Years ago a kangaroo escaped from Dudley zoo. That’ll put Dudley on the map, mused locals laconically. History doesn’t record whether the animal was recaptured or whether, as a beautiful dream once suggested to me, it made a living as a bare-knuckle fighter behind some lock-ups until it could afford passage home.
But that’s not the point of the story. The point is nothing, not even rogue kangaroos, or Cuddles the killer whale, could put Dudley on the map. For a long time, the same was true of its try-hard neighbour, Birmingham. Brummies have always been blessed with an excess of civic pride. Didn’t the world know that Birmingham was special – city of a thousand trades, true cradle of the Industrial Revolution (Manchester? Forget about it), the place the world’s greatest sauce (HP), the world’s best chocolate (Cadbury’s Creme Egg) and the world’s greatest curry (balti, from the Urdu for bucket) were made?
The problem was no one believed the hype beyond the outer ring road. And then in 2013 something happened. The proverbial kangaroo escaped. Birmingham became chic and Stephen King tweeted: “Watching a cool British series called Peaky Blinders.” A TV series about veterans of the first world war-turned-gangsters who carry razor blades in the peaks of their caps down the many mean streets of Small Heath suddenly caught fire, with tastemakers as improbable as Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Dennis Lehane, Michael Mann and Ed Sheeran. David Bowie was a fan, suggesting his music be used in the show. There’s no easy way to say this, but its extraordinary transatlantic appeal was made possible by the disgraced sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. He bought the American rights and, as a result, it wound up on Netflix, watched by – among others – Snoop Dogg. As Peaky achieved cult status, one early headline called it “The good, the bad and the Brummie”. And the show’s star, Cillian Murphy, playing cap-wearing gang capo dei capi Tommy Shelby, is essentially Clint Eastwood without a poncho but in starched collar and flowing topcoat; a man of few words but eloquent moody equestrian silhouettes as he rides across the wild West Midlands.
It isn’t so much a spaghetti western, as a spaghetti junction western, with its creator, Steven Knight, honouring the city of his Small Heath grandparents. And one of the great pleasures of the show for me, too, is seeing approximations of my own sharply dressed working-class Black Country grandfathers, from nearby Wednesbury, redeemed from historic erasure. Not that my ancestors went tooled-up down the towpath, so far as I know.