Has Peaky Blinders been good for Birmingham?

If you’ve never attempted to battle an escape room themed on the BBC series Peaky Blinders (which is due to air its final ever episode this Sunday, April 3), on your own, on a Wednesday afternoon, in the show’s home of Birmingham, let me tell you about the experience.

I find myself locked inside an escape room modeled immaculately on the TV set of the Shelbys’ illegal betting shop, and informed – in the throaty Brummie of Cillian Murphy’s gangster kingpin Tommy Shelby, piped in through a speaker – that it is my duty, as a member of the Peaky Blinders gang, to dispose of anything in the room that could incriminate the family.

If I manage to get rid of everything in one hour, I escape from the room and evade the capture of policeman Major Campbell.

I fumble with props and furniture, and at one point, in an embarrassing display, irretrievably drop an implement I am supposed to use.

It will not surprise you to learn that ultimately, despite the kindnesses of staff member Dayna, who gamely offers me clues in character over an intercom, I do not make it out in time.

I am, however, impressed by the attention to period detail in the room, which has been specially licensed by the BBC, and the likeness to what you see on TV in the real series.

Luke Renshaw, the manager of the Escape Live premises that houses both this Peaky Blinders room (a game called “The Raid”) and one other, “Double Cross”, tells me that there is huge demand for Peaky Blinders-adjacent entertainment like this.

Players compete in one of the Peaky Blinders rooms at Escape Live (Photo: Escape Live)

“The Peaky Blinders rooms are our most popular rooms, but in the last few weeks we’ve seen a massive upsurge, ”he tells me, noting that bookings have increased while the show has been on air for its sixth season.

“Saturdays we are fully booked. The staff will dress up as a Peaky Blinder, and we have stag dos come in and they’re all dressed up. It’s all about immersion. ”

Escape Live is not the only company to have jumped aboard the runaway train of Peaky Blinders‘success. A brief Google will tell you that there are Peaky Blinders books, Peaky Blinders drinks, Peaky Blinders scatter cushions, and Peaky Blinders mugs, emblazoned with quotes from the show (“I’m a man who drinks tea”).

One venue in Manchester will even serve you a Peaky Blinders bottomless brunch. Speaking to in last month, the show’s creator Steven Knight marveled at all that has come out of the program: “There’s artwork, tattoos, videos. It’s sort of irritating when people make money out of it, without it being licensed, but then it would not be a very Peaky thing to do to, to close them all down, ”he admitted.

Peaky Blinders has become more than simply a drama: it is an industry all of its own (even the New York Times recently picked up on it), and has made Birmingham – a place that TV has historically tended to avoid, largely due to the difficulty of the accent for southern actors – perhaps slightly more of a destination than it once was.

I am from the city myself, and before Peaky Blinders, it’s hard to recall a cultural happening which has introduced the place to so many people. I’m curious, however, about the effect the show has had on my hometown: has it injected more interest into a place which used to be known as a center of industry, but these days finds its personality perhaps a little less well-defined than other areas of the UK? Or has it homogenized it?

More from Television

When I leave Escape Live and set off into the city, I notice that their offering is one of a few Peaky Blinders attractions to have popped up around the city (though there aren’t as many as I had expected). T

here’s the BBC-commissioned mural of Tommy Shelby by artist Akse P19, unveiled in Digbeth this year, a themed pub in Dale End (I pop in for a very un-Peaky Diet Coke and am immediately greeted by regulars at the bar, and a “By order of the Peaky Blinders” sign above the door to the toilets), and The Bull’s Head pub just off Broad Street, the city’s main nightlife strip, which boasts 1920s décor and is adorned with a number of signs announcing to any passers-by that it was a filming location.

Elsewhere, there are smaller hints: on Corporation Street, one traditional tailor selling waistcoats and flat caps invites shoppers to “dress like a Peaky Blinder.”

Until 2020, the city also boasted the Peaky Blinders walking tour, led by Professor Carl Chinn, a local historian and the author of the book Peaky Blinders: The Real Story.

It attracted punters from all over the world – over the phone, Chinn, a font of knowledge and enthusiasm about Birmingham, reels off the countries whose residents the tour has pulled in: “Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, from Mexico, from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, ”he tells me breathlessly. What connected the visitors, he says, was that “a lot of people wanted to know the reality” behind the series.

Prof Chinn is keen to stress that the Peaky Blinders series is far from the actual story of the gangs who inspired it.

“The real Peaky Blinders were the backstreet thugs of Birmingham in the 1890s. They bullied the poor among whom they lived. They were not glamorous anti-heroes, ”he says. This was the message he liked to deliver to his tour groups, as he guided them around the historic areas of Digbeth and Deritend. “I was doing about 52 tours a year,” Chinn concludes. “Thousands of people came; we had a fantastic response. ”

Sadly, the pandemic put paid to the walking tour, and it has not started back up since. I did wonder whether this might be the case more widely: I’d expected more Peaky Blinders-linked attractions in Birmingham, if anything, and it seems like a few, particularly taprooms and other watering holes, closed down over the course of 2020 and 2021, just shy of the show’s last season (before the spin-off film), when they’d likely have done a roaring trade.

It’s also the case, however, that despite being the home of a number of cultural behemoths – JRR Tolkien grew up in Birmingham, after all, and the city is where Heavy Metal was born – the city has not always been the best at celebrating its achievements.

Chinn concurs: “When The Lord of the Rings [film] came out [in 2001]all that happened was that the walkway along the River Cole was renamed “The Shire”, ”he laughs.

This is not entirely a bad thing when it comes to Peaky Blinders. It would be a shame to see Birmingham becoming a shrine to a TV franchise, after all – when cities’ identities become too focused on one thing it can be disheartening, as the lukewarm response to the announcement of funding for a new “Beatles attraction” in Liverpool last year proved. At the same time, though, as Chinn puts it, “the attention that Birmingham is getting is positive, but we need to take advantage of that.”

It seems that later this year, the city might have found its happy medium. In September, the Peaky Blinders music festival will be held in the city, featuring musicians such as Anna Calvi and Primal Scream, whose songs have appeared on the show. This will be closely followed by the debut of the Peaky Blinders dance theater production co-created by Knight and the Rambert company.

“They’ve got a tradition from the 1930s of taking dance to people who do not normally watch it,” Knight told us. “It’s following in that tradition.”

Dancers in ‘Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby’ by Rambert Dance Company (Photo: Rambert Dance Company)

Even after the series ends on Sunday, then, Peaky Blinders will continue to find new legacies in Birmingham, themselves gateways into new worlds and art forms. Ultimately, I think the city will resist being entirely defined by the phenomenon – and the fiction – of Peaky Blindersthough it is starting to reap its benefits.

The Peaky Blinders finale is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm

Leave a Comment