On February 6 at 9pm, on your TV, there's a film the entire city should watch. It's called King Rocker, an anti-rockumentary that follows comedian Stewart Lee as he investigates a missing piece of punk history: Robert Lloyd, best known for fronting cult Brum bands The Prefects and The Nightingales. Having performed under the radar for four decades, "the missfit's missfit" is interviewed against the backdrop of former Slihillian Lee's search for another of our city's biggest outcasts, the Kong statue. This is the most Birmingham film I've ever seen, brilliantly directed and edited by Michael Cumming of Brass Eye fame. I spoke to Stewart about it — yes, that's right, I interviewed someone who interviewed someone — don't say I don't get the big scoops...
I'd not heard of The Nightingales, which is kind of embarrassing for someone who pegs himself so closely to Birmingham.
Not at all, you're in good company. We had to have an eye on that, as we were making the film. The fact that people from Birmingham have never heard of The Nightingales, people who really liked 80s John Peel music have never heard of them — even though they did as many sets for Peel as anyone else — we had to make a film in its own right. Not one for fans, although fans will enjoy it, but for everyone. It had to be a human story about a person [Rob Lloyd, the lead singer] who'd engage an audience, whatever their association, or lack of, with the bands he formed and performed with.
Why haven't I heard of them?
I don't want to annoy anyone in Birmingham, but I grew up in the area so I hope I have a free pass when I say that the city is bad at promoting itself culturally. One of the things people like about Brummies is that they have a modest, self-effacing sense of humour, right? But when you think about the post-punk music of Manchester or Liverpool, they always have some sort of bolshy ambassador — a Tony Wilson sort. But the Birmingham characters of this era weren't the sort to do that. It's not in the Brummie nature. The idea, for example, that Birmingham doesn't have a permanent museum to Black Sabbath, and Led Zep, and The Move, and ELO and that era as a whole, is astounding.
Would you go as far as to say that Birmingham let Robert Lloyd down?
Rob [above, left] didn't want to be co-opted by any kind of scene, whether Birmingham had one back then or not. He spent a lifetime not wanting to sellout and now, in the closing stages [laughing] he's decided he wants to buy in on some level. He said to me,"I hope this film does well enough that I can become some sort of Bez character!" I said "You don't want to be bloody Bez!" But no, I don't think Birmingham let him down because he wouldn't have 'wanted in' back then, anyway.
Rob is an incredibly engaging character, but equally quite closed off at points.
Yeah. About ten years ago Rob asked me if I could make this documentary, and it took about seven years to get the pieces in place, but I don't think he realised that if you make a documentary about yourself, you have to reveal things about your life, and he's very reluctant to do so. He's modest, nervous, shy in a way. There's a period of his life where he goes missing for years — working as postman in London, living above a Chinese takeaway — and it was obviously very personal to him. You can see that when I ask him about it. He's very spiky. He even says something along the lines of "Stew's now trying to get his 'woe is me' bit into the film." I loved that, I loved how the subject of the documentary is attacking the structure of it as we are making it.
There's a bit where Rob says to you: "So what is this going to be, a comedy?" And you say: "You guys were too good to be a joke." But it is a comedy, sort of.
Sort of. That's not what he had in mind when he first pitched it to me. I think Rob's vision of the story of The Nightingales was a sort of comic tragedy, but I don't. He's still going, he's not had to compromise and they are a success. But there are funny elements to the film and he's a very funny man.
His is a very Brummie sense of humour, do you think?
Absolutely. I did a lot of those comedy panel shows in the noughties and what you find is that people often try to block you because they want to get the laugh. They want to be noticed. They're not very cooperative those shows, normally they're about pushing yourself forward. But Rob is the sort of guy who has an eye on the greater whole. It didn't matter where the laugh came from, it was just good fun. But he's incredibly witty and I like the fact the film is dotted with people belly laughing, mostly me like a pig in sh*t, basically talking to people I admire. And Michael [Cumming, director], of course, made Brass Eye and Toast of London so he knows how to edit something that's very funny. And some of the editing, like when we cut to Frank Skinner [who was the lead singer of The Prefects before Rob] is wonderful. Wonderful moments where we can fact-check Rob's version of events with how other people remember them.
