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19th Sep 2019

Peaky Blinders: The fandom that collapsed in on itself

Kyle Picknell

Why is the hyper-enthusiastic fan culture surrounding the gangster drama attracting such ire from other corners?

Today I received an email. This, as a singular event, is obviously quite unremarkable. Unfortunately, it was the sheer scale of horror contained within this particular email that makes it noteworthy. Today, a day that started out like many others, without a hint of the spectacular on the horizon, I received a PR email about a Peaky Blinders stag weekend. Run those words over our tongue just once more. A Peaky Blinders. Stag weekend. Tastes bitter doesn’t it. Yeah. Tastes unpleasant, that.

They even term it in the email, as enticing as a total catastrophic failure of all of your bowel movements, forever, a ‘Peaky weekend’.

Stick a fork in the known universe. It is done. It is over. We are finished.

The frightening message from the void went on to detail how ‘sharply-dressed’ men can enjoy an ‘epic, all-action Peaky weekend’ (!!!) packed with some of the ‘Blinders’ favourite pastimes’. Those pastimes? Oh, you know. Things like ‘racing’, ‘shooting’ and ‘whisky’… ‘to name but a few’.

That’s the list in its entirety and now that’s a bit of sick in the back of your throat. My immediate reaction, other than the sick, was a Gareth Keenan style: “Some… questions“. Number one concerns the racing. Will it be egg and spoon or go-karts? It’s hard to imagine either being particularly popular events for very serious men in three-piece suits and razors stitched into their flat caps. Just think how bad it could all go wrong if a pile-up happens in the sack race. They could have each other’s eyes out. Question number two has to be… is ‘whisky’ a pastime? Is it? It isn’t, is it? Unless you’re a knob.

Number three is what kind of shooting: heroin or penalty kicks? And so on, and so forth.

The problem with the Peaky Blinders stag weekend, as is the problem with this feverish Peaky fandom that is slowly consuming our island nation like a mutated pathogenic disease, is that it will divide us, it will split us perfectly in two between those that think it is great and those that take it as a very personal insult to everything they hold dear.

Which is apparently, er, just not dressing like a moustachioed hipster barber and, as well as that, not going into another moustachioed hipster barber’s hipster barbershop-cum-coffeehouse-turned-gin parlour and asking them to shave every single hair on the sides and the back of their head but, and this is presumably “by order of the Peaky fucking Blinders”, not touch anything on the top of the scalp.

As an example of the hysteria, the first-ever Legitimate Peaky Blinders festival took place in Birmingham last weekend and thousands journeyed to what can only be described as ‘a car park in Digbeth’ to revel in the live music (Liam Gallagher was playing because of course Liam Gallagher was playing), some Peaky ballet and witness a Q+A with series creator Steven Knight and stars Paul Anderson, Kate Phillips and Sam Neil.

But most importantly, above all else, they came to revel in the sheer flat cap noncery of it all. This, I guess, is that:

Peaky Blinders the show, rather than the dangerous new trope of stag dos, has become something of a cultural phenomenon since it first aired on BBC Two in 2013 to three million instantly enamoured viewers. Season 5, which has aired on BBC One this month, has regularly hit double that with six million of us tuning in to watch Tommy and the gang get up to their old shenanigans. Shenanigans such as ‘racing’, ‘whisky’ and ‘shooting’. To name but a few.

The real litmus test for British TV, similarly to the one used for British popstars, or whatever the fuck Ed Sheeran is, is whether they break America. Peaky Blinders has, with the likes of Brad Pitt and Snoop Dogg officially cited as fans by Knight. Even the famously repugnant Brummie accent, of which I occasionally fall into depending on blood-alcohol level or how much I want to piss off the posh lads in the room, or both, usually both, hasn’t even proved much of a roadblock for our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic who can simply whack on Netflix’s subtitles to help them navigate the murky, swampy waters of Brummie vowel sounds.

Beyond that, tourism in the UK’s second city has boomed in line with the popularity of the drama, as a record 42.8 million tourists swapped the typical holiday one-two punch of coastlines and sun for lots of canals, a fancy John Lewis and learning to call bread rolls ‘cobs’. According to The Guardian, international visitor numbers rose by 19% to 1.1 million between 2013 and 2018, with the number coming from the US rising by 50%. Andy Street, current Mayor of the West Midlands, said of the influx: “Record numbers of tourists are now visiting the region, with many people wanting to explore the places and stories associated with the show.”

Indeed, the vast historical attention to detail within the show, such as all the haircuts being based on black and white photographs of actual crooks from the 1920s, is part of the widespread appeal of the series. Arguably Peaky Blinders is every bit the time capsule to the 1920s as AMC’s wonderful Mad Men was to the 60s. Both are saffron-tinted, overly-stylised visions of the past but strike the balance between accurate paraphernalia and grandiose ornamentation. The sets are as striking as the outfits, which are as striking as the haircuts, which are as striking the violence.

Peaky Blinders is supercharged gangster pulp grounded ever so loosely in historical fact, extrapolated from the real names and places and events that are scattered through the storylines like breadcrumbs. When Knight first envisioned the show he wanted it to start at the end of World War One and end the story as the air raid sirens signalling the beginning of the Second World War rang out in Birmingham. The Peaky Blinders were real. The Shelbys, a mutated Hydra of a crime family, are not.

