It’s now several weeks since Series 3 of the UK TV drama Peaky Blinders finished broadcasting but I have often found myself thinking about this drama
Loosely based on actual historical events, it is set in post-World War 1 Birmingham (the British midlands) and follows the rise to power of a criminal gang dominated by the Shelby family under the leadership of Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). The first two series mostly focus on the Shelbys’ battles with other gangs to seize control over illegal betting on horse racing and on extending their influence beyond the midlands into London. However in Series 1 the discovery of a cachement of guns sees Tommy entangled in politics, caught between the IRA and the British government in the shape of no less a figure than Winston Churchill and with a clash with a local communist on the side.
By series 3 Tommy has accrued enough money and influence to move out from the Birmingham slums to a mansion in the county, getting married to Grace Burgess (Anabelle Wallis) who he met when she was spying on the Shelby’s for the police. Grace’s upper class, military background is a bonus point in his attempt to attain at least the semblance of being a legitimate local businessman. However, Tommy’s dreams crumble when Grace is accidently shot in an attack on Tommy by an Italian gang seeking revenge for a needless act of cruelty he has sanctioned earlier.
In a convoluted, even at times unfathomable, storyline Tommy is also still being secretly used and abused by the political establishment, this time by a covert far-right wing organisation called amongst other things ‘the Economic League’, who influence extends to Scotland Yard . Tommy is forced to carry out a shady deal involving various White (as opposed to Red/communist) Russians and some tanks which (I think) is actually part of conspiracy to force (or perhaps enable) the British government to break off diplomatic relationship with the newly formed Soviet Union.
I’ve been thinking about this drama in relation to ‘real world’ events but mostly I’ve been exploring how it works, in order to explain why I have been gripped by it from the start when, like so many successful television series of recent years there are times when extreme violence (including sexual violence) is indulged and fetishized.
Further, like so many such dramas it features several strong women characters- but in this context this signifies they have operate within a certain limited, well-worn formula, not least that they are in supporting roles defined primary through their relationships to the male characters and/or often feature in subplots subsidiary to the main action. To offer one of many instances in series 3, Grace’s (brief) role is limited to dramatic function in that there is no real narrative investment in her death, rather it is a plot device designed to push the development of Tommy’s character.
Further, some of the representations of the ethnic rival gangs (Italian and Jewish) can verge on stereotypes and the same holds for the depiction of figures from the Roma community to which the Shelby’s are related on their mother’s side.
In terms of Peaky Blinders attractions; the most obvious of these lie in its visual style, soundtrack and acting. From the opening sequence of the first series showing Tommy Shelby riding a black horse down the cobbles between of a row of grim terraced houses in the dull light of dawn, it was clear that the series had what used to be termed cinematic ambitions in regard to its scenography. Its filming takes full skillful advantage of the advances in digital technologies which have transformed television, allowing it to offer beautifully composed, often desolately or savagely beautiful images and striking large scale set pieces.
In regard to the acting as already noted, some of the less central characterisations veer towards stereotypes and the ‘brummie’ accent is mangled even by some of the stronger performers. Many of the brilliant women such as Aimee Ffion Edwards as forthright and stroppy Esme Shelby, are sadly underused. Nevertheless, the core cast of family including Paul Anderson as Arthur Shelby, Helen McCrory as (aunt) Polly Gray, excel at conveying complexity, ambiguity and a dangerous edginess, none more so than Murphy as Tommy, with his blue-eyed, unblinking, 100 yard stare.
What pulls these features together and really sets this series apart however, is the soundtrack, starting with its theme song ‘Red Right Hand’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and embracing songs by (amongst others) P.J. Harvey, Tom Waites, The Kills, The Artic Monkeys, Radiohead and David Bowie (who was apparently a fan). This historically anarchronistic soundtrack give this drama a self-conscious theatricality that recalls Quentin Tarantino’s films and the song choices, especially ‘Red Right Hand’ which often gives the feeling of watching a Western set in the UK.
