By Jemma Saunders, Department of Film and Creative Writing
The West Midlands has long been overlooked in film and television, but last year was a significant year for Birmingham on screen. The final series of Peaky Blinders was broadcast from February to April, while summer saw the city host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Although a high-end drama and a global sporting event may seem disparate entities, the influence of Peaky Blinders on the Games was indisputable: from references in the opening and closing ceremonies, to merchandise and the volunteers’ uniforms; Steven Knight’s creation has become inextricably tied with Birmingham. Nonetheless, does the evolution of a fictional gangster family into a brand have certain implications for the popular culture it inspires?
An initial caveat: I genuinely believe Peaky Blinders has been extremely positive for Birmingham. Its complex storytelling, stylish production values and accomplished acting, combined with a strongly asserted Birmingham setting, have brought a different perspective of both the city and elements of its history to the masses – albeit in a mythologised manner. Ahead of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, presenters discussed the global impact of Peaky Blinders and explained how the volunteer uniforms included a hat influenced by those worn by the show’s main characters. While this was framed positively and flat caps have, of course, long been in circulation, committed viewers of the show may struggle to disassociate headwear explicitly linked to Peaky Blinders from the violent function it sometimes fulfils on screen.
There was, understandably, no mention of razor blades in the commentary, yet the connection between the now iconic, hatted silhouette of Tommy Shelby and clothing items worn by hundreds of smiling volunteers welcoming spectators is an odd one to reconcile. The flat cap as a contemporary fashion item – a status it has undoubtedly held in the past – arguably holds new meaning in the context of Peaky Blinders. The swagger and style of the Peaky brand has overtaken the grim use of concealed blades on screen, sanitising the violence in favour of popular imagery. Again, this is not to denigrate the very real positive impact the TV show has had on Birmingham, but terms such as ‘edgy’ and ‘sharp’ surely acquire ironic meanings beyond their high fashion connotations in this context.
Marking the centenary of the BBC, a Radio 4 programme included reflections on the Peaky Blinders hat, beginning the segment, ‘Now back to lighter matters… or maybe not’ (Property of the BBC, 2022). This remark was a tacit acknowledgement of the menacing undertones of Peaky narratives, which could include the blades that we see the Shelby family slashing across the faces of their enemies when wielding their caps. In the episode, historian Robert Seatter describes ‘costume that captures our imagination and creates a fashion, even if we don’t all have the swagger of Tommy Shelby’. But at what point does the swaggering antihero cross into violent criminality, and where do we draw the line in popular culture?
Nowhere was this dichotomy between fashion and violence more clearly encapsulated than on notices in the foyer of Birmingham Hippodrome, as Rambert Dance performed Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby last autumn. These read:
‘POLITE NOTICE: We love seeing your Peaky Blinders outfits, but for everyone’s safety we cannot allow replica weapons in the theatre.’
An Instagram post applauding the production showed the principal dancer, flat cap atop his head, beneath the emblazoned words ‘Tommy Shelby conquers Birmingham – all over again’. It seems the city is in thrall to the Peaky brand and while I’m a firm advocate that we need to see more stories set here, especially strong working-class narratives, I also wonder whether there needs to be a greater disentanglement of resultant fashion trends from their fictional origins.
- Find out more about Jemma Saunders
- Read more about the Peaky Blinders franchise on the Business School Blog
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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.