Case Study: Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival - Dank Parish

In 2019 we were commissioned to produce a fully immersive theatrical world for the first Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival. Working with AEG, and the show’s creator Steven Knight, our aim was to celebrate the cultural phenomenon that is Peaky Blinders in all its broader aspects. The event, billed as an ‘immersive recreation of the Peaky’s World’, brought together music, fashion shows and  talks with the TV cast, all bound together by Dank’s coercive theatrics.

The event, taking place in Birmingham on 14th and 15th September, heralded the release of the show’s 5th  season. The show is much loved; an incredible 83,000 fans applied for a ticket via a ballot run by the BBC to attend series 5 premiere. It has won 12 awards including the 2018 BAFTA for Best Drama Series and Best Drama at the 2019 National Television Awards, series four was BBC Two’s biggest drama series of 2017 and last year it was announced that in the UK, the show will move from BBC Two to BBC One for its fifth series. 

 


“We toyed with doing this in London. That felt like a diss to Birmingham. Peaky Blinders has been a massive boost for the city and people here hold it close to their hearts. It had to be here.”

– John Empson


 

Set in Digbeth, the local warehouses, factories  and historic streets we were given to populate were the sites of the original Peaky Blinders activity.  At the outset it was our mission to encompass festival attendees into a fully believable, precisely detailed depiction of the post WW1/ Wall Street crash era. 

With  5 stages of music, numerous shred space performance zones, over 100 actors and 5,000 audience members a day, both the expectations and scale of the project were huge, presenting us with challenges across 3 sections we identified as:

1: Developing the Peaky IP

2: Staging shared-space Violence

3: Keeping the World Alive

1: Developing the Peaky IP

Challenge

Generating content for an existing product necessitates sensitive devising choices. How do we on one hand push the boundaries of the Peaky’s world outwards to make  it a panoramic experience, whilst on the other staying within the TV show’s narrative boundaries?

For instance, we had to be careful to give nothing away. The space between Season 4 and 5 involves Thomas Shelby becoming an elected member of parliament, and an unrivalled voice and leader for the working man of the country. However, we couldn’t have Thomas Shelby in our performance: How to create content for a franchise without recourse to the main character?


Solution

Peaky Blinders has a distinct aesthetic. It was obvious from the start that the visual success of the series is based off the instantly recognisable Peaky style. The authentic costuming of our actors was achieved through collaboration with The National Theatre.  Accents too, had to be authentic, intimate voice coaching sessions allowed our performers to fully immerse themselves in non-cliched West Midlands voices. 

To avoid any danger of creating ‘spoilers’ we  decided to acknowledge Thomas’ absence through the dictates he had left for the running of his organisation. In the fiction of our piece, Thomas Shelby has left his cousin, James Shelby, temporary top-dog, to oversee a transition from the Peaky’s gang-violence days into an era of peace, at least in the public realm. No longer can  violence be the narrative that dictates the order of the streets in middle England and so a day of charitable boxing matches has been organised to bring the community together and raise money for the Shelby Foundation and the Grace Shelby institute. In other words, our narrative brought to flesh the things which normally take place off-camera (or inside the viewer’s mind).

By setting the show in 1928 we also provided ourselves with ample opportunity to generate material from the seismic socio-political shifts of the day, to engage with ideas of community and working class empowerment, so Digbeth might  prove itself as a lynchpin in the next chapter of the people’s revolution.

 

The decision to frame the day as a desire for charity and peace introduced a devising dynamic which allowed us to expand in multiple directions. The main rule being: you have to do what the Peaky’s tell you, but if you don’t, then don’t get caught. This key discovery allowed us to open up the underbelly of 1920’s Birmingham by allowing each separate gang and faction to create rippling narratives in response to the Shelby dictates.  All undergangs created secret agendas and rivalries, each gang looking to secure the betterment of its tribe at the expense of others whilst being seen, at all times, to honour the precarious peace.


