Robert Jackman

The enduring appeal of Peaky Blinders

The enduring appeal of Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders (BBC)
Text settings

What’s the next step for a macho gangland drama that’s already built a fanbase in some 183 countries worldwide? That’s right: a collaboration with one of the highest regarded companies in UK contemporary dance. When it opens in September at Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre, The Redemption of Thomas Shelby – a 20-strong dance production from the South Bank’s Rambert Dance Company – will mark yet another cultural milestone for Peaky Blinders: the BBC’s historic drama about a gang of Brummie ruffians who ran parts of the city between the two world wars.

Since it premiered back in 2013, Peaky Blinders has not only gone to conquer Netflix (becoming, according to one analysis, the most widely streamed show of the pre-Squid Game era) but also to launch a full-on subculture. As well as its own fashion label, the show has also inspired an immersive theatre festival, a string of knock-off pubs, a popular video game, and – come this autumn – a full-length dance show telling the backstory of its lead character.

The elevation of Peaky Blinders to a cultural phenomenon might come as surprise to those who found themselves underwhelmed by the show’s initial BBC outings – fashionable as it was back then to knock the early seasons for their gratuitous scrapping, anachronistic pub rock soundtrack, and non-existent grasp of the Brummie accent. Yet ten years on, it’s hard to think of a show that’s done a better job of confounding its critics. Even more impressively, Peaky Blinders has done it all without changing a jot.

Watch the last series (from 2019) and you’ll see how tightly the drama has stuck to its formula. Lead character Thomas Shelby (played by a tweed-laden Cillian Murphy) is still exactly as he appeared in the first episode: a brooding crime boss who seems to effortlessly inspire either fear or lust depending on the gender of his opposite number. Even the music hasn’t changed: with the most recent finale featuring discordant blasts from anti-Brexit punk rockers Idles. 

The formula clearly works – and not just in Britain. Back in 2020, I was enjoying a drink in Albania when I was accosted by a trio of polite locals who – having heard my accent – were keen to tell me how much they adored the show. At first I was surprised. Did this switchblade soap opera really cut the mustard in a country famed for its real-life mafiosos? Absolutely, they assured me. Peaky Blinders wasn’t just good: it was brilliant.

Peaky Blinders

The love-in has had a real world impact. In 2019, the Office of National Statistics credited Peaky-mania with triggering a resurgence in babies called Arthur and Ada (the names of two of Thomas Shelby’s siblings). In the same year, the ONS added tweed flat-caps (the uniform of the Blinders and the show’s most emulated fashion accessory) to its basket of commonly-purchased items for the purposes of measuring inflation. 

‘Peaky Blinders has done the impossible: it has changed British men,’ swooned one hipster publication – pointing to the sudden renaissance of retro tweet and old-fashioned pomade amongst men who had previously splashed out on lumpy Stone Island cagoules and boring white trainers. They weren’t wrong. Type ‘Peaky Blinders fashion’ into Google and you’ll see how many reputable brands have paid to appear in ad-word searches. Top of the list: London shirtmaker and tailor Charles Tyrwhitt.

Tommy Shelby might be able to shift menswear. But can he persuade the show’s fan-base to watch contemporary dance? His creator, screenwriter Stephen Knight, clearly thinks so. In an interview filmed for the Rambert, he uses the word ‘peaky’ as an adjective as he describes how he picks the soundtrack to episodes. ‘It’s hard to explain but a piece of music is either peaky or it’s not,’ he says. The chance to collaborate with ballet supremo Benoit Swan Pouffer? Definitely peaky, apparently.

Whatever you might think of its source material, it’s hard not to root for The Redemption of Thomas Shelby. After its Birmingham premiere, the show is due to embark on a UK tour, including such ballet hotspots as Hull, Northampton and Bradford. If it can succeed in packing the stalls with tweed-wearing fanboys, it will be a welcome boost for regional theatres who saw yet another pantomime season derailed by the great Omicron panic.

In the meantime, the latest and final season of Peaky Blinders has just landed on BBC and Netflix. Not that will be the end of the Tommy Shelby story. Stephen Knight has already confirmed that a film is in the works – and is talking up the potential for a spin-off series after that. Will the tweed flat caps be taking over another cultural powerhouse before long – perhaps the Royal Opera House? On current form, you wouldn’t bet against it.