The BBC’s Peaky Blinders opens on a slum street of Birmingham. The year is 1919. There are horses and Chinese fortune tellers, barely dressed urchins and men in suits so sharp they could take your eye out.
The atmosphere is febrile, smoky and crackling with nerves. It’s the most distinctive-looking British drama you could conceive of, peering into an era that, until now, had slipped off history’s radar, considered neither as muddy and tragic as the First World War nor as heroic and epic as the Second. Or perhaps history forgot these years on purpose.
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The writer is Steven Knight – best known for Stephen Frears’s 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things. “From about 1918 until 1928 in England, it was just madness. Pure hedonism,” he says. “There was a lot of cocaine, a lot of opium, a lot of dancing, a lot of nightlife.” All of which sounds like a laugh riot, but of course it had its dark side; indeed, there was hardly any silver lining.
And that’s where the Peaky Blinders come in, so called for the razor blades they kept in the brims of their sinister-looking caps and hats. They were the Shelby family, the Sopranos of the post-First World War era, with a few key differences – the society the Shelbys lived in had been racked by the war, leaving profoundly damaged men strewn across every class and community; revolution was in the air, and the Government was terrified of it; and the Peaky Blinders aren’t remotely fictional.
Knight explains: “The reason it came to me was that my parents grew up in Birmingham in the 20s. My mum, when she was nine years old, was a bookie’s runner; they used to use kids to take bets because it was all illegal. My dad’s uncle was part of the Peaky Blinders. It was reluctantly delivered, but my family did give me little snapshots, of gypsies and horses and gang fights and guns, and immaculate suits.
One of the first stories that inspired me was of my dad when he was a little kid, sent to deliver a message. There was a table, covered in money and guns, surrounded by blokes, beautifully dressed, drinking beer from jam jars. You didn’t buy glasses. You only spent money on clothes.”
This atmosphere is captured wonderfully in Peaky Blinders. The gang’s control in Birmingham has a Wild West quality, where the violence is instrumental and strategic, never savage or incidental, and the rules of society are being broken and remade in front of you.
But their lives are burdened by far more than the pressures of self-interest. The casualties of the First World War are everywhere: men who had survived the bullets, but would go to their graves before post-traumatic stress was recognised. The authorities were no good to these shell-shocked men: if anyone was going to watch over them, it would have been men like the Peaky Blinders.
The war and its aftermath are dealt with in an original and oblique way, as a hangover that nobody would acknowledge, but everybody had. Knight says that a load of clichés dominate how this interwar period is played out in drama: “We tiptoe towards things because we’re afraid of being seen to be glamorising or mythologising anything. If it’s post-First World War, it’s all officers shooting themselves. Or it’s flappers, being done in the way flappers have always been done. But why would they behave like that? It was only a couple of years before then that you couldn’t show an ankle, and suddenly they were in really short skirts. Why? Because they didn’t give a damn.”
As grim as the period must have been, from the distance of decades this is a transfixing time, decadent and bacchanalian, traumatised and anti-authoritarian, deeply political, desperate for things to be different, but petrified of change. “I think there was a loss of faith in technology: before the war, there was this belief that every new discovery meant more progress.
Then nations just took all they’d learnt and used it to destroy each other,” says Knight. “The idea of the King’s authority became a joke, for a while, because people in power had been sending 60,000 men to their deaths every morning and the blokes knew it was pointless. They’d get the order [to go over the top], and think, ‘No, you’ve made a mistake, there are machine guns, and we’re going to get killed.’”
Alongside that anarchic hatred of authority there was a real hunger for change, a genuine Communist movement, and the authorities were terrified. One always forgets that this could ever have been a feature of the landscape, here – that a government could ever believe in the people being revolutionary, or that anybody could ever have that appetite for upheaval. But the threat was both real and perceived. A policeman’s strike in 1919 lent ballast to the idea that the old world order had no defenders left. I always think of the persecution of Communists as an American disease, a short-lived, collective madness. But it’s wrong to think Britain didn’t suffer this paranoia.
“Men were arrested for sedition and sentenced to six years for speaking in public about Communism,” says Knight.
“They were taken away and beaten up. I remember my dad saying a bloke would stand up and talk about the Russian Revolution and they’d grab him, put him in a van and you wouldn’t see him again. You think, that’s not what it says in the books. But when you do research, get papers from the period, you realise this is what happened. It’s a secret history.”
Predictably, with a paranoid government and the impossibility of telling a revolutionary from a malcontent, life became very restrictive, close to a police state. Knight’s vivid memory is of his grandfather. “He was wounded in the Somme, so he had a bullet in his shoulder his whole life. I remember my dad telling me that in 1926 he opened his door and there were British soldiers stationed there, pointing machine guns at his front door. And he’d just given everything to his country. These were people just like us, you know. They were no different to us, inside.”
Part of the drama’s magnetism lies in its dialogue: precisely observed, but very informal, which underlines how little people have changed. “What amuses me, and horrifies me, in English period drama is that people always write in a certain way: will not, can not, do not. Everybody speaks in this very formal, written- down way and it affects how characters are. This is a period drama where people speak normally. You go into the past, but you let people speak. And if you break that door down, you realise that people are just like us.”
I’ll resist describing the plot, partly for fear of spoilers, but also because, like all the best dramas, when you list the events, it does nothing like justice to the world they create. There’s a huge amount going on, and the circumstances are extreme – men driven mad, men driven into the arms of opium, alcohol, politics, thuggery, anywhere but back to pre-war normality.
That was nothing, compared with the women. In this series, femininity is expressed by Aunt Polly, matriarch of the Shelby family and magisterially played by Helen McCrory. She’s the power and the brains of the generation. You’d watch it just for her and to listen to her smoky Birmingham accent, like a sinister lullaby.
“Cocaine became a huge thing, for women. They just wanted to escape. And I guess that’s what stopped it becoming a revolution,” says Knight. “It was totally self-destructive and very sexual. If you read the Daily Mail from those days, the big scandal was about nightclubs, everybody having cocaine from these blue bottles. Everybody was having sex with everybody else, there were threesomes, orgies… People thought England was going to hell. Then it stopped, in about 1928. I suppose people recovered.”
During this hiatus of propriety, of rules, lives were ruined. “A policeman’s main job, one of the tasks that took up his day, was collecting babies as he went on his foot patrol, babies that had been born and abandoned.”
But fortunes were made as well, and we meet the Peaky Blinkers on the up, able to take on everything, from the most vicious police brutality to the rival gangs and the Black and Tans. Only a state of semi-anarchy could suit this family; and only this family’s scramble for supremacy, brought so brilliantly alive, could animate this anarchic era that we’ve almost forgotten.