While London is often considered the cultural centre of the UK, about 20 hours North West, lies the bustling city of Birmingham. With a population of approximately 1.1 million inhabitants within the city area and 3.8 million within Greater Birmingham, Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK. These figures also make Birmingham the 17th largest city and the 8th largest metropolitan area in the European Union. Although it is often a toss up between Manchester and Birmingham regarding which is the UK’s second city, Birmingham certainly wins in population size. In terms of culture, music and theatre, Birmingham is a thriving city with much to offer.
Birmingham only really grew as a settlement when Peter de Birmingham bought the right to hold a market at his castle. From the middle of the 14th century Birmingham had become a fairly large established town and it grew into an affluent urban centre of merchants and craftsmen. The main governing institutions during this period were the Guild of the Holy Cross and the lordship of the de Birmingham family. However, by the early 16th century they lost influence and power and between 1536 and 1547, the institution collapsed. This led to huge freedom and growth within the city of Birmingham; its population grew from 15,000 to 70,000 making it the fifth-largest town in England and Wales by 1700.
From the beginning of the 17th century, Birmingham became a centre for metal, gun-making and fine jewellery. Emerging as an industrialised city in its own right, its metal industries reached as far as the West Indies. The landscape of Birmingham transformed into mills, factories and ironworks which appeared rapidly. On a social and cultural level, Birmingham became a hub for cultural pluralism and was known for being politically radical; it had weak links to the traditional hierarchy of the church and the aristocracy compared to other cities. During the first English civil war, the Battle of Birmingham took place and the town was attacked by Royalist forces because of its strong Parliamentarian sympathies. In the late 1630s, it developed into a centre of puritanism and as a haven for Non-conformists.
During the 18th century, Birmingham flourished into a hub of literary, musical, artistic and theatrical activity, marking the cultural phenomenon known as the Midlands Enlightenment. The Lunar Society of Birmingham was founded in 1765 and brought together the city’s best scientists, engineers, philosophers and intellectual thinkers who shared their ideas with one another and other intellectuals in Europe. The 18th century also saw a period of huge economic expansion which is known as the industrial revolution. Members of the Lunar Society included James Watt and Matthew Boulton who, with their inventiveness and creativity, developed the industrial steam engine in 1776. By 1800, hundreds of steam engines had been produced. Their factory, Boutlon’s Soho Manufactory, became famous all over the world.
Given that Birmingham was considered one of the most important industrial cities during the 19th century, it did not have long to wait before the introduction of railways. First trains came to the city from Liverpool in 1837. Another line was then built between London and Birmingham and in 1854, the New Street Station was built. Birmingham also started electing its own members of parliament after the Reform Act of 1832 and the city was incorporated in 1838.
By 1889, Birmingham was officially recognised as a city and expanded massively. While the city was left exhausted after industrial activity and heavy bombing during World War 11, Birmingham was extensively developed which includes the construction of large tower block estates, such as Castle Vale and The Bull Ring. This era also saw waves of immigration from Commonwealth countries and population increased hugely. Devastatingly, a series of bomb attacks were carried out by the Provisional IRA in 1974 and are said to be the worst terrorist attacks until the 2005 London bombings.
With its roots firmly in the industrial revolution, Birmingham has since become a thriving, expansive city which enjoys a wide range of industries; it is sometimes described as the city of 1,001 different trades. The largest industry in terms of employment is Birmingham’s production of motor vehicles, bicycles and the machine-tool industry. There is no doubt that Birmingham is historically one of the most important cities in the UK.
Clearly the Lunar Society and the Midlands Enlightenment are an important part of Birmingham’s cultural and intellectual history and identity. Today, Birmingham continues the tradition with its plethora of theatres, music venues, art centres and museums.
One of the most creative areas of Birmingham, which has been named the ‘creative quarter’, is The Custard Factory. Set in the old factory of Sir Alfred Bird, the Custard Factory boasts a plethora of creative establishments, such as theatres, art galleries, TV studios, creative and digital enterprises, and boutique shops.
Known for being the home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and second home to the Welsh National Opera, The Birmingham Hippodrome also hosts a wide range of performances including touring West End shows, pantomime, circus shows as well as opera and ballet. It is one of the busiest multi-stage theatres in the country, Birmingham Hippodrome welcomes an average over 500,000 visitors every year.
Birmingham attracts many West End tours and some of the biggest names in the industry. One of the major theatres in The Alexandra, commonly known as the Alex, has recently benefited from big investment and hosts first-rate productions. The theatre’s capacity is 1,371 and welcomes a wide range of touring dramas, West End shows and stand-up comedy.
Another major theatrical institution is the Birmingham Repertory which, now 100 years old, is both a theatre company and a theatre space. Home to the critically acclaimed production of The Snowman, the Birmingham REP has built up and impressive reputation and provides a variety of workshops, classes and other ways to get involved in the theatre scene.
Firstly opening in 1991, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall/ City Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is regarded as one of the most spectacular in Europe. The City Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who has been around for nearly 100 years, regularly plays there.
