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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.