Steve Bell – The Birmingham Years

Steve Bell (left)

I have a tiny connection to Steve Bell (on the left above at this year’s Tory Conference in Birmingham, pic Star-one). I used to do some work with Jewellery Quarter based designer Brian Homer who has for many years pulled together the If… compilation books. I have a brief credit at the start of Chairman Blair’s Little Red Book (a Bell book co-authored with Brian) for some imaging work I did on it. I was setting the levels on some scanned artwork and Steve showed me the best settings. That’s it really, hardly a great Dave-meets-celeb story.

Steve is coming back to Brum next month, not to carry on my photoshop tutorial but for a talk at the Plus Design Expo. His time working in Birmingham in the 1970s is usually passed over (“taught art for a short time in Birmingham, but soon left” and see his wikipedia entry) but although I can’t pin down the exact dates he was actually here, he certainly left a decent footprint. Actually a bit of research not only fills in some gaps about Steve but also reminds us that Birmingham in the dank days of the 1970s and 80s had a really vibrant radical publishing scene which has some interesting lessons for the city’s emerging blogging culture.

Here’s what some brief research on Steve found – much of it sourced from the Derek Bishton papers archived on the brilliant Connecting Histories website:

  • Circa 1977 Contributed to Streetcomix produced at the Arts Lab in Gosta Green (along with Hunt Emerson and others)
  • Contributor to Birmingham Broadside 1977-79. A listings magazine that “had a more overtly political agenda, covering local union affairs, local politics, and the activities of the law, police, media….. [it] aimed to cover every area where ‘The Birmingham Post’ and the ‘Birmingham Evening Mail’ already provided an establishment viewpoint”. Steve produced a strip called ‘Maxwell the Mutuant:
  • Contributor to pilot edition of the Birmingham Equirer: “Pilot issue of newspaper launched by a co-operative of journalists as an alternative to the domination of newspapers in Birmingham by one company”
  • Worked with a co-operative of designers called ‘Sidelines’. The Bisthon archive mentions that he produced illustrations for a report into ‘The Problems of Owner-Occupation in Inner Birmingham’ for the Birmingham Community Development Project.
  • And of course since the early 1980s Brian Homer has been designing Steve’s book here in Birmingham: “We have been designing Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s books for 25 years, including two co-authored by Brian Homer. We work closely with Steve to realise each book – helping with editing, pagination and back board copy as well as making sure that we design the book to present the material in the best possible way.”

I suspect this is just a small part of the work Steve has done in Birmingham but if you’re seeing him at Plus then it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s part of what was an interesting time in Brum. A particularly interesting history is that of the deign agency Sidelines. It was organised as a co-operative that designed: “Newsletters; bulletins; annual reports; information leaflets; promotional material and occasional publications in the form of pamphlets and booklets designed and produced for community groups”. In its function it reminds me of the work at the recent Social Media Surgery in Birmingham. Here’s a fuller discussion, again from the Bisthon archive about Sidelines:

“The Sidelines design and publishing agency was conceived by Brian Homer as a ‘sideline’ to his editing work on the local paper ‘Birmingham Broadside’ in around 1977. Homer had become involved with producing design work for the Community Development Project in Birmingham, and for the Handsworth Law Centre, All Faiths for One Race (AFFOR) and other organisations, and when community groups began making requests to him to carry out design and production work for their publications, he went freelance from ‘Birmingham Broadside’. He separated himself from the magazine in 1978, having seen the potential for more work, and was joined on many of Sidelines original work projects by an informal network of artists, photographers and journalists, some of whom had previously worked on ‘Grapevine’ and ‘Birmingham Broadside’. They transferred the knowledge and expertise gained through this work to set up Sidelines as an alternative design and publishing agency that specialised in working for community groups, offering a professional service at affordable rates. In addition to community organisations, work was commissioned by trade union groups and produced material for May Day demonstrations, and also designed ‘Searchlight’, the international anti-fascist magazine. It began by designing for print publications, but later became involved with bigger projects.” 

It strikes me that there’s potential to reproduce a ‘Sidelines’ for the digital world. Don’t you think?

Doctors stays!

I should read press releases properly before I add them to my links. In the ‘Beyond the M25’ BBC announcement there was in fact some half-decent news for Birmingham. It had been rumoured around these parts for a while that Selly Oak produced daytime drama Doctors was either for the chop or would go to Manchester.

Why do I care about this? Well there’s the general prinicple of Birmingham having a bouyant BBC outpost with plenty of work to be getting on with and therefore jobs for local creatives. Indeed there are many former students from my time as a lecturer that still work on Doctors. Also, local film director type Justin Edgar has worked on it, as has BAFTA winner Natasha Carlish. It’s good bread and butter work that can persuade talented people to stay put in Brum.

But the real reason is that Doctors never strays more than a couple of miles from its base in the grounds of Birmingham University for its location filming. After a leaflet came through our front door 18 months ago looking to use homes to film in, we leapt at the chance. They filmed twice and almost came a third time with a storyline line involving a local lothario with a mistress stashed away in the houses on either side. I think the neighbours said no to that one. Of course they do pay a modest fee, which is what I’m getting at. They’re bound to come back again – another three years of Doctors in Brum will do me nicely.

The other news for BBC Birmingham is linked to my other interest, gardening:

“Birmingham will now take on production of the Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows, thus becoming the centre for horticulture programming, as well as Factual and Drama – recent titles include Coast and Trawler Men, as well as the long-running daytime drama Doctors, which has been re-commissioned for a further three years.”