Having won the International Opera Award for Best Production, the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Opera and Music Theatre, the South Bank Show Award for opera, the Birmingham Opera company is hugely successful and popular. Moving away from traditional opera companies, the Birmingham Opera Company focuses on reflecting Birmingham as a city and to appeal to its audiences.
Dedicated to ensuring art and theatre is important and accessible to everyone, The Mac Birmingham offers an extensive programme of theatre, dance, independent cinema, music, spoken word, comedy and exhibitions. It also runs a variety of workshops and classes in many creative practices for people and families from all backgrounds. Having first opened in 1962, The Mac underwent a huge redevelopment between 2008 and early 2010.
Despite being a much smaller part of the city’s theatre scene, the intimate Crescent Theatre is one of Birmingham’s oldest theatre companies and therefore an important part of Birmingham's theatrical history. The theatre company, which resides in the Crescent Theatre at Brindley place, produces about 15 shows a year themselves along with hosting many other shows.
Many world-class comedians's tours, including huge names such as Jack Whitehall or Eddie Izzard, come to Birmingham and usually perform at large venues such as the Birmingham
Arena or the Alexandra. However, Birmingham also has a smaller, more intimate comedy scene and regular comedy nights with both established and up and coming comedians.
Founded by Mark Tugan in 1994, The Glee club was the first dedicated UK comedy club to open outside of London in the UK. Having since opened clubs in Nottingham, Oxford and Cardiff, The Glee Club has become an extremely successful and enjoyed comedy club. From John Bishop to Micheal McIntrye, many world-class comedians have played at The Glee Club.
Another popular comedy club which also has five rooms for dancing and drinking afterwards, The Comedy Loft offers comedy nights showcasing four acts a night rather than one big name comic.
Despite being a smaller comedy club, The Comedy Junction still books big names in comedy, such as Richard Herring, Milton Jones and Zoe Lyons. Given that it is small in size but still attracts some of the biggest names in the industry, it is essential to buy your tickets early.
As the second largest city in the UK, Birmingham hosts some of the biggest national and international music tours. There is a huge variety of both enormous and smaller live music venues in Birmingham.
Since its inception in 1991, the Birmingham Arena has hosted an array of world-class concerts, sporting events, conferences, family shows and many more. With regards to live music, The Birmingham Arena has hosted the likes of Celine Dion, Linkin Park and Tina Turner and continues to welcome artists of this calibre.
As one of the many 02 Academies which are scattered over England, the 02 Academy Birmingham hosts some of the biggest national and international names in comedy, music and also acts as a club venue in the evenings. Having hosted artists such as The Twang, The Streets and Ocean Colour Scene, the 02 Academy Birmingham covers a wide range of musical genres.
The 02 institute (formerly known as the Digbeth institute) has three main rooms. The 2000 capacity auditorium called The Institute which has a seated upper balcony, the downstairs room which holds up to 600 people. Impressive names in live music and comedy play at the 02 institute and the establishment also transforms into a club at night.
Home to five universities (University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University, Aston University, Newman University, University College Birmingham) Birmingham has a huge student population. In general, it is one of the youngest cities in Europe with around 40% of its population under 25.
It is therefore not surprising that Birmingham boasts a thriving clubbing and dance music scene. From smaller clubs where you can sing along to the latest pop classics, to more underground electronic music venues, Birmingham has something for everyone.
As one of the most well known nightclubs in the centre of Birmingham, Snobs has been hosting cheap and fun indie nights on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights since 1972. With good value drinks and three floors of music, Snobs is fun for locals and students alike.
Located in the venue of the former Gatecrasher, Pryzm is the biggest nightclub in Birmingham with its four rooms playing different genres of music. Pryzm is certainly the closest thing you will find to a super club.
If you are a lover of northern soul and motown, then this club is for you! A small, intimate club, The Night Owl is not only a club hosting some of the best DJs in the scene. It also offers northern soul dance classes and live music.
Comprised of 11 spaces located in Birmingham’s creative district of Digbeth, The Rainbow Venus hosts huge club nights, festivals, street food events and art exhibitions. If you are a lover of electronic music, then this is the place for you.
Within the city itself, there are a few music and arts festivals which cover different music genres and explore a variety of art. Given that many UK festivals are in remote UK locations, these inner city festivals have a more gritty, urban feel in the tradition of Birmingham’s rave scene.
Taking place in Perry Park, MADE festival mainly champions D&B, grime, garage and House music and captures the urban rave scene which has grown up in Birmingham. Having hosted artists such as Andy C, Annie Mac and Solardo, MADE festival will not disappoint with its impressive line-ups.
Curated and produced by Capsule, Supersonic Festival is an internationally recognised alternative music and arts festival. Taking place in the heart of Digbeth, Super Sonic Festival boasts incredible live music and highly experimental and extraordinary art.- it is truly one of a kind.
There is no doubt that Birmingham is thriving and exciting city boasting a variety of theatre, arts, culture and music which is constantly evolving and flourishing. As a city, Birmingham clearly has a strong identity and history which is often reflected in its culture and arts.
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