"Hang on, let me find a quiet room." The phone goes silent. A rustling noise. A door slams. "Girls! Please! Girls! DAD'S ON THE PHONE!". Christopher Spencer (better, but incorrectly known as Cold War Steve), is surrounded by children and we're trying to complete a locked down, telephone interview. It's chaos, but it's fitting chaos. Brummie Chris is the man behind one of the most surreal art projects in living memory. Since 2016 he's been Tweeting photoshopped dystopian images of bleak UK settings all of which include Eastenders star Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) looking hopelessly on at satirically dark scenes of politicians (originally Reagan and Gobarchev etc) and celebrities. His collages captured Brexit Britain sending his followers soaring past 230,000. Three solo exhibitions, two books, commissions for the National Galleries of Scotland and the Whitworth in Manchester and a bespoke cover for TIME magazine later, and finally someone in Birmingham has offered him space for an exhibition. Just in time for lockdown. Typical.
How are you?
Pfffff. This is mad, isn't it? I started with all good intentions, you know? 'Right kids, here's your school work, let's crack on'. Now? 'Here's your iPad. Please, please just go and do something'.
You're supposed to have an exhibition at Birmingham Museum now, yeah?
Yep, it's been months in the making and of course now we can't do a physical exhibition. It'll happen, I hope. As soon as the museum's back open.
You worked for Birmingham probation service, right?
I did, and I'd do my collages on the bus on the way to work. But it got to the point where I was getting commissions as Cold War Steve, while writing up court reports for serious offences and getting direct messages from Ricky Gervais. Something had to give. Now I just do the art and I'm riddled with imposter syndrome, especially working with the likes of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I'll get caught out this year, I bet. But then you look at the reaction the Birmingham piece, Benny’s Babbies, [below] has had and it kind of validates it.
How long did it take?
Weeks. It's the longest one I've done by miles. Physically it's huge, but a lot of the time went into research. I knew a lot of Brummies I wanted on there, but also I wanted to delve a bit deeper. It's not as simple as Googling 'Famous Birmingham People'. That just churns up the obvious Jasper Carrott types... which is fine, hang on. GIRLS! PLEASE!! So yeah, I wanted a broad spectrum, I wanted to go and find people from Brummie places perhaps I don't know so well.
Well, Birmingham is leading the way in the UK Grime scene. Hands up, I don't know that area, but I sure as hell want to celebrate that and feature people from it. It was painstaking but I loved doing it. I get so much joy from it. My oeuvre is fairly dystopian and bleak, so to do something like this — a celebration — was a breath of fresh air.
When you grew up in Brum it wasn't the most, umm, colourful of cities. Do you think growing up here has played a huge role in your style of art?
Without a doubt. Birmingham in the 80s, I remember getting the bus into town, getting off and being terrified, you know? Everything was grey and imposing and grimy. Looking back, a lot of that was pretty cool brutalist buildings, but as kid? You're not acknowledging the genre of architecture. And yeah all that has filtered through to my work massively. All elements of my childhood, etched on my mind.
There's a cynical quality to Brummies that's, in a way, admirable and, in another way, frustrating. There's some of that in what you do, surely?
Yeah the cynicism is always there. I worked for 10 years in probation, but before that I did 15-odd years working factories, and before that I tarmaced roads — always meeting all sorts of colourful characters. At the time I think I hated it, but looking back it's informed and influenced me and what I do hugely. That Brummie cynicism comes across as a wonderfully comedic quality. Piss taking, you know? Not bullying, not at all, but piss taking. And if they didn't take the piss it usually meant they weren't very keen on you. Maybe that's had more than a small influence on what I do. I'm not sure any other city quite has that. We're not full of ourselves. Mancunians will always harp on about "Madchester" and that's fine — really it is — but Birmingham never does. And as the picture suggests we've created some absolute superstars from all walks of life. It's not just white, indie guitar rock, and that's the best thing about it. The diversity is much broader and more spectacular than I ever thought.
You had to pick an artwork from the BMAG collection to give the 'Steve' treatment. Obviously it's St Martin's but I've never seen the painting before. That's because it's not a painting. It's a tray. Like a tiny tea tray that's now a two metre long absurd collage. BMAG will open again and hopefully given all the traction that's built up over the online launch people will come and see it. Might be a nice idea to put the tray next to it when it is finally on exhibition.
You did other Brum artworks too, right? Can you tell us about them?
Yeah, so I went in to see the Birmingham Museum team and they showed me round and they've got the best Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world. So I thought, yeah, I'm going to f*** up some Pre-Raphaelites. So there's one scene on the top of a West Midlands Travel bus and Steve is surrounded by lurid Pre-Raphaelite characters. And on the window somebody's written in the condensation "Photo montage is not art — PRB", meaning Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites would definitely not think I'm an artist.
Do you think you are?
I call myself an artist but I'm racked with Brummie cynicism. My daughter's will say "Dad, you don't even work. You don't have a job." And I'm like "well who paid for those Airpods, then?" Me, that's who, [shouting through to the next room] BECAUSE I'M AN ARTIST!" But it did feel like sacrilege at first, to pull subjects out of these masterpieces and drop them into the top deck of a grimy Birmingham bus. Then I thought, 'ah screw it, I'm giving them a new audience'.
Has Steve McFadden ever been in touch?
No. I think there's a dignified silence from both of us on that. He knows. He must know, I mean Adam Woodyatt who plays Ian Beale on Eastenders follows the Twitter account and retweets a lot of the stuff and there's no way he hasn't nudged Steve McFadden and said "you seen this?". He knows.
What's the weirdest interaction you've ever had with a celebrity you've featured in a collage?
Nick Knowles blocked me. It was when he released his album. The really earnest, gravelly-voiced album and I thought 'no, I'm not having this, Nick'. So I did a week of bombarding him with collages of him looking pensive and moody in ridiculous situations and, yeah, got blocked. But recently I got a bit jumpy about Piers Morgan. His relentless pursuit of Meghan Markle bothered me, so I did a few pieces sending him up. One is a squalid bedroom [above], with Morgan looking despondent, surrounded by pictures of Meghan. And obviously people started copying Piers in and I'm like 'ahhh don't do that'. Eventually he shared the tweet and said something like 'I'm the one with an obsession? You keep putting me in your pictures!' I was scared at first and then I realised how fantastic it was for publicity.
So what's next for you?
I don't know right now, what with lockdown and everything. GIRLS PLEASE! Errrm, but if there's Birmingham venues that want to work with me I'm all ears. That could be fun. Having my work shown in my home city is huge for me. Particularly in a museum I know so well.
See Benny’s Babbies by Cold War Steve and look out for two pre-Raphaelite inspired works which will be revealed soon. All three works will be displayed at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery once it is able to reopen
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