A documentary that looks at Birmingham and how the city has played a part in shaping the cinematic and televisual landscape of the UK film and TV industry. This is Matthew R Ford’s City On Screen.
City on Screen is a fascinating documentary that explores the rich cinematic and television history of Birmingham, and its more recent fall from grace. It is a film that comes at a moment when Birmingham is undergoing a bit of a cultural renaissance thanks to the international hit Peaky Blinders, but although the city is home to a hit show and a number of new film and television production companies, it still finds itself lagging behind other cities when it comes to artistic infrastructure. Ford’s documentary pulls no punches and tries to answer the difficult questions, including, why Birmingham is falling behind? And also what can be done to help Birmingham become a major destination for film productions, festivals, and other cultural events once again?
Director Ford begins his story by getting personal. Using a voiceover, he starts by telling us his own story of how he became interested in film and filmmaking. He pinpoints the moment as when he saw Harrison Ford’s 90’s blockbuster The Fugitive at the cinema. Inspired by this big-screen action-adventure he began to study the work of the other directors of that time, beginning with the (then) new kids on the block, like Tarantino and David Fincher before discovering, David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Stanley Kubrick. He also holds up watching the Twin Peaks television show as an experience that gave him an understanding of how to visualise imagery and put it on screen.
Throughout the film, we are introduced to local Birmingham actors, writers, directors, and producers through various talking head interviews. These filmmakers are hugely interesting to listen to as they speak about their experiences of working in the industry and their hopes for the future of Birmingham’s film scene. Amongst these scenes, the film traces the city’s film industry back to its early days, when Birmingham-born Sir Michael Balcon and the German entrepreneur Oscar Deutsch helped to establish the British film industry. Balcon was the head of Ealing Studios, which produced some of the most iconic British films of all time, including The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers. He also launched the career of Alfred Hitchcock, and set up BAFTA and the BFI, while Deutsch was the founder of the Odeon Cinema chain, which helped to popularize cinema in Britain. We learn some fascinating facts about the city not just the obvious Shakespeare and Tolkien connections but also about another Birmingham man named Alexander Parkes who was born in 1814 and went on to actually invent celluloid!
While Ford focuses his film on the challenges and obstacles that Birmingham’s filmmakers face he also uses it as a reminder of Birmingham’s significant role in the history of British cinema. The documentary leaves us with a hugely positive feeling about Birmingham’s undoubtedly bright future as an exciting creative hub.
City on Screen is a timely and important film that celebrates an often-forgotten city and is a must-see for anyone interested in the past, present, and future of the UK film industry.