Made in Birmingham: Stan's Cafe & the Creative Industries


A paper written for a panel discussion accompanying MAC’s Made in England exhibition.

Like a Bond film this contribution has a pre-credit sequence set in anexotic location.

We were performing in Rio De Janeiro and had half a day off. Our helpers excited about showing foreigners around their amazingcity and pretended we were celebrities in order to gain free admission at various landmarks. I was given a special guided tour of the Opera House. The guide asked where I was from and when I replied “Birmingham in England”her face lit up, “Ah, Birmingham, I love Birmingham!” It wasn’t a response I hadexpected and my pleasure was tempered somewhat when I realised that she had never actually visited the place. Late in the tour, as we were deep under themain stage, she pointed up to the underside of a vast metal beam, part of the stage mechanics, there in the original casting read the words ‘Made in Birmingham’.”And this is why I love Birmingham”. The guide beamed at the beam.

Made in Birmingham: Stan’s Cafe and the Creative Industries.

I have always felt a bit inferior to metal bashers. My Great Uncle Robbie wasa Chemist and a blunt Yorkshire man. When he heard I intended to study Theatre at University he pretty much choked on his tea and made no bones about telling me Ishould drop that idea immediately and do something useful – carry on with my physicsand become an engineer for example.

University taught me many valuable things, amongst which as the fact that I’ma terrible actor. One stage in this painful learning process was having to play Toozenbach in a cut-down version of The Three Sisters. At some point before shootinghimself Toozenbach speculates wistfully about how great it would be a proper working person, do an honest day’s work, come home tired and get a decent night’s sleep. Toozenbach is a Middle Class sap and I empathised with him. Having been brought upin Eastbourne and Bath, gone to University in Lancaster and moved to Reading, itwas a relief to arrive in Birmingham where people actually MADE things. I felt that where those other places conjure wealth from the ether of service industriesBirmingham honestly bashed it out of metal.

Stan’s Cafe started manufacturing theatre in Birmingham in 1991. Initially our ‘workshop’ was a spare room in our rented house, then a school during the holidays, a community hall, here at mac and eventually a factory vacated by a company which made lathes. Downstairs metal was still shaped and finally, after ten years I had started to shake Alexi Sayle’s observation that “anyone using the term Workshop outside the context of light engineering is a t***”. Our goods grew in quality and reputation, westarted a line of innovative products that broke us into foreign marketsand business started to boom. The former lathe factory was knocked down to build the old New Library which will now never be built. We made a piece about the closure of the Longbridge Car plant in an abandoned industrial unit which is now a Tesco Metro.

Home of the Wriggler was inspired by the passions unleashed in Birmingham when BMW threatened to close Rover down. Initially intended to be a documentary about a working factory, it’s equipment was being shipped to China before we started rehearsals. It became a piece about the place of that plant at the heartof a complex web of commercial and social activity. Originally made in 2006 the show was revived in 2009 when the giant American car manufacturers were on thebrink of extinction, by that time we had started renting a vacant portion of theA E Harris metal working factory. Performing the piece in a workshop formerly used to make components for Rover cars was a curious experience. Without question wehave replaced one miniscule portion of the City’s Manufacturing Industry with our own cell of Creative Industry and as a fitting form of closure the shows final performances look set to be this November in Beijing.

Performing Home of the Wriggler at A E Harris but being uncomfortable aboutinviting the factory employees to see the show is symptomatic of the inferioritycomplex I hold in relation to manufacturers such as our landlords. For years a tale from The Hichhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy echoes around my head. An over-populated planet faced with crisis loads Spaceship B full of people belonging to expendableprofessions, such as Telephone Hygienists and blasts them off to the hithertounpopulated planet Earth. My anxiety is that we, and in particular I have a direct lineage to these people. It’s possible to read recent financial eventsin this context. The financial boom we enjoyed for so long was built on a conjuring trick that produced money from the ether rather than bashing it outof metal. Now the world sees that trick for what it was – a trick – everything hascollapsed and our only hope of salvation is to start bashing things out of metal again. Maybe my Great Uncle Robbie was right and Stan’s Cafe is in some wayresponsible for this global financial meltdown.

I am grateful for the opportunity to present this mini-paper for, as you can tell, it is allowing me to work though some kind of therapy. I have reconsidered all those old thoughts and replaced them with these new thoughts.

What is the definition of Made in England now, when foreign-badged cars are bolted together in England from components manufactured abroad and exported to Europe? ‘Designed in England’ is a label we have started to see at a time when Dyson as grown to employ more people in England than immediately beforeit sent all its production to the Far East. Cadbury produced lots of chocolateabroad before it was bought by an American based multi-national. Many things arestill manufactured in Birmingham, but very few of them are iconic brands whoseprovenance is clear, so it is difficult to be proud of them in the way our heartslifted when we saw an old mini of sleek Rover 75 when we were touring abroad. Maybe this international P.R. job is left to our Football Clubs, whose componentparts are now also imported and bolted together down the road. Does any of this matter? Is manufacturing inherently morally superior to what we do? All the extrudedplastic junk at a car boot sale has been manufactured. A revivial built on metalbashing revival will in turn be built on consumption and redundancy, ‘scrap your old one and buy a new one’. At least even our worst shows have the good grace to evaporate rather than having to be committed to a thousand years of landfillpollution.

Our shows are Made in Birmingham mostly by people from Birmingham. We export our ‘goods’ and are ambassadors for the city around the world much like the metal beams under an Opera House in Rio. We bring profits back home. We invest in our city. We do not mine any finite commodities from the ground. Indeed yes, we do conjure wealth from the air and maybe that is no bad thing and no conjuring trick. Maybe Stan’s Cafe came runners up in the West Midlands Trade Forum Exporterof the Year award 2008 with good cause.

Can the Creative Industries save Birmingham and England from financial ruin? Possibly, as part of a mixed economy, but Stan’s Cafe feels very uncomfortable being identified as part of this equation. We are Artists not industrialists after all. We are highly successful in our field, but still very small and in receipt of significant subsidy. We are not here to save the world in that obvious way, but remember those left behind on the planted vacated by SpaceshipB died of a telephone bourn virus. Maybe the world needs us more than it currentlythinks it does.

James Yarker, 12th August, 2010