4IP is go…


Without much of a ceremony Channel 4 launched 4IP yesterday. Launched as in they opened up a submission section on their website and finally got round to more clearly articulating what they’re after. In their words:

  • 4iP is hunting for tiny, risky ideas as well as big, crunchy ideas.
  • 4iP will help turn fabulous ideas into delightful running code quickly.
  • 4iP will help products showing promise to deliver way more impact.
  • 4iP won’t support products or projects on an ongoing basis
  • 4iP wants proposals from as wide range of people and companies as possible. Nobody is too small, nobody too big. Nobody is too close, nobody is too far away.
  • Your idea could make you a millionaire; your idea could earn you a knighthood for public service, but never turn a profit. Either way 4iP is interested in helping you get started.
  • 4iP loves connecting people and organisations that otherwise would never get to work together.

Of course the idea is the thing but like all bids that need pulling together there’s some background reading to do as well. 4IP stems from the ‘Next on 4‘ document published earlier this year so you really need to get your head around that. I’d be asking: what’s Channel 4’s take on Public Service and does my project speak to that? And then Channel 4 also has its core values – Do it First, Make Trouble, Inspire Change. If you’re coming from a purely commercial background then bringing yourself up to date on the Public Service Broadcasting review that hangs over all this is worthwhile.

In terms of further reading, as well as the 4IP blog itself, you should get yourself subscribed to Tom Loosemore‘s and Ewan McIntosh‘s blogs. They are the Head of 4IP and Scotland & Northern Ireland Commissioner respectively. If you’re worried about protecting your idea then Martin Baker (Head of Commercial Affairs) has a take on this but it’s interesting to note that some people are already putting their ideas out there and calling for collaborators.

Finally, If you’re in the West Midlands you can probably hold fire for a while. There’s a regional launch next week and we’ll get our own C4 commissioner in due course. There’s no mad rush on this, 4IP has a couple of years to run at least so perhaps working up your idea, finding partners, having a chat to Screen West Midlands, are the things to be getting on with.

Links for October 13th through October 15th

Some links for you:

  • BBC reveals 'Out of London' plans – A whole host of changes to shift the centre of production away from London but with no mention of any change for Birmingham. BBC centres in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland seem the big winners. Update: Original BBC press release does have some good(ish) news for Birmingham.
  • IE – Web, Interactive, Design, Brand – One for your RSS feed. Jewellery Quarter based design agency, ie design, have a blog and most of their team seem to contribute. It's a good one as well with plenty of links to cool stuff.
  • Gigbeth 2008 set to bring welcome boost to Birmingham’s economy – The figures are impressive and everything but we need to start to think of music events as a key part of urban renaissance (which is the case Parkinson makes I think) that make an underlying contribution to economic competitiveness rather than force events like this to produce figures that are difficult to pin down accurately.

Running on the Birmingham Plateau

They’ve published the course profile for the Birmingham Half marathon and it turns out that despite Birmingham being largely flat, the course isn’t. This is partly because we have to trudge up overpasses (Perry Barr) and pull ourselves out of underpasses (Lancaster Circus, Five Ways).

That last long dip is the 2+ mile downhill run from Bearwood to Centenary Square – presumably the blip in it is coming out of the underpass at Five Ways but it should be nice and fast if I’ve got any energy left. There are some minor route changes to the orginal published route.

Given this is the ‘Race for Climate Change’ the logistics of getting to the start are still built too much around using your car. There’s a shuttle bus from the city centre but they could have partnered with a car sharing scheme or at least, like London, put on extra regular buses and trains (Perry Barr station would only be as far from the start as Blakheath is from the London start – alas the first train that Sunday is well after the race has begun). If the race grows (9000 this year) then they’ll have to put other measures into place to encourage/force runners to use public transport.

As it stands I’ll be trying to scrounge a lift from Bournville – any offers?

Links for October 7th through October 9th

Some links for you:

My new workplace

This is what’s oppostite my new workplace in Camden street, Jewellery Quarter. I believe it’s a former GKN works (due for redevelopment – item F on this map) but is now where the smokers from where I work hang out.

Having trumpeted my return to working in the Jewellery Quarter I actually find myself in a rather undeveloped corner of it which still has large empty factories and small, usually busy, warehouses. That’s  fine as I like undeveloped corners of the city and walking from the centre to here takes you through the back of the library – now there’s a nice messy undeveloped bit.

I work in the B1 building which has the following benefits:

  • It sells okay Starbucks coffee for half what it costs on the high street.
  • The cafe doesn’t understand portion control for cakes.
  • It is close to the canal networks for pre, during or post work runs.
  • It has shower facilities for the above.

Working in the Jewellery Quarter generally has the following benefits:

  • Banks (and therefore cashpoints).
  • A supermarket.
  • Newsagents that stock newspapers.
  • People – both work people and customers for shops.
  • Lots and lots of place for lunch.
  • A train station
  • A diverse population of blue and white collar workers.

In a fight between Digbeth and Jewellery Quarter I wonder who’d win?

Links for October 6th

Some links for you:

  • 38minutes – Powered by 4iP – It's a (powered by) 4ip website. A social networking site aimed at bringing together innovating digital media companies in Ireland & Scotland. Maybe we could do with one of these in the West Midlands when 4ip kicks off?
  • How many social media platforms?!!! | New Music Strategies – Dubber on how to spread yourself across as many social media platforms as you can.
  • ELSPA: Press Releases: UK Console Numbers More than Double Within A Year – "From September 2007 to September 2008 the Nintendo Wii installed base has risen from 1.1 million to a staggering 3.6 million, while the Nintendo DS has soared from 3.8 million to 7.1 million. By comparison, PlayStation®3 unit sales have risen from 0.4 million to 1.4 million and the Xbox 360® from 1.3 million to 2.3 million. Sony’s PSP® handheld showed a comparatively moderate increase from 2.2 million to 2.9 million."