If I read the intention of the creator of the TV series Peaky Blinders correctly, for Steven Knight, gangsterism is a representation of the world writ small. He overtly expressed a wish to make the series larger than life, but as viewed by a ten-year-old. The series is also an enlarged life in another way in which the small confronted the large, as evidenced in many events in the film, including the final boxing match. Behind the façade of murders and scheming, lies the premise that ideas, ideology, and especially theology and biblical tropes rather than convictions, count. They are as living as the blast furnaces on that street in Birmingham.
At a dangerous and justifiably paranoid time of agitation and violence, when ideological factionalism set brother against brother, the deep bonds of blood brothers provided an extra source of strength. In the end, for Knight, this analysis of tribalism writ large is more important than self-interest, economics, class and balance of power – though all these additions play a very significant part in the drama.
The series, with four years under its belt and three more to go, ended a year ago in December 2017. Peaky Blinders is based as much on superstructure as plot or character or theme, on manipulative, self-perpetuating elites interacting with those with intimate social ties, though ones which shift and vary with context. In both cases, at both levels, they are in the end ethnic in the broader sense. However, the dynamism comes from Tommy’s (and sometimes Polly’s) initiatives in mobilization, ensuring participation and structuring the Shelby organization. Together, both levels reinforce the ethnicity and the different dynamics of oppression and how they interact.
Gender also plays a role as defined by the various female characters who had developed an unprecedented degree of independence during WWI when they ran things. Major female characters include Polly (Helen McCrory) with her organizational skills complemented by her Gypsy ability at “sight,” and Grace (née Burgess) Shelby (Annabelle Wallis) with her ability to work undercover while possessing a determination and a sense of sacrifice. This role may have been the one real sample of both poor characterization – her shift in personality from the first to the second series was both a cliché and implausible when she cheats on her husband – and possibly casting, for Wallis was cool as a cucumber as a British undercover agent, but cold and wooden when, out of passion, she betrays her husband for Tom Shelby.
The female cast also includes: Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle) with her independence and ideological commitment, even as she shifted, in this case, totally plausibly and convincingly, to capitalism from her communism in the opening series when she was enamoured with Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), a communist agitator whom she married and whose baby she had; and Lizzie Stark (Natasha O’Keeffe), the loveable prostitute rather than adulteress (John 7:53 – 8:11) who had no need of the historically real Josephine Butler who agitated on behalf of prostitutes, for Lizzie was accepted as an individual in her own right, even if not as a bride for John Shelby (Joe Cole).
The fantastic women also include Linda Shelby (Kate Phillips), a true Christian who works hard to get the eldest Shelby, Arthur (Paul Anderson), on the straight and narrow, but becomes a Shelby and falls to the lure of alcohol and drugs; Esmé Shelby (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a loyal and loving wife to John Shelby even though the marriage was arranged to cement an alliance between two gypsy clans; May Fitz Carleton (Charlotte Riley), the epitome of loneliness and wealth, a horse trainer who is grounded rather than aloof, privileged but aching for dynamism instead of the straight-laced life, hence her deep love of thoroughbreds – and, paradoxically, Tommy Shelby.
The cast also includes Princess Tatiana Petrovna (Gaite Jansen), a White Russian duchess who cannot be trusted at all – a characteristic of the aristocratic classes that runs through the series – for she, without any scruples, is manipulative and ruthless, degenerate and capable of cold-blooded murder, with the same gift of sight as the royal Romani, Polly, while as calculating and clever as Tommy Shelby. The very opposite foil for the Russian duchess is Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy), a communist union boss who proves to be as determined and disciplined as Tommy Shelby. There was a real Jessie Eden who founded mass trade unionism for women in Britain. The character in Peaky Blinders is a worthy tribute, especially when she bargains for equal pay for women with Tommy Shelby. In fact, and more generally, it is worth watching Peaky Blinders for the gender angle alone, an angle usually given only a passing glance in a gangster movie.
Peaky Blinders is not a historically accurate TV series. For example, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the leader of the Peaky Blinders, claimed that he (and Churchill) fought at the Somme and Verdun when Winston Churchill had temporarily left politics for active military service following his role in championing the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign. However, no British soldiers were involved in the Battle of Verdun, the largest and longest battle of the war; it was a French-German battleground that went on for ten months in 1916.
There are other historical errors and oversights, as well as many implausible dramatic touches. Peaky Blinders was a real Birmingham gang in the 1890s with the usual well-dressed, powerful and ruthless mobsters, but, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, none with the intellectual capacities and emotional range of Tommy Shelby. Further, the gang had disappeared by the 1920s. And even then, gangs consisted of “toughs” rather than mobsters engaged in organized crime. On the other hand, Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles), who is killed at the end of the first year’s series, was a real historical character who controlled race courses. As in Peaky Blinders, he was murdered.
Nevertheless, the series goes beyond being terrific and enters into the realm of speculative historiography in trying to portray that history in terms of underlying competing forces. Further, just as leaders of gangs try both to avenge their fathers and exalt their memories, statesmen are little different. Winston Churchill in one of his published speeches said of his own father, Lord Randolph, when he died, “All my dreams of companionship with him, of entering Parliament at his side and in his support were ended. There remained only for me to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.”
In the opening episode of Peaky Blinders, the British government, via orders of Winston Churchill, presumably then in his capacity as Minister of Munitions, was sending machine guns to Libya in 1919. There is no explanation of why Britain would be doing this. But any superficial knowledge of history suggests that Britain was supplying those arms to Italy to support its colonization of that country, the legacy of which remains with us to this day. Italy then controlled the coast of what is now Libya; it did not control the hinterland. British assistance was critical in the Italian Tripolitania and Cyrenaica campaigns.
