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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/

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