You and Rob are clearly good friends. Did that make him hard to interview?
The difficult thing about interviewing someone you care about is that, really, a journalist would want to get the dirt. Or the suffering. And obviously we needed the bit where his life had gone wrong, for the shape of the story, but I didn't push it as far as I would have done if I were a proper journalist, because I wouldn't want that sort of thing to be on a film about me, frankly. But I don't think it loses anything for that. You can read between the lines that those years were a difficult time. And Rob himself says he moved back to Birmingham "where people weren't shallow and didn't have noses full of cocaine," and how he "didn't want to become a London bloke." [Laughing] I like how his idea of hell is becoming "a London bloke".
The movie was meant for cinema release, wasn't it?.
It was, we were going to tour independent cinemas and we still plan on doing a premiere of some sort at the Mac. But it's great that Sky have taken it for telly because that means it's going to get watched. And that's fabulous — there's a lot about it that's very pertinent right now. It reminds us, of course, that most music — and art — is made at grass roots level, by people on tiny budgets, for the love of it. And a huge amount of those acts are gone... gone to COVID. And, without wanting to get too political, you see that The Nightingales, like so many, do half their work in Europe to 50-seater rooms in Brussels and Berlin and that's kept so many bands and acts ticking over for years. That circuit won't be cost effective after Brexit, even if groups want to try and bounce back after the pandemic. And we see a lot of archive footage in the film, of people in crowded rooms having a great time and that's gone. It's gone! And then we jump forward to how things are now, with Rob and I in the countryside, in the snowy mountains. When watching it, it almost brought a tear to my eye, you know?
And the Cumbrian countryside is where Kong now lives. The statue seemed to mean more to you than it did to Rob.
It did mean a lot to me. Still does. I saw it all the time as a kid. I lived with my grandparents in 1973, and my grandmother would take me into Birmingham every week just to see it. I used to look forward to it so much and, since, I've enjoyed wondering where it would turn up next. It was used to sell cars, it was on its back in a car park for years, it showed up in Leeds and now it's restored and somewhere completely new. And we found him! We found King Kong in Penrith.
And the film documents Kong's journey around the country, hand-in-hand with Rob's journey.
Exactly and I won't spoil the ending but we find Kong, and Rob's not so keen to toe the line of the parallel I want to draw between him and the statue. He's just not having it. The film is imperfect and that's part of the charm, I hope.
It's a fabulous ending, weirdly emotional. Do you think Kong will ever return to Birmingham?
He doesn't want to return. His owner loves him and he's happy. Birmingham had its chance but Kong's free now, in the fields of Penrith looking at the mountains, where a wild animal should be. It's moving to see him there, emotional yeah. He's from Birmingham, he's defined by Birmingham, [designer] Nicholas Monro put him in Birmingham to reflect Kong in the concrete jungle of New York. So it's an image formed by Birmingham, but it's jarringly beautiful to see him where he is now. He was chucked away by the city council, made to sell cars, knocked on his back and painted pink, he was used as Brexit propaganda. Just leave him alone now. Let him stand in a garden. In the countryside. In peace.
King Rocker premieres on Sky Arts on February 6 at 9pm. SKY ARTS is now a free to view channel on all freeview TVs and boxes. Trailer
YOUR CHINATOWN NEEDS YOU!
