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    Birmingham, Culture

    Helga Henry in conversation with… Sindy Campbell

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    Whilst Ready Player One might not have been everyone’s hit film of the summer, there is no denying that the enthusiasm for seeing Birmingham on the big screen was one of the big draws for a lot of residents.  Brummies have Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham to thank for that, and bringing a lot more productions to a city which doesn’t always have the best reputation nationally.  But with the success of Peaky Blinders, and the talk around its creator Steven Knight building a studio in the city, are things looking up for film in Birmingham?

    Continuing a run of successful salon events, based on the seventeenth century tradition of gathering under one room to increase the knowledge of those in attendance through conversation, freelance facilitator and host Helga Henry is back with her third ‘Helga Henry in Conversation With’ event this year.  Previous guests includes property developer Anthony McCourt and TEDxBrum founder Anneka Deva.  Tonight, in the function room of 1000 Trades in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, Helga welcomed Sindy Campbell of Film Birmingham to talk about the work she does bringing film to Birmingham.

    Sindy spoke about a lot of misconceptions that people might have about Film Birmingham, namely that they’re not responsible for funding films, but rather supporting filming in Birmingham and making sure shoots run smoothly.  She talked about how the initial disappointment and frustration of Channel Four choosing Leeds over Birmingham, but the silver lining being that some of the money allocated for that will stay in the region and might make its way back to local filmmakers.  Others expressed a disappointment in the hopes that a Channel Four HQ in Birmingham might’ve brought with it more development opportunities for professionals working within the film industry in the city, which had largely disappeared with the closure of organisations like Advantage West Midlands.


    Clearly the biggest thing for the city in terms of filming recently was this summer’s Ready Player One, where several scenes were filmed around Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter.  Sindy talked about the huge buzz it generated in the city, how people swarmed the sets and the pride people felt seeing their city on screen (even if we were the location of a dystopia).  Reconnaissance work was done months before Steven Spielberg arrived in the city, with his team flying in from LA to scope out locations.

    But it’s not just Ready Player One that’s put Birmingham on screen.  Films like The Girl with All the Gifts, the last three seasons of BBC drama Hustle and the first season of the superb Line of Duty were all filmed here too.  But perhaps Birmingham’s biggest success is one that has never actually filmed here: Peaky Blinders.  The impact of Peaky Blinders has been huge, with people all over the world watching the show thanks to Netflix and BBC Worldwide; Peaky Blinder tours, themed pub nights and stag do fancy dress have all appeared.  Sindy said she would love to have the series film in Birmingham, which was proposed at one point, but the main location requested, the Grand Ballroom, was undergoing refurbishment and wasn’t ready and to make it cost effective a second location would be required.

    Which of course, this brought us onto the news that Steven Knight, Writer and Creator of Peaky Blinders announced plans to open a six-stage TV and film studio, called Mercian Studios.  Helga mentioned that a previous In Conversation With speaker, Anthony McCourt had talked about how quickly big spaces are being snapped up, as Birmingham seems to have no end of appetite for one / two bed apartments in the city.  But the news that a large studio would be coming to the area has been well received, particularly as Sindy spoke about the massive shortage of studio space and build space in the country, but particularly around Birmingham.

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    She also talked about the huge economic impact having a hit series in the area could have to the city, not just for the tourism industry, but also for the hospitality industry and catering who support a large-scale production, and are often sourced locally.  Sindy talked about the impact Game of Thrones had on Belfast, almost growing a film production industry overnight; the hope would be that something similar could happen to Birmingham.  And that the large number of industry professionals who live in Birmingham may no longer have to travel the length and breadth of the country for work, as there would be more closer to home.

    As the event started to wrap up, the conversation turned to looking at what can be done to support Sindy and Film Birmingham, which is really punching above its weight in terms of what it delivers.  Inevitably the question about what the city council’s responsibility is, compared to other cities where arts and culture are given more focus and councils are more willing to take a risk, but it was rightly it was pointed out that they have a lot going on at the moment but both Helga and Sindy pointed out that it is easy to blame others, but instead of us thinking what’s the answer, should we just get on and do something.  Helga suggested that people are already producing things without the big names like Channel Four, mentioning local YouTubers with large follower numbers and the rise of the popularity of podcasts.

    There was also a look at how the city might use what it already has to improve, with Julia from Rebel Uncut talking about the need to have super connectors in Birmingham linking up organisations and people which could have a mutual benefit, like writers and producers.  This isn’t rocket science, and is often mentioned, but is a perennial problem Birmingham faces: a lack of communication.  However, there was a sense that for the filmmakers that do make it to Birmingham, people love it when they get here.  The challenge is just to get here.

