Peaky Blinders returns: Black Country Living Museum staff relive filming of hit show
By order of the Peaky Blinders, Tommy and the gang are back on our screens this weekend.
I don’t pay for suits. My suits are on the house, or the house burns down.
Just one of the iconic, cut-throat lines that have captured and held the grins and imaginations of fans across the globe for almost six years.
Since it first arrived on our screens in 2013, Steven Knight’s BAFTA award-winning drama Peaky Blinders has captivated audiences with its gritty portrayal of post-World War I Birmingham, and the infamous gangsters that worked for domination over it.
Now on the eve of the show’s fifth season hitting our screens – and in a new prime-time slot on BBC One – the world is waiting to reacquaint with the steely protagonists it has long since fallen in love with.
The Shelby family have style and swagger in abundance, stalking the streets of Small Heath and beyond with an edge sharper than both leading man Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones, and the signature razorblade his character Tommy secretes in his flat cap peak.
From day one, the world of Peaky Blinders has been brought to life superbly via its crew’s careful selection of set locations. Parts of certain cities including Manchester and Liverpool have leant themselves perfectly to the recreation of the grit and industrial heat of early twentieth century Birmingham, and have given the show’s actors the perfect canvas against which to work.
One filming location however, which has been instrumental in bringing the show’s setting to life from its very first season, is much closer to home.
The Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) in Dudley has been the backdrop against which some of the most memorable and iconic moments in Peaky Blinders have been filmed.
From Tommy Shelby’s haunting horseback arrival in the show’s very first scene, to the continuous plotting and scheming in ‘Charlie’s Yard’, and of course the infamous ‘sham execution’ of the character Danny Whizzbang, the BCLM has played host to some of the show’s greatest instances of drama, tension and visual film-craft.
Set across 26 acres, and featuring over forty carefully reconstructed shops, houses and industrial areas, the museum is no stranger to period filmmaking, having also served as a set for productions including ITV crime drama ‘Arthur & George’, and the recent Laurel and Hardy movie biopic Stan and Ollie.
It has been a favoured location of the Peaky Blinders production crew since the beginning, and filming has taken place there for all five of its seasons.
Proud of their association with the BBC hit, the team at the museum work hard each year alongside actors and crew to ensure the spit, grit, magic and mayhem of Peaky Blinders is translated to the screen in all its shameless glory.
BCLM event co-ordinator Jane Allcock has been a part of the museum’s involvement with the show from the start, and remembers when the Peakys team first decided to make the Black Country Living Museum their home.
“They originally did a film ‘reccy’, where some of the producers and the locations managers came along to look at what we had to offer, and they saw areas that Steven Knight had got down in his original writing. They had a look around, knew they could get quite a few days filming with us and then they came back to us and everything was agreed.
“I think primarily it was because of our Canal Arm and Boat Dock area – ‘Charlie’s Yard’ in the show– which has been the main area that they come back to. They have looked at the site and have used quite a lot of other buildings with us, but that area is great because we can almost section it off and they get exclusive use of it, but we can still open on a daily basis for our normal visitors.”
Though the popularity and profile of Peaky Blinders has skyrocketed since the show’s inception, Jane reflects on how, over the years, the process of filming at the museum has remained relatively unchanged.
“The process is still the same really. When they come they make sure they get all the shots they need – and they do start looking at other areas when they’re with us now. But the actual production and the way they film with us, it hasn’t changed at all really.
“We’ve built up a really good relationship with the crew. They’re very respectful of the museum. They come in and they talk to us a lot. If they want to change anything at the museum they ask and have many discussions with us about what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it, and how they’re going to put it back. The crew has always been really professional – probably one of the best crews we work with.”
Said crew typically consists of about 50 to 60 people, all of whom work their magic comfortably within a two-week period.
“You get people coming in during the days before filming – the prop guys, the set builders,” said Jane. “They’re here for at least two or three days before anybody else from the actual production crew. Then we’ve got the location assistants and location managers. The props guys are always the first, and we’ve got a really good relationship with them because we spend a lot of time with them. Once they’ve finished the filming, which could be three to five days, there’s then another day and a half to de-rig.
“They’ll come and they’ll do a block of filming and then that’s it. Then they go on to other locations. It makes more sense, financially as well, if they bring all the crew to one area, do all they’ve got to do, and then move on to the next location.
“And it can be out of sequence – they don’t just come and do one episode, they come and do a number of takes for episodes right through the series. So you can get an idea of the story, and a little bit of the storylines, but you never quite know the whole series. It’s always great to watch it and see where we actually fit in to it.”
Five seasons in, the museum’s relationship with the crew from the show is stronger than ever, helping to make the filming process even slicker.
