‘Passport to Pimlico’, ‘The Ladykillers’ and ‘Whiskey Galore’ should be more celebrated in Birmingham as possibly Britain’s greatest film maker, the man who discovered Alfred Hitchcock, whom many think is Britain’s best film maker…..?
Balcon went to my old school George Dixon Grammar School for Boys from 1906 when the school opened until 1912 when he left after his father a Jewish tailor at 116 Summer Lane, Aston became ill and could no longer afford to send the young Balcon to school
After leaving school in 1912 Balcon joined up in 1914 at the outbreak of The Great War and tried to establish some of the early ‘Birmingham Pals’ Regiments in The Great War but ironically could not fight and serve himself due to defective eyesight……….
Balcon also named his ‘Everyman Copper Hero’ and most enduring character PC George Dixon of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ after his old school which was named after Education Reformer and the founder of Edgbaston High School for Girls: George Dixon MP, a direct contemporary of Joseph Chamberlain MP the founder of municipal Birmingham.
PC George Dixon first appeared in the 1949 Ealing Studios film: ‘The Blue Lamp’ where he was shot in a bungled cinema robbery by a young Rank Starlet on loan to the Ealing Studios Dirk Bogarde….remember him?
PC George Dixon was miraculously reincarnated in 1952 in the first ‘Police Procedural’: ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ where the young PC Dixon pounds a tough East End Docklands Beat around ‘Dock Green’ keeping law and order with his own brand of homespun bonhomie and gentle kindness and good sense, with a ‘clip round the ear’ for young urchins rather than a spell in ‘The Blue Brick’ (‘nick’)
PC Dixon’s cheery Saturday evening greeting: ‘Evening All’ has gone down in TV folklore.
‘Dixon of Dock Green’ ran from 1952 until 1976 when Jack Warner, the actor who played PC Dixon for all those years became too old for the role.
Sir Michael Balcon would premiere his Ealing Films to the Cinema Club at his old school
There are also links to Hollywood as his Grandson is possibly the greatest ever screen actor the three-time Oscar winner for ‘Best Actor’ Daniel Day-Lewis.
You can see the film and TV legacy of Birmingham-born Sir Michael Balcon and TV’s Birmingham-set ‘Gangsters’.
Today we have the BBC’s latest Birmingham-set Gangster show: ‘The Peaky Blinders’. But It all began all those years ago in Birmingham by our own Sir Michael Balcon and his creation PC George Dixon, born in Birmingham……..’Evenin’ All’!