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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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