Could this be Birmingham?

Aggressive marketing and a `can do' attitude have transformed the derided home of `Crossroads' into a thriving, modern city with a global perspective, says Michael Streeter
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The Independent Online
Jane Austen started it. It was her character, the snobby Mrs Elton, who uttered a view of Britain's least-loved city which has stuck as firmly as grime to an Industrial Revolution chimney stack. "One has no great hopes from Birmingham," she declares grandly in Emma. "I always say there is something direful in the sound."

The contemporary, "sophisticated" metropolitan view is hardly any different. Negative associations with the city are endlessly trotted out, wherever two or more Londoners are gathered together: Crossroads, Spaghetti Junction and the unsightly Bull Ring.

Last week you could almost touch the scornful glee with which some in the national media greeted the announcement that the Midlands city is to play host next year to the Eurovision Song Contest. The continent's longest-standing television joke meets Britain's most-ridiculed city. The coverage moved one senior Birmingham businessman to comment: "We know it's irresistible to some parts of the media, the jokey references about Birmingham and the Eurovision Song Contest. But it's an event we worked very hard to get and we're very proud to have got it."

That remark sums up much about the Brummie attitude to life, work and their place in Britain. For while the city may be a prophet of enlightened marketing without honour in its own land, to much of the outside world Birmingham is a growing success story. And to the city's key entrepreneurs and politicians, the chance to display its wares to a European television audience of around 300 million is too good to miss. And as an added incentive, the event will pump around pounds 4m into the regional economy.

However, Eurovision is just a small part of the story. Barry Cleverdon, chief executive of the NEC Group which will stage the event next May, describes it as the "icing on the cake". He points to the array of events the city will host next year. These include the G8 Summit, the British International Motor Show and the Lions Club International Convention - billed as the biggest convention in the world. It already stages Cruft's Dog Show every year and is now attracting the prestigious Confederation of British Industry conference, which normally switches venues, each year.

The National Indoor Arena, from where Eurovision will be broadcast, already stages the television show Gladiators - and earlier this year it hosted a live television debate on the future of the monarchy. Rather like the city itself, the programme was lambasted by the critics for its vulgarity but proved popular with the TV viewing public who tuned in in their millions to watch and take part in a vote.

Such events are just one sign of what some call the renaissance of the city. It boasts "more canals than Venice", has a new and much-admired Symphony Hall, plans to re-develop large sections of the much-derided 1960s centre in the next five years, and comes top of a list of "desirable locations" for businesses. The city leads the way in Britain in business tourism - income from conferences and their spin-off opportunities for local hotels, restaurants and leisure - and has won new investment from BMW and Jaguar in its traditional manufacturing base.

Suddenly, Birmingham is the place to be. At least for those from abroad who probably know more about Birmingham, Alabama than Britain's second city, and who approach the place with an unbiased mind.

Barry Cleverdon, an adopted Brummie who was born in the East End of London, admits it is far easier to "sell" Birmingham to foreign business people than to fellow Britons. "They don't have any preconceptions and are generally impressed by what they find."

Despite lingering consumer resistance in this country, Mr Cleverdon enthuses about what he calls the new spirit abroad in the region. "There is a real buzz about the place, things are happening. I've been here for 21 years and it really gets in the blood."

The quiet re-emergence of Birmingham should come as no surprise to historians. According to Philip Calcutt, a native Brummie and marketing director of the Birmingham Marketing Partnership, which straddles the public and private sectors and co-ordinates the promotion of the city, Birmingham has "re-invented" itself several times before.

Although warranting a mention in the Domesday Book, it was at the time scarcely more than a hamlet. It moved through the Middle Ages as a craftsman's centre and later achieved modest prominence as a centre for armaments - swords then guns - in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was only late in the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th that Birmingham became widely known nationally as one of the main forces of the Industrial Revolution: James Watt, the Scottish engineer who invented the steam engine, worked in the city.

