Imagine how audiences must have felt going to the cinema to watch Raiders Of The Lost Ark – but first having to sit through a bizarre travelogue about Birmingham narrated by the star of Kojak.
Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham elicited groans when it was forced on film fans in 1981 – yet over time its reputation has mushroomed. Widely known, but rarely seen – apart from in snippets on YouTube – now the full-length kitsch triumph is to be shown on Sky Arts.
The 25-minute "quota quickie" is the quintessential Harold Baim outing. Were it not for the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act – whose laudable aim was to put a rocket up the ailing British film industry – Baim's directorial career might have been rather less prodigious. In the event, the many cut-price flicks he made were only funded because cinemas were obliged to buy British by law.
Leeds-born Baim knocked out dozens of 35mm shorts between the 1940s and the 1980s, but it was for his low-budget travelogues of the 1970s and early 1980s that he became notorious. The films are formulaic – there's a hackneyed Baim-penned script stuffed with alliteration, and ring roads and car parks take unlikely starring roles. Nevertheless these films vividly capture a different era – one framed with optimistic post-war grands projets, whose concrete cladding is beginning to fade.
With Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham – all the pieces fell into place. Savalas' agent was friends with Baim, and the voiceover deal was miraculously sealed at the height of the actor's fame. Savalas also "looked" at Portsmouth and Aberdeen, but the Birmingham film is a kind of Dadaist masterpiece that sucks you in.
Savalas is never seen for one thing. There's a good reason for that – he never used the "multi-carriageway motorway" he waxed so lyrical about, recording the narration in a Soho studio. The Costa Award-winning writer Catherine O'Flynn, mentions it in her novel, The News Where You Are. She explains: "I actually fell for Telly's spiel and believed he had come to Birmingham and dallied in Dale End, walked on the walkways, and sat on the seats. Jonathan Coe read a first draft of my book and he had to break the news that Telly never set foot in the city. It was heartbreaking – but it makes the finished artifact even more surreal."
Baim's wafer-thin budget meant jumpy editing and occasional clangers. But there are shots of startling beauty as well – Zen-like panoramas of the Central Library's ziggurat and the Botanical Gardens make Birmingham look like the most beautiful city on earth. Visions of grotty subways slung under the old Bull Ring, however, do not. Without realising it, Baim had dug straight into Brum's flighty soul – or at least that of its planners. "The film perfectly captures Birmingham's strange combination of insecurity and ambition", agrees O'Flynn.
Ten Harold Baim films will screen on Sky Arts between 23 and 28 December; 'Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham' is on 27 December at 7.30pm on Sky Arts 2 HD (www.skyarts.co.uk)Reuse content