These days it’s dawgs with hoodies and not-quite-hidden daggers, bellowing ‘bruv’ as they lope across the street with a one-walk-one-jive jaunt that oozes equal measures of miscreant and menace. But back in late-eighteen-hundred-and-something it was razor wielding peaks that ruled the streets. The ‘Peaky Blinders’ were a real crew, making mayhem in and around the passages of Birmingham in the late nineteenth- early twentieth-century. Gang members rocked flat caps – aka ‘peakys’ – with razors supposedly sewn in to the front of their peaks; making it easy to blind, batter or bruise any accosting enemy or offending citizen, as legend has it. It’s an idea ripe for plucking and plucked it has been, with skill and style that make it difficult to overlook as ordinary.
Prime propagator of the ‘less-than-ordinary’ is one Thomas Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders; a gang whose ambitions form the crux of a historical drama series set in the aftermath of World War One. Peaky Blinders, written by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), is a vivid reminder that gangsters will be gangsters regardless of whether they’re brandishing oversized jeans, Nike shoes and a pitbull or overcoats, three-piece suits and a race horse; there’s always turf…and if it belongs to you (said gangster) – not because you paid for it or won it or because your dead granny bequeathed it to you, but because you said so – you’ll spill whatever blood is necessary to protect your piece.Gangsterism has nothing to do with the notion of ‘fair’; it’s a literal assertion of will under the guise of brotherhood and in the name of a cause (even if it’s a dumb one, relatively speaking of course). But is this not something of which we are all guilty – asserting ourselves on the world, staking claim on that which we perceive to be our own (money, power, relationships, the street corner), and often to the detriment of those around us?Perhaps that’s why we are willing to grant Thomas Shelby reprieve.
No man, woman, child, communist, IRA supporter or any ‘other’ walking the streets of Birmingham is left untouched by the gangster guile of Shelby and his slightly psychotic brethren and yet we root for the Peaky Blinders like a bunch of Green Street Hooligans. Steven Knight has done a very clever thing; he’s positeda hero who boasts the prefix ‘anti’ with unparalleled swagger. The Peaky Blinders gang is led by a manwho has been pulped-up as a decorated war hero; a man who is spat back into society with little understanding, gratitude or support after participating in what is now known as one of the bloodiest battles in human history – the Battle of the Somme, which saw more than one million men wounded or killed. Thomas Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Inception), returned from this war with very little regard for any authoritative establishment – government and church in particular. So he becomes a gangsterand in so doing turns into the ultimate anarchist, tapping in to society’s intrinsic urge to disobey its proverbial parent? Sure, the gang wants to get rich but Thomas Shelby, who has chucked his medals in the mud, is raging against the machine and his fire is Greek.
The ‘Peaky’ leader’s grand scheme is to make his fortune by controlling racecourse gambling first in Birmingham (season one) and then in London (season two). Shelby adopts a ‘means to an end’ type approach – break the law to become legitimate and stay legitimate by breaking the law. Thomas Shelby follows the same path as Walter White (Breaking Bad), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Jackson Teller (Sons of Anarchy), Bell and Barksdale (The Wire), who all display the traits of conventionally bad men but still manage to activate audience empathy, in part because they are frank about their badness. Whether fate, life, character or sociopathy is the primary force at work, there’s no pretence and little moral justification on the part of these vicious vanguards and consequently, they exude a freedom that piques our jealousy. They’ve been to confessional and have decided that they’re OK with doing it the Michael Jackson way, “Bad, Bad – Really, Really Bad.”
In obvious contrast to Shelby’s bad-boy likeability is a Northern Irish police chief (played by Sam Neill) who is blatantly detestable. Knight has purposefully pitted his protagonist against a man who stands on the right side of the law, who has morality on his side, but is, in fact, the ultimate pain in the ass. Inspector Chester Campbell is a hypocrite – perhaps the root of his loathsomeness; a man corrupted by his arrogance and definitely someone who should not be casting any stones. He’s also not a war hero. And he knows it. To make matters worse, the woman he loves is in love with his nemesis, Thomas Shelby – and there is just no competing with this icy-eyed bad-boy. If there was a coffin and some nails, they’d all be banged in. Hard.
The power struggle between Thomas Shelby and Inspector Campbell pickles our perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in an effort to make us question our own moral constructs. Peaky Blinders asks who is worse – the product or the producer? Thomas Shelby is argued as a criminal created by context – would he have turned to gang life had he not been shipped off to war and thrust back into society with barely a spare thought? Not likely. Yes, he did have a choice, just like the kid living in Baltimore, Maryland with his drug addict mum and dad, no money and no hope had a choice (DeAndre, anyone?) Whilst Michael Jackson was cavorting around an underground parking lot jamming it up to Bad, he also managed to facilitate the words “We Can Change The World Tomorrow/ This Could Be A Better Place/ If You Don’t Like What I’m Sayin’/ Then Won’t You Slap My Face”, as Thomas Shelby so dares the government. And so far, there’s been no slap.