Perspective: From Religious Fundamentalism to Lap-Dancing

The Birmingham Post (England), March 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Perspective: From Religious Fundamentalism to Lap-Dancing


Byline: Chris Upton

Since the late 1980s, Birmingham has been feeling pretty good about its cultural attractions. True, the odd music venue may hit the wall on the one side of Broad Street, to be replaced by what I take to be a Finnish folk club offering Lap dancing.

But across the road, Symphony Hall and the Repertory Theatre still fly the flag for the city's arts. But what happened to Ronnie Scott's reminds us that nurturing and maintaining the arts is never an easy matter.

If we go back a century or more, there was considerably less high culture to preserve. The Town Hall was more a venue for political meetings than for concerts and Birmingham's theatres were more likely to be offering music hall than Macbeth.

However, one event - admittedly only held every three years - did serve to promote the city's credentials as a capital of culture. The Triennial Music Festivals hosted the greatest composers and performers, played to packed houses (and churches) and gave birth to some of Europe's mightiest music: Mendelssohn's Elijah, Gounod's Redemption and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. Wasn't industrial Birmingham lucky to have it?

Very lucky indeed, as it happens, for not everyone was quite so appreciative of Birmingham's musical extravaganzas. The issue came to a head in 1828, when the street commissioners began to ponder a larger venue for the concerts than the cramped and overcrowded St Philip's.

They therefore applied for a rate which would fund the building of a Town Hall. It was, in a sense, the first time that Birmingham was making a claim to be more than just a marketplace and a hive of industry.

The resistance to this move was remarkable, especially as it came from one of the street commissioners themselves. The defector was Joseph Sturge, a Quaker industrialist we tend to remember as one of the chief campaigners against slavery. …

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