Actually, while Peaky Blinders has been compared to US gangster’dramas such the Godfather trilogy and Boardwalk Empire, it recalls US TV series that have revived the western genre such as the ‘cult’ drama Deadwood, although the more popular Hell on Wheels is probably a better comparison. In fact, speaking to Rolling Stone the series creator Stephen Knight indicated that he conceived it as a Western and echoes of this quintessentially American genre have started to appear in other British TV series such as Ripper Street, set in the Victorian East End and to a lesser extent Sally Wainwright’s detective series Happy Valley, set in West Yorkshire. The imagining of deprived and marginalised areas in Britain (historical and contemporary) as a sort of western frontier is fraught with potential meanings at a point in time when disconnection between the regions and London as a political and economic centre seems so deep and the country as a whole divided by class interests and by a discourse of racism.
Speaking to Rolling Stone, Knight also said that in writing Peaky Blinders he was interested in exploring ‘impossible masculinity’ and Murphy’s performance recalls many a laconic hero from the Western genre in the tradition exemplified by the performances of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and to which the character of Cullen Bohanan (Anson Mount) in Hell on Wheels also belongs.
Like these cowboys and frontiersmen Tommy is a man of few words and of surpressed emotions, a maverick outsider who may not be a wholly ‘good’ but who in a lawless world, attempts to hold to some sort of code of honour.
Knight also told Rolling Stone that he wanted to mythologise the ‘working –class’ and it these terms its significant that Peaky Blinders is set in the immediate aftermath of the first world war. A key part of the backstory to the series is that Tommy, Arthur and some of the other gang members, have returned from fighting in this conflict and were part of a unit working literally underground, digging tunnels beneath enemy lines in a situation in which the officer class is notable for their absence, and which in flashback is represented as a sort of hell.
During the recent centenary commemorations of the first world war complaints were made by conservative MP Michael Gove about ‘left-wing plays’ like Joan Littlewood’s O What a Lovely War which present this war as ‘a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’ Actually, this play also suggests that this war (like all wars) benefited profiteers amongst this elite at the expense of the pointless slaughter of a generation of young men, in particular working –class young men. Actually, as Gove also complained, these views are upheld by most of the highly respected historians who specialise in this war
Those who survived this conflict returned bearing the indelible marks of physical and/mental trauma to an England already showing signs of a recession that would lead to the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and a further deepening of social divisions of the country in terms of class, ethnicity and region. In Peaky Blinders if Tommy and the others are men of violence, the sense is that this is the legacy of their war experience as they struggle with post-traumatic stress in a country which fails to fully recognise or compensate for their past and present suffering.
The (male) soldier might be the model of ‘impossible masculinity’, required to undertake actions in service that are unlawful and/or taboo in everyday civil society but then simply return to being part of that society as if nothing had occurred. Hence, we see Tommy wrestling with his nightmares and flashbacks in secret, controlling them by use of opium as if they are a matter of shame to be concealed, while attempting to take up the role as head of the family and provider. Further, although a much decorated war hero, back home, his Roma family background constantly make him a target of suspicion and prejudice.
A violent reaction to these circumstances might be understandable but not condonable and the narrative constantly ups the ante against him. Ironically, he finds himself once again being used as a disposable foot soldier, a pawn in a covert game controlled by callous and/or corrupt officials under the sway of distant London politicians. Throughout the series he is often subject to extremes of physical and mental violence and of dis-empowerment and like many such heroes, Tommy’s sheer ability to survive the punishment meted out to him renders him an impossible, mythical character. At the same time the other criminal gangs are represented as even more vicious than the Peaky Blinders and the representatives of the state he deals with gradually increase in brutality and corruption, from the self -righteous Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) in series 1 and 2 to Father John Hughes (Paddy Constantine) representative of the Economic League in Series 3, whose sadistic behaviour verges on motiveless malignancy.