Throughout the series, the leader of the family and mastermind behind their operations, Thomas Shelby, proves time and time again that nothing is impossible if only you’re willing to murder enough people. He’s an unfeeling, alcoholic, mentally-ill psychopath but he also looks great in a suit and when he smokes a cigarette. Or chins a whisky. He is Tony Soprano and Pablo Escobar and Don Draper and Al Capone all rolled into one. Cillian Murphy plays the character like a dead-eyed catwalk model one moment and a military dictator the next, all with that glistening, azure stare that goes on a million yards. He’ll flutter his eyes like he wants to fuck you and grimace like he wants to kill you all and the mood-lighting will dance off his cliff-edge cheekbones like they’re razorblades.

He is the A-list star in the series but it is Paul Anderson, who plays Thomas’ elder brother Arthur, who is becoming increasingly prominent as the show trudges in the Bullring smog. Arthur is basically the Peaky Blinders‘ universe answer to Waluigi in terms of appearance and a tower of angry werewolves entrapped in a hurricane in terms of demeanour and temperament. He is, simultaneously, both a ludicrous cartoonish vision of rage, masculinity and insecurity but he can also extend into a rich, textured hologram of a character, the war veteran haunted by his PTSD and an ongoing struggle with self.

In the most recent episode (the penultimate of the fifth series) which aired last Sunday, he was at first a complete wreck of a man slowing crumbling under the ongoing disintegration of his marriage and the realisation that a tendency towards hyperviolence that has punctuated most of his life is the thing causing him all this pain.

But after that, he was also this, just a screaming, rampaging weirdo with a big machine gun. Go figure.

It works as a metaphor for the fandom of the show. People like it because it is (mostly) historical and the characters are (mostly) nuanced and the storylines are (mostly) gripping. But they also like it is loud and brash and violent and stupid. Like Arthur, it can be both those things at once and much of how you view Peaky Blinders as a whole will be down to just how much of the latter you can take. You’ll either turn your nose up at it or you won’t.

This post-apocalyptic Brexit world we inhabit is marked out by its fault lines. They run deep, separating the Remoaners from the Brexiteers and no matter which side you stand on it’s transformed into a case of ‘us’ against ‘them’. It’s fitting that the same tribalism projects onto something as innocuous as a BBC crime drama, but here we are. The icecaps are melting and the Amazon is burning. The Earth is decaying beneath our very feet and Boris Johnson is Prime Minister and people are wasting their time *checks notes* fuming at some young people dressing up in suits and dresses and hats and pretending, for just a moment, that they didn’t exist in this nonsense total annihilation of everything timeline and could instead frolic about, carefree, in the comparative, utopian fantasy land of post-war, industrial-era, central Birmingham. Yeah, that sounds about right.

As a general principle, people should be allowed to enjoy things. If the worst that comes of that is they dress up like a bit of a twat then, well, fine. Whatever.

There’s a lot of good that comes of it, too. Peaky Blinders is a show about working-class Brummies and it strikes me that many who are celebrating it in this extraordinary fashion are working-class Brummies, too. It took the rise to near-ubiquity of a Brummie gangster drama, written by a Brummie, to make a lot of young people feel something like pride about the place they were born. Fucking hell, you can let them have that, can’t you?

From my own experience, Peaky Blinders made being from a staggeringly uncool place in the world, with a staggeringly unpalatable accent, cool for a bit. Even if that particular universe has now collapsed in on itself with things like the Peaky stag weekend, the Peaky festival and, well, too many American people liking it a bit too much. That was funny, in its own perverse way. When people would just start chatting to you about Peaky Blinders instead of saying “Burminummmmm” over and over again. That was good.

The show has, however, tipped into something of a parody of itself due to the sheer number and enthusiasm of its fans. There really is no need for Peaky Blinders bars in every major city in the UK, nor is there for stag weekends, or bespoke Peaky tailors and bespoke Peaky hairdressers. A one-off weekend festival down the road from Small Heath area the actual Peakys used to operate in? Sure. But plans for it every year? Really?

Unfortunately for everyone ragging all the attendees of the festival on Twitter, the show isn’t to blame. People have been dressing like farmers and shaving unfortunate bits of their hair off and going to Cheltenham Festival for ages. Themed bars have always been a particularly universal kind of awful. Fancy dress parties have never, ever been fun. Nobody has ever liked hipsters, or men with moustaches, or people whose entire personality revolves around them liking different kinds of gin, the kinds that you specifically don’t know about. You are only ever allowed to wear braces to a wedding, there is no other time and it is fine to love Nick Cave but it’s not fine to only know ‘Red Right Hand’. The Birmingham accent will never, ever be accepted. This was all true before Peaky Blinders aired and will be true long after Peaky Blinders fades in the memory. It will be true when we lose the entirety of the Netherlands to the sea and it will be true when the first colony of us is blasted into space to land on Mars and slowly but irreversibly destroy that planet too.

People ruin things. But it’s a tv show and we’re all fucked anyway. Why do you care so much that Daz, 18, from Stourbridge, is meandering about a car park in Birmingham with a cigar, glass of whisky and a pair of leather gloves on thinking he’s the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley-equivalent of Don Corleone?

Oh no, yeah, I can see how that is a bit annoying. I can see how that is quite annoying. Yeah… Yeah. Don’t do that, basically. But whatever you do, don’t go on a Peaky Blinders stag weekend. That, my friends, *face scrunching up in agony* is by order of *blood pouring out of ears, a single eyeball pops out of my skull and dangles by the optic nerve* the fucking Peaky Blinders!!! *my lifeless body slams onto the cold, wet ground and you notice I am wearing a £35 waistcoat from Topman*