In 1935, the artist Conroy Maddox was inspired by a book on modern art he found in Birmingham Library and started the British surrealist movement. That’s what this documentary is about – and it should be a fairly straightforward story to tell: a group of artists adopt an exciting new style, pioneered in Paris by the likes of André Breton and Salvador Dalí, and bring it to the UK. “You could say their conquest was so successful, we don’t even realise it happened because we’re living it,” says comedian Stewart Lee, who’s presenting.
Except nothing about this programme is straightforward. It somehow manages to bring surrealism’s randomness, unpredictability and eerie juxtapositions into its audio format. The narrative is interspersed with quotes about surrealist art, descriptions of surrealist paintings and fragments of poetic word association that are, well, surreal: “slightly melting landscape, big fruit, tripsichord, sausage meat, interstices, Wolverhampton, corrugated iron”. It’s all accompanied by an unnerving soundscape: music that is jaunty and haunting by turn is punctuated by echoes, animalistic roars, pencil scratches, squeaks, splashes, thunder and ominous crunching.
Lee describes Birmingham’s surrealist innovators as “the naked bespectacled ringleader”, “a provocative art critic”, “an erotic Freudian”. One of them is the famed zoologist Desmond Morris, now 95, who recalls how as a young artist he dragged an elephant skull up Broad Street and tried to take it to a dentist. “There’s always been a subversiveness to Birmingham,” says one surrealist artist from the city. (He goes by the name Cold War Steve, who created the cover of the New Statesman’s Summer Special issue.)
The Balsall Heath Bohemians is mad, jarring, hard to follow, and also utterly engaging. Running throughout is an effort to define what surrealism actually is: an art form that aims to “derail the mind” and “spike people’s imagination”. I can’t help but feel this is both a documentary about surrealism, and a tribute to it.
The Balsall Heath Bohemians
BBC Radio 4, 1 August, 11.30am
[See also: What happens when women’s pain is dismissed]
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special