Peaky Blinders: a gritty brand for Birmingham?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“As the fifth series commences, it seems Birmingham can only continue to capitalise on the uniquely Peaky brand that mythologises an era of the city’s history.”

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In 2013, Tommy Shelby and the Peaky Blinders burst onto our screens, bringing interwar Birmingham to our living rooms.  Since then, Peaky Blinders has gained fans worldwide and season 5 will see its BBC1 debut. Over 75,000 people applied for tickets to the world premiere of this series, which took place in Birmingham Town Hall last month; a record-breaking number that, considered alongside numerous themed events and tours, further cements the Peaky Blinders brand as an irrefutable asset for the city. 

This is despite the fact that, while set in Birmingham, Peaky Blinders has been largely filmed around Leeds, Liverpool and wider Yorkshire, although Dudley’s Black Country Living Museum features regularly as ‘Charlie’s Yard’. Screen Yorkshire’s significant financial investment has resulted in an understandable regional pride in Peaky Blinders, and the region has benefited from location tours and themed pubs. Nonetheless, creator Steven Knight, whose parents grew up in Small Heath, has vowed to film more of future series in Birmingham, which would provide a boost to the local industry. Even without significant on-location filming here to date, however, the West Midlands is profiting from its Peaky connection, as reported by a recent Creative England article that referenced increased local tourism and business opportunities stemming from the show.

Much research has been undertaken on the benefits flowing from on screen portrayal of place.  Most of this research has focused on screen tourism and has demonstrated the increased visitor numbers to locations featured in period dramas that evoke a certain nostalgia, such as stately homes (Lyme Park in Pride and Prejudice; Highclere Castle in Downton Abbey) or romantic landscapes (the Cornish coastline in Poldark). Birmingham and the wider Midlands are woefully under-represented in film and television, and likewise the lives of the British working classes in the interwar period have had little coverage. In many ways, therefore, Peaky Blinders subverts traditional heritage drama tropes, with Julie Anne Taddeo remarking that it has ‘more graphic sex and violence than is typical for the genre’ and Paul Long discussing ‘attraction and repulsion’ in its mise-en-scène. It is perhaps inevitable; therefore, that it is evoking such varied tourist experiences and fan responses, in Birmingham and beyond. 

What we see from the case of Peaky Blinders is that value of successful screen brands can be widespread. While watching Lord of the Rings enticed many to get lost in the landscapes of New Zealand, attracting people to visit Birmingham to experience interwar gang warfare seems like a harder ask.  But, the fact is, Peaky Blinders is cool. It’s lauded for its stylish cinematography, excellent soundtrack and has sparked fashion trends including a collaboration with David Beckham’s clothing line (thankfully sans razor blades). A recent BBC competition to commission artwork by fans received over 1000 entries, and there are countless memes and GIFs online that feature the iconic slow walk of major characters, or catchphrase ‘By order of the Peaky [insert expletive here] Blinders!’.  

The desire for fans to immerse themselves in all things Peaky has led to the establishment of history tours around Digbeth and the Black Country Living Museum’s sell-out themed evenings. Now we are seeing a move to add more ‘official’ events such as a festival in September and two themed escape rooms.  ‘Gritty’ is an adjective frequently used to describe both the subject matter and aesthetic of Peaky Blinders, and while this has both positive and negative connotations, it is a brand that Birmingham is embracing. The two-day festival in September (following an unofficial event last year) will take place in Digbeth, an industrial area of Birmingham that trades on its reputation for being somewhat gritty and alternative. Knight’s greatly anticipated Mercian Studios will, if all comes to fruition, boost production and create much needed infrastructure for the regional film and TV industries. 

As the fifth series commences, it seems Birmingham can only continue to capitalise on the uniquely Peaky brand that mythologises an era of the city’s history. Flat caps are back in style and there is no shortage of Peaky themed experiences on offer. As we follow Tommy Shelby back into the urban jungle of 1920s Small Heath, should we also pause to consider what it means for Birmingham to build on a brand that, despite its panache, is rooted in narratives of violence?

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