I Cycle. I'm not telling you this because cyclists are duty-bound to tell you they cycle within 30 seconds of meeting you, I'm telling you because I cycle through Chinatown on my way home from work. One of the things I most miss about The Before Time was that part of my commute, as the restaurants and bars readied themselves for an evening's business and the smells, sounds and colours converged on our city's most vibrant spot. It's Chinese New Year on Friday, February 12, and the entire Southside district is opening up the celebrations beyond Chinese businesses, this year including Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and pretty much anyone else who just wants to pitch in — of course, from a distance. Gone are the annual dancing dragons, the fair and the fireworks, but the area needs you more than ever, so earmark next week, please, to order takeaway or delivery from our city's Chinatown. A lot of people I've spoken to simply don't know where to begin when it comes to the district. The sheer volume of choice seems to bewilder, but for my money it should carry the kind of cache that our Balti Triangle does, such is the cultural bounce and culinary accomplishment that permeates. Some suggestions? Near neighbours Peach Garden and Look In (takeaways, no delivery) have for years slogged it out for the 100% unofficial title of the city's best three roast rice, while Formosa Izakaya is in my top three most Deliveroo-ed restaurants ever. Brum legends Chung Ying (click & collect and delivery) went above and beyond to assist the NHS when the pandemic broke and offer consistently excellent food with deals to match, while Ken Ho is a dim sum doyen. Ruga Bistro landed one of my best reviews of 2020 and if you've still not tried the 'not-new-but-sort-of-new' Mr Egg, it's an absolute blast for Chinese street food and beaming smiles. Those are just six of the 18 restaurants taking part.
Venue: Opus to You, by Opus; Website Choice: Three courses (£30 per person)
In the last 'You Choose' I mistakenly offered all 18,000 of you a free bottle of wine in a fictional deal that could have bankrupted one of our city's best restaurants. So, you know, work to do. Hats off to Opus for unknowingly putting itself in the firing line this week — who knows what nonsense I'm going to promise on their behalf. What I can guarantee, though, is that this was not only one of the best 'at home' packs I've had the pleasure of cooking, it was the one I felt most cleansed by. Game terrine was an impossible to ruin starter that set a decent tone for the main which Babe Ruth-ed a piece of brill long, long out of left field. The trick, clearly, is to ask the cook (in this case you or I) to do a bit of work to feel like a contribution has been made, but not too much work that risks all-out, meal ruining cockuppery. Opus have that down to a tee. Warming sauces, pan-frying fish and roasting (gently) some veg and 'tato gnocchi, you can't help but feel cathartic about your cookery. In truth, the phrase 'standing on the shoulders of giants' comes to mind and whichever giant made the white wine sauce that I so exquisitely heated, deserves the highest doff of cap. That deep, velvety, shallot-y jus coaxing the fresh fishy goodness into a bottom-of-the-bowl elixir. Thank god nobody was present to see me tip the last of the sauce directly into my mouth, eyes closed and not reopening for a full 15 seconds of Elysium. Rich though this was, it wasn't heavy — not a bit — and the chef's last minute substitution of brill for halibut (the halibut of that morning not being of sufficient quality according to an accompanying letter) being far more a positive indicator of a cook who cares than any halibut-obsessive could find negative. The panna cotta with zingy rhubarb was a palette cleansing finale, but that brill helped me forget, if only for a second, all the (*gestures wildly*) stuff that's going on. More
Last month our city lost Leon Priestnall, a talented young poet. Birmingham's home of all things poetry, Verve, are offering Leon's collection 'Bennett's Hill Blues' for the price of the postage only (£2) and a memorial fund is up and running. Here's a taster of his work. —
Far be it for me to make Valentine's gift recommendations, but this lollipop heart string of lights (£24.95) from Ikon Gallery is rather wonderful. Maybe chuck in this badge for 50p, too. Or don't. I don't have the answers. —
I've stumbled upon the Brummie Jeweller Instagram account. Big love for the Birmingham City Techno tees and the postcode specific tote bags. —
A new Japanese fried chicken restaurant has opened in sacred Moseley. Karaage is offering 50% off until Feb 14 if you subscribe to their newsletter. Newsletters — really taking off aren't they? Might do one. —
Michelin-starred ant donuts? ⭐ 🐜 🍩 —
Luxey food wagon Artisan Street Kitchen have announced major (and I mean major) names as guest chefs. It'll run weekly from Feb 27. Follow them and keep your eyes on this webpage
"I eat in Birmingham, where the council passed a new resolution /
That from now on they’ll plant thinner trees so muggers can’t hide behind them"
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