Issue 494
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By Philip Ellis

My second novel We Could Be Heroes is a sweeping romantic comedy about two larger-than-life characters—a movie star and a drag queen—who fall head over heels in love while trying to keep their relationship a secret from the world. Where else to set it, then, than good old Brum?

When I wrote my first book Love & Other Scams, I cynically chose London as the backdrop, and included scenes in iconic locations like the South Bank and the National Gallery, hoping that this would help it appeal to the widest possible audience. But when my publisher requested another romcom in the same vein, I knew I wanted to write about Birmingham. London has its fair share of real estate in the romance genre: Birmingham deserves its own epic love stories too. Luckily, a viral moment gave me the perfect place to start.

Most Brummies will remember when Tom Cruise spent some time here while filming the latest Mission: Impossible a few years ago. (Did he really eat two whole curries at Asha’s? We’ll probably never know.) If you cast your mind back a little further, you might also recall when Steven Spielberg shut down half of the city centre to shoot Ready Player One. (It is one jarring experience to watch either of those films and suddenly, discombobulatingly, recognise Grand Central and Lionel Street, like the “DiCaprio watching TV” meme.)

Sure, Peaky Blinders raised our profile a bit, but let’s be honest, nobody looks quite as good in those flat caps as they think they do. Meanwhile, I find it funny that Birmingham can be so bad at singing its own praises, but it keeps being chosen by Hollywood, like these A-listers believe they can bring out the city’s inner beauty à la My Fair Lady or She’s All That.
And so that’s where We Could Be Heroes begins; with an American film crew arriving in town to film reshoots on a seemingly cursed production, and its bored cast sneaking out of their hotel to sample the nightlife. It’s no spoiler to say that their evening on Hurst Street soon goes awry—as nights on Hurst Street are often wont to do—but not before leading man Patrick Lake crosses paths with a local called Will, who works as a bookseller by day and a drag queen by night.

They say “write what you know,” and there are fewer things I know better than being gay and on the struggle bus in Birmingham. When I moved here, I was a skint freelancer who could barely afford rent. I hailed from the Shropshire suburbs and wanted to try city life, and frankly, Birmingham was cheaper and closer than London. My original plan was to give it a year, then maybe move down south. That was over a decade ago, and I’m still here. Still choosing Birmingham. Because (and this may come across as sentimental) it really does feel like Birmingham chose me. Making friends here seemed easier than it had anywhere else. I was able to build a career I’m proud of here. It became something of a personal mission to prove that I didn’t need to be based in London or New York to make it in media. I’m now an editor at Men’s Health, with a transatlantic publishing deal, and I do it all from my home office in the Jewellery Quarter.

Birmingham’s reputation has certainly improved in the last few years, and especially since the Commonwealth Games, when all eyes were on us and that jaw- dropping opening ceremony. This book is my small way of keeping eyes on this city, and cementing Birmingham’s place in the literary canon. (It’s not just Mike Gayle and Jonathan Coe, btw. Did you know that famed romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland was from Edgbaston? I truly stand on the shoulders of giants.)

We Could Be Heroes is my love letter to Birmingham, to the queer scene, to our local queens, and to the community that welcomed me with open arms. I hope that love comes across in the way I’ve written about this city, about the Floozie and the Flapper and the view from the top of the library and the way we say “mom” not “mum” and the fact you can tell somebody’s age by which Snobs they went to, like cutting a tree down and counting the rings.

She’s not perfect, of course. The tram feels like it’ll never be done and Digbeth is still a building site and oh my god have you tried parking? But still. She’s working on herself, and we love her all the more for it.

And on a more personal note, this is the place where I fell in love, and eloped, all within the space of the last year. Which means that in addition to being the Second City, in my mind Birmingham will now and forever be the First City of Whirlwind Romance. It has my heart. From here to eternity, bab.

We Could Be Heroes by Philip “PJ” Ellis is released on Thursday, June 6, by HarperNorth


A free family day packed with fun, creative, and inspiring activities is taking place at Birmingham City University (BCU).

Hundreds of families from across the West Mids will be welcomed to BCU’s City Centre Campus on Curzon Street, on Saturday, 8 June, from 11am until 4pm. Inspired Family Day is an annual event open to all, with this year’s theme focusing on community.

