One of the more horrendous terrorist bombings in Britain took place on November 21, 1974. Two Birmingham pubs–the Mulberry Bush and The Tavern in the Town were blown apart by bombs that exploded just seconds apart. The blast left 21 people dead and almost 200 injured. A third bomb, left outside of a bank, did not detonate.
That same evening 5 Irish men who lived in Birmingham and who were on their way to an IRA funeral in Belfast were arrested for questioning. The next day, a sixth man who’d gone to the station with them was also arrested. They were questioned, charged, tried, found guilty and in 1975 sentenced to life in prison. These men became known as The Birmingham Six.
In the 1980s, in a series of episodes, the British television investigative journalism programme, World in Action explored the case and discovered some disturbing information. The film Who Bombed Birmingham? is the backdrop story of the World in Action’s efforts to undercover the facts about the case and the subsequent horrendous miscarriage of justice.
While World in Action journalist and labour MP Chris Mullin (John Hurt) focuses on his book Error in Judgement: The Truth About the Birmingham Pub Bombings, the programme’s producer Ian McBride (Martin Shaw) and journalist Charles Tremayne (Roger Allam) team up to focus on forensic evidence, tackling such issues as police brutality during the questioning. Chris Mullin decides that if the Birmingham Six were not guilty of the bombings, then someone else was, and so he pursues this aspect of case through interviews with various members of the IRA.
While McBride and Tremayne’s quest is fairly straightforward, it’s more difficult to follow Mullin’s trail. There are times in which we have to follow the cryptic notes he scribbles in his notebook in order to understand his train of thought and his process of investigation. Some of the story is told in flashback (the beatings, extorted confessions, etc), and due to time constraints, a great deal regarding early brutality charges against prison and police officers is missing. There’s a lot to absorb here in just over 100 minutes–the bombings, the various conflicting versions of events, forensic tests, hearings, interviews, etc–and the film would probably fare better as a miniseries. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film involve Mullin’s interviews with IRA members–some who feel remorse for their actions, and some who coldly shrug off responsibility.
The film was made in 1990, and so the story of the Birmingham Six is not complete. This should be a gripping tale, but for the most part the film fails to raise the sense of outrage that the story so clearly warrants. And perhaps that’s in part to the fact that some things remain unclear–the issue of the phoned in warnings, for example. Finally the film hints at, but fails to fully explore, the significance of those Special Branch files….
From director Mike Beckham