Since I started a gently humorous series of posts on the Birmingham-set BBC drama Peaky Blinders, I have found all sorts of interesting search engine terms and questions cropping up on my stats. I thought it only fair to try and answer as many as I could. Here goes:
1) What is the theme tune? Who sings it?
Oh good, an easy one to start with. It’s a song called Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Being a teenager in the 90s helped here. Nick Cave is great and he also adapted a book about the prohibition to make the film Lawless that was out earlier this year. Red Right Hand was also featured in the first Scream film, back in the day.
2) Why is the show called Peaky Blinders?
If you’ve seen it, you’ll probably know; the gang takes its name from the razor blades sewn into the peaks of members’ flat caps/ baker boy caps that can be quickly whipped off during fights to slash with or left on for head-butting to maximum effect. But it turns out this wasn’t so unusual. Fun Fact: My grandfather (an East Midlands lad) grew up in the 1920s and said that razor blades were secreted in all manner of garments for fighting purposes. During Rugby scrums, players would brutally scrape their boots down the opposition’s shins having pushed extra drawing pins or tacks through the soles. When he was in the Royal Engineers during WW2, some privates used to attach a string of razor blades to the decorative ribbon inside their regimental caps, and flick it across faces during fights. It wasn’t a major weapon but did give the unlucky recipient a decent duelling scar. Granddad once got the cane at school for attaching a pin to a stick and jabbing it up girls’ skirts – I have to add he was only six at the time and went on to be a lovely man but what a little shit he must have been as a child!
The best book about this place/time is The Gangs of Birmingham by Phillip Gooderson.
3) Where is the Black Swan pub?
Difficult one this. Try as I might, I can’t find a historical record of this pub in Sparkbrook. Fact: pubs in the UK come and go like beer through a tap over the years so maybe there was once a Black Swan, maybe there wasn’t. But there is a White Swan that remains in nearby Deritend, and maybe that inspired the writer Steven Knight. It does look like a very atmospheric place doesn’t it?
4) Where is the art gallery?
It is not the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery I’m afraid (if you get the opportunity though, do go, because it is great). The exterior shots are Leeds Town Hall. The pink hall full of sculptures where C.I. Campbell and Grace exchange information is Newby Hall and Gardens in Ripon, Yorkshire.
5) Where were the street scenes filmed?
According to Creative England, these were filmed in Liverpool, specifically Powis Street in Toxteth, which was transformed into the Small Heath neighbourhood, Little Italy and Watery Lane. Liverpool’s Stanley Dock doubled as Birmingham’s Garrison Lane. BBC location scouts allegedly found that not enough of pre-war Brum had survived intact to serve as viable filming locations – which I disagree with. I think they wanted the locations to be closer to the Beeb at Salford, and that with a US target audience, viewers wouldn’t notice it wasn’t the real Birmingham on film. There is a heck of a lot of pre-war Brum left, go explore. Might have to have a separate rant about this one.
6) Which train station is used?
These scenes are filmed at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, which runs through the Yorkshire countryside and is used in many period shoots, most famously the 1970 version of The Railway Children.
7) Where did the gypsies live?
Hmmmm, the Lees were not real. But there were undoubtedly real gypsy settlements during the time of the Peaky Blinders (which was from the 1880s onwards). Most notably, the park area known as the Black Patch in Smethwick was a gypsy camp ground until the Birmingham Corporation Parks Commission imposed a peaceful eviction on the land in 1909. Until a few years before, Esau Smith was acknowledged as the gypsy king of Black Patch, having a verbal agreement to squatters’ rights for the travellers there. Upon his death in 1901, his wife Henty became the queen. She allegedly put a curse on anyone who tried to build on the area and this curse inspired folk singer Bryn Phillips to write ‘The Ballad of Black Patch’. The squatters’ rights ended with Henty’s death in 1907 and the ritual burning of her caravan.
8) What language do the Lee family speak?
I’m fairly sure it’s Romani. Although the Lee family are depicted with various accents (mostly Irish), they are also using Romany caravans. Irish travellers typically speak in a dialect called Shelta, which is classed as a Creole and also known as the Cant, Tinker’s Cant, Bog Latin, the Ould Thing and Gammon. But listening to the conversations in PB, words such as ‘familia’ can be isolated which appear in the Romany dialect but not in Shelta.
9) Is Tommy Shelby a gypsy?
He doesn’t live a travelling lifestyle, but his mother came from gypsy stock, probably part of the Lee family.
10) Why are the accents so weird?
This one has caused a lot of annoyance to Brummies and other viewers alike. Many point the finger at the producers who are aiming at the US market and don’t think viewers over the pond will be able to understand the regional dialects or accents. To be fair, I heard that subtitles were used in some US broadcasts of Downton Abbey (but don’t quote me on that) and that Laura Linney was drafted in to explain basic concepts of the British master-servant dynamic before each episode.
The most alarming accent change is that of Billy Kimber, a gangster Birmingham born and bred who has been transformed into a Cockney wide boy for some reason. If it was necessary to have an East End gangster character, wouldn’t it have been simpler to name-check a gambler from the period?
However, according to Helen McCrory (who plays Aunt Polly – Queen of Darkness): “Our accents are 20s Birmingham, you see, and I’d just like to say that now. If anyone’s listening to my accent and thinking it’s a crap Birmingham accent, it’s not, it’s spot on. And I challenge any octogenarian Brummie to contradict me in that.” (Birmingham Mail).
She also told the Daily Mail: ‘I sat and watched endless clips of Ozzy Osbourne. My character’s obviously Ozzy in a skirt.’
I don’t think Helen’s accent is that bad, although it does seem to lapse into a Scouse ‘O’ vowel, but consistently so maybe that’s part of the historical accent change, who knows. Cillian Murphy (whose Brummie accent is undoubtedly more Scouse) is said to have spent time in Birmingham’s pubs listening to the local accent. I think it’s a little strange that most of this series was filmed in Liverpool and that some of the accents have a Scouse lilt to them…However Paul Anderson (who plays Arthur) and Alfie Evans-Meese (who plays little Finn) have got the accent spot-on in my opinion. Maybe we just need more Brum-based film and TV to make people acquainted with the authentic accent.
I think that covers the main stuff, if there is anything else you want to know, I’m happy to do a spot of research. I can definitely write more on this topic. What do you think of Peaky Blinders so far? Good? Bad? Ugly? Let us know…