Peaky Blinders creator and proud Brummie Steven Knight says ‘the time has come’ for a creative revolution in Birmingham – declaring ‘it’s time we let the world know we’re here, and what we’re all about’. Speaking ahead of significant prospects for the city including the construction of his own film studio, the introduction of HS2 and the Channel 4 bid, Knight envisions a new identity for Birmingham.
“It’s always been a place where people have made things,” he says, “and now they’ll be making films instead of cars.”
You can’t talk about Steven Knight without mentioning the TV phenomenon Peaky Blinders. First airing on the BBC in 2013, the Small Heath gangster drama has catapulted Birmingham into the collective consciousness and brought world recognition to the once overlooked city. The series is set in the aftermath of the First World War, when the West Midlands was still a bustling industrial hub. With imposing chimneys and furnaces as a backdrop, the noise and mist of industry permeates every scene, acting almost as a peripheral character and a constant reminder of Birmingham’s historic profile.
But with the country facing the decline of manufacturing in recent years, Knight thinks it is now time for the city to develop a new identity.
“With the change in the way the world works, the end of the manufacturing workshop of the world profile, it’s taken a while for Birmingham to find its new identity,” he says, “but right now with Brexit, and with all of those other things, Birmingham needs to stamp its mark on the culture and on the consciousness of people all over the world.”
So why hasn’t Birmingham achieved the same cultural recognition as comparable cities such as Liverpool and Manchester? Knight suggests it’s because Brummies ‘aren’t ones to get carried away and bang their own drums,’ adding that ‘it’s not a city that craves attention’.
But rather than see this as a failing, he believes that a mine of untapped creative potential exists in the region.
“It’s that this has never been a place where the culture has been exhausted. This is all fresh stuff. Creative people have always originated in this city and done their stuff in this city and changed the world. From William Shakespeare, arts and crafts, making cars – we want to tell that story, and at the same time we want to become part of that story.”
Birmingham finds itself on the cusp of an exciting period in its history. The imminent arrival of HS2 and 5G, the bid to bring Channel 4 to the region and the upcoming Commonwealth Games have created a real buzz around the city. Knight is building on this momentum by constructing a brand new film studio in the heart of Brum that he hopes will be the calling card for American filmmakers. And the award-winning director believes the introduction of HS2 will only boost trade for the creative industries in the West Midlands, slashing travel times from Heathrow for Hollywood executives.
“What I want them to understand is that they can fly in and fly out. That they are very close to London, when HS2 comes in,” he says. We want to work and function completely as a destination where people can fly in from New York, walk with a wheeled hand luggage case to the studio, make their film, and then walk back to the airport.
“We’re very connected nationally and internationally. It’s about momentum, and you get a magnetism around certain places at certain times, and it starts to attract all sorts of people.
“I’m also really hoping that Channel 4 come because their profile and Birmingham’s profile have a lot in common. It’s very young, alternative, it’s free-thinking, and Birmingham has been all of those things for the last century.”
Revealing his plans for a ‘media neighbourhood’, Knight’s vision reflects an inclusive and open culture that will harness young local talent and promote the city as a true contender on the world stage.
“There is a pool of young talent here, in the city of Birmingham, that will make film making easy,” he says, “we’re going to have film studios, television studios, post-production facilities, but also bars, restaurants, cafes, a cinema, a theatre.
“Make it a place where people want to go as a destination, as well as a place where we make great film and television.”
Highlighting the huge demand for studio space in Britain, Knight plans to create an international destination that’s purpose-built for big productions. And he pointed to some of the city’s vacant industrial plots as perfect examples of the fertile ground and building stock that is ripe for development.
“Digbeth for me, and it’s not stretching the point at all, Digbeth reminds me of Tribecca, before it became Tribecca in New York,” he says, “you know that was an industrial meat packing district, and then that stopped and the places were empty for a while, and then somebody comes along and goes ‘hang on a minute, think of what we could do with this, look at the potential, look how close it is to everything’.”
Knight’s ambitious project has political backing in spades. The West Midlands Combined Authority has recently established a new creative commission aimed at increasing the area’s profile as a ‘world class creative & cultural region’, while Mayor Andy Street is a key supporter. And he claims that this shifting political focus is just further evidence that the moment is right for ‘a real cultural explosion in Birmingham’.
“Where it was once a peripheral industry, now it’s a really important industry,” he says, “it’s one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and it’s what Britain does best. For the size of the nation, in terms of soft power, the creative arts that emanate from this country are phenomenally powerful. This is a place where creative people thrive and do great work.
“So it makes sense for people to invest in that, to make the most of what is available here with the creative industry. And I think that Birmingham should be the cradle for all of this, it should be where all of this is happening.”
The writer revealed that an announcement on his new studio is ‘imminent’, with the project expected to be underway during the next year.
With the region welcoming improved transport links, new technology, and a fresh political focus on the creative industries, Knight’s vision of Birmingham as a creative powerhouse seems like a real possibility. With the Channel 4 bid and plans for a new ‘media neighbourhood’ also in the pipeline, we could soon see a future where the creative arts are as much a hallmark of Birmingham’s identity as it’s industrialist past.