Amazing city promotional campaigns of our time: Kojak pretends to visit Birmingham

Queensway: one of Birmingham's brightest attractions, apparently. Image: Tagishsimon/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1927, the British parliament passed the Cinematograph Films Act, a new law that required British cinemas to show a “quota” of films made by British companies and written by British subjects. The law’s purpose was to ensure that the British film industry – which, even that early in its history, was seen as an endangered species – would survive the growing threat of competition from Hollywood.

The problem was that, while the act specified what proportion of films needed to be British, it didn’t specify very much else about them. More particularly, it didn’t require them to be proper feature-length movies.

The result was a whole new genre: the “quota quickie”. These were cheap, slightly rubbish short films, commissioned by American film distributors, and shown before the proper film – not because they were any good but because it was the easiest way to pass regulatory requirements.

Which is how, in 1981, the bloke out of Kojak – the hit US police show about a New York cop with a love of lollipops, best known for his catchprase, “Who loves ya, baby?” – ended up trying to convince the cinema-going public that his idea of a good time was a decent Midlands motorway.

“Birmingham’s road system is revolutionary. The Inner Ring Road, Queensway! A four mile circuit of duel carriageways tunnels and overpasses linking up with the main arteries of the city and the Aston Expressway!”

Director Harold Baim hired Telly Savalas to narrate three of his quota quickies:  travelogues for covering the myriad attractions of three of Britain’s lesser known tourism destinations. 

Significantly, one suspects, the titles of the short films use the form, “Telly Savalas looks at Birmingham”. They don’t use the word “visits”, for the very good reason that Savalas didn’t visit any of these places: he recorded his monologues from the comfort of a studio in Soho. And not even the one in Birmingham, the one in London.

The voiceover script however exhibits no such qualms, however. Savalas not only gives the impression he’s reporting on a recent visit: he narrates his trips with a level of enthusiasm that’d put the official tourist authorities to shame. 

Film courtesy of The Baim Collection.

Consider some extracts from Savalas’ script about the West Midlands:

“I was told to get there before it all blew away. It was spectacular cherry blossom time in Birmingham’s...  [at this point, there’s a frankly over-long dramatic pause] ...Bourneville.”

A still from "Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham". Image: The Baim Collection.

Bourneville, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is one of those purpose-built estates that Victorian industrialists created to house their workforces and/or deny them access to pubs. It’s a very nice area of Birmingham, and the houses there are very sought after.

What it emphatically is not, though, is a traditional Japanese village famed for its cherry blossom.

“Riding the express elevator to the top of one of the city’s highest buildings, this is the view that almost took my breath away.”

This view.

A still from "Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham". Image: The Baim Collection.


A still from "Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham". Image: The Baim Collection.

“...almost took my breath away.”

The script contains some great segues, too:

“If motorists ignore the police signals, they could end up at the 16th century French style law court.”

Cut from shot of road to shot of a nice old building.

“I found the city exciting. You feel as if you’ve been projected into the 21st century!”

There’s some minor irony here in that the features of the urban landscape the script highlights as particularly futuristic – the motorways, the ring roads, the concrete-with-everything architecture – are precisely the aspects of 20th century Birmingham that 21st century Birmingham is desperately trying to do away with. But all the same:

“ I can’t sing it like he can, but I can assure you this is ‘My Kinda Town’.”

The other films follow a similar tone. The Portsmouth one begins with the line:

“I don’t know of another place where so many famous people have had streets named after them.”

Which, quite apart from sounding like an unlikely claim – Really? Nowhere? – isn’t that much of a recommendation.

The film then features a lengthy discussion of the Mayflower, which is odd, as its passengers’ main association with Portsmouth came from getting the hell out of it; followed by some discussions of the Nazis’ attempts to wipe it out during World War II.

“Forty years ago, 1320 high explosives, 39,000 incendiaries and 38 mines were dropped on her.”

By 1979, times have changed:

“Land reclaimed from mudflats makes for more and more constructions.”

Film courtesy of The Baim Collection.

At risk of cynicism, you get the distinct impression that Harold Baim was having some difficulty finding nice things to say Portsmouth in the 1980s. He does only slightly better at selling Aberdeen to the world:

“One of Britain’s most northerly cities – a city preserved in silver grey granite.”

A still from "Telly Savalas Looks at Aberdeen". Image: The Baim Collection.

Which is lovely, though it doesn’t explain why the film starts with a shot of a man wading in the River Dee.

A still from "Telly Savalas Looks at Aberdeen". Image: The Baim Collection.

Then there’s this gem:

“History has overtaken one of Aberdeen’s first suburbs. The residents don’t say... tanks for the memory any more.”

A still from "Telly Savalas Looks at Aberdeen". Image: The Baim Collection.

Cos they're tanks, y'see? Oil tanks?

Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Film courtesy ofThe Baim Collection.

It’s easy to mock these films. That’s not a figure of speech – there’s so much to mock, I’m having to make a conscious effort to stop here, before I accidentally bang out a longread. 

But there is something oddly lovely about them, too. We may feel rather snobby about the idea of a mini-break in Portsmouth – but Baim genuinely felt these rather mundane visions of Britain’s provincial cities could be used to attract potential visitors. There’s an appealing innocence about that.

More than that, he went as far as employing one of the most famous TV star of the day to help him do it. Thirty five years on, when TV is so much more international, and half the stars of US TV are British anyway, it’s difficult to grasp how weird this whole affair was.

Then again, we’re now living in an an age when multiple Kevin Bacons pop up on our screens to promote mobile phone networks at the drop of a hat. Perhaps Baim and Savalas were simply ahead of their time.

To find out more about Harold Baim and his work, visit The Baim Collection.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.