Visitors will have the opportunity to get involved in a range of activities organised by staff and academics, including testing their storytelling skills in a storyboard workshop, trying their hand at hosting a podcast, and creating their very own pendant or keyring in workshops led by the University’s renowned School of Jewellery.

Youngsters will be able to learn about 3D printing with BCU’s engineers and be transported around the world via a green screen used by media students. Visitors will also get the chance to see inside a training ambulance used by staff and students at the University’s Faculty of Health, Education, and Life Sciences.
Families with young children can enjoy face painting and a sensory play area – as well as a performance of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

The event, which last year saw over 1,800 visitors attend, will give young people the chance to speak to academics at the University to learn about the range of subjects on offer and potential future careers in creative arts industries.

Inspired Family Day kicks off BCU’s annual ‘Inspired Festival’, which showcases the talent of its Arts, Design, and Media students. Visitors will be among the first to see this year’s student creations – including exhibitions in photography, fashion, product design, art, architecture, English and music.

Activities may be subject to change and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Some activities will require booking upon arrival. Food and drink will be available throughout the day – charges apply. Tickets are free to all but must be booked in advance, here.


A couple of weeks ago I journeyed west to watch Hamilton at the Bristol Hippodrome before its arrival at our own Hippodrome, on June 25. I can review it in one paragraph, which is handy because I also had the opportunity to interview Shaq Taylor (Alexander Hamilton, above) and Aisha Jawando (Angelica Schuyler, below centre) and I suspect you'd rather hear from them than me.

The show has played out on the screens of my household for years, so it's thanks to a change in cast — predominantly British now, of course — that the revolutionary undertones reverberate in a whole new way. The cast had to make it their own, breathing a fresh life into the heart-pounding, foot-stomping sung-and-rap smash. It's a six out of five sort of a show and there are, almost unfathomably, decent seats options remaining for the more-than month long run. To borrow a phrase, don't throw away your shot...   
Do you feel pressure to perform out of your skin, given the success of the show before your time on it? 
Aisha: I do. Absolutely. I think guests might come to the show expecting to hear it exactly the way they did on screen or on audio. But we need to strike the balance between delivering on what is expected but demonstrating who we are as individuals. There's a pulse that runs throughout — you have to honour that pulse, but you can't be afraid of your own voice, right?  
Shaq: I agree. And the piece is written so damn well that five different actors can play the same part, with their own unique voice, but it'll still translate the same way. That's the genius of it. It's so accessible — I might bring a high-energy performance but someone else might go a more nuanced way, and both will work but with different qualities. I think that what makes people want to come back — maybe they've seen it on Broadway or the West End, but this is our take.  

What's the secret to Hamilton's success?
Aisha: It's been written with such intention and such purpose that it simply lifts off the page. Shaq mentioned 'genius' and that's exactly what it is with all the elements fine-tuned so that it comes together like nothing else. It has a Shakespearean quality to it. People, even now, learn the rhythm and the cadence of Shakespeare, and I think that's not far off true with Hamilton.
Shaq: Sam [Oladeinde] who plays Aaaron Burr has a wonderful analogy and I hope he doesn't mind me stealing it. He says that Hamilton is like a huge house with many doors, and behind those doors there will be something that resonates with someone in the audience. Behind one door might be hip-hop, behind another door might be loss, another might be family, another might be friendship. Every audience member will discover something that touches on their lived experience. Even, and in fact especially, the youngsters. 

What's the hardest thing about playing your parts?
Shaq: Rapping. I've always loved rap and hip-hop, but that made it at both the most exciting and most daunting element of the show. I feel I need to honour it in a way that artists I respect will think I do it justice.
Aisha: For me it's about making the part as laser-beam as possible. Coming from shows like Tina [The Tina Turner Musical], for example, where I could be more of a loose cannon, where there were degrees of organised chaos, with Angelica I really have to zone the character in. She's not on stage anywhere near as much as Shaq is with Hamilton so my goal, when I am up, is to make her as precise as possible. You don't get her backstory so it's on me to come on with that baggage — come on and demonstrate her pains and passions without a detailed storyline to help us along. Telling your story in three hours is easier than telling it in ten minutes. 