    The next ‘Helga Henry in Conversation with…’ is scheduled for 23 January.  The speakers hasn’t yet been announced, but if it’s as insightful and eye-opening as the session with Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham, it’ll be well worth attending.  To find out more, keep an eye on Helga’s website https://helgahenry.com/

    Culture, Theatre

    Fame The Musical at the Alexandra Theatre

    Proving that it does indeed live forever, Fame The Musical is back for a 30th anniversary tour.

    Based on the 1980’s phenomena, the story follows of a group of students at New York’s High School For The Performing Arts, Fame deals with a lot of contemporary issues including identity, pride, literacy, sexuality and substance abuse, which are just as relevant as they were back when the film first debuted. Opening in Manchester back in summer, the 30th Anniversary Tour of Fame The Musical proves to be just as popular now as it was then.

    Fame the Musical follows the stories of ten students who successfully audition and are accepted into New York’s High School For The Performing Arts, along with their dedicated teachers, Miss Bell, Mr Myers, Mr Sheinkopf and Miss Sherman, the latter played by soul singer Mica Paris.  Rather than a typical story following main characters, most of the ten students the film focuses on smaller storylines surrounding each of these.  Given the original story was a film, it’s sometimes difficult to translate the nuances from film to stage, but the play does an admirable job keeping the audience up with the emotional rollercoaster of these high school students determined to make it.

    Fame The Musical-Tour

    Iris Kelly, a talent ballet dancer who is confused for being wealthy and snobbish, until the truth is revealed.  Played by Jorgie Porter, best known for her work on Channel Four’s Hollyoaks, she’s able to put the skills learnt on Dancing with the Stars to good use as a ballet dancer, and the grace with which she and partner Tyrone (played by Jamal Kane Crawford) move together feels entirely believable.  That said, at some points early into the play there were a few off notes from some of the dancers during the ensemble pieces, possibly done to show the evolution of the performers as the move through the school years.

    Like all good shows, the warm up whilst not always an enjoyable as the performance is important, and the first act feels a little like this.  It’s where a lot of the set up of the storylines happens; the introduction of the characters, the hopes and dreams of the students are discovered and the reality of how hard they’ll have to work to achieve it is also make clear to them. At times the first act feels a little mechanical, despite the wonderful choreography, in terms of trying to set up the plot points of the characters and it’s not always easy to see the emotional growth of the characters. But fitting this much storytelling into one musical is tricky, and whilst the first act contains the set up, it means the stage is set for act two and the powerhouse of action.

    A scene from Fame The Musical TourThe second act feels far stronger than the first, packing in the emotional punches that have been set up by the first half of the show.  The resolution to the stories are revealed, some good and some sad, a few which will see a few audience members shed a few tears.  It’s also where the biggest applause of the evening so far is seen, during Miss Sherman’s solo, These Are My Children.  It’s here where Mica Paris’ voice is given a real chance to shine, the soul and emotion and big notes are heartfelt.  Compared to the earlier Teacher’s Argument, sung as a duet with Miss Bell (played by Katie Warsop), These Are My Children completely blew it out of the water.

    The set and lighting design work particularly well, especially around the transitions between scenes, where the use of lighting casting silhouettes or shadowing the stage enhances the atmosphere.  The wall of photographs, presenting the yearbook adds a nice backdrop, a reminder of the setting, both the era in which the story is set and the majority of the location in and around the high school.

    There are some elements which felt like they could’ve aged a little better – the confusion over the sexuality of Nick Piazza feels clunky, saved only by the sincerity and sensitivity with which Keith Jack plays the character.  The thin actress playing the overweight Mabel Washington who favours the ‘see food’ diet feels a bit over an oversight too.  That said, a lot of the stories from thirty years ago resonate just as strongly then as they do now – the drive to succeed, the issues around drug addiction, ‘insta-fame’ and living up to familial expectations.

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    By the end of the show, everyone in the audience is up on their feet as the final song of the evening is, as you’d expect, the Oscar-winning titular song Fame, sung powerfully by Stephanie Rojas (who plays Carmen) and Mica Paris.  Despite a slow start, Fame delivers an energetic show and from the audience reaction, and sorry for the cliche, but it’s easy to see why it is set to live forever.

    Fame the Musical is at the Alexandra Theatre from 19 – 24 November 2018, with matinee showings on both Wednesday and Saturday. To book tickets, head to the Fame UK Tour website.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Tristram Kenton.

    Culture, Theatre

    Motown the Musical at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

    A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

    “All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere.” Written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, Dancing in the Street is one of Motown’s signature songs, amongst the many well known classic released by the label and it was the song stuck in my head the entire journey home after the West End hit show, Motown the Musical.

