20 bizarre facts every local should know about Birmingham
Birmingham City Council

Like any great city, Birmingham has a no shortage of strange, odd and downright peculiar facts that rarely make their way into the official tourist guides.

Here are some of our favourites…

1. Bat-Brum

Hitman meets Catwoman by the Rotunda | DC Comics

Hitman meets Catwoman by the Rotunda | DC Comics

Classic nineties DC Comic series Hitman – about Tommy Monaghan, an Irish-American antihero based in Gotham City – was violent, grotesque and absolutely terrific. The comic was created by writer Garth (Preacher) Ennis and Birmingham-based artist John McCrea, whose version of Gotham City regularly featured classic Brum landmarks like The Rotunda, that weird collapsing man statue on John Bright Street, and possibly even Mr Egg’s.

2. Bat-Brum Returns

How would Batman cope without his loyal butler Alfred? Well, for starters, he’d probably have to learn how to wash his own cape. Alfred from the 1960’s Batman TV show (the one with Adam West and the best-ever Batmobile) was played by Alan Napier, who was born in Kings Norton.

3. Laurel, Hardy and Newtown

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

During their final UK tour of 1954, comedy legends Laurel and Hardy stayed at the historic Barton Arms pub in Newtown. The pub still has a gorgeous wrought iron spiral staircase, but it’s not known whether Stan and Ollie ever had to climb up it while carrying a piano.

4. Gangs of New Street

Long before Peaky Blinders became a ratings smash for the BBC there was Gangsters, a Birmingham-based crime drama from the 1970s. The first series was gritty and violent, but its second and final series was very, very peculiar. Just imagine David Lynch directing episodes of The Sweeney, then setting it in Brum. It was weirder than that.

5. Thomas Goes to Kings Norton

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

Thomas the Tank Engine was created in 1943 by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, a curate at St. Nicholas’ Church in Kings Norton. Twenty years later in nearby Kings Heath, the man destined to become Thomas’s TV narrator played drums at the Ritz Ballroom with some visiting beat combo from Liverpool. If only Ringo Starr knew what the future had in store for him.

6. R2-B2

Everyone’s favourite astromech droid from the Star Wars movies is actually a Brummie. Actor Kenny Baker who played R2-D2 in six movies (and was a consultant on The Force Awakens) was born and raised in Birmingham. Maybe he should have been called ‘Tarar-too’.

7. Captain Midlands

Captain Midlands | Marvel
Captain Midlands | Marvel

The Marvel Comics Universe is a very big place with so many superheroes that there’s even one from Birmingham. Captain Midlands was a result of the same WWII ‘Super Soldier Program’ that gave the world Captain America, but unlike his star-spangled counterpart he wasn’t preserved over the decades in suspended animation. Instead, he just got old, grumpy and a bit right wing.

8. The Erdington Satirist

John Oliver is one of the most influential comedians in the US, whose satirical TV spots have influenced American law- and policy-makers. Not bad for a lad from Erdington.

9. Sherlock in Brum

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

As a young man studying at the University of Edinburgh, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a summer job working at a pharmacy in Aston. Holmes and Watson would later visit Brum in Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk. Claims that young Doyle once bought a violin from a shop on Digbeth’s Sherlock Street seem to be an urban myth, sadly.

10. Telly Savalas: Honorary Brummie

The American actor Telly Savalas famously played lollipop-sucking 70s cop, Kojak. He was also, apparently, a really big fan of Birmingham. It’s his kinda town…

11. Salvador Balti: the Birmingham Surrealists

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

Between the 1930s to the 1950s, Birmingham had its very own group of Surrealist artists and intellectuals who regularly met at the Trocadero pub on Temple Street. They were the guys sitting at the back with the ludicrous waxed moustaches.

12. Kong Standing

Godzilla might be synonymous with property damage in Tokyo, but giant monster rival King Kong is an honorary Brummie thanks to a big statue of him that used to stand near the old Bull Ring.

13. Snobs: the Sitcom

snobs-birmingham
Pic: Tom Lennon

Birmingham’s legendary sticky-floored indie nightclub, Snobs, was once the setting for a Channel 4 sitcom. Well, sort of. Nightingales starred Robert (Citizen Smith/My Family) Lindsay and was a delightfully odd and largely-forgotten early-90s sitcom about three security guards working the night shift in a deserted office building. The exterior shots for Nightingales were of the Beneficial Building on Paradise Circus, the former home of Snobs, despite the fact there’s a more aptly-named club in the nearby Gay Village called ‘Nightingale’.

14. Tony Iommi’s Fingertips

Brum rock legends Black Sabbath are one of the most influential heavy metal bands of all time. The band’s much-imitated signature sound was a result of an accident in a sheet metal factory in Brum where guitarist Tony Iommi worked as a teenager. The accident cost him the tips of two of his fingers, so you could say he invented heavy metal music almost single-handedly.

15. Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Neighbourhood

Pic: Lily Hudson
Pic: Lily Hudson

The bingo hall located at Kingstanding Circle (big place, can’t miss it) was once the flagship picture palace of the Odeon cinema chain. It’s revered by architecture buffs throughout the world as an art deco classic, although the present author’s mother prefers the Gala in Stockland Green.

16. Fear and Loathing in Small Heath

American ‘Gonzo’ journalist Hunter S. Thompson (who Johnny Depp memorably portrayed in the movies Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary) shot to fame following the publication of his book Hell’s Angels in 1966. Thompson had spent a year riding alongside the notorious Californian biker gang, and his vehicle of choice was a BSA Lightning (which was built in Small Heath).

17. CBGB-23

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

Once upon a time the hottest rock venue in the world was in North Birmingham. From the late-60s through to the early-70s, bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Who all played at Mothers, Brum’s answer to London’s Marquee Club or New York’s CBGBs. And where was this magical place? Above a furniture shop on the Erdington High Street.

18. Karaoke

It may be synonymous with Japanese culture, but as local authors Craig Hamilton, Jon Hickman and Jon Bounds point out in their very entertaining book, 101 Things Birmingham Gave the World, if it wasn’t for Birmingham there wouldn’t be Karaoke. That essential Karaoke ingredient of on-screen text was known in media circles as ‘Astons’, named after the firm who pioneered the technology, Aston Micro-Electronics Ltd who were based in – that’s right – Aston.

19. An Upright Fellow

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

On the event of his death, Brummie print pioneer John Baskerville wanted to be buried standing upright within a conical tower up his back garden. When he passed away in 1775 that’s just what happened, but fifty years’ later his pointy mausoleum had to be moved to make way for a canal and his remains were reburied elsewhere in the traditional horizontal position. Mind you, he didn’t complain.

20. Hotelgate

Pic: Tom Lennon
Pic: Tom Lennon

Bill Clinton’s 90s presidency became synonymous with scandal and sleazy allegations, so when he visited Birmingham in 1998 for the G8 Summit he must have been horrified to discover the name of the high class city centre hotel he’d been booked to stay at. These days it’s known as The Marriott, but back then it was called ‘The Swallow’.

Ahem.

Can you think of any more weird facts about Brum? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter.

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Main photo: busy busy busy !!! / Flickr / CC