Birmingham is What I Think With

DirectorJohn Pickard
One line synopsisAn account, by British poet and jazz pianist, Roy Fisher (b.1930), of his life and work in his home city of Birmingham.

Boys carrying a blue and white door along a waste-ground track. Cityscape – pylon, car dump, factories, goods yard, train, etc. Trees. View of gas holders, pylons, wasteland. Motorway. Car dump, city blocks. Roy Fisher standing beside the door. Fisher speaks his poem, Birmingham is What I Think With. VO continues over shots of men working with hammers and chisels on production line. Fisher continues. "This isn’t Paris…" Train. Fisher on canal boat talks about his attitude to fiction – it doesn’t interest him very much. Black and white photograph of children’s street party. Child looking out at camera through letter box. The street party photograph. Fisher walking along in residential area, boys playing in the street. His VO reciting "Touching the centre keeps everything around it fluid". Arrives at 74 Kentish Road, Handsworth. Fisher VO. "Big split pebbles, set in the path. Governed. Two to be on the safe side." Shots of stones intercut with shots of Fisher reciting. Fisher outside No.74: Tells the boy who answers that he had been born in this house, had noticed that they had put in a new front door, and wondered if he could have the old one. Retrieves the blue and white door from the back garden and carries it away, followed by a group of children. Jazz band with Fisher at the piano. Fisher talking about how, as a child, he "got excited by the really grimy bits", how he was taught to avoid Smethwick, and that "there was a sense of peril coming from anywhere below the railway track". Interior of foundry. Fisher VO pointing out that the "bad" parts of town were those from which Birmingham had derived its prosperity, but that they were referred to in those days almost as though they were the door to hell. Fisher VO "No dark in the body deep as this". Shot of Fisher carrying his door. Foundry. Fisher VO "This age has a cold blackness of hell in cities at night". Fisher VO continues over night shots of the city. Fisher reciting "There will be spastic, entrepreneurial voyages twitched out from wherever its shores may lie". Fisher playing piano. Fisher on canal boat; intercut with shots of derelict factories. He talks about Birmingham’s reason for existence having vanished, but thousand of people living in and are still reacting to the place. Fisher reciting "If you get systematic and follow power around, you arrive at a bedrock, out of a book". Fisher with the boy from No.74, shows him a piece of sandstone he’s picked up, crumbles it into his hand, and shows him that Birmingham is built on such stone. Fisher VO: "Believe the book of bedrocks, as in the end you must …". Boy and crumbling sandstone. Film from the 1940s of working class urban area with children playing in the streets. Fisher VO "There’s one thing certain: this is the centre of the universe." Film continues. Fisher VO explaining how he realised, at about the age of twelve, that it was possible "to tell stories" about what he saw of Birmingham. Illustrations from Our Birmingham, the children’s book issued by the Cadbury’s Foundation that inspired him. Fisher (interview and VO) says he’d never realised before that the place he lived in "was describable"; the book had photographs of scenes that didn’t usually get into the press; it also had street maps and plans and gave an overview of the whole place. Excerpt from 1940s film on post-war redevelopment. Present-day shots of bridge, railways, canals, etc. Fisher VO "Suspect repeated shifts of centre…". VO continues over shot of him carrying his door through the Bullring shopping centre. Canal and boat. Train. Fisher and his door standing under sign for "Euro Piano", watched by curious small boys. Fisher and others backstage at jazz club. Fisher on canal boat, talks about how redevelopment is usually in the city centre in the expectation that this will somehow radiate out to the other areas. Nineteenth century engraving. Contemporary cityscapes. City views and film of Fisher as he recites "Once invented, the big city believed it had a brain". People watching Fisher as he sits beside his door. He continues to carry it through the Bullring. Fisher playing piano. Fisher recites "There’s no shame in letting the world pivot on your own patch". VO continues of film of him carrying his door. Piano builders at work. Fisher VO "The piano’s a machine, hidden in a heavy piece of furniture". Fisher and group trying out an arrangement. Fisher’s VO on "ways into music": formally, by building sounds, or as if it’s buried in the instruments and has to be discovered like an exploration or adventure.

