Screen Journeys through Birmingham: the City, the Car and the Canal

A toy narrowboat and pin badge of TV’s Brum are juxtaposed with a book on Birmingham architecture and a tin of Heinz Spaghetti that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the city’s Gravelly Hill Interchange, commonly known as “Spaghetti Junction.”
From children’s television to images of Spaghetti Junction, Birmingham has been represented as a motor city. Jemma Saunders’s video essay explores screen representations of the city and its automobile-centered identity.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Mediating Urban Automobility.]

“Above the city, at junction 6 of the M6, there is a concrete spider web in the sky: the famous Spaghetti Junction. Meanwhile, threading through the city from below, also trickling out and away, are the canals…”1Kavita Bhanot, “Introduction,” in The Book of Birmingham: A City in Short Fiction, ed. Kavita Bhanot (Manchester: Comma Press, 2018), ix.

Screen Journeys through Birmingham explores how media representations of the UK’s “motor city” have both depicted and perpetuated its inextricable connection to automobility, despite the oft-repeated refrain that the conurbation has “more canals than Venice.” From the adventures of Brum (BBC One, 1991–2002), an anthropomorphic car beloved by children, to the urban iconography of Spaghetti Junction and its frequent appearances in both dramatic and factual productions that feature the city, the impact of the car has “driven” Birmingham’s identity both on and off screen. The motor industry flourished here in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when much of the architectural landscape was (re)developed to accommodate road travel first and foremost, leading to a prevalence of concrete and a reputation for heavy traffic. Incorporating footage from a range of audiovisual texts, this study takes a videographic excursion through the city, presenting the recurrence of Birmingham’s roads, its “carchitecture,” and their narrative deployment on screen.

The focus is, necessarily, on television, as there are relatively few feature-length films that have been made both in and about Birmingham, although it often doubles as London or other locations. Nonetheless, title sequences function as situational devices for both films and TV shows and it is notable that several productions showcase Birmingham’s roads in these formatted spaces, suggesting they are the primary markers that locate the stories that follow. Along with archival footage, the cumulative effect of these representations emphasizes how the city’s automotive manufacturing heritage and postwar regeneration have been reflected in a wide spectrum of media and genres. Indeed, it could be argued that automobility, in its broadest sense, has subjugated any alternative screen identity: the “Big Town” visited by Brum is never named as Birmingham, while from its earliest broadcast critics noted that the long-running TV soap opera Crossroads (ITV, 1964–1988) “makes no attempt to give the drama a Birmingham identity in attitudes or speech” and that the titular motel was “somewhere in the Midlands.”

In a critique of this automobile-centric urban identity, productions such as Rosie & Jim (ITV, 1990–2000) and Zomboat! (ITV2, 2019) imply a potential deviation towards Birmingham’s historic canal network, acknowledging that these waterways also constitute a key part of the city’s aesthetic, yet appear less esteemed than its roads. However, cars retain a tangible presence in these programs and their ubiquity is thus presented as something to be challenged, especially in light of the global climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic. While it would be utopic to suggest canals could replace roads for mass transportation (and it must also be acknowledged that most narrowboats use fossil fuels), as Birmingham rebrands itself as a leisure destination in the twenty-first century, an increased prevalence of these waterways on screen could offer an alternative visual identity for the city, while also providing sites from which different stories are told.

As Jonathan Bell observes, “The car has become a crucial device for decoding our perception of cities” and it follows that many of us also encounter urban spaces through their screen representations.2Jonathan Bell, Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide (London: Birkhauser, 2001), 18. This holds true for me as both a Birmingham resident and creator of this video essay: I have yet to walk beneath Spaghetti Junction, only ever seeing it through the window of a moving vehicle or on television, yet it looms large through both these screens. The automobile-centric Birmingham of film and TV is undoubtedly rooted in an environment that was constructed around the needs of drivers, yet this gritty, concrete Brum (as locals call the city) feels increasingly distant from the urban and suburban environments I encounter day-to-day. Whether Birmingham’s reputation can transcend automobility for those who only travel through or see it on screen, however, remains to be seen.

Notes

Notes
1 Kavita Bhanot, “Introduction,” in The Book of Birmingham: A City in Short Fiction, ed. Kavita Bhanot (Manchester: Comma Press, 2018), ix.
2 Jonathan Bell, Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide (London: Birkhauser, 2001), 18.
Saunders, Jemma. "Screen Journeys through Birmingham: the City, the Car and the Canal." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 3 (September 2023).
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.