Behind Bars: Inside the Lock-up


Tommy Tank

Bold Text  are a collective of West Midlands-based playwrights (Steve Jackson, Liz John, Nicola Jones, Helen Kelly, Sayan Kent, Vanessa Oakes, Tim Stimpson, and Julia Wright) who have responded to the remarkable Steelhouse Lane Police Lock-up – built in 1891 but unused since 2016 – by writing or back-filling imagined stories about the gaol’s historic inmates. Under the direction Jo Gleave, four of us performers (Ali Belbin, David Gray, Fran Millican-Slater and me) brought the composite script onto its feet within the walls of this unusual and troubled place; a site that has seen the likes of the Birmingham Six and Fred West through its doors, and which still possesses its ghosts, as I was to find out.

For Behind Bars: Inside the Lock-up, the chosen subjects were from the early days of the Lock-up; Sgt. Evelyn Miles and Rebecca Lipscombe, the first female officers appointed in Birmingham back in 1917; Chief Constable Rafter, the man who first appointed them (now immortalised as Sam Neill’s Peaky Blinders character); early police photography pioneer Det. Charles Muscroft; actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was required to register at the Lock-up as an alien during her visit to Birmingham’s Grand theatre in 1916.

Infamous killer James Twitty (“…we only meant to gag her!”) and legendary local street-hawker Tommy Tank – a regular visitor for episodes of drunk-and-disorderly conduct – were characters rendered by myself. The above image shows Tommy Tank – likely photographed back in the day by Mr. Muscroft himself.

The nine performances of Behind Bars were popular and well-received. The Lock-up itself is open at regular intervals for visits, and there are future plans to restore the building to it’s original appearance and develop the site as the WM Police Museum.


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