Canal scenes. Fisher VO explains that his childhood occupied a "very narrow space", without much reference to the middle of the city, three miles from the city away. Fisher VO "Abstracted water, captive for a while, becomes abstract". Gas holder. Derelict industrial buildings and other canal-side scenes. Fisher VO talking about how knowing what some of these buildings were for didn’t have much impact: it was their size and shape that meant most, particularly, as they weren’t as visible or impressive from the road. Fisher VO "Nothing much fronts the canal. Where buildings on a street stare you out, here it’s you who do the looking". Fisher, on canal boat, on his views on poetry as a medium. Fisher reciting "I like being tired". More canal-side scenes. Fisher says he believes that interpersonal relationships are only a small part of existence; he specialises in relationships between people and their surroundings. Fisher lying on seat in the Bullring next to his door. Carrying the door through crowds. Street and canal scenes. Clip of John Slater in army uniform, trying to thumb a lift. Piano shop. Under motorway. Working class woman and children from When We Build Again (1944). Fisher and the door. Fisher reciting "I want to remark formally, indeed stiffly, and not complaining, that the place where I was raised had no longer deference for water".Something tossed into canal. Fisher VO says that one could live one’s whole life without ever thinking to ask if Birmingham had any rivers. Fisher says that discovering that other major cities centred on rivers was strange for him. He wasn’t aware of Birmingham actually having any, though they are there. Canal scenes. Fisher on grass ridge. His VO "The dark river mothered the Black Country". Landscapes, vegetation, streams, derelict factory, water channels, following the courses of the Tame and the Rae. Fisher carrying his door. Sound over (music and commentary [voice of Dylan Thomas]) from When We Build Again. Black and white film from 1940s and earlier. Fisher VO suggests that his thinking about cities and his experience of them is of itself a kind of poetry. Fisher stands by his door, trying to thumb a lift. His VO says he doesn’t live in a literary world or mix much with writers and critics, and has no sense of a peer group. When We Build Again. Film of girls in a playground. Jazz group. Music continues over scenes of Sikh crane-driver, scrap metal being picked up by electro-magnet. Jazz group. Night scenes in the city and on the main roads. Fisher VO "Wastes of distant darkness, and a different wind out of the pit". Credits.

Production companyPallion
Running time50 minutes
Full credits

New poetry by Roy Fisher.
Extracts from "Furnace" and "Poems 1955-1987" Oxford University Press.
With thanks to Gurminder Singh Kular and family,
Birmingham City Council,
Darcast Components,
Ladbrooke Pianos.
Concert recorded at Midlands Arts Centre in association with Big Bear Music.
Concert Musicians John Barnes, Roy Williams, Roy Fisher, Len Skeat, Peter Cotterill;
Incidental piano music Roy Fisher.
Archive film When We Build Again [1944],
Bourneville Village Trust,
Featuring John Slater and Dylan Thomas.
Lighting Cameraman Mike Wilkie;
Additional Camera Chris Sutcliffe;
Camera Assistants Peter Pimley,
Roberto Contresas,
Jill Oliver;
Sound Andy Cross;
Concert Sound Leapfrog Mobile Recording;
Dubbing Mixer Mike Narduzzo;
Production Manager Susan Dalziel;
Rostrum Camera Ken Morse;
Editors Sean Mackenzie,
Duncan Hibberd;
Executive Producer Rodney Wilson;
Producers Angela Pollard,
Tom Pickard;
Director Tom Pickard.
A Pallion Production for the Arts Council of Great Britain.
© Arts Council MCMXCI.

Film segmentBirmingham is What I Think With - ACE226.2
Birmingham is What I Think With - ACE226.3
Birmingham is What I Think With - ACE226.4
Birmingham is What I Think With - ACE226.5
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