“With this year’s filming – because we’re used to them coming along – we knew the areas they wanted to use, and we knew we could give them exactly what they needed,” said Jane. “The only thing we were conscious of was, because it’s now so popular, we knew we’d have more people and fans coming along to try and see them filming.
“A lot of my job was actually on set during the filming, and you’re there to make sure that what is done is what we’ve agreed, and that if they do anything else that its not going to impact on visitors, or impact on the museum.
“You are there purely as a liaison to make sure that everybody’s happy. I work with a lot of the actual crew themselves, especially the location assistants. It’s great because you get to be on site, talking to a lot of the actors, and they come over and they ask about the museum.”
Naturally, Jane’s role has led her to spend some time in the company of our favourite Blinders, Tommy and Arthur, as played by actors Cillian Murphy and Paul Anderson.
“Once Paul puts the garb on, that’s it – he’s Arthur. You never see him out of character!” She said. “Cillian is lovely. He’s quiet but he’s very intense. When he knows he’s filming, it’s a job and he gets on with it. They are all a lovely crew. And everybody treats us as part of the crew.”
As might be expected, the profile of the BCLM has risen with that of the show, and since the popularity of Peaky Blinders has grown the museum has attracted the interest of a whole new segment of visitors.
“We saw the popularity of the show and we started doing our Peaky Blinders evenings,” said Jane. “The first night we put on, it sold out so quickly that we actually put two nights on.
“When we opened the doors on the first night we were amazed because of how everybody came dressed – they could’ve just walked off the set of Peaky Blinders. It was a great atmosphere.”
These evenings of immersive entertainment – where fans can walk in the footsteps of the Blinders themselves – have proven incredibly popular, and those scheduled for next month have indeed already sold out.
“We put on the music of the period, we have vehicles around, we give them that real themed night. We also have the onsite barbers where people can go and get the Peaky cut if they’re brave enough!
“For us it was a great thing to do because it introduced the museum to people that perhaps wouldn’t have visited it just as a museum. But once they see the museum, it’s interesting how many people come back to other events now.”
Not only benefitting the BCLM, the filming of Peaky Blinders has had a positive impact on the local area as a whole.
“I think it’s been a great and positive thing for the area, not just for us,” said Jane. “When the production crew comes in, they stay at the local hotels, so they benefit. You get a lot of the local people – the riggers, the electricians, they’re all brought on to the crew locally. Even just for local businesses – the crew have got to eat, they’ve got to drink, they’ve got to have somewhere to stay, and if they need to hire anything they’ll hire it locally. It benefits the area commercially.”
Of course, once the hard work is done, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labour, and for all of their efforts Jane and other members of the BCLM team have been lucky enough to attend a number of the show’s season premieres.
“I went to the very first one, and I went to one about two years ago,” remembers Jane. “Luckily for me I got invited up to the VIP lounge – we were standing there with all the stars around. I was standing near to Cillian Murphy and everyone was having photos, and for some reason I couldn’t even bring myself to go and ask for one! You’re so used to being professional and not asking for anything when they’re filming because it’s just not what you do, that on the premiere night I just couldn’t ask for one. And I kicked myself after.
“The premieres are a great atmosphere though, and you know you’re part of that.”
‘Part of that’ is absolutely right, and in fact feels like something of an understatement. The Black Country Living Museum is so deeply embedded in the legacy of Peaky Blinders that Steven Knight has in the past described it as the show’s ‘home’ and hailed it as his favourite set location.
“We’re all proud to be associated with Peaky Blinders,” said Jane. “You can go into a petrol station with your museum-branded jacket on and the first thing people ask is ‘can you get me Peaky Blinders tickets?’! Watching how it has grown and knowing that we were there from the beginning, it’s been a great thing for us. To be associated with such a great and popular series, you really couldn’t ask for anything better.”
It’s fair to say that Peaky Blinders has put the pop culture spotlight on the West Midlands and its heritage in a way that few other TV dramas have ever succeeded in doing. And with the series now being shown in 183 countries worldwide, we can expect season five to keep up the good work.
As for what we might expect from this latest series, our friend Jane attended this year’s season premiere at Birmingham Town Hall, and along with a multitude of die-hard fans, was treated to an advance screening of Sunday night’s hotly-anticipated opening episode. Though she naturally couldn’t give anything away, apparently we’re all in for a blinding treat. “For me, its one of the best opening episodes since probably the first season,” she said. “I think its one of those that straight away has the ‘wow’ factor.”
By order of the Peaky Blinders, we wait with baited breath.
*Peaky Blinders returns for season five on BBC One on Sunday, August 25, at 9pm.