    Inspired by the autobiography of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Motown the Musical starts the story immediately before the 25th anniversary concert celebrating the birth of Motown.  Gordy is reluctant to attend, feeling betrayed by the artists he feels he made stars, only for them to leave him when better offers were on the table.  The audience is then transported back to see Gordy’s childhood, the impact of a conversation with his father, a few lost years before he ultimately manages to get enough money together to start his record label – and the birth of Motown.

    Whilst the musical might be loosely based on Gordy’s autobiography, it is clearly his personal interpretation of the past and doesn’t always give away a lot about the man himself.  His relationship with Diana Ross and subsequent break up is referenced, as is his feelings towards the artists he felt abandoned him.  But if you’re hoping for a theatrical biopic of his life, you’ll be disappointed.  But then again, that’s clearly not the point of the play – the audience is here for the songs.

    A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. (Opening 11-10-18) ©Tristram Kenton 10-18 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

    Motown the Musical is all about the music – as it should be.  There is simplistic, almost scant plot, which is not a criticism as it allows for a plethora of hit songs to be included without feeling forced.  There can be a tendency amongst similar plays to shoehorn in the songs to the narrative, which often feels clunky, but Motown resists doing this and the few songs that are used to drive the story forward feel fitting.  Instead, most of the songs are performed more naturally by the artists embodying the characters they play either as auditions or concerts, which allows the audience to really enjoy them.

    With over 50 songs credited in the musical, it would be impossible to include full length versions of all of them, but there is certainly something to suit everyone who is a fan of the record label.  One of the biggest cheers of the evening goes to the cover of the Jackson 5’s ABC, likely due to the admirable performance by the young actor playing Michael Jackson. Although it is perhaps the songs sung by Diana Ross and the Supremes which are consistently some of the best of the evening, thanks to a consistently strong performance by Karis Anderson.  Edward Baruwa as Berry Gordy does a lot with the character, drawing out more emotional depth that the story gives him and is responsible for a number of of the big numbers.

    For a musical which stays away from the more complex parts of the history of Motown it is not afraid to mention the issue of racism at the time.  It would be easy for the musical to gloss over the racial elements and discrimination faced by the artists but thankfully it doesn’t and references are made to the artists being defined by the colour of their skin, the problems with getting black artists on the radio and the segregation of audiences at the time. It is not a major part of the storyline, but an important point to the narrative of many of the figures during the time.

    Motown the Musical does exactly what it says; it provides hours of high energy Motown music, much to the delight of the audience. It is a lot of fun and thoroughly enjoyable to spend a few hours immersed in the sounds of the era.

    Motown the Musical is at the newly refurbished Alexandra Theatre from 11 October to 3 November, and tickets can be purchased here.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Tristram Kenton.

    Culture, Theatre

    Three Winters at The Old Rep Theatre

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    I can’t say I knew much about Three Winters before I showed up to the theatre, jogging up the road thanks to Birmingham’s Saturday early-evening traffic.  I try not to read much about a performance, be it theatre or film, before I go because I like to make my own mind up, and then read the reviews after.

    Three Winters, it turns out, is a play which takes place during three different winters; just after the Second Word War in 1945, during the Balkans war in the 1990s, and finally in contemporary Croatia in 2011.  Written by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić, premiering in London in 2014, the play takes place in a house in Zagreb, where Štivičić grew up and follows generations of the Kos family.

    Whilst the story is about the Kos family throughout the three time periods, it’s very much the women that are the central characters.  We first meet Rose King, who secures a home for her, her husband and their daughter Maša, in part of the house during the Communist era of the country.  In the 90s Maša has grown up and married to history-teacher husband Vlado, but still living in the house with their two young daughters.  With the 2011 scenes take place on the eve of Maša and Vlado’s youngest daughter Lucija’s wedding.

    Of the play itself, the narrative is slow to start as it introduces the elements of the story the play will weave together.  Growing up, the Balkans war was often something on the news but something my knowledge of is hazy.  So whilst the story works with little understanding of the time period, as a family drama through several generations, I do wonder if more historical context might add more richness to the audience’s understanding of the play.

    Produced and performed by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (final year students from what was formerly known as Birmingham School of Acting), there is little to show that this was not an entirely professional production of graduate actors.  The acting was strong and compelling and the use of projected images and music during the transitions added another layer of history to the stories of the family members.  For a play where two thirds of the eras take place just before or after war, it is a surprisingly funny play which elicits genuine and knowing laughter from the audience, often as a result of family dynamics, and delivered perfectly.

