Born into a family who had moved over to England from Eastern Europe, Sir Bernard Zissman has one of the most glittering CVs of any city councillor in the modern municipal era.
He was Lord Mayor in 1990 and helped to develop the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall for opening in 1991.
Millennium Point was then delivered in 2000 and he’s overseen plans for today’s re-emerging New Street Station.
For his next move, the former Conservative group leader is now hatching an ambitious plan to become a movie mogul.
Sir Bernard has chaired many organisations over the years, but one of the most significant for his new role is that when he was president of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation at Singers Hill Synagogue he was following in the footsteps of city-born Odeon pioneer Oscar Deutsch.
In the decade of economic depression before he died in 1941 from terminal cancer, Oscar founded a chain of more than 300 picture houses for a brand which remains the country’s biggest cinema chain.
Now in his 70s, Sir Bernard’s film-making desire has come comparatively late, but his determination is equally resolute.
“I’ve been on this journey for three years so far, and when I began I had no knowledge of how to make a film other than of going to the cinema to watch them,” he says.
“But I try never to start anything that I don’t think I can finish.”
He wants the world to know about Theodor Herzl, the Hungarian-born founder of Zionism who died in 1904 aged 44 – exactly the same number of years before Israel would be created in the Middle East.
Herzl was a journalist who also dreamed of being a successful engineer, a famous lawyer and a playwright.
Having already written Knight Out With Chamberlain (2002), Sir Bernard’s second book featured the author taking an imaginary, century-long journey across Europe with the visionary.
Herzl’s Journey (2008) explores the need for a Jewish state and how it came to fruition after his death.
It also questions, with the benefit of hindsight, whether he has anything to regret given that his own family paid a ‘‘terrible price for the commitment of one man’s dream’’ and that Israel’s creation for its own people has led to despair for others in the absence of a Palestinian state.
Sir Bernard’s ambition is to evoke a range of emotions in viewers and, in that respect, he thinks like a film-goer, not a self-important film-maker.
As we settle down to chat at the Marriott Hotel at Five Ways, he recounts the arduous nature of just getting a final pre-production script to potential investors. The latest one should be ready next month.
If they can raise £9 million ($14 million), it should be greenlit in the New Year.
Already, several potential collaborators have been ditched en route to building a team of passionate Hungarians who not only share his vision but have the specific talents to realise it.
Now 74, director Peter Medak’s credits include Peter O’Toole’s The Ruling Class (1972) and The Krays (1990).
Producer Andras Hamori backed Ralph Fiennes’ European Film Award-nominated Hungarian family story Sunshine (1999) while Diana Phillips produced Death At a Funeral (2007) and the 2004 Alfie remake with Jude Law.
Sir Bernard says: “The film has moved on from being a germ of an idea into a dream and I’m now nearly waking up from that dream.
“I think it’s going to become a reality.”
Like Herzl, he’s had quite a journey thus far.
“The book isn’t a history book with a list of dates, it’s about meeting Herzl and understanding what he wanted to do.
“It’s about his life and his dream to create a national home for Jewish people.
“It’s not just about the Holocaust, which cost the lives of six million Jews and others as well.
“I want the audience to understand how the state of Israel came about, as an act of conscience.
“Because one man had a dream that the Jewish people should have a home of their own if they wanted to go and live there.
“I think the British government was offering part of Uganda / Kenya, but Joseph Chamberlain (another former Mayor of Birmingham from 1873-76), then the Secretary of State for the Colonies, didn’t know where some parts of the world were.
“Hebrews, for want of a better word, originally came out of Palestine and wanted to return to their homeland.
“With my book, I wanted a new generation to understand who was this man who dreamed of establishing this state.
“But how do you get to a younger generation who don’t really read books?
“I think the way they would know about Herzl is through cinema and, eventually, DVD.”
Sir Bernard’s early attempts to get the right scriptwriter and producers turned into a steep learning curve.
“We were spending money and not getting anywhere,” says Sir Bernard.
“Working with Peter and Andras has been like having a clean sheet. I’ve told them ‘we need your passion and enthusiasm to get this film made’.
“Some say £9 million is too small, others say too much.
“But everyone is on board now and we’ve raised £1 million so far. It’s not a charitable thing, it’s a commercial venture.
“After the producers and everybody gets paid, the investors will take the first 50 per cent.
“I’m hoping the film will go into pre-production in early 2013 and be in post-production by 2014. The key is having the money.”
