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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.