Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight warns me that he’s about to “namedrop horribly,” but it can’t be helped. For while geologists can’t agree whether or not the world has passed “peak oil”, and style experts seem reluctant to predict “peak beard”, it seems clear that the world is currently hitting “peak Peaky Blinders”.
The 1920s Birmingham gangster saga that Knight forged to honour the stories passed down from his grandparents’ generation after the First World War, and whose third season begins on BBC2 this week, has developed its own celebrity fanbase.
“We’ve had an amazing response from famous people for some reason,” says Knight, in what can only be described as a spectacular understatement. Once movie mogul Harvey Weinstein bought the US rights to Peaky Blinders, it premiered on streaming service Netflix, delivering bendy Brummie accents and flat caps with razorblades stitched into the peak to North America and beyond, a dramatic promotion for a city all too rarely mythologised in drama, at least since Benny from Midlands-set soap Crossroads went off the air, and less known abroad than the Birmingham in Alabama.
Fans began to get in touch with Knight himself, starting with the West Coast rap superstar Snoop Dogg. “My agent got a call saying Snoop’s coming to London, he wants to meet two people, and you’re one of them!”
Other famous fans who have made themselves known included Brad Pitt, novelist and The Wire screenwriter Dennis Lehane; Tom Cruise; legendary Hollywood director Michael Mann (who emailed Knight to say he and his wife had binged on the first two series over a weekend); footballer John Terry; Julia Roberts; Steven Spielberg; horror novelist Stephen King (who tweeted, “Watching a cool British series called Peaky Blinders,” and banged the drum again in a recent RT interview); shock jock Howard Stern (who described it on air as “The Sopranos in 1920s Great Britain”); and troubadour Ed Sheeran.
But the most legendary Peaky Blinders supporter of all, whose patronage now comes tinged with sadness, turns out to have been David Bowie. “He sent a photo of himself to Cillian with razor blades in his cap about a year ago,” Knight explains, referring to charismatic series lead Cillian Murphy. “I got in touch with his people who came back straight away and said he was a big, big fan.”
An invitation to visit the set never solidified but Bowie was keen to have his music used in the show, which stands apart from conventional period drama by using anachronistic but oddly apposite contemporary rock on its soundtrack – the likes of Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and in the new series, Radiohead. The day before New Year’s Eve the international marketing rep at Bowie’s label Sony BMG came to Knight’s house to play him the new album Black Star. “And then on the following Tuesday we heard that he’d passed away. It seems that his people were keen to establish that we could use it before he passed on.” (You’ll have to wait and see which track.)
With pop-up Peaky Blinders-themed bars in London, reports of a Peaky Blinders convention in Santa Monica, kids dressing up in wool newsboy caps in Laguna Beach and at Birmingham City games, an “immersive Peaky Blinders evening” at a club in Waterloo selling in-joke cocktails –“Curly’s Love Potion” and “Mr Kimber’s Tipple” – guided Peaky Tours around Digbeth, a Stourbridge-brewed 4.3 per cent ABV “soft and fruity” Peaky Blinders ale sold at Bar Opus in Brum and a fashion line under discussion named Garrison after the Shelbys’ local, it’s not just the famous who want to be Tommy’s gang.
I’m waiting patiently in the ornate, wood-panelled library of Tommy’s new home in rural Warwickshire (actually Arley Hall in Cheshire) whose floor-to-ceiling bookshelves boast genuine first editions of Dickens and Thackeray, and which looks out onto 12 acres of formal gardens and pleached lime trees. It’s a culture shock if you have Peaky Blinders pegged as a tale of small-time horse fixers and gunrunners living in the smoke-belching industrial slums of interwar Birmingham. But series three, which moves forward two years to 1924, finds the Shelbys living the high life, having done what all gangsters aspire to do: go legit. Well, partially.