PhD motivation from a tweet about Birmingham. Yes, a tweet. Yes, Birmingham.
Updated: Apr 5
On 15th July, the official BBC Archive Twitter account posted an old news clip about the 1992 Olympic bid. The video was headlined as follows:
‘Birmingham was bidding to host the 1992 Olympic Games. Yes, Birmingham. Yes, the Olympic games.’
In just 81 characters, this tweet conveyed an utter disdain for the UK’s second city. While it was probably meant as a joke, no doubt typed on a whim by a naïve employee, for it to appear on an account run by a national public service broadcaster, in the run up to Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022, speaks volumes for the way in which the city is perceived. Can you imagine something similar being written about Manchester?
By the time I became aware of the post, angrily retweeted by one of my fellow PhD students along with a list of things that make Birmingham great, the original had been removed by the BBC due to an outpouring of Brummie indignation. Luckily for me, several people had already taken screenshots. I say luckily, as my research focuses on Birmingham’s representation in popular film and television, including when the city does and doesn’t play itself – and, indeed, when it’s alluded to but remains unseen. Although I’m predominantly looking at productions from 2012 onwards, the framing of this older clip in the context of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games clearly shows there is a deeply ingrained, negative perception of Birmingham, and it galvanised my belief in the need to interrogate how places are portrayed on screen.
The core of my thesis will be a documentary film, accompanied by a written component. Part of my research explorations entail videographic criticism, ‘a digital method that uses the materiality of film and media to produce audiovisual [sic] analyses, commentaries and scholarship’ (Freie Universität Berlin, 2019). I love revisiting both dramatic and factual productions, and experimenting with how meanings can change depending on how a clip is juxtaposed or bookended with additional material; be it voiceover, text, or other footage. The @BBCArchive poster could have written something positive above the news clip, perhaps linking it to Birmingham 2022 and bringing us all some much-needed optimism, but instead chose to re-package voices from the Midlands in what I feel was a patronising and regressive manner.
At this point I could easily digress into a rant about how and why Birmingham and the wider Midlands region are too often overlooked and denigrated, but I have a whole PhD in which to explore this (in suitably non-seething academic tones, of course). Instead, I’ll turn to the subsequent birth of the hashtag #BirminghamyesBirmingham, which hundreds of tweeters began using to share their love for the second city. Among beautiful images of canals, architecture and parks were references to Brum’s cultural heritage, its diversity, and that it’s the setting for BBC drama Peaky Blinders.
If you ask anyone to name a film or television show connected to Birmingham, there’s a good chance that Peaky Blinders will be their first response, even though very little of it is filmed locally. Some people might mention Doctors or Citizen Khan (BBC One), and in the last few years we’ve had Man Like Mobeen (BBC Three) and Zomboat (ITV2), but generally, it seems Birmingham gets very little screen time, especially given its size and position in the heart of the country. When I tell people I’m researching the city’s representation in film and TV, a common response is ‘what, you mean the lack of it?’, or words to that effect. So when #BirminghamyesBirmingham began trending, with even @BBCBirminghamPR temporarily renaming itself, I felt a strange sense of vindication that what I’m looking at actually matters.
We live in a world that is saturated by images and screens, and images on screens, and the contexts in which we consume this breadth of visual information are integral to shaping both our subsequent and ongoing perceptions. Perceptions of people, of places, of politics. As a humanities researcher undertaking an interdisciplinary, audio-visual project, the @BBCArchive tweet represented, in a microcosm, just how impactful a few words can be in changing the meaning and effect of a piece of film. It also highlighted much broader issues around how Birmingham is, in all senses of the word, seen, and why critically engaging with media across all platforms – film, television, social, and beyond – is crucial to our awareness and understanding of the world in which we live.
I think a lot about Peaky Blinders, and how regardless of its trendiness there may be something problematic in a gangster drama being peoples’ go-to narrative of Birmingham, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad it exists. When the city hosts the Commonwealth Games in 2022, I’d place bets on there being some form of Peaky merchandise, as it’s become such a recognisable brand with inextricable Brummie links. Similarly, frustrated as I was by the BBC tweet, I’m also paradoxically obliged to the short-sighted poster: not only was it heartening to see the myriad responses praising Birmingham, creating a positive buzz; it’s also given me a renewed sense of purpose and determination to challenge some of the pervading negativity around my adopted city through my own film work.
Written by Jemma Saunders
Freie Universität Berlin (2019) Videographic Criticism: Aesthetics and Methods of the Video Essay.
(Accessed: 7 December 2019)