The BBC has long been famed for the quality of its dramas but the star-studded Peaky Blinders, which has recently returned for its second series, is one of its best. 1920s Birmingham is beautifully stylised with effortless cool continuously exuded by the characters. The drug, alcohol and violence fuelled hedonism of their business all makes for a fantastically watchable program.
Part of the show’s underlying appeal is its roots in the untold stories of Britain’s working classes. Series one sees the Shelby family, the gang’s leaders, look to reassert themselves and expand into legal activities following the First World War.
The real Peaky Blinders were, however, not quite such enterprising businessmen. They were part of the proliferation of gang culture in the late nineteenth century. Like the Manchester ‘Scuttlers’ or Liverpool’s ‘High Rip’ gangs, the Peaky Blinders were inner city delinquents – hooligans involved in petty crime, territorial wars and, above all, gratuitous violence.
In the series, the Peaky Blinders’ progress is significantly hindered by a newly appointed Irish police chief, Inspector Campbell. In actuality Birmingham had a Northern Irish police chief from 1899-1935. Charles Houghton Rafter, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, was recommended for his abilities to keep peace in troubled districts. He lived up to his reputation; within a few years of his appointment the Peaky Blinders were no longer a threat to Birmingham’s peace.
The BBC’s version is expectedly romanticised, however, it should be noted that the Peaky Blinders did take pride in their stylish attire used to distinguish themselves from other local gangs. Their name allegedly derives from their peaked caps, in which razor blades were sewn as weapons, to cause temporary blindness. Professor Carl Chinn, however, disputes this claim due to a lack of evidence. In any case, as can be seen from photographs recently unearthed by the West midlands Police, the gang’s ‘look’ was a pivotal part of their identity.
The second series delves into London’s criminal underbelly. The story seems to resemble that of the Brummagem Boys, headed by Billy Kimber. Kimber, in the BBC’s telling, was killed by Thomas Shelby at the end of series one. In reality Kimber threatened London’s Jewish Bookmakers and their powerful allies, the Sabini Gang, led by Darby Sabini, king of London’s underworld. Kimber’s war with the London gangs ended when he was murdered following a meeting with Sabini. All that remains to be seen is how far Thomas Shelby’s story will mirror that of his real life counterpart.
The Peaky Blinders romanticises British gang culture but it uncovers the fascinating world of the British gangster, underrepresented in popular culture. It also gives us insight into the lives of Birmingham’s working class families and the strong women that headed them.
Peak Blinders is currently available on BBC iPlayer.