Final question, for you Shaq. Do you remember where you were when you were told you had got the part?
Shaq: It was a Saturday and I was out and about. My phone rang and I saw it was my agent trying to get through. He never calls on a Saturday. I knew it would be about the part so I was pretty nervous to answer. When I did he said: "Hello, am I speaking to Mr. Alexander Hamilton?"  

Oh that's so cool. What did you say?
Shaq: I said "I'll have to call you back, I need to ring my mum!"

Hamilton runs at Birmingham Hippodrome June 25 to August 31. Book


This summer, presuming summer ever truly arrives, Kings Heath will be hosting its first Comedy Festival, July 25 to 28. From the women behind cult comedy night Hare of the Dog, they're promising four days of fab performances, featuring some top acts.

The launch show at the Hare and Hounds will be headlined by adopted Brummie, Celya AB (pictured), and also features Barbara Nice and Trusty Hogs star Helen Bauer.

Elsewhere over the weekend there will be performances from Northfield’s Princess Lindsey Santoro (an act I highly, highly recommend), Edinburgh award nominee Kwame Asante, comedian of the year winner Brennan Reece, TV star Jo Enright and loads of other local and national acts.

Festivalgoers can also experience special events like Rob Kemp's critically acclaimed show, The Elvis Dead, and the wildly popular Board Game Smackdown hosted by James Cook.

The festival will be spread across The Hare and Hounds, The Station, Schooners, The Juke, Houblon, Fletchers, Hop & Scotch, How Brave Is the Wren and Grace + James. Most shows will be run on a pay as you feel basis. For more information on the lineup, schedule, and ticketing, head here.


After worldwide success as a bestselling book and movie, Coraline has now been adapted into a wonderfully weird stage show, Coraline – A Musical, which is set for Birmingham Rep in June, next year.

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman it's adapted by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Zinnie Harris, with music and lyrics by British musician and songwriter Louis Barabbas. James Brining is in the director's chair off the back of Oliver!, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  and The Wizard of Oz. He's probably quite good, then.

For everyone aged nine and above it is a darkly imaginative, richly rendered fantasy story that will take audiences on an adventure into a mysterious world under the spell of the button-eyed, deeply sinister “Other Mother”.

First published in 2002 Coraline is celebrated for its gothic charm and the empowering journey. As Coraline moves into a new home with her family, she soon discovers that things are not what they seem. The roof leaks, the wallpaper is peeling, the new neighbours are eccentric and her parents are so busy they hardly notice her.

As Coraline explores her new home, she discovers a mysterious door, an entrance to a parallel “perfect” world. Probs not perfect, is it? Book


Silhill Brewery is moving to Aston, opening its first ever taproom tomorrow (May 31). After 10 years in Solihull the independent brewery is expanding, moving to a larger and more central premises that will be a bar as well as the main site for brewing. The 5,000sq ft taproom and brewery will sell their full range which currently includes IPAs, pale, golden and amber ales, plus a lager and a porter. Live music events, big screen football and rotating street food traders are also in the pipeline.  
Here's a chance to enjoy both the Victorian Radicals exhibition at BMAG and find out more about Birmingham Royal Ballet with a series of short performances, including a world premiere of a new work by BRB dancer Olivia Chang Clarke, in the Waterhall. Details 

Join a visit to Birmingham’s newest listed 20th century church – St Peter’s, Hall Green (1961-64), focussing on its collection of exquisite dalle-de-verre glass, by artist Tristan Ruhlmann. More 

Music from one of the most iconic back catalogues of all time, including Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and Stingray, will be celebrated in a special concert at Symphony Hall on Saturday, 13 July. Tickets 

Comedian, presenter and actress Ellie Taylor, star of Ted Lasso, Live at the Apollo and The Mash Report, as well as host of Bake Off The Professionals is preparing to tour the UK in 2025 with her brand-new Palavering! Her first live show in four years, the tour stops at Town Hall on May 24, 2025. Tickets go on general sale 10am tomorrow (May 31), here.  

Stirchley's Yardbirds are teaming up with Cheltenham's DEYA Brewery for a Beer and Wings Pairing Night on June 12. More 
WORDS: Tom Cullen

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There was a beauty to Birmingham that took its time in revealing itself; like a dowdy girl in an old movie, she needed to let down her hair and take off her glasses before you could really see it.

PJ Ellis, We Could Be Heroes (2024)

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