    I wasn’t overly sold on the dance performance piece at the beginning of the play, which may well be part of the original, although with the more celebratory dance at the end, it did add a sense of bookending the play.

    I can’t remember what made me book a ticket to see Three Winters at the Old Rep Theatre, but having enjoyed the production I will be checking out other shows by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

    Theatre

    Madagascar The Musical at the New Alexandra Theatre

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    Cynics would tell you that Madagascar the Musical is just an attempt to jump on board the success of another screen-to-stage animal adaptation. But here’s the thing: the much loved film translates well to stage and Madagascar the Musical is actually a lot of fun.

    In preparation, I watched the 2005 Dreamworks movie the night before, and Madagascar the Musical is faithful to the script, sanding off some of the edges to make a relatively short but lively theatrical show. If you don’t know the story, it’s a pretty simple one; Marty the zebra is fed up of life in a New York zoo and escapes to find some space, but before he can get very far, his friends Alex the lion, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo come to bring him back to the zoo. Sadly for them this doesn’t go to plan, and rather than be returned to the zoo they’re released back into the wild – or at least would be if their ship wasn’t hijacked by penguins and they end up in Madagascar. Life in the wild isn’t quite what these four pampered animal imagine, and they’re keen to get back to their old life, particularly before a starving Alex eats one of them.

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    With producers Selladoor Family condensing down the story, the theatrical version feels like much more of a foursome than the film. I don’t have a TV so I don’t really know how much of a draw, 2016 X Factor winner Matt Terry in the role of Alex the lion is, but it’s a solid performance which actually seems to tone down some of the melodramatic moments of the character’s counterpart, and actually allows for a stronger quartet of main characters than the film. Marty the zebra played by Antoine Murray-Straughan has a good chemistry with Matt Terry’s Alex and his energy is impressive, particularly in that padded costume. Actor and puppeteer Jamie Lee-Morgan plays the role of hypochondriac Melman the giraffe, which is skilfully done as he blends in the lankiest of the characters within the quartet. Timmika Ramsay has the strongest voice of the evening, and her performance of Gloria the hippo brings a sassy female touch to the four main characters.

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    And the penguins! They were my favourite characters from the film, and they’re just as entertaining in the musical, often the source of humour and plot development – be it throwing things off course or inspiring the break out at the beginning of the story. The penguins are puppets controlled beautifully by actors Shane McDaid, Laura Johnson, Jessica Niles, Victoria Boden and Matthew Pennington who each manage to give their penguin their own personality from behind the puppet. Whilst it might not have the grandeur of other animal-based productions, the casting is solid and seem to work well together.

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    The first act of Madagascar the Musical paces along nicely, but at times in the story feels a little rushed, particularly in the second half, where the Alex’s hunger and ejection from the tribe isn’t given much chance to affect the audience. But the chances of anyone in the audience not being familiar with the source material is slim and so the emotional resonance isn’t much of a requirement for a production that celebrates its whimsy. This is further enforced during Alex’s hunger, where he begins to hallucinate steaks and an eccentric song feels oddly consistent. Whilst Madagascar the movie might be aimed at children, the musical is careful not to ignore its adult audiences by feeding in some of the more mature jokes.

    And what of the infamous I Like to Move It song, which is performed in all films? Thankfully this is one of the scenes which makes it into Madagascar the Musical and it is by far the stand out song of the night. The hilarious King Julien, played by Jo Parsons, performs the now-infamous 90s song and it feels like being in one of the strangest raves ever. It is sublimely silly and wonderful and captivating – exactly what I was hoping for. And the second performance of it as an encore it even more well received.

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    Madagascar the Musical is a fast paced, high energy musical which combines the best of the film with a freshness on stage which is infectious. The story is a little thin on the ground, but that didn’t stop the film becoming a huge franchise and it’s a story which translates well from screen to stage. There’s plenty of good giggles and a lot of fun to be had at Madagascar the Musical.

    Move it move, down to see Madagascar the Musical at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 31 July – Saturday 4 August. Tickets can be purchased here.

    This was a press event. 

    Culture

    Real Bodies The Exhibition at the nec

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    I find the human body endlessly fascinating.  I grew up with a nurse mother, a chronically ill father, sneaking away to read my cousin’s copies of How My Body Works books and grossing out my little sister with my mum’s books on foot fungus.

    Unlike my mum, my interest in the human body never went beyond an AS level and a stint working in hospital communications, but the human body continues to awe me.  A few years ago, thanks to a very morbid map of London, I discovered The Hunterian Museum, hidden in the Royal College of Surgeons building.  The museum holds around 3500 anatomical specimens, including preserved tumours, skeletons affected by syphilis, the full skeleton of ‘the Irish giant’ Charles Byrne and a number of animal skeletons.  It’s closed for a few years to undergo a major refurbishment, but in the mean time, Real Bodies The Exhibition has landed in Birmingham.

