Flatpack Festival
Film for all the senses

Canals, camels and clubnights

Ian Francis
Thursday 2nd May, 2024 Posted by Ian Francis

Tomorrow Digbeth First Friday marks its tenth birthday.

Since 2014 it has provided a handy roadmap for the uninitiated, an opportunity to breeze your way through four different exhibition openings and still have time to fit in a burger after you’ve watched a man smash up a washing machine. The anniversary comes at a time when the New Digbeth is beginning to take shape, with many creative organisations in the neighbourhood asking themselves whether there will be a place for them in it. For some reason, my Digbeth life has begun to flash before my eyes.


Although I’d visited for gigs and jungle nights at the Irish Centre and the Institute, this was my first encounter with the area as a working grunt. I was an intern at Maverick TV’s Custard Factory offices, responding to audience queries about their BBC2 show Trade Secrets. First impressions in February drizzle were not great, and for some reason the walk from the station always reminded me of Spike Milligan: ‘Kilburn High Road runs for three miles. That’s why it always looks shagged out.’ Deritend High Street is not that long, but at the time it felt like it.


One Live took over the city with an intense week of gigs, and this sticks in my head as the peak of Medicine Bar’s reputation as a local hot spot. (Albeit I had a four month old baby so I had to listen to most of it on the radio.) The venue was a headache in some ways, often six deep at the bar on a Friday night and with toilets that were best enjoyed in galoshes. They did put some brilliant acts on though. This BBC article from that week is a proper time capsule, with DJs asked to recommend something good about the city. In summary: nightclubs, the M6, baltis and ‘fit women’.


In June I found myself up a ladder, blacking out the front windows of the Rainbow pub with sugar paper for a new film night called 7 Inch Cinema. Throughout setup and for the first hour or so of the event until it got too busy, a silent red-faced man in a dishevelled suit nursed a pint of Guinness. Our first punter. I later found out that he was a former teacher whose life had fallen apart. The following month, regular collaborators Capsule put on the first Supersonic Festival, with the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Coil playing on the ‘lake’ at the Custard Factory.


Flatpack had been going for two years by this point, organised from our attic in Balsall Heath. After receiving our first bit of regular funding, we took the leap to an office of our own at the Custard Factory. North facing, it was bloody freezing in the winter. Shortly afterwards myself and then co-director Pip McKnight took part in a smug hipster photo shoot which showed off our grubby windows in high definition.


Flatpack no.3 featured one of our finest festival hubs, a warehouse on Floodgate St which we transformed with the help of some theatre design students from BCU. For many years the festival hub wandered the streets of Digbeth, setting up home in an array of nightclubs, galleries, dance studios and archway units. (On reflection, we don’t recommend hosting your festival hub in a nightclub.) This has always been one of the joys of the area – the availability of relatively cheap, blank space to support the vision of versatile arts organisations like Fierce, Stan’s Cafe, Punch and Birmingham Opera Company. The latter were responsible for one of the most memorable cultural happenings to grace the neighbourhood when in 2012 they staged Stockhausen’s Mittwoch Aus Licht in a huge industrial unit, complete with camels and helicopters.


In a moment of over-tired over-sharing during a festival dinner, I tell a Guardian journalist about the challenges of working and attracting audiences down here. ‘I know I'm supposed to be saying it's paradise, but I'm not good at PR.’ Yikes. The resulting article turned out rather apocalyptic – possibly my fault – but it is a reminder of how far the area has come. Taxis, street lighting and cashpoints are now easier to come by, and people are much more willing to take a punt on a night in Digbeth. On the other hand, safety after dark remains a concern for visitors and residents alike.


One of my favourite events at Flatpack 2012 was Outer Sight Over Night, a ‘psynematic psleepover’ with ceiling projections, sleepy tunes and cushions galore. The kind of thing that could happen #onlyinDigbeth as they say, and hosted by Friction Arts at The Edge on Cheapside. Ahead of the curve, Friction had the good sense to buy their building and are currently in the thick of a capital project which will ensure a legacy for their work.


By this point the neighbourhood was awash with artist-led spaces, and the challenge was making them legible and accessible to the general public. The brainchild of Friction, Grand Union and Eastside Projects, Digbeth First Friday was a fiendishly simple idea which helped to create critical mass and reflected the largely cooperative, non-cliquey ethos of the sector. DFF was swiftly followed by the birth of Centrala, an exhibition and gig space next to the canal which has become a linchpin of the local scene.


During our twelfth festival we delved into the story of the Double Zero, a motorbike club founded by a vicar in a Digbeth church which formed the basis of the St Basil’s youth homelessness charity. It was a reminder that the area has had many chapters, and for the back-street car-yards and small manufacturers it was the artists and web companies who were the harbingers of gentrification.


Just before the pandemic, it felt as though that process was speeding up – heralded by street-food and a rash of game bars. Anyone wishing to both drink and enjoy ten-pin bowling, bar billiards, baseball, ping-pong, mini-golf or arcade games now has a plethora of options to choose from in B9. At the same time, Covid-19 and the never-ending tram works conspired to kill off some great independent hospitality businesses – Digbrew and Wine Freedom, we salute you. Plans began to emerge for a number of different developments which would see a massive increase in the amount of accommodation in the area, banking in part on the long-awaited boost which HS2 would bring.


In the autumn I was chuffed to be part of a day in tribute to Birmingham author Joel Lane, organised by Voce Books on Allison Street - one of the very best recent additions to the fabric of the area. A writer who had limited local recognition during his own lifetime, Lane has seen a resurgence of late thanks to Voce and the reissues put out by Influx. He wrote particularly well about Digbeth in the 90s and 00s, capturing the unsettling vibe of the district at dusk. When I see a spare tyre on a frozen canal, I think of him.


So where are we now? Digbeth High St looks a lot less shagged out than it did when I first arrived, even if the completion date for the tram line continues to recede into the distance and don’t get me started on the lack of bike paths. If all goes as planned, the southern side of the road will soon be a feast of ‘exciting, vibrant residential mixed-use living.’ Work has begun to turn the old Typhoo factory into the BBC’s Birmingham HQ, and Steven Knight’s Loc Studios will soon begin shooting its first feature – leading Bloomberg to proclaim ‘Peaky Blinders to revive industrial wasteland.’

When Digbeth-based arts organisations gather to warm their hands over a flaming oil drum, they often talk of getting a ‘foothold’ in the area. There is a sense of the ground moving beneath us. Maybe our work as the advance guard of gentrification is done, and it’s time to hand over to the big boys. I hope not. In the meantime my eldest, who as a baby listened to Medicine Bar transmissions in the bath, is now a regular at Centrala’s queer punk gigs. Launched last year, the archway venue RMBL is a fertile home for student hip hop nights and open mic events. Despite the significant obstacle created by the HS2 works, young people still find their way from the universities into Digbeth. Birmingham needs somewhere like this, and it must continue to play its part as a place to experiment and try out new ideas.

Check out the Digbeth First Friday programme here.

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