The sixth and seemingly final series of BBC One’s hit historical crime drama Peaky Blinders finally hits our screens at 9 p.m. on Sunday, February 27 after its production was delayed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Steven Knight’s sprawling period piece stars Cillian Murphy as Birmingham mob boss Tommy Shelby, who returns traumatized from his experiences in the trenches of France during World War I to rule the criminal empire of his family through the twenties and thirties.
One of Peaky Blinders‘ its great strengths have always been its powerful character performances, not least from Murphy and the late Helen McCrory, but also from its supporting cast, which has included, at one time or another, the likes of Sam Neill, Tom Hardy, and Anya Taylor-Joy.
Another strong asset is Knight’s obvious taste for the transitional moment he portrays, the show taking us from the terraced slums, cobbled streets and Chinese laundries of industrial Birmingham to the races of Cheltenham to bustling pubs, gypsy camps and Communist-led strikes. .
The program is set in real-life locations like The Garrison and the BSA factory, filming key scenes at the Black Country Living Museum, as well as important personalities of the time, from then Home Secretary Winston Churchill , to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and even Charlie Chaplin for added flavor.
That said, Knight clearly isn’t overly concerned with historical accuracy, given the liberal use of contemporary blues rock in his soundtrack, such as The White Stripes, Royal Blood and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an approach which takes the exact opposite. HBO tack Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), which meticulously sticks to jazz, ragtime and authentic Prohibition-era showtunes to support its own world-building and set the appropriate tone.
So how true Peaky Blinders to the real criminals from whom it takes its name?
Violence was a way of life in Birmingham’s slums of late Victorian times, such as Small Heath and Cheapside, where people like the Cheapside Slogging Gang, an organization led by John Adrian and James Grinrod who feared to be beaten (or “slogging”). their victims with heavy belt buckles.
The original Peaky Blinders actually flourished in the 1890s, about 30 years earlier than the show’s period, and were generally made up of working-class men involved in petty gambling, robbery, and racketeering. protection, although some of its members, such as Charles Lambourne, were kids as young as 12.
The Peaky Blinders lacked the political ambitions and vision of the fictional Tommy Shelby, for whom there is no factual precursor (other than, perhaps, a Thomas Gilbert AKA Kevin Mooney), and were rather small criminals.
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“They would target anyone who looked vulnerable, or who didn’t look strong or fit,” West Midlands Police Museum curator David Cross told the BBC. “Anything that could be taken, they took.”
Like the Sloggers, the Blinders enjoyed a reputation for extreme volatility and for engaging in spontaneous and brutal acts of street violence.
In a notorious incident on March 23, 1890, 26-year-old George Eastwood was hospitalized after being savagely attacked by a party of “Small Heath Peaky Blinders” led by one Thomas Mucklow for the offense of commanding a glass of non-alcoholic ginger beer in The Rainbow Pub in Adderley Street, Digbeth.
In another, on July 19, 1897, 29-year-old constable George Snipe encountered six or seven gang members in Bridge Street West, Hockley, who had been ‘drinking all day and fighting all evening’ at the Star Pub, and attempted to arrest a 23-year-old William Colerain for using obscene language, only to have the rest of the Blinders jump on him and one member fracture his skull with a brick, causing death of Constable Snipe.
George “Cloggy” Williams, 19, was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison, which The Birmingham Daily said should serve as a warning to “all rowdies” in town.
On July 21, 1989, a letter addressed anonymously to The Birmingham Daily Mail complained: ‘Surely every respectable, law-abiding citizen is fed up with the very name of thugs in Birmingham and assaults on the police. No matter which part of the city you walk in, you can see gangs of “peaky blinders”, who often do not hesitate to rudely insult passers-by, whether it is a man, a a woman or a child.
But police snapshots of gang members like Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles and Stephen McHickie held by the West Midlands Police Museum reveal they were most often arrested for relatively minor offenses like stealing bicycles and, for his Apart, Fowler is known to have later fought for king and country during the Great War, as did Tommy Shelby and his associates.
Mildly disappointing, the show’s explanation for the Peaky Blinders’ name – that they wore razor blades sewn into the brims of their flat caps for easy access – is romantic fiction, given that such weapons would have been an expensive luxury at the time and also unwieldy for everyday use.
Historian Carl Chinn, author of three books on the Blinders, suggests instead that the idea for the name originally came from John Douglas’ novel A walk in the summer street (1977) and says it has more to do with criminals’ reputation for quick dress or their “blinding” dress style, defined by their caps, bell bottoms and silk scarves.
The Blinders used knives to cut “on their opponents’ foreheads, dripping blood into their eyes and blinding them,” he adds grimly.
Another historian, Philip Gooderson, writes in The Birmingham Gangs (2010) that the members’ girlfriends were also known for their fashion, characterized by a “lavish display of pearls” and similar showy silk handkerchiefs worn at the throat.
The Peaky Blinders’ reign didn’t last long, however, with a loose collective of “pick-pockets, racetrack thieves and pests” known as the Brummagem Boys, getting them into trouble before they were finally kicked out. of the city in the 1910s by a successor. organization known simply as the Birmingham Gang.
Their leader was a Billy Kimber, a name fans of the series will remember from the first series, in which he is reimagined as a cockney betting kingpin played by Charlie Creed-Miles and meets a bad end in an alley (the real Kimber died in a nursing home).
The Birmingham gang would in turn be usurped in the 1930s by Charles Sabini’s mob, whom Graham Greene used as inspiration for Pinkie’s criminal syndicate in Brighton Rock (1938).
Birmingham itself is also credited with stamping out the Blinders, strengthening its policing and sentencing of criminals, and encouraging urban boxing clubs to flourish, providing the city’s poor boys with a meaningful alternative to entering a life of crime. .
But, as Chinn concludes in The Real Peaky Blinders (2014): “The Peaky Blinders’ bad reputation and grim name steeped in violence and gangsterism ensured they would not be forgotten.”
Steven Knight was asked about his inspiration by BBC History Magazine in 2016 and cited his own family background, one branch of which includes the Sheldons, a dynasty of bookmakers.
“One of the stories that really made me want to write Peaky Blinders is the one my dad told me,” he said. “His father gave him a message and said, ‘Go and give this to your uncles’… My father knocked on the door and there was a table with about eight men… impeccably dressed, wearing caps and rifles in their pockets.The table was covered with money.
“Just this image – the smoke, the booze and these impeccably dressed men in this Birmingham slum – I thought, this is mythology, this is history, and this is the first image I’ve ever seen with. started to work.”