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    Over 200 anatomical specimens make up Real Bodies The Exhibition, and the displays are separated out into several galleries with topics like breathe, move, rhythm, think and love.  The bodies on display are real adult bodies, preserved using Polymer Preservation, which uses liquid silicone rubber and the process can take up to a year, but it allows for the bodies on display to be presented in dynamic poses to show how extraordinary the human body is.

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    According to the FAQs, the specimens are all unclaimed bodies (meaning no next of kin have come forward to claim them) that have been donated by relevant authorities to medical universities in China, donated legally and provided to the exhibition by Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co Ltd.  Some of the specimens are specific parts of the body, including lungs, hearts, veins and reproductive organs, whereas others are full specimens.

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    So whilst the exhibition doesn’t sensationalise, if you’re squeamish, this probably isn’t for you (although you’ve probably given up reading by now if you are).  Another gentle warning is presented toward the end of the exhibition in the Life gallery, which shows different foetus at different developmental stages.  Visitors which may find this gallery distressing are able to miss it out, if they should so wish.

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    As part of Real Bodies The Exhibition, visitors attending on Thursday 2nd August 2018 are invited to attend, free of charge, one of four one-hour classes looking at a perspective on human anatomy, including Yoga in the Repair Gallery, Real-life anatomy art class, Philosophy of the ‘Self Being’ and “Why donate your body to science?”

    To book tickets, visit www.theticketfactory.com/realbodiessessions or for tickets to Real Bodies The Exhibition, which is at the nec until Sunday 19th August, visit http://www.thenec.co.uk/whats-on/real-bodies/

    Culture

    Dippy on Tour at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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    I blame seeing Jurassic Park at an impressionable age, but I’ve always had a soft spot for dinosaurs.  I think they’re an easy thing to romanticise, the idea of these big majestic beasts roaming a land, the big bad of the T-Rex, the mischievous velociraptors.  But for me it’s all about the awe, the reminder of these giant creatures roaming the lands well before we got here and the idea of what will come once humans have left too.

    So when the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery announced they were playing hosts to dippy, the Natural History Museum’s famous diplodocus, I knew it would be a case of not if but when I would go see him.  It’s a bit of a tour of the country for Dippy, who is staying in Birmingham until early September, but all in all going on an eight-location tour with the hope of 1.5 million people across the UK seeing Dippy in person whilst he’s on his adventure.

    IMG-4133In the end I booked myself a half-day at work.  I’d heard that the Edwardian Tea Rooms at BMAG were doing a Dippy-themed children’s menu and never one to be embarrassed by these sort of things, I ordered myself a two-course children’s men; turkey dinosaurs, chips and peas, followed by hot chocolate volcano and ice cream.  I even blogged about it over on my food blog Full to the Brum.

    Understandably, at 21.3 metres long, 4.3 metres wide and 4.25 metres high, Dippy takes centre stage in the Gas Hall and he’s an impressive sight.  Dippy isn’t actually the bones of a diplodocus, rather a plaster cast made of one discovered in the Wyoming, USA.  King Edward VII saw the sketches of the bones at the Scottish home of Andrew Carnegie (he of Carnegie Hall, among other notable things), who then in turn agreed to donate a cast of the bones to the Natural History Museum.  Even still, the height and choice of black plaster makes Dippy an impressive sight, looming like a gentle giant over guests to the hall.

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    Around the hall are supporting displays of other creatures.  Back to that fondness for Jurassic Park, I was rather taken with the velociraptors.  Anyone who knows anything about them will tell you they’re not the size of the ones in the Jurassic park/World franchises, usually they get likened to the size of a turkey.

    Due to a fire evacuation, I didn’t manage to grab a good photo (this might be a good excuse to go back) but I liked that it wasn’t all just about the past.  In the corner of the exhibition is a look towards the present day – and the future.  There is a display of the evolved meat-eating theropods, or birds, to you and me.  It’s an interesting look at what made birds survive and dinosaurs die out, and also a gentle reminder to visitors (young and old) to be grateful that we can see some of these creatures in the wild, and not confined to bones in a museum.

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    Dippy is in Birmingham from 26th May – 9th September 2018.  Tickets to see him and the exhibition are free, but Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery recommend you book in advance to ensure you get in – particularly good advice now it’s the school summer holidays! To book a ticket, head over to BMAG’s website.  And if you’re a fan of dinosaurs then it’s well worth checking out the Lapworth Museum at the University of Birmingham too.