Tourists hit Birmingham in Peaky Blinders mania
Why are we so fascinated by gangsters? The hit TV series about a violent mob is inspiring baby names, fashion lines, and putting the West Midlands on the global “screen tourism” map.
Where are the world’s top cultural destinations? Rome, Florence, Athens… and now Birmingham, thanks to Peaky Blinders, the hugely popular BBC show that follows the violent exploits of the Shelby family and its charismatic leader, Tommy (Cillian Murphy).
A record 42.8 million screen tourists travelled to Birmingham last year, many of them to visit the old haunts of the real-life Peaky Blinders, a criminal gang that terrorised the West Midlands from the 1890s to the 1930s. Visits to the city have soared by 26% since 2013, when the series first aired.
The show is also believed to be behind a rise in the number of babies called Arthur and Ada, both members of the Shelby clan. New figures show that Ada leaped 49 places last year to enter the top 100 names for the first time in a century.
It’s even influencing the clothes we wear. The internet is abuzz with advice pieces on “How to dress like Peaky Blinders”, packed full of tweed suits and penny collars. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently added the gang’s signature peaked caps to a list of UK shoppers’ top buys.
The show, which has just returned for its fifth season, is the latest series to play to audiences’ fascination with the criminal underworld. The handsome, brooding Tommy Shelby now ranks among iconic on-screen gangsters from Michael Corleone to Tony Soprano.
And he’s every bit as brutal. The Peaky Blinders’ gang name derives from the razor blades sewn into their peaked caps and used to blind their enemies. Over the course of the series, Tommy is hired as an assassin and plots to sell guns to IRA terrorists.
Why do we admire and seek to emulate these characters whose murderous acts of cruelty should horrify us?
“There’s something immensely aspirational about it — this sense that they can do anything,” says David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University. “They take risks that we would never take in real life.”
Red right hand
Why are we so fascinated by gangsters? Is evil simply more interesting than good? Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, believed we all possess an “id” — a part of the mind made up of our basest, unrestrained instincts. It’s this side of us that revels in menacing characters; the same part of us that longs to break free from society’s rules of acceptance and respectability. Perhaps we envy these characters’ freedom to do as they please.
But if TV gangsters just represented our worst instincts, wouldn’t that be boring and one dimensional? What makes compelling ‘baddies’ is their blend of light and dark. Tommy is both a brooding killer and a dedicated father and husband. And as with all great, wicked fictional heroes, we are transfixed, watching Tommy’s internal battle of good versus evil.
- Is evil more interesting than good?
- Are shows about gangsters bad for society?
- Draw your own outfit inspired by the fashions of the 1920s, when Peaky Blinders is set.
- In small groups, write a page-long scene for your own gangster film with original characters.
Some People Say...
“Who wants to be in heaven when you can be sending men to hell?”Arthur Shelby (played by Paul Anderson) in Peaky Blinders
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The first episode of Peaky Blinders season five aired at 9pm on Sunday night, attracting four million viewers. The show has migrated from BBC Two, where it first aired in 2013, to BBC One due to its soaring popularity with audiences. Starring Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory and Paul Anderson, previous seasons are available to watch on Netflix and BBC iPlayer.
- What do we not know?
- If the show’s phenomenal popularity is sustainable. Some recent pieces in the press are speculating that we have reached “peak Blinder”. The series has already inspired themed bars in London, a Peaky Blinders beer, Peaky Tours in Digbeth in Birmingham, and fashion line Garrison, named after Tommy Shelby’s pub.
- Screen tourists
- When the location of a film or TV series becomes a popular sight for tourists. One of the most distinctive locations from Peaky Blinders is The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley.
- Criminal gang
- Although the real Peaky Blinders gang had vanished by the 1930s, the name remained synonymous with any Birmingham street gang for much longer.
- Office for National Statistics
- An organisation that provides official statistics for the UK.
- Michael Corleone to Tony Soprano
- The former is the central character in The Godfather films, arguably the most iconic depiction of organised crime in screen history. Meanwhile, The Sopranos was a hugely successful TV series about a New Jersey criminal family.
- The scientific study of law enforcement and criminal justice.