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Tuesday 20th March 2018

How ‘Peaky Blinders’ Became a Cult Phenomenon

Media & Culture

Sariah Manning

Mon, 09 Sep 2019 14:42 GMT

British Crime Drama ‘Peaky Blinders’ Season 5 premiered on 25th August, 2019 and a kind of fever has taken over London since the premiere. It has been called the ‘Peaky Blinders effect’, responsible for the boost in flat cap sales, babies being called Ada or Arthur, and even the launch of a ‘Peaky Blinders’ men’s grooming range.

Cillian Murphy, the actor who plays the leading character, Tommy Shelby, has sported a particularly bad haircut since filming for the series began in 2013. Popular at the turn of the century, the style Murphy sports on screen features short back and sides, with a long mop up top. Not particularly stylish but if you have been around London lately, you will see people with that same cut. Men are voluntarily asking for the cut, male models in posters sport the ‘do’. When the hairstyle first appeared on the streets, I just thought English men had bad hairstyles, but after bingeing on the series I understand where the inspiration comes from.

Inspired by the real-life Birmingham gangsters who ran England’s racetracks in the early 1900s – the name comes from the flat caps they wore with razors sewn into the brim – the binge-worthy series follows Tommy and his crew as they wrestle for power with their low-life peers and for acceptance from high society. Set from 1919 onwards, the show covers post-traumatic stress disorder following World War 1, cocaine addiction, the IRA, the struggle to go legitimate, and an inspector focused on bringing down the ‘Blinders’.

Showrunner Steven Knight did not just glean scandalous tales from a textbook, his parents both hail from Small Heath, the area in the West Midlands where the show is set. His family were Blinders themselves and his Mother was a bookrunner. While researching the show he found that his parents had not embellished their violent stories of Birmingham life but had in fact held back on details. It was from Knight’s desire to immortalise these stories from childhood that the ‘Peaky Blinders’ series was born.

When the series first aired on BBC One it did not get the overwhelming reaction it gets today. The Guardian called the show’s pilot episode a “steampunk beer commercial” that “doesn’t so much sidestep gangster clichés as fling its arms round them.” Netflix started streaming the episodes worldwide and the New York Times said that “For a sprawling soap opera that packs in Roma curses, shell shock, hash pipes, Chinatown prostitutes and gang members sporting the 1919 version of a half-shaved boy band haircut, it doesn’t have quite enough juice.”

It was not until Season Two, when the stakes got higher and the show a little grittier, that it found its audience. There are GIFs from scenes of ‘Peaky Blinders’ making the rounds in messages and on Tumblr posts. The combination of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ dapperness with a touch of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ violence had celebrities such as Snoop Dogg and David Bowie singing the show’s praises. It even got permission to use music creating a soundtrack including the likes of Bowie, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Radiohead, with their tunes put to brilliant use throughout the series.

When the show eventually became a hit, it was not because of a mass marketing campaign but because of the characters and depth of the storyline; people told their friends about it and it eventually grew into the global hit it is today with men’s grooming ranges, flat caps and haircuts back in fashion, and even a Peaky Blinders festival announced. The show is not a trope that we have seen before, there are no clean-cut heroes and villains. The characters have frailties, foibles, and an overall human quality that we can relate to despite the bloodshed and criminal masterminding. These qualities and more have made this show a hit.


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