The big budget new BBC2 TV show Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham after the First World War and focusing on a fearsome criminal gang in the Small Heath and Bordesley area, is currently creating what I understand media people call a ‘buzz’.
The first episode, right from the moody Nick Cave title music and Cillian Murphy’s horse bound entrance as gang leader Tommy Shelby, painted a dazzlingly atmospheric, if pretty grim, picture of East Birmingham in 1919. It was also littered with local references: BSA and the Austin, a walk down ‘the cut’ to Greet, the Italian colony around Park Street, St Andrews Football Ground.
Pedants may point to a certain artistic licence over historical accuracy and some of the accents may grate on speakers of modern day Brummie, but personally I think this misses the point and it’s great to see something so exciting on primetime TV mythologising our home city. But seemingly very little of the series was shot in the city, partly because the makers say that there was not enough old streets left.
There is a lot of interesting stuff out there on the real story of the Peaky Blinders (see for example Carl Chinn here and Philip Gooderson’s The Gangs of Birmingham) but I wondered how much of the Bordesley that the Shelbys might have inhabited still exists. And was it really all that bad? So, on my way to watch Blues vs. Sheffield Wednesday at St Andrew’s (one thing that hasn’t changed since 1919 – Birmingham City have played at St Andrew’s since 1906) I thought I would take a closer look…
As might be expected, the area has changed significantly. As in Digbeth and Deritend, much of the older housing was demolished as part of slum clearance programmes, and later to make way for Bordesley Village. The Shelby’s fictional HQ was on Watery Lane, which is long gone as a result of Manzoni’s Middle Ring Road being driven through the area, though the name survives as Watery Lane Middleway.
Some fine buildings have been lost. For example, the Grade II listed former Queen’s Head pub (later called The Inn Place), which occupied an isolated spot on the corner of Garrison and Midland Streets, hemmed in by three railways and a canal is now completely demolished. However, much still remains, including some impressive municipal and community buildings, the network of canals and railways, and several pubs.
The fictional Garrison Tavern is the Peaky Blinders’ local. The real one still stands in a run of impressive buildings including the former Garrison Lane Nursery School and the attached caretaker’s house. Several other pubs of the era are also still around, including the Sportsman and Royal George just up the road, the Wagon & Horses on Adderley Street, and the Rainbow on Bordesley High Street. Unfortunately, the Clements Arms, on Coventry Road / Lower Trinity Street, is currently boarded up and looking in a poor state of repair.
A striking feature is the number of buildings that are a result of Victorian and Edwardian improvement. There are several beautiful former board schools including those at Garrison Lane, Ada Road, Tilton Road and Dixon Road. The former ‘cottage baths’ on Lower Dartmouth Street opened at the dawning of the First World War. At the south end of Fazeley Street are the former Sunday school and chapel, and round the corner the St Basil’s Centre, Built as the church of St John and St Basil, 1910, by Arthur S Dixon. Further east, at Bordesley Green, is the Ideal Village, one of the first such developments in England. It was built by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker before between 1908 and 1914, where they tested ideas later to come to fruition at Letchworth and Hamstead Garden Suburb. So, who knows, maybe the area wasn’t quite as grim as the TV show implies?!
All in all, an interesting walk, topped off by a pint in the Sportsman, a 4-1 win for Blues and no sign of any Peakies. The only problem is, I now have quite a circuitous lucky route to the match. Although perhaps next time, I will repeat the exercise in Small Heath…