Interestingly, there now appear to be two Tolkien biopic movies in the works.
1. The first is from Fox Searchlight Pictures and focusses on the Tea Club and Barrovian Society friendships in Birmingham, and the impact of the First World War on these. Filming has reportedly just wrapped on this.
2. The above report also mentions…
“another Tolkien life story is in development at New Line Cinema [makers of the LOTR movies] with director James Strong. This movie will focus on the courtship and marriage between Tolkien and Edith Bratt.”
I think the latter was the one I’d already heard about. It’ll be interesting to see if either actually film(ed) in the Midlands — Birmingham and mid/north Staffordshire — and at Exeter College in Oxford. Or if they have been compelled to film in Ireland or Eastern Europe, due to subsidies and quotas.
Admittedly there’s not much architectural coherence left of the ‘old pre-1914 Birmingham’ around the site of Tolkien’s New St. school, though the city centre still retains a few moments of ground-level charm: the Waterstones bookshop; the northern part of Corporation Street around the Law Courts, the Cathedral (though its grounds have changed, judging by an Edwardian postcard I saw); the BM&AG museum. I’ve always assumed that the young Tolkien often nipped around the corner to this local museum, to see the world-class Pre-Raphaelite collection there. The Museum would probably be the easiest place to close off and secure for a day’s filming, I’d guess. Though the hire and “show the pictures on the big screen” costs would probably be prohibitive.
The film which has just finished its main filming seems likely to be set for a late 2018 release. New Line Cinema presumably won’t want to confuse audiences by releasing two such films simultaneously, so I’d guess their film might be a summer 2019 movie.
Much of Birmingham was destroyed in the 1960s and 70s by cars and by socialist-brutalist so-called ‘planners’. Today the best three-hour circular stroll from New St. station, keeping to the most interesting Victorian and Edwardian bits, would be: Exit Birmingham New St. station by the Stephenson Street entrance, and turn right. Cross over the road and walk through the Burlington Arcade to reach New St. Turn left, and visit the Waterstones bookshop. Exit Waterstones and turn left up New Street, and then cut up Needless Alley (for a faint taste of the old dark ‘n grungy Birmingham, though it was sadly half-heartedly gentrified in the late 1980s) to Temple Row and the Cathedral. From the Cathedral walk up Colmore Row, then cut down to the top of Edmund St. and then around to the Museum (BM&AG) for the Pre-Raphaelite and Burne Jones collections. On exiting the Museum, turn left and then swing hard around the corner along the front of the Council House, and then strike off down Waterloo St. Then down Bennett’s Hill to return to New St. Half way down New St., turn right into Lower Temple St. to return to the train station via the Stephenson Street entrance.
This is roughly how Tolkien might have navigated on foot or bicycle from school — up to museum — over to the CoE Cathedral (for the surrounding grounds and benches — it would have been a pleasant stop on the way to walk over from his school toward the Catholic Cathedral, or for some fresh air after a feast at the long-lost Barrows’ Stores tea-rooms nearby on Corporation Street).
The site of his old school on New Street isn’t passed by the above walking route, as it was in the lower part of New St. and it’s now long-gone. The site is just not worth seeing today, and Tolkien called its desecrated site “ghastly”. It still is, despite recent changes.
Waterstones on New Street is probably as close as you’ll get today in flavour to the old Tolkien favourite of the Cornish Brothers (“Cornish’s”) bookshop on New Street, where he “explored for books on Philology” (Reader’s Guide). Cornish’s was at 37 New St. This is currently the Muji store, but was formerly gent’s outfitters Austin Reed — in which I briefly worked once! So I know that the place has an extensive basement where Austin Reed’s junior sizes were kept/displayed, and which I’d like to think was where Tolkien’s favourite Philology section might once have been consigned. 37 New St. is between today’s Waterstones and the entrance to Needless Alley (see postcard below). Sadly Cornish’s was not the bookshop where Tolkien so fatefully encountered his Gothic grammar book. But it may have been where the book came from. The Gothic book had been purchased in error by a schoolmate who thought it might help him with his Bible studies, circa 1908-09. It didn’t help, and thus Tolkien — realising what it was — took the book off his hands for a very modest sum.
I’m unaware of the former locations of any other city-centre second-hand bookshops he might have frequented in the city centre, though they would likely have been in backstreet places near to Cornish’s such as Needless Alley, or in places now totally swept away. In the 1960s and 70s Needless Alley certainly had a large second-hand record shop, a second-hand bookshop, and a stamp collector shop.
Looking west up New St., probably 1930s. The Midland Hotel (now Waterstones bookshop) on the left with the green iron canopy. Opposite, Austin Reed is where “Cornish’s” bookshop was. Follow the sight-line of the Austin Reed sign along the shopfronts a little, to glimpse the oblong street-sign plaque indicating Needless Alley. Postcard newly colorised.
If you’re especially interested in Tolkien’s early religious observance and you have another 90 minutes to spare, then the above walking route can be extended from the CoE Cathedral via Colmore Row and Weaman St. to reach the Catholic Cathedral. I don’t know of any hard evidence that he often frequented the Catholic Cathedral, but it was the church of the fathers at the Oratory. As such it seems impossible to imagine he never, over nearly a decade, accompanied the fathers there to take part in major events such as Easter and Christmas. I have found one mention that he “served Mass daily” as a boy in Birmingham, but that was perhaps at the Oratory.
Apparently the less grand church of Saint Anne in Digbeth, to the south of the city centre was his initial church from 1900 — the Chronology has: “St Anne’s Church, which Tolkien, his mother, and his brother attended for a while”. It was on the four-mile walking route home to Moseley from the city centre (in 1900 he couldn’t afford a tram fare, though he later bicycled everywhere), and then appears to have served a mostly Birmingham-Irish population. But today Saint Anne’s exterior and unsavoury neighbourhood have little to recommend them, and it’s a long and tedious walk from the city centre. It may be worth visiting by taxi if you can arrange an interior viewing, however. About a year or so later the family moved to Kings Heath and started to frequent the nearby and very humble Roman Catholic church of St. Dunstan, “then a building of wood and corrugated iron on the corner of Westfield Road and Station Road” (Reader’s Guide).
Then there was another house move and it seems the Oratory became their church for several years circa 1902-04. The Oratory appears to have remained his church, on and off, while he was living at various lodgings nearby during 1905-1911. Today seeing the Birmingham Oratory on foot involves a trek up the hideous Broad Street and from the city centre, and then way out beyond Five Ways on the Hagley Road. As such it’s not walk-able from the city centre, unless you can stand having heavy dual-carriageway traffic in your ears and lungs all the way. Nor is it reachable on foot along the canal towpaths, even if these were safe to walk once you get outside the city centre. However, if you’re there, note that he lived almost within sight of the Oratory at 4 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, from 1909-11 — at which location Google Street View shows this evocatively tree-ish ruin and gate today…
* The J.R.R. Tolkien Reader’s Guide, “Birmingham and its Environs”.
* “Tolkien’s Birmingham”. A 42-page spiral bound pamphlet from 1992, long out of print.
* Robert S. Blackham, “Tolkien’s Birmingham”, Mallorn 45 (Spring 2008).