‘Peaky Blinders’ is the BBC’s flagship ‘gangster’ drama this autumn, offering a Brummagem rival to HBO success, ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Both dramas are set in the interwar period, the latter in prohibition era Atlantic City. Peaky Blinders is set in the aftermath of the Great War, and the shadow of that war looms broodingly over the narrative. Thomas Shelby, the central character played by charismatic Irish actor, Cillian Murphy, is a veteran; other characters, such as ‘Danny Whizz-Bang’, bear the mental and physical scars of war.
The notion of realism and authenticity has characterised descriptions of the drama both by its writer and director, Steven Knight and Otto Bathhurst, as well as in media reviews. As Birmingham born Knight remarked in an interview with The Guardian, “The stories for Peaky Blinders came through my family – my Mum and Dad lived in Small Heath as kids, and were involved in the illegal betting industry. Off-track betting was illegal, so there were a lot of bookies, a lot of gangsters with guns. I had these snapshots of stories that I'd never read about in the history books” (6 September, 2012). Certainly Britain did experience a surge in racecourse attendance at this time, and at certain points during the 1920s, the gambling ‘industry’ became the subject of significant press, police and political attention. Most notably in London, Sheffield and Glasgow, problems related to gambling and gang-related violence would erupt. In London, the Clerkenwell-based Anglo-Italian Sabini family are most often drawn as the key protagonists. In particular, the ‘head’ of the family, Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini, is understood to have been the main power on the London and south-east racecourses. His key rival was William “Billy” Kimber, portrayed in the BBC drama as the ‘kingpin’ in the gambling and racing underworld, his dominance challenged by Tommy Shelby and his ‘Peaky Blinders’.
Like any drama, Peaky Blinders mixes fact with fiction. Whilst historians may (arguably pedantically) criticise the blunders of programme and filmmakers, the key concern of the latter is to make a profitable and marketable drama. Indeed, much has been made of Peaky Blinders potential allure for an international market. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that this is fiction and that despite Knight’s reference to the history books, fragments of these histories are well-documented. Thus the conflict between Kimber and Shelby echoes the ‘Racecourse Wars’ of the 1920s documented by myself and by Birmingham historian Carl Chinn, as well as a host of true-crime writers. Shelby’s policeman nemesis, drafted in from a troubled Northern Ireland, Chief Inspector Campbell (played by Sam Neill) may be loosely based on Percy Sillitoe, the Chief Constable of Sheffield from 1926 and Glasgow from 1931, who was credited (particularly by himself) with ‘breaking’ the gang cultures of those cities.
Moreover, the drama is cloaked with the patina of gangster culture, drawing on the language and motifs of the ‘hardman’, which provide a short-hand for viewers familiar with the cultural hallmarks of the North American ‘Mob’ and the British family firms of the fifties and sixties. Yet whilst commentators were concerned about the potential criminality of returning soldiers in the aftermath of the first world war, the ‘gangster’ portrayed in ‘Peaky Blinders’ would not emerge until the later 1920s and would not take hold until the 1930s. The international press really started reporting ‘Gangster’ crime in detail when it was brought to the world’s attention by the escalation of ‘gangsterism’ in North America from the late 1920s, and particularly with the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in February 1929. Moreover, it was only with the popularity of the ‘mob film’, such as Little Caesar, Scarface and The Public Enemy in 1931 and 1932 that the language of gangsterdom truly became embedded in British cultural forms. Indeed, tropes and stereotypes honed through decades of intertwined culture and the ‘factual’ reporting of organised crime have retrospectively shaped the way we understand historical ‘gang’ culture.
The Peaky Blinders, in fact, had their roots in the later Victorian period. Work by Philip Gooderson and Andrew Davies has reconstructed the worlds of such youth gangs in Birmingham and Manchester between 1870 and 1900. Many elements of this world are repackaged in Knight’s evocation of Birmingham in the aftermath: territorial violence, sectarianism and prize fighting. Yet, the ‘peaky blinder’ had first appeared in the press of the 1890s – for example, an account in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal (16 April 1890) referred to a murderous assault by the ‘Small Heath, “Peaky Blinders”. His predecessor, the ‘slogger’ (‘slogger’ may have been slang for a boxer, ‘slog’ to be thumped), had his roots in the workshops and manufactories of Victorian Birmingham. Nevertheless, as Birmingham historian Carl Chinn has recently noted, ‘Although they had disappeared before the First World War and did not exist in the 1920s, their unsavoury reputation ensured that they would not be forgotten’.
So ultimately ‘Peaky Blinders’ is a fiction. Does this matter? For viewers, probably not. As a dramatic reconstruction of some elements of a city’s past, blended with borrowed ‘gangster’ motifs and elements of the gambling and racecourse conflicts of the interwar period, the series is edgy and gritty – providing viewers with a different diet from the usual upstairs downstairs fare of costume drama. Moreover, as a historian raised in the Black Country and Birmingham myself, I can’t deny some pleasure at seeing my small part of the country (albeit imaginatively) represented on screen.
Image - the original 19th century Peaky Blinders, used under creative commons license and courtesy of West Midlands Police.