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Mr. Custard Factory

November 12th, 2018


THIS GREAT VIDEO IS RELATED TO THIS POST BUT ONLY IF YOU READ RIGHT TO THE END.

Back at the beginning of time, when Graeme and I were deciding where Stan’s Cafe should be based, we were shown around a big, empty old space in the Digbeth area of Birmingham by a young architect called Glynn Howells. This space was to become The Custard Factory, a building in which a community of artists and creative industry professionals would come together in a symbiotic way to support, cross-pollinate and cross-subsidise each other for the benefit of one and all.

For Graeme and me this seductive vision was one of numerous examples of how, in the early 1990s, Birmingham promised to be a sympathetic and supportive location in which a young theatre company to do its thing. The man commissioning Glynn Howells, the man with the vision and the man who owned that property was Benny Grey.

For a long time Benny, with his electrified curly grey hair, was a familiar and distinctive figure on the Birmingham arts scene so it was a surprise to realise today that I’d never heard him tell his story of The Custard Factory before.

He described how he was invited to the city to advise on development opportunities and discovered this amazing derelict factory site in the unfashionable area of Digbeth that still smelt of the Bird’s custard powder that had been manufactured there. At £500,000 the site “cost less per square metre than lino”, so he took out a loan and bought it. He then describes sitting in the space wondering what to do with it when a scruffy bunch of young people in “clothes Oxfam had rejected” called to see him and explained that they were a theatre company looking for somewhere to rehearse. “Are you any good?” Benny asked. “We’re sensational!” they replied. “Prove it and you can have space for nothing” was the deal, so the next day they performed a 45 minute version of Hamlet which Benny agreed was sensational, the deal was done and The Custard Factory Theatre Company was named.

As soon as news got out that there was free rehearsal space going Benny was overrun with artistic freeloaders and “a tramp who became the caretaker”. When winter came the people who weren’t paying any rent started to complain that the roof on their free space was leaking and needed fixing. Smiling Benny explained that this was their right as these artists had created something from nothing. Further borrowing, a grant and presumably Glynn Howells led to the first stage of The Custard Factory’s physical redevelopment.

At this point in his talk Benny screened a promotional video from the early 90s in which earnest artists explain how their creative lives have been transformed by working at The Custard Factory, having public visibility and being surrounded by like minded people with different skills. It was a very touching and idealistic production and Benny himself was very engaging – there can’t be many property developers who will commission a giant Green Man sculpture for one of their buildings and then have it unveiled “by druids on Midsummer Night”!

In the aftershock of the financial crash of 2008 Benny was forced to sell The Custard Factory for very many times more than the half million pounds it cost. He touchingly explains the mechanism that makes this possible “artists move in because it’s cheap, they make it cool, then people move in who aren’t cool but want to be, prices go up and artists are forced out”.

He asks “has Digbeth lost is way” and how can Birmingham establish new non-corporate spaces that can stay that way and not force artists to move on? Apparently he has some ideas, but will have to wait until next year to find out what they are when he publishes his book on the subject.

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Benny Grey was talking at an uplifting event hosted by the Council House celebrating “the role of Community and Business and how they can together protect, promote and grow Birmingham’s culture, its creativity, its history and its heritage”

The afternoon was initiated and hosted by the ebullient Jonathan Bostock of BirminghamWeAre.

Other speakers were:

Artist Amrit Singh talking about how he returned home, asserted his identity and became in international live streaming sensation.

Tina Costello from Heart of England Community Foundation shared the great work of her charity and showed the lovely video at the top of this post.

Ray Walker explained the work of Birmingham Disability Resource Centre and invited people to get involved.

Dawn Carr of Legacy WM convinced us we all want to undertake the Heritage Walks she has helped create and this before mentioning Steel Pulse and Nelson Mandela.

Matt ‘Man’ Wendel Birmingham’s Poet Laurette performed at the start and end of the presentations. A little research reveals his black eye is more likely to have come from his activities as a boxer than things getting tasty at a Poetry Slam.

Great people – great stories – great city.

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