Tommy, Arthur and John Sheldon – “You are now under the protection of the !*&%^#$ Peaky Blinders!”
The three Romani/Irish brothers return from WWI service – broken and shattered. Tommy is disillusioned and beset with ongoing nightmares, John is numb and prone to casual violence, Arthur has PTSD (known as shell-shock back then) and suffers from violent outbursts and constant mood swings.
They return to Small Heath and a harsh and brutal industrial landscape needing to make a life for themselves and the family – and family is a big thing here. What emerges is a growing Shelby empire built first on a protection racket and growing through alcohol and gun smuggling and gambling, propped up by extreme violence. They are known as the “Peaky Blinders” because signed-up members wear caps with razor blades sewn into the peaks. They are absolutely the Birmingham version of the well-known Mafia-families we are familiar with from our TV screens over several decades – a strange mix of family, loyalty, a “code”, massive acumulated wealth and extreme violence.
We are now in series Four – and it is always the case when you invest in a TV series and follow a family over a number of years that you find yourself somehow on their side. But then you catch yourself and wonder why it is that you are on the side of a brutal, violent gang of protection racketeers…
The answer is complex.
Peaky Blinders is fantastic drama. Perhaps, though, its secret is the depth and complexity that it gives to its central characters. The Shelbies are not simply painted as poor victims of the slaughter and mayhem of WWI whose only means of survival was to drag themselves up by their bootstraps. It would have been easy for the producers to paint a picture of poor working-class survivors doing their best to beat the system crushingly weighed against them – occasionally doing bad things but only to bad people and never hurting other poor people around them – working class heroes. But this is NOT what happens. They ARE truly damaged victims of the horror of WWI – and that is very clearly brought out – but they also have choices and often they make terrible choices for which they are absolutely morally responsible – and they know this and they don’t look for excuses. They are not muddy-faced angels.
The reason is sustains itself into series four – and a fifth series is planned – is not just because the series are short – but because the characters are complex and real. It is almost impossible to tease out precisely the motivations for the paths they choose. Some of it seems inevitable for war-damaged young men, some of it is simple greed, some of it (perhaps most of it?) is a twisted and desperate raging thirst for respect and the idea that wealth and fear will bring that respect and a place at society’s top table.
Cillian Murphy creates an on-screen Tommy Shelby who is mesmerisingly charismatic – a man who is wrestling demons. The demons often win – but not always – and it is his struggle that keeps us on board.
(Also – it has a CRACKING Nick Cave theme tune!) Add in the brothers slow-mo walking down streets – sometimes with a horse and always with a cigarette – and through steel industrial smoke, flames and sparks – and what’s not to like!)
The bible presents us, similarly, with complex characters – characters with real lives. King David has Bathsheba’s husband killed off on the front line of battle. David saw Bathsheba bathing naked and wants her for himself. Selfish lust and murder – yet this is David, the hero of the Goliath scene and the King presented as the ideal – the shepherd boy plucked from a life of obscurity to become Israel’s greatest leader.
Not even Jesus is presented as Mr sickly-sweet and squeaky-clean. He breaks local religious laws, he argues with the religious authorities, he gets angry and uses foul language and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, he hangs about with prostitutes, he speaks to women on their own, unchaperoned, he runs amok in the temple, violently throwing the furniture around and attacking stallholders with a whip. Jesus is no Peaky Blinder – but he is every bit as engagingly real and complex.
Whilst Peaky Blinders is essentially about the rise of a Birmingham Mafia-esque family, it is also allows a glimpse into the daily grinding poverty that gripped the lives of entire generations in the post WWI years. By not focussing on it, but merely allowing us to see it, makes it all the more powerful. The matter-of-factness of it all – that’s how life is – is devastating. Jesus lived with exactly the same atmosphere of poverty and grinding oppression, with people damaged by warfare and conflict. But he had an entirely different idea about how to live life in its midst.
Mastering a post WWI Birmingham accent is no easy matter – there are mixed opinions about how well Cillian Murphy does this. But for a non-Brummie it is no easy matter as demonstrated by Korean Billy in this masterlass!