A paedophile priest, Hughes threatens, then kidnaps Tommy’s infant son and in a wholly counter-productive manner has Tommy beaten nearly to death in order to ensure his co-operation. By contrast, Tommy is shown to have moments of compunction and compassion to the weak and the vulnerable (women and children) and in series 3 finds himself unable to follow through his threat to torture to death the man who gave the order that ended in Grace’s death, who instead is afforded the ‘mercy’ of being shot. Until the end of this series he also maintains a loyalty to his family, albeit based on a sort of benevolent tyranny. Nevertheless, faced by ever increasing levels of brutality there is a narrative logic to the idea that Tommy needs to become even more brutal in order to survive.
There is a crucial moment in the penultimate episode of this series during a scene with Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), the volatile, unpredictable and utterly ruthless head of a gang that appears to be made of orthodox Jews (or rather this is how they present themselves) and who is prone to use old testament metaphors. Solomons was supposedly helping Tommy to double cross of the White Russians and the Economic League but double crosses Tommy putting the safety of his child at risk. When Tommy accuses Alfie of having ‘crossed a line’ and goes to kill him, Tommy’s nephew Michael Gray (Finn Cole) intervenes warning that to do so would destroy the ‘peace pact’ the blinders negotiated with the London gangs via Solomons. Solomons erupts saying that Tommy’s anger has nothing to do with a peace pact and refutes the idea of not killing him for this reason. Instead, he faces Tommy down, refusing to be judged because he put Tommy’s son in danger, stating ‘he who lives by the fucking sword dies by the fucking sword, Tommy’. He asks ‘how many fathers and sons have you killed, maimed, cut, slaughtered, guilty or innocent… you are just like me… don’t talk to me about crossing a fucking line’. Finally, Solomons demands that if he is to be killed it should be for an ‘honourable’ reason’ in the recognition of ‘the wicked world in which we live’.
Tommy responds to this tirade by saying ‘Well said Alfie, well said’.
Solomon’s exposes the futility and the hypocrisy of Tommy’s dream of legitimacy ,of taking a place in the world of what Solomons described as the ‘civilians’. He has already gone too far over any sort of line to return. The only honourable thing left to him is to take responsibility for his choices and to acknowledge that he has become a ruthless combatant in a world outside of civil society, governed only by the law of the survival of the most ruthless. The traumatised returned soldier/hero turned criminal becomes criminal as mythical outsider, who in contrast to the lies, self-deceptions and obscufations of the ruling classes, are at least honest about their motives and clear eyed about the nature of their choices. Paradoxically, this self-awareness allows the possibility of redemption but it might also be seen as a claim to a sort of existential freedom beyond good and evil.
This mode of mythical, impossible masculinity draws on the same influences often found in the Western genre: the old testament, existentialism, a dab of Milton, a dollop of Manicheism and a splash of Nietzsche. But the narrative structures that produce this figure only works in terms of an especially rugged individualism. Identification remains firmly on the anti-hero as an exceptional individual in hostile landscape where the stakes are raised so high against him that actually his choices are made to appear no choice at all. Further the build-up of pressure works so that when he does indulge in acts of violent vengeance it brings a sense of relief and release. What is lost in all this is that the heroe’s choices are made at the expense of the choices of others,; the civilians who are collateral damage in this vision of existence as a war, even in times of peace.
I think Peaky Blinders does explore some of the contradictions and ambivalences around this impossible masculinity but actually as a mythology of the working-class it repeats dubious myths woven by the media to glamourise ‘real life’ figures like the Kray twins.
There are other stories that could be told, no more or no less mythical but which do not centre around this sort of masculinity and narrative structure of endlessly escalating violence; stories of community, solidarity, collectivity and care, of an ethical responsibility not to accept the wickedness of the world but to try and change it. Interestingly, I would suggest Happy Valley explores some of these other stories, mixing elements of the Western with more domestic genres and featuring a female protagonist who is tempted to violence and vengeance yet remains motivated by a sense of honour based on a duty of care for others.
Peaky Blinders is well-crafted and enjoyable television but I’d feel easier about enjoying it if there were not so many examples in the real world of attempts to inhabit the sort of ‘impossible masculinity’ it explores, if the same or similar myths and narrative structures were not employed to alibi all sort of wars and if alternative myths of collectivity, solidarity and care were not so often dismissed and ignored as impossibly feminine.