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The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival, review: Primal Scream rock 1920s Birmingham in a criminally good immersive experience

Mark Beaumont
Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie onstage at The The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival  - Redferns

From the soot-engrained factories in the east to the Roma camp fayre in the west, the industrial streets of Digbeth teemed with flapper girls looking for fun and flat-capped crime lords looking for trouble. They crowded antique boxing rings, queued for fresh buzz-cuts at the 1920s barber shop and battled in the streets, separated by whistle-blowing coppers.

And be it the fashion show at Garrison tailors – surprisingly short on razor-blade caps - or a swing-band covering The Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling on a repurposed carousel, nothing happened unless “by order of the Peaky Blinders”.

For one weekend, this authentically Victorian corner of Birmingham became a living, breathing set of the BBC’s celebrated drama of Birmingham’s 1920s underworld power struggles. Festivals themed around TV shows aren’t new; until recently Festival No 6 filled Portmeirion with blazer-clad devotees of The Prisoner every September, and The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival, embracing Secret Cinema’s immersive theatre and co-curated by the show’s creator Steven Knight, seemed its natural heir.

Actors staged tense stand-offs in a recreation of the Garrison pub, roamed the streets handing out lucky lavender and manned coconut shies beside the Lee family’s caravans. Ballet troupe Rambert danced out gangland executions to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ menacing theme song Red Right Hand and Knight held Q&As alongside key cast members (sorry, no Cillian Murphy). Away from the area’s resident tiki bars full of wannabe Shelbys drinking cocktails to Song 2, it was so Peaky you expected to stumble upon race-fixing schemes at every corner.

With soundtrack mainstays Cave and Jack White absent, the musical bill inevitably felt incongruous. Anna Calvi’s smoky theatrical seductions might seem better suited to a Twin Peaks festival but, having scored series 5, she was the Peakiest act here. Honouring rather than recreating her score, she indulged in atmospheric heat-haze rock, choruses of windswept drama and a stark, guitar-led duet with Savages’ Jehnny Beth on Red Right Hand. Fellow soundtrack alumni Richard Hawley also appeared for Strange Weather, a plaintive piano ballad scarred with bursts of atonal guitar noise.

The Rambert Theatre company performing The Red Right Hand Credit: Ollie Millington/Redferns

Despite attacking the songs with trademark petulance, Liam Gallagher’s secret set suffered from the urban festival malaise of chronic sound restrictions, muting Oasis monsters such as Rock’n’Roll Star and Columbia into muddy karaoke. Riffs that usually hit like hurricanes merely buzzed like gnats; for the first time ever, Supersonic sounded ethereal.

On the upside, Liam’s subtler solo songs – Paper Crown, a viola-accompanied Eh La and Once, a stirring arm-waver from his forthcoming second album Why Me? Why Not. – cut charmingly through the noise.

Considering their narcotic past, Headliners Primal Scream should perhaps be playing a Breaking Bad festival; judging by singer Bobby Gillespie’s brightly coloured suit they’d been boning up on Pinky Blinders instead. But, with Gillespie clapping and jiving like a freaky Mick Jagger, they delivered a gloriously genre-hopping hits set of bluesy party rock, stoner rave and driving post-punk in keeping with their adventurous career. All told, a roaring success and a no doubt the cue for a Downton Abbey festival, featuring James Blunt and Mumford & Sons.