Friday 18 October 2013

Birmingham Back on the Map: Peaky Blinders

No Brummie with a heart could be failed to be moved by BBC 2’s recent six-part drama ‘Peaky Blinders’. Others from outside Birmingham have poured a certain amount of scorn on the apparent inauthenticiy of the accents, despite the fact that they know nothing about the city, nothing worthwhile, anyway. Take a look at most of the spurious reviews that have abounded in the national press. Grace Dent, from The Independent, who apparently hails from Cumbria, has cast doubt on the validity of the second city’s intonation as depicted in the series. Lazy journalism from the increasingly downmarket, militantly PC liberal press, as usual.

Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor, who could probably have done much more, albeit superficially, with his pretty boy looks, doesn’t  just look the part of a Small Heath villain, he sounds like one to a tee as well.  When he struts down the terraced streets, his dead eyes always ready for combat, he makes people run, not towards him but well away. Good looks and incipient violence can have that effect. I have seen his type many times in Birmingham. The charm mixed with menace. It is Birmingham personified.

His biggest achievement, as well as that of writer Stephen Knight, is to make Birmingham look like an epic environment around the post-World War 1 period. This has come as a shock to many, who still perceive my city as something of a shithole, if I may be frank. Spaghetti Junction, the old Digbeth coach station, ‘landmarks’ such as the cylindrical Rotunda building, have frequently been mocked as evidence of an ugly urban landscape.

Peaky Blinders puts that all into a wider historical context. Because we are an industrial city, the ‘workshop of the world’ at one point and one which produced the Spitfire during World War II,, as well as thousands of cars from British Leyland’s Longbridge plant. We have been presented as a dull city, with which the apparently grating tones of our accents have tended to dovetail. But there has always been drama in Birmingham, some of it tragic, some of it uplifting, and not just on Broad Street on a Saturday night,

It was one of the main centres of the Chartist movement in the 19th century, which fought bravely to win working men the right to vote.  We became the car manufacturing centre of the world in the early 20th Century and one of the most heroic moments of that legacy was when 30,000 Birmingham engineers marched down to Saltley Gates in solidarity with striking miners to close down the coking plant there at the time. Aston Villa also won the European Cup in 1982. I was there during the celebrations. The roof tops were replete with the teaam's colours, claret and blue. Tom Hanks is also a big fan of the club, part of strange coterie of well-known names that follow the team's fortunes.

There have been very bad times too. The Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 were sickening. They took many innocent lives. Worst still it happened in a city where many Irish-born people had made their homes, my parents included. I was only seven but I remember the unbearable pain. The loss of life was dreadful but the backlash against the Irish community was a nightmare too.

Peaky Blinders is an eye-opener, not only because it presents my home city as an epic environment: a crashing, thudding arena of constant industry amid bloody vendettas but also because 1919 Birmingham is a ethnical melting pot. There is a large Chinese community, the Italians have a marked presence and of course the Irish abound in their numbers.

The Irish will always be a part of Birmingham but the Asians and Afro-Caribbean’s have joined the rest of what is one of the UK’s truly multi-ethnic centres of excellence. I particularly enjoyed the presence of locally-born Benjamin Zephaniah, towards whom the Shelby family are utterly colour blind. If that is not a lesson in which life does not move inexorably forward, I don’t know what is.

I have many fond memories of Peaky Blinders. Polly’s toughness, hand on a most wonderful curvaceous hip, Billy Kimber’s arrogance until Tommy got him one straight between the eyes but above all my home city, Birmingham, in all its wondrous historical majesty.

Tonight I was passing an off-licence on Vigarage Road, Kings Heath near where I live. There was a row going on with empty bottles waving around. Unfortunately, not an unusual sight in these parts on a Saturday night but part of me wished that Thomas Shelby might turn up to put an end to it.. There is violence of one kind, mindless you might call it, and then there is violence of another ilk altogether, that of protection. Peaky Blinders errs towards the latter. A staunch defender of the UK's second city.

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