Much more locally in terms of historical realism, as a result of the industrial revolution, Sparkhill was developed in 1890 with industries and working-class housing. It even had its own pub like The Garrison. Settled initially by immigrants from Ireland, in our time Pakistanis would take their place. The area was annexed by Birmingham in 1911 and Sparkhill evolved into an inner-city area one year after Libya was first colonized by Italy. In 1919, a factory of the BSA Company located in Sparkhill had an exclusive contract to refurbish and dispose of surplus munitions, including Lewis guns left over from WWI.
Just as the gangs in Britain recruited mercenaries to their ranks in rivalries with other gangs, Italy employed mercenaries from Somalia and Eritrea to expand its empire. The world of domestic gangs mirrored the imperial struggles in the larger world and played bit parts in those struggles. The recruits were also vicious killers. Just as the factory workers were organized by the communist party of Britain, supported by Russia (another element woven through the series), and went on wildcat strikes and participated in general strikes, the Arabs revolted in 1919. Italy needed guns to put down the rebellion. And Britain needed to keep the stolen guns out of the hands of the IRA then conducting a civil war in Ireland, another thread in the TV series and a link to real historical events.
As the forces of nationalism, of fascism, of communism, of imperialism, rivaled one another, they also do so in Peaky Binders as a critical ingredient in the background. Locally, gangs were rooted in ethnicities – Gypsy, Irish, Jewish, Italian – internationally the rivalries were rooted in nationalities dressed up in ideologies. But the gangs on the ground in Britain were inherently capitalist, which gave them the economic push to advance their success.
The local scale reflected the international one. In 1922 in Birmingham, there was a truce between Billy Kimber, the historical real leader of the successor to Peaky Blinders, and the Sabinis. Just as in the series, gangs made temporary truces to advance their positions against other rivals. The Sabinis historically were the kings of the racehorse gangs controlling betting and racing in southern England. This Italian gang reputedly had 300 Sicilian “soldiers.” Nightclubs served as fronts for its backroom activities of extortion and robbery, and the gang was protected by police in its pay.
On the international scale, recall that Benito Mussolini, based on the theories of the philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 when Churchill had been elevated to Secretary of State for the Colonies. Mussolini was the first major leader in the post-WWI period to apply the principles of fascism and is erroneously often given credit for inventing that ideology. The British aristocracy, upper classes and wealthy industrialists largely remained silent backers of the fascists through the Economic League, an organization that plays an important part in the series in exchanging support “in high places” to Tommy Shelby at critical points in return for “favours,” namely targeted killings.
Founded in 1919, the Economic League in Britain was also a historical entity, a real McCarthyist entity organized by aristocratic landowners, industrialists, intelligence and army officers to counter lower class “subversion” and attacks on the free enterprise system of wealth accumulation. It was founded by Reginald Hall, who had been Director of Naval Intelligence under Winston, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. In 1925, as depicted in the series, the Economic League played a critical role in breaking the United Kingdom general strike of 1926 depicted in the third series.
In the second series, Churchill directs Campbell, then a Director of Intelligence, to find an assassin. Campbell traps Tommy Shelby into carrying out the assassination of Field Marshal Henry Russell. John Shelby initially drops an explosive device through the letter slot, and this seemed to shift the place of the assassination to Epsom Downs so that Tommy Shelby could escape the trap set for him by Campbell.
I presume, but I am not sure, that the Field Marshall was Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, who was a Unionist politician briefly and played a role in the suppression of the IRA in the 1919-1921 war. He was assassinated in June of 1922 by two IRA gunmen, not the Peaky Blinders, and it was on his doorstep, not Epson Downs. Poetic license?
But why would Churchill organize such an assassination in the first place? At the end of 1921, the British and the provisional Irish government signed a treaty to create The Irish Free State. Just as in Peaky Binders, efforts were made by the Economic League to sabotage both this treaty and British relations with the USSR by pinning the blowing up of the train carrying arms to the Italians in Libya onto the communists who were funded by Moscow. Churchill was adamantly opposed both to Irish independence and British relations with the communist USSR. The assassination of Wilson helped ignite the Irish Civil War in 1922.
Plausible, but I am doubtful if it was historically true, but it could have been. In any case, if Tommy Selby knew of this and revealed this British scandal, the results would have been far more devastating in Britain than the Contra Scandal was years later in America. This meant that Tommy Selby did indeed hold a Sword of Damocles over the power of the upper classes.
Even more realistic is the later plot in the series when Winston allegedly wanted to subvert the Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald who had taken power in 1924. That government sought to forge closer ties with the USSR. Churchill was dedicated to “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle” and freeing Britain of communist-controlled unions. An incident in which the Reds, financed by Moscow, would be blamed for blowing up an English train could easily have brought down the MacDonald government.
Peaky Blinders is about rejecting genteel multiculturalism at the same time as one takes the centre of politics to be about identity rather than class or capital. Thus, in voting, people vote and sacrifice for their tribe even if against their self-interest. In this model of politics, we have a reflection again of the rising right as was the case one hundred years ago. We also have a situation where politics is a matter of traps, of Machiavellianism and deceit as necessary means to get out of blind ends.
They are traps because, whether in the Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Brexit, vicious gangs in the Philippines, nuclear proliferation, climate change debates pitching jobs against apparently doomsday scenarios following climate change, two opposing and mutual exclusive alternatives are put forth. Tommy Shelby’s brilliance is his ability to think non-ideologically and laterally for a way out of the trap, in his case, much worse, more of a tunnel. If you are innovative, if you are clever enough, if you are far-seeing, there is often a third way around a trap.
Is the international system merely one alliance of gangs at war with a different set of ruthless allies? Donald Trump would have us believe not only that it is so, but that this is the only reality. He would have us all believe that we are trapped with no exit from the forces of bigotry and self-interest.