The second great era came later in the 19th century when under Joe Chamberlain, Birmingham, by now firmly established as a manufacturing centre for country and Empire, also became a model for urban planning and municipal governance. The city survived well enough on its manufacturing base, later moving into the motor trade, until modern times - then the wheels fell off the city's prosperity in the early 1980s recession.

Mr Calcutt recalls the shock to the collective system that this reversal caused. "You have to remember that until the 1970s there was in effect full employment in the city. You could leave a job one day and get a new one the next," he says.

Along with economic troubles, Brummies were confirmed in their cultural role in Britain, the butt of humour and ridicule. The cultural nadir - in a city where Simon Rattle and his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were for many a lone beacon - was reached with Crossroads. This now defunct soap opera's quivering sets, smaller-than-life characters and wooden acting convulsed a nation into unintentional laughter.

It got worse. The name of the most famous character, Benny, became a slang word for a stupid person, one reportedly used until recently by British troops to describe the locals in the Falkland Islands. (According to army legend, when the soldiers were ordered not to use the derogatory term, they re-christened the Falklanders "stills" - as in "still Bennies".)

The horrors of the city centre and the concrete hell of Spaghetti Junction simply added to the image of dreariness in the nation's mind. But above all was the accent. This nasal sound, much mimicked, emerged in a recent survey as the accent least likely to impress a prospective employer. In one industrial tribunal, an employee claimed she was sacked simply because of her local vowel sounds. Although the BBC has made efforts to recruit more Brummie accents into mainstream broadcasting, they are still rarely heard; and when they are, the impression is not wholly favourable. Brummie character Jack Wooley, the hotel owner in The Archers, is depicted as an amiable but bumbling man.

Yet this constant, if gentle, barracking seems to have acted act as a spur to Birmingham rather than causing lasting resentment. "What's the point in being chippy about it?" asks Philip Calcutt. "There is annoyance, but the best way to get back at them is not to whinge but to get out and show them."

This combination of bloody-mindedness and memories scarred by recession became essential ingredients in the city's new success. In the face of much criticism - it was long referred to as a white elephant - the city council funded the National Exhibition Centre; much later came the city centre International Convention Centre and the Symphony Hall.

The NEC Group, with its tally of visitors, brings an estimated pounds 438m of business to the regional economy each year, a figure likely to increase by pounds 100m when more exhibition halls are added. The centre also supports around 17,000 jobs - important in a region with unemployment above the national average.

At the end of the 1980s, and with central government funding cuts undermining council attempts to revitalise the city, a collection of Birmingham's movers and shakers decided more was needed. In 1993, they formed the Birmingham Marketing Partnership, which is now held up as a model of how a city should market its affairs. This was another sign, says Mr Calcutt, of the city's "can do" approach.

"There is no reason in geographical terms for Birmingham to exist. It has no river, no coast and no coalfield. Its history is of a working city." He recalls the attention focused on the plights of some cities in the early 1980s - he mentions Liverpool - but says that never happened with Birmingham. "Birmingham just gets on and does it. In the recession the reaction was not to whinge but to get out there and do it. It was obvious that Whitehall would not be the source of a large amount of funding to regenerate the city."

Equally, local politics, though bitter enough, have avoided the extremism that has afflicted other councils. "The city has veered between Tory and Labour, which has led to a political pragmatism about putting Birmingham first. There is a high degree of consensus about what is good for the city," he says.

The city is realistic about its role alongside the capital, to which Birmingham lost the bid for the Millennium Exhibition (though the city is planning its own "complementary" celebrations) but it is thinking big about its global role. "What we are trying to become is a European city," says Mr Calcutt. "A major city. A bit like Barcelona to Madrid, or Lyon to Paris."

Barry Cleverdon, credited as a major figure in the city's success, believes Birmingham can achieve its goals as long as it stays "hungry": "We are beating competition from cities such as New York and Hong Kong because we try that bit harder. Because we're Birmingham we have to try that much harder. And we are happy to do that."