Given Steven Spielberg’s success with Schindler’s List, some friends have asked Sir Bernard why he didn’t approach him direct – and the answer is simple.
“Spielberg could say: ‘I quite like the idea and will buy the rights’, only to put it into stock,” Sir Bernard explains.
“If he likes it, he might get round to making it.
“Or a company like Paramount could pay for the rights, make the film (their way), end of story.
“As independents, we wouldn’t begin to make any money until it was made and distributed.”
Sir Bernard declines to speculate who could play Herzl, but hopes it would be a promising young actor.
“We can’t commit to paying someone $4 million!
“I’m trying to create an experience with visual impact, score and outline of the story because nobody remembers the final details of films unless you see them over and over again.
“There is a demand for films like this from an older generation.
“But it should not be just for a Jewish audience. That would be an absolute disaster.”
How does that search for an ‘experience’ resonate with his own movie-going history?
“After watching Schindler’s List, I was inspired and moved and I had enjoyed it,” he says.
“I want people to laugh and to cry, and Herzl had plenty to cry about as well as plenty of enjoyment and success.
“I want people to enjoy the experience and then to tell their friends to go and see it because his story has never been told.
“At the end, Hertzl was ill and worked himself to death. His wife, Julie, died the following year.
“Of his three children, one died in a concentration camp, another committed suicide and the other one from drugs.
“A grandson jumped off a bridge. All were re-interred in the state of Israel.
“The book is called Herzl’s Journey but I’d like the film to be called Milk and Honey, although the marketing people might want something different.
“It’s the kind of film that could win an Oscar if the story is good enough and if it’s well acted.”
Films that Sir Bernard remembers seeing when younger include Old Mother Riley at the Futurist on John Bright Street, which his grandmother took him to see.
“I was quite a cinema-goer in younger days,” he recalls.
“I liked the big musicals, like Jolson Sings Again, and enjoyed the black and white Ealing Studios movies – the acting was quite super compared with what you get today – as well as films like The Cruel Sea and The Longest Day.”
What has made Sir Bernard so successful in terms of completing so many major projects?
“It’s all about a team with effective leadership and I’ve always worked with teams who could deliver a project.
“Although the ICC and Symphony Hall were eventually delivered under Labour, the idea, development and plans were from the Conservatives.
“I made a promise with Simon Rattle that if he stayed with the CBSO I would deliver him the new concert hall that had always been promised to his predecessors like Adrian Boult.
“I’ll never forget the first concert on April 15, 1991 when he thanked me.”
Sir Bernard’s grandfather left Biala Podlaska on the Polish/Russian border in 1906 because of the threat from violent, organised ‘pogram’ attacks.
Before joining the family menswear business his grandfather established here, Sir Bernard’s military service would see him surrounded by sandbags while he removed potentially faulty fuses from bombs ready to replace them with new ones.
“I didn’t see danger, I was 19!,” smiles the father of three married children and grandfather of seven.
Having served the city for more than 30 years as a councillor and been married to wife Cynthia for more than 50 years, Sir Bernard admits he has a ‘‘quality of life that I’m blessed with’’.
He feels British, not Eastern European, describing himself as a ‘‘second generation Brummie’’.
So, if Sir Bernard could meet Herzl real, what would he ask him?
“I’d point out that 44 years after he died, a national home for Jews was established.
“Since then, it has been at war with its neighbours so I’d ask: ‘How would you bring peace to the region?’
“If you go to Israel, you see Jews and Arabs working next to each other, but there are extremists on both sides.
“The development of settlements is not happening, but I think there should be a Palestinian state.”
Within hours of our conversation, the Israel / Gazza situation was threatening to boil over so I call Sir Bernard to ask if anything has changed in his mind.
“Ours is a historical film, not a political one and by the time it comes out we might have peace again if we all live long enough,” he says.
“The Palestinian / Jewish question is not even in the script, but, certainly, Herzl’s dream wasn’t the nightmare scenario of today.
“If there is a lesson to be drawn, it’s that trying to start a new country in what at the time wasn’t much more than a desert... well, if that technology could be used everywhere else then everyone could have a better life.
“And if Israel can have relations with Egypt and Jordan, then why can’t the others come to the table as well?
“But it would be wrong to say my film would have any bearing on what is happening today.
“Not everyone in their life has the opportunity to make a film. I’m totally optimistic this one will get made.”