Outcome

Over 100 actors authentically distinguished from punters.

Extensive coverage and reviews from National media outlets, praising richness and detail of world, including full page spreads in Guardian, N.M.E, and Telegraph

Ongoing collaborative relationship with AEG consolidated, possibility of future events discussed

New, non-spoiler material generated around the TV series, including 10 hour world narrative, and side-narratives within this, covering 5 different factions.

Extensive Feedback from audience members praising authenticity and narrative depth.

Possibilities of further extension generated by creating material based on socio-political concerns of late 1920’s, Women’s Rights, Wall Street Crash.

Audience awarded unique roles:  welcomed as Digbeth locals, on the face of it to enjoy the prize-fights,  gambling, street entertainments and music, but underneath to be enlisted to the more self-serving agendas of the criminal underworld.


"Dank Parish, brought the fantastical world to life"

- i news

"The TV show become reality"

- northern alive


2: Staging Shared-Space Violence

Challenge

The Peaky Blinders is incredibly violent. These are not pleasant people, they steal, they maim, they kill. They sit happily at the top of a vicious food-chain having gorged themselves on fallen enemies. The challenge  we were faced with here was to limit our recourse to violence. Sharing the same space as our audience meant we couldn’t have weapons. Not only that, but even the content itself must be ‘safe’, and not, given the associated dangers of dealing with a drinking audience,  encourage an atmosphere of violence in response to any brutalities we render.


Solution

Capitalising on the threat of violence: Incorporated into our narrative was the idea that it is no longer acceptable for the children of Birmingham to grow up in a community where violence and bloodshed is an everyday common occurrence. The rules of our streets dictated that any man who brandishes a gun in the heat of rage, or without the consent of contract, would be dealt with justly and firmly  by the Peaky Blinders. 

 

Capitalising on the threat of violence: Incorporated into our narrative was the idea that it is no longer acceptable for the children of Birmingham to grow up in a community where violence and bloodshed is an everyday common occurrence. The rules of our streets dictated that any man who brandishes a gun in the heat of rage, or without the consent of contract, would be dealt with justly and firmly  by the Peaky Blinders. 

 

We were sensitive, throughout the performance, to the dangers of inviting violent attitudes from our audience. The content, even without enacted blood-shed, proved, at times, incendiary.  Our audience, fully immersed in the less than liberal outlooks of the 1920’s world and fully motivated by alcohol, at times ventured into areas we were keen to avoid. The Peaky’s world depicts marginalised people such as travellers and  the Jewish community, and deploys a lexicon which is far more racist and sexist than contemporary standards. We took the decision to not only avoid, but directly challenge the audience if any sexist or racist phrases were uttered. So when Gypsies were called ‘pikies’ or female Peakys were maligned, other actors stepped in and insisted on respect in language, as well as action.

Violence as ‘play’:  The day was based on 4 charitable boxing matches which took place at various intervals. These fights were set in a boxing ring, and as such, was obviously theatrical.  Moreover, each fight was shrouded in elaborate storytelling, gambling, and audience enlistment, in order to make the mythology of each fight transcend the focussed point of combat and permeate across all the day’s activity. In other words, they allowed us to channel and control the violent conduits of the Peaky’s World. 

The only time we used blood was during the fights, inside the boxing-ring, so that the audience knew that these moments were staged: the spectacle of flowing blood in shared space performance  zones can be too easily misinterpreted as an actual altercation, stage violence must declare itself as illusory. To this end, we also had key moments of stylised choreography in each boxing match, a moment when the fight enters a slow motion phrase, accompanied by LX and SFX changes, and mirrored by actors in the crowd. These heavily stylised moments made it clear to the audience that we are creating beauty within horror, it makes their role as theatre attendees clear, and allowed us to achieve an increasingly cinematic aesthetic.

