Thousands of Peaky Blinders fans in flat caps and flapper dresses came together at the TV drama’s first official themed festival, where the attractions ranged from ballet to boxing.
A stone’s throw from the street where the real Peaky Blinders’ first crime was recorded 130 years ago, the gang returned to reclaim their turf – crowds of them, many dressed in the uniform of suits and peaked caps, or tassled party dresses and feathered headbands.
Thanks to the hit TV series inspired by the original Birmingham mobsters, it’s no longer a gang. It’s a tribe.
The show’s creator Steven Knight said: “I spoke to a woman who said she’d come from LA. For the day. That is commitment.
“Somebody else just showed me their leg, which was covered in Peaky Blinders character tattoos. It’s very humbling and gratifying that it’s had this effect on people.”
Kate Phillips, who plays Linda Shelby, was also at the event in Birmingham. “There’s something about this visual style of the show that ignites people’s excitement, and it’s something that they themselves can participate in,” she said.
“You can get involved. You can get the haircut, you can wear the shirt, you can feel like a Peaky Blinder. And the show itself is so atmospheric and so cool that you kind of want to be a part of it.”
The 15,000 or so devoted fans at the Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival on Saturday have, like millions of viewers, been intoxicated by the mix of morally ambiguous mob drama, sepia atmosphere, sharp fashion and gritty modern music. The festival, which ends on Sunday, tried to cater for all of that – a curious cross between a cosplay convention, historical re-enactment and hip urban music festival.
Singer Anna Calvi, who wrote the score for the current fifth season, said everyone was united by their love of the show.
“I really like the idea that any two strangers can start talking and have this thing in common, be excited for the same reason. I guess it’s like going to see a football match or something,” she said. “I think that’s really sweet.”
Fan Bina Taylor, from Birmingham, wearing her 1920s finery, said: “We love it because it’s in Birmingham, and we love the accents, and obviously we love the characters. We absolutely love Thomas Shelby, the most gorgeous man on the TV. But we love Polly as well. And I think, to be honest, we love the violence. And the underdog winning.”
Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby, is also one of the attractions for Heidi Griffiths, from Worcester. “I was speaking to a friend the other day, and was saying how we want the Shelbys to always win even though they’re gangsters,” she said.
“We want them to always do well. They play such badass characters so well.”
Thanks to Netflix, the show is a global hit, and fans came to the festival from further afield. Linda Plueg, who travelled from Eindhoven in the Netherlands, said: “It’s a great vibe, and I like that so many people dressed up.”
Her friend Charlotte Vermeij said they love “everything” about the TV show – “the whole setting and the music, it’s very captivating”.
She added: “It’s great to see Birmingham as well. It’s not a city that’s that familiar in the Netherlands.”
The first day of the festival took over a series of streets, warehouses and bars in Digbeth, where the original gang roamed. Festival organisers said it would be like stepping into the world of the Shelby brothers, but that wasn’t quite the case. For a start, it was sunny.
Dozens of actors in period costume did try to recreate the gang’s heyday by playing out scenes in the streets.
Outside a pub, some drunken singing was interrupted by a woman who appeared at an upper window and proceeded to have a blazing row with her husband before angrily throwing his clothes onto the street – cheered on by enthusiastic onlookers.
The illusion was only shattered when several (real) council refuse collectors in hi-vis orange jackets pushed a giant wheelie bin through the middle of the argument.
More actors staged a women’s equality march, which was so persuasive that a couple of hundred festivalgoers joined their chanting throng. One young woman not in period costume was so swept along that she was on the verge of a heated confrontation with one of the olden-days policemen pretending to hold the marchers back.
And a theatrical bout in a boxing ring pitted the Army champion against an apparent no-hope underdog, whom the crowd were roaring on by the final round.
Elsewhere, there was a strange clash of eras. Digbeth is now cool – in a gritty sort of way – and is covered in cartoonish street art that would have dumbfounded the original Peaky Blinders.
The main music stage was built in a pay and display car park, where acts like Liam Gallagher and Primal Scream saw the unusual festival sight of a sea of grey caps in front of them.
A second stage hosted a suitably melodramatic Peaky Blinders-themed ballet by dance company Rambert, whose artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer is a fan. Their soundtrack was a special 11-minute version of the show’s theme song, Red Right Hand by Nick Cave.
On the same stage, some of the show’s stars and creators took part in a whistlestop Q&A session, which took just over 20 minutes to cover eight cast members, the creator, executive producer and a director. The crowd would have happily listened to each one speak for that long on their own.
It’s tempting to wonder what the original Peaky Blinders (and their victims) would make of these crowds celebrating their exploits. What was that first recorded Peaky Blinders crime that happened down the road? “It was so awful,” said Steven Knight. “They beat somebody up for ordering ginger beer in a pub.”
Knight grew up hearing stories of the Peaky Blinders from his parents, who lived in nearby Small Heath. The reality was less glossy than the TV show, but he’s got no qualms about creating this cult out of their reputation. “The people in Small Heath did glamorise them, did see them as champions of their cause,” he said.
“In one of the episodes, I said, ‘They are bad people, but they are our bad people’. That was what the opinion was.”