With one of my favourite dramas Peaky Blinders set to return to BBC Two for its third season in May (actual date yet to be confirmed), and a lot of activity at my end, having visited the set and written a story for next week’s Radio Times, it seems an opportune time to dust down this passionately corrective column on the lack of depictions of Birmingham and the West Midlands on our TV screens. It was published on the Guardian website in September 2013, but it’s still relevant. (Although who remembers crime series By Any Means?) For the record, I’ve seen the first episode of the new series, and it scales new heights. But let’s talk about Brum …
Peaky Blinders, BBC2’s big-hitting, six-part period gangster saga may be saddled with an offputting title and unhelpful comparisons to Boardwalk Empire, but it remains a truly unique piece of dramatic television. Why? Because it’s explicitly set in Birmingham, a city that’s all but ignored, dramatically speaking, outside of soaps. Not since Slade In Residence on The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer in 1993 have we had so many unashamed Brummie and Black Country accents in our living rooms. As a son of the East Midlands, I have an innate soft spot for the despondent downward intonation at the end of a sentence and the over-articulated “ng” sound of my Black Country and Brummie cousins. But a study of regional accents in 2008 found that Birmingham’s gave the worst impression of “perceived intelligence.” In the test, silence gave a better impression.
This certainly seems to have been taken to heart by TV commissioners. And who can blame them when, in an otherwise glowing review of Peaky Blinders in the Sunday Times, critic AA Gill complained, “It’s not that it’s impossible to sound … intelligent with a Brummie inflection. It’s that the rest of us just don’t care. We know from the first flat vowel that it’s going to be probably about boilers, or carp fishing.”
Benny from Crossroads has a lot to answer for. The infamous motel-based soap was set in the fictional Midlands village of King’s Oak and filmed in and around Brum. Many of its stars were local – Roger Tonge, Ann George, John Bentley – but it was simple-minded handyman Benny, played by local boy Paul Henry from 1974 to 1987, who came to epitomise the show; a gift to Tuxedoed impressionists. He lingers as the region’s woolly-hatted ambassador, with his entreaties to “Miss Diane” (rather, “Miss Doy-ane”).
Brickies-abroad comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – produced by Midlands franchisee Central – had a token Brummie: low-voltage, Wolves-supporting electrician Barry. He was so endearingly played by Timothy Spall over the show’s two decades it became impossible to extricate the Black Country accent from bumbling innocence. The rise to MTV reality-show superstardom in the noughties of damaged Aston-born rocker Ozzy Osbourne in The Osbournes did nothing to reposition popular opinion; the downward intonation signalled “lovable idiot”.
Concurrently, Jasper Carrott of Acocks Green bestrode TV like a comic colossus throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s; it’s a great accent if your job is to make people laugh, as Frank Skinner might subsequently testify. Carrott wrapped his horizontal vowels around the mock-biker anthem Funky Moped in 1975, a Top 5 hit.
It was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne to underline its “Brum Beat” credentials. Birmingham has long been a cradle of rock, its foundries giving birth to heavy metal and a civic fondness for leather and long hair, hence the “Grebo” movement of the late 80s. That the latter scene’s prime movers were the larky, fart-lighting Pop Will Eat Itself and acid-tongued pranksters The Wonder Stuff may not have helped the Black Country’s bid to be taken entirely seriously. (Although now that PWEI’s leader Clint Mansell is a prolific and respected Hollywood film composer, maybe detractors should check their prejudice.)
Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, former gagsmith for Carrott and a native of Small Heath, was asked by the Visit Birmingham website why Britain’s second city is so rarely represented onscreen. “Birmingham people stay in Birmingham,” he replied. “In London, you’ll meet a lot of people from Manchester and Liverpool because they want to get out. Whereas in Birmingham, people tend to stay, so that pollen doesn’t get distributed.”
It’s a theory that, like the 160 miles of canal that helped make Birmingham “the workshop of the world” during the Industrial Revolution, holds a lot of water. The tragedy is that the bulk of Peaky Blinders was shot in Leeds and Liverpool. Meanwhile, By Any Means, BBC1’s glossy new contemporary crime show, is shot in Birmingham and produced out of the spanking BBC Drama Village in Selly Oak, but makes no mention of its geographical location. At least Doctors is set in a fictional Midlands town, Letherbridge, while the soap’s Mill Health Centre is an affectionate nod to decommissioned production hub Pebble Mill. Perhaps we’ll glimpse the incredible new Mecanoo-designed Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square in a future episode of By Any Means. Surely that wouldn’t give a bad impression of “perceived intelligence”?
As Lynne wrote in the ELO tune Birmingham Blues, “It may be kind of homely but it sure is sweet/Industrial Revolution put it on its feet.”
First published in September 2013