Audience-performer contracts: We staged 2 street spectacles over the course of the day which happened amidst huge audience crowds. One of these was a women’s march against unfair representation. Here, despite the volatility of the subject matter, performers insist with the audience members they enlisted that it is a peaceful demonstration, that all protestors must be as one, unified in attitude and intent,  linking arms to show solidarity with each other, rather than solitary acts of violence towards the status quo.


Outcome

Reviews cited professionalism and style of boxing matches as being high-point of festival activity.

Instances of audience violence (1 physical, 13 verbal) were dissipated and dealt with in the moment by well-prepped actors and marshalls

Creation of huge street spectacles utilising over 300 audience members

Choreographed moments of violence and spectacle used as video-content for marketing future incarnations of festival.

The only arrests that happened over the course of the festival were in music stages, none in well-curated Dank performance zones.

Creation of a lexicon which balances modern liberal values and 1920s 

Sustained protective boundaries for audience and performer developed as blue-print for future work


"The bloodletting was very dramatic and looked extremely authentic"

- I am birmingham

"The crowd became huge with all the women joining"

- burmlive


3: Keeping the World Alive

Challenge

Our time was limited; with only 2 weeks of rehearsal we had to create a fully detailed world, populated with over 100 actors. Moreover, each actor within the world had to have recourse to up to 10 hours of embodied material so they could occupy their locales, and by immersed within content, to the point that they were equipped to deal with all the audience may, or may not offer.


Solution

Instant immersion: If the actor isn’t complicit in the material, the audience will never be. For this reason our rehearsals focussed, on the first instance, in providing hooks for the actor to attach to the specifics of their clan. The ‘wants’ of each separate clan were devised independently from the other clans to ensure the simultaneous goals of allowing the actor to identify with their ‘own’ (the starting point for generating character), and to crystallise the idea  that their clan is in subtle conflict with all the other clans (the starting point for generating narrative).  

Actor as devisor:  large parts of the story are only realised during performance. Our goal is to provide the actor with a firm springboard into generating material in the moment, even as their characters come to know themselves.

The sustained rivalry of each faction meant that there was always a base narrative operating throughout the day, the reception of which would vary according to which faction an audience  member allowed themselves to be pulled into. In a warehouse we had a VIP casino run by the Paekys, in the yard we had a gypsy encampment, protecting the Shelbys, but also looking, with sleight of hand and street entertainments, to profit from the public.  We had full access to a pub, ‘The Ruin’- which we populated with the O ‘Carrolls, a proud Irish family with a traditional lineage and links to the original Irish Volunteers and Irish Republican Army.  We had a corrupt Police force, empowered to occupy any performance zone and through reward and intimidation enhance its status within the community.  

The shifting audience: Because the level of audience interaction is always difficult to forsee, we created material which would stand up with or without direct audience participation. Audience numbers were always shifting, and due to the short lead time to the festival, ticket sales fell short of  its 20,000 remit. For this reason we made sure the narratives of each character could play out as both passive and active audience experiences. In passive mode, playing styles involved staging a moment of drama next to, around, or in the middle of audience groupings- to give the impression that they’re overhearing something, becoming privy to, a moment of intrigue which may lead into further discovery. When audiences do want to play more actively, they are pulled into the agendas the actors are already  playing, becoming a fresh initiate.


Outcome

Over 100 performers endowed as devisors created unique narratives for their characters

Flexibility  of material created can play out as active or passive audience experience

The rules and mechanics of 5 different clans identified and developed

8,500 audience members engaged over 2 days

Audience feedback praised immersion and stamina of actors, maintaining the immersive world over 10 hour performances


"Dank Parish… brought the festival to a standstill"

- i am birmingham

"Streets of Digbeth teemed with crime lords looking for trouble"

- telegraph


Conclusion

Since the first series of Peaky Blinders was broadcast, visitor numbers to Birmingham have increased to a record 43 million last year, a 21% increase since 2013.

With the series going from strength to strength, coupled with the innovations of Peaky’s cultural applications, we look forward to the future, and the possibility of another Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival.