‘They’re bad men, but they’re OUR bad men’ May 10, 2014Posted by dolorosa12 in meta, reviews, television.
Tags: peaky blinders, reviews
One of my maternal great-grandfathers was what people today would call a ‘colourful racing identity’. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was. Although my grandmother has some interesting stories about family friends known only as ‘Slippers’ and ‘The Colonel’, and her father waking everyone up whenever he’d won big and flinging all the money on the bed, the reality was much more sordid and terrifying than those stories would suggest. In actual fact, my great-grandfather’s gambling habit meant that my grandmother had essentially left school at the age of eight. She was constantly sent to the door to tell bailiffs attempting to evict the family that her parents weren’t at home. One absolutely heartbreaking story she told me involved her mother giving away her new (and much-needed) coat to another child because that child didn’t have a mother and my great-grandmother felt sorry for her. Most chilling of all, the only reason my grandmother grew up in Sydney was because one night her father came home in an absolute panic, and they had to pack up the entire house and flee from Melbourne in order to escape some kind of gang-related threat to his life due to debts. My point is that the charming image conjured up by the words ‘colourful racing identity’ covers a multitude of horrors.
That is what makes Peaky Blinders, a miniseries set in the underworld of Birmingham in 1919, so refreshing. It provides a fictional account of the eponymous gang with their fingers in just about every criminal pie: race-fixing, protection money, gun-running, gambling. The Peaky Blinders (so named because they hide razor blades in their flat caps with which to slash and blind their victims) are mainly drawn from the Shelby family, a multi-generational gang whose stranglehold on the streets is due to a combination of competence, compromise and the ability to incite terror. The local police are corrupt, and prefer to let the Shelby family run things if it means stability and order. For the most part, the poor and dispossessed of Birmingham accept the devil’s bargain they have made with the Peaky Blinders, feeling that paying protection money and turning a blind eye to the gang’s criminal activities is an acceptable price to pay if it provides them with a degree of wealth and security.
That’s not to say there aren’t tensions. The young Shelby men have returned, traumatized, from the battlefields of World War I, only to find that the women – shrewd, tough-as-nails Aunt Polly, and angry, romantic Ada – have been running things just fine, if not better, on their own. Tommy Shelby, who views himself as the gang’s de facto leader, has to reconcile his own grand vision for the Peaky Blinders with the more limited, but safer, scope planned by his aunt.
At the same time, the gang relies on its ability to control the shifting network of alliances of the streets, contending with IRA cells, communist agitators attempting to unionize the factory workers, Traveller families who control the racetrack, Chinese textile workers who moonlight as opium den operators, and, one of my favourite characters, an itinerant fire-and-brimstone street-preacher played by Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s a complicated balancing act of carrot and stick, and when it works, it works because the various players have understood correctly the psychology, needs and fears of their opposite numbers. All sorts of connections and obligations come into play: most of the men were soldiers together, the Shelby family has blood ties to some of the Traveller families, as well as an Irish background that complicates their interactions with the IRA members, and Ada Shelby is secretly in love with the leading communist organizer.
What works so well in Peaky Blinders is that the writers manage the tricky balancing act of showing the true horror of what the Shelby family (and their allies) do to maintain control, as well as the fact that they probably are the best option for the dispossessed people they terrorize. There is no glamour in what they do: Tommy Shelby can move from charming to chilling in an instant, and he is in no way a safe person to be around. There is a violence and brutality involved in people’s everyday lives, and survival requires that they walk past such violence with their eyes averted. Most people in the show lead such precarious existences that their every decision is based on a pragmatic sense of cost, benefit, compromise and danger. The streets of Birmingham may be controlled by bad men, but they are bad men from those very streets, and the choice to give them control is made by the very people who live beside them.