I've never been a fan of period dramas, posh people poncing about on horseback and being beastly to the servants whilst passive females languish indoors, waiting for a man to come along and rescue them. That was until Peaky Blinders swaggered onto our TV screens six years ago bringing with it visceral violence, working class anti-heroes & strong independent women, not to mention breathtaking cinematography, an achingly cool rock soundtrack, clothes to kill for and, of course, Cillian Murphy's cheekbones. From the first episode I was hooked.
Peaky Blinders is huge, especially in our part of the world, where the real-life gang of the same name controlled the streets from the 1880s until the outbreak of WWII. After years of being the butt of many a British joke, the series gave Birmingham and the Black Country kudos and nowadays, instead of being bemused by our funny accents, when we travel the country everyone loves the way we speak.
Last weekend the first ever Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival took place in Digbeth, the streets of which the gang originally controlled. In sharp contrast to the uber modern Birmingham city centre, all contemporary architecture, high street fashion and chain restaurants, the district of Digbeth is an atmospherically dilapidated tangle of interconnecting back streets lined with old industrial buildings and shabby pubs, bisected by the Digbeth Branch canal and overlooked by a Victorian blue-brick railway viaduct. In other words, the perfect location for immersing oneself into the world of the Shelbys.
|Photo courtesy of Claire|
Understandably the festival, being in its first year, had a few teething problems. Despite both myself and Claire being festival regulars and fully acquainting ourselves with the prohibited items on the website beforehand, when we reached the box office we were refused admission as Claire was carrying an SLR camera. After asking the security guard about the on-site lockers advertised on the festival website it turned out that there weren't any, so we had to return to New Street Station (where we'd met half an hour previously) and pay to use the railway's left luggage facility instead.
After walking the best part of three miles we decided we deserved a drink so we called into one of my favourite Digbeth pubs, The Big Bulls Head, for a restorative pint.
Refreshed and ready we were able to join the throngs of Peaky Blinders fans at the festival.
You look like one of those gypsy women to me, said the dapper chap eyeing me up and down, whisking Claire away to try her luck with the coconut shy.
And talking of gypsies, I could quite happily lived in this encampment we found tucked away in a corner off the main street.
We'd heard talk of a bare knuckle boxing match and found our way to the old warehouse where it was scheduled to take place, only to discover we'd just missed it, but we did find what appeared to be an illicit drinking establishment with a gambling den tucked away up the corner.
Never in all my days have I encountered so many well-dressed people in one place.
Although many of the female festival goers were dressed in flapper dresses and 1920s-inspired fashion, a lot embraced the sharp tailored look more associated with the male characters of the series and they looked great.
We proceeded along the winding streets of Digbeth, encountering all manner of miscreants from itinerant hawkers, street fighters and pickpockets to women dancing outside the pub, intoxicated on Mother's Ruin. Peeping through the public bar we overheard a would-be politician delivering an impassioned speech to the clientele within. Policemen roamed the streets, many with bruised faces and black eyes, no doubt from unfortunate incidents with the likes of the Peaky Blinders.
The only other negative issue we had with the festival was the absence of signage. Although timings and locations of the gigs and events were helpfully displayed on boards around the site, nobody knew exactly where to find them and as a consequence we missed the Ballet Rambert and the vintage fashion show as even the security team weren't entirely sure of the layout. But, this being the Midlands, we're a friendly lot and we struck up many an interesting conversation with other dazed and confused festival goers.
On our adventures around the site we'd often find an interesting looking building only to be refused entry as the main entrance was on the other side of Digbeth or we'd stumble into somewhere like this old warehouse containing a pop-up local history museum containing, amongst other interesting artifacts, the original pub sign from The Garrison.
Of course, a massive part of the appeal of Peaky Blinders is the soundtrack, the music is stupendously good and the line-up over the weekend certainly didn't disappoint. Saturday's headliners included Primal Scream, Liam Gallagher, a Paul Simenon DJ set and Nadine Shah whilst Sunday offered Mike Skinner, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, Slaves....
Featuring the incredible Jehnney Beth from Savages...
And the fantastic Richard Hawley.
We made our way to The Night Owl, a cosy nightclub tucked away up a side street, for another beer. On leaving we caught the attention of a lady called Jane who turned out to be a BBC producer and an acquaintance of Steven Knight (the creator of Peaky Blinders) who insisted on filming us wittering on about why were Peaky Blinders fans and why there needed to be more feisty women like Polly Grey on TV. She told us that our interview was going to be sent straight to Boston (USA not Lincolnshire) where, apparently, there's plans afoot for a Peaky Blinders festival next year. After posing for a few photos and giddy with the prospect of international stardom, we stopped at a street food cart for a tray of chips to calm us down.
Whilst we stuffed ourselves with chips, Jane introduced us to a sharply dressed chap called Glynn who we chatted to about life in general and to whom I offered a few of my chips, telling him that they some of the finest I'd ever consumed (the only thing I'd eaten was a slice of toast nine hours earlier). As you know I'm pretty useless with celebrities but after he'd left and I asked Jane how she knew him it turned out that he was a famous TV chef with a Michelin starred restaurant in the city ...and there's me blathering on about chips! Duh!
Damn, there goes Arthur Shelby! A missed photo opportunity!
Walking around Digbeth several women stopped us to tell us that there would be a suffragette march shortly and that some sisterly support would be appreciated.
Although British women over the age of thirty had gained the vote in 1918, younger women had to wait until 1928 to have the right to vote on the same terms as men (21 years of age).
|Photo courtesy of Claire|
After listening to Cillian Murphy (aka Tommy Shelby) recite a poem over the tannoy system, local poet Hussein Manawar was joined on stage by series 5 director Anthony Byre and writer/producer Steven Knight who read extracts from his late mother's diary recalling growing up in a poor, working class household in Birmingham's Small Heath during the era of the Peaky Blinders. After a Q&A session we rushed back to New Street Station to collect Claire's camera and make our respective journeys back home to the Black Country.
Throughout the day we had loads of lovely comments about our outfits and how clever we were to dress in vintage gypsy fashion in-keeping with the Shelby's heritage, although this was more by accident than design as we were wearing our normal clothes.
Claire's in an All About Audrey dress, handmade from recycled sari fabric, topped with a vintage reversible Chinese brocade jacket and secondhand Mjus fake snake metallic cowboy boots.
I'm wearing my Janet Wood for Monsoon Afghan dress topped with a 1920s silk kimono, my great-grandma's carpet bag, an Egyptian Revival necklace by Thomas Fattorini of Birmingham ( a 50th birthday present from Jon) and some secondhand Doc Marten Darcie boots in oxblood leather.
The Legitimate Peaky Blinders festival will be held in Birmingham & Boston (and possibly London) next year and we'll be there.
You can find Claire's photos HERE.
See you soon!