Remembering our Starring Role in BBC's Peaky Blinders
With the launch of the latest – and final – series of the BBC’s hit series Peaky Blinders, we’re looking back to when the series started in 2013 and the versatile City Varieties Music Hall starred as a dingy Birmingham cinema and ornate opera house.
Written by Bryony Jameson.
Back in early 2013, our Programming Manager Andrea Wadsworth was approached by a Location Manager to do a recce for a new drama about a Birmingham gang who had razor blades in their caps. They ended up choosing The Varieties for not one, but three different scenes in episodes one and two.
Screen Yorkshire provided the funding for the production of the first series through the Yorkshire Content Fund, which ensured that the majority of the show was filmed on our doorstep.
Becoming Penny Crush Picture House…
Our first appearance takes place as a dingy, smoke-filled cinema in Small Heath Birmingham called Penny Crush Picture House in 1919.
The glass cabinet at the top of our stairs (which hosts various artefacts from pantomimes over the years) was covered up with a cinema playbill screening Charlie Chaplin in Sunnyside. As Chaplin performed on our stage as one of The Eight Lancashire Lads prior to his Hollywood success, it’s a nice coincidental nod to our history.
A couple of other changes needed to be made to transport viewers back to 1919. Fixtures like fire extinguishers, fire exits and other signage needed to be removed or covered to complete the look.
Our first appearance as the Picture House is in episode one where we see the inimitable Arthur Shelby, played by Paul Anderson, accompanied by two lady friends. Pushing through the crowds, they enter the auditorium and get comfortable. However their evening is to be cut short as the police interrupt, grabbing Arthur from behind. What follows? Some of the notorious Peaky Blinders violence.
The Penny Crush reappears in episode two, screening a Rudolph Valentino movie with live piano accompaniment. Ada Shelby, played by Sophie Rundle, is enjoying the film with some popcorn before being interrupted by her brother, the steely-eyed Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, who stops the film before threatening the entire audience. Why? To find out the name of the man she is seeing.
From Music Hall to Opera House…
Our final appearance, also episode two, saw The Varieties transformed from a smoke-filled cinema into an Opera House. Enough to envy The Grand? Maybe.
With brighter lighting, fancier costumes and the use of our boxes, the production company were able to use the auditorium as a more glamourous setting for – you guessed it – more dodgy dealings.
In this scene Chief Inspector/Major Chester Campbell, played by Sam Neill, gives Grace Burgess, played by Annabelle Wallis, her orders to get close to Tommy Shelby to find out information about the missing consignment of guns before handing over a concealed weapon, just in case.
We can only hope that there weren’t any dodgy dealings like this going on in our music hall in 1919, or maybe this was just what happened in opera houses?