I have Netflix again! I stopped my subscription a few months back when I ran out of things that I found interesting to watch, but there’s new things now and I’ve been busy making up for the lost time.
One of the new things I’ve been really enjoying has been a series called Peaky Blinders. Here’s my review of it.
To explain Peaky Blinders, its a series about a notorious criminal family in Birmingham in the years after WW1 (1919/20ish). The Shelby family run a criminal network in one of the most run down industrial districts of Birmingham, making up a gang the authorities call the ‘Peaky Blinders’.
I’ll get the boring historical bit out of the way first (Please feel free to skip!).
Peaky Blinder’s historical setting fascinates me, and isn’t conventional for TV in the slightest. The decade after the First World War was one of chaos and turmoil in Britain, which we neatly gloss over in modern tellings of our history. Our story of that time boils down to; the markets crashed, the Empire started to crumble, we appeased Hitler. But, a lot more than that happened in the 21 years between the wars.
Sadly, the Shelby family didn’t actually exist. However, the violent street gangs they depict were well and truly real. The Shelby’s eventual nemesis in Series 1, race-course baron Billy Kimber, was real and rose from Birmingham gangster to one of the biggest crime lord Britain in the 1920s. The men had come back from the War completely broken mentally and physically; and the country around them was just as broken.
There was certainly crime, but the centuries old tensions in Ireland had also boiled up into all-out war. The British state fought against the IRA from 1919-1921, ending ultimately with the creation of the Irish Free State. Peaky Blinders highlights this perfectly. When Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the main character of the Series, and de-facto leader of the family gets hold of some stolen Lewis Guns the IRA make several approaches to buy them. Such a cache of weapons would have single-handedly won the Irish War of Independence no doubt. Given the severity of this theft, the British government, and in particular a certain Winton Churchill when he was Home Secretary, sends in a ruthless Northern Irish Chief of Police to regain the guns. Whilst this event was completely made up for the show, it demonstrates the tensions of the time perfectly; Britain was very fragile.
Indeed, even Communists were seeking to get hold of these guns in the series. Communism was a very real threat in Britain in the 1920s. Churchill, as Home Secretary at the time, was ruthless in the suppression of any Communists or sympathisers in the slums of Britain’s cities. Any General Strikes were met with brutal state reaction for fear of spreading to a wider worker’s revolt against the establishment – and there were certainly points were it seemed a very real possibility. Little do we remember these days how close we came to such an unbelievable occurrence.
The guns being stolen in Birmingham is an interesting historical note too. Birmingham was the home of the BSA factory – one of the biggest weapon manufacturers in the world at the time. Later BSA were to become one of the most famous motorbike brands when gun sales went south.
The thing is, a huge number factory workers across Britain who went off to fight in the First World War died. Whole factories had joined up to fight and ended up on the front lines in battles like the Somme, where 60,000 such men died in a day for absolutely no territory gain. Those who came back were beyond shells, they were destroyed by what they had experienced. Many of the Shelby family and their associates from the slums suffer horrendously from their War experiences in Peaky Blinders. Whilst we know very well what the horrors of the First World War did to the young men of the time from our history lessons, I’ve never seen it brought to life so vividly as with Peaky Blinders.
Enough of the history geek splurge though (sorry for any boredom!) Besides indulging my historical curiosity, Peaky Blinders is a damn good show.
Some big names make it to this humble show about an otherwise pretty unremarkable British city. Sam Neill (from Jurassic Park amongst many others) plays the tough Northern Irish Chief of Police, while Tom Hardy (Bane in Batman, etc) makes a stellar appearance in the second series as the head of the sinister Solomon syndicate.
Besides the big names there’s some brilliant small talent as well. British poet Benjamin Zephaniah, from Birmingham most appropriately, plays a preacher called Jeremiah Jesus loyal to the Shelbys, which is a favourite character of mine.
The script and story is also fantastic. I don’t want to do the series a disservice by comparing it to any of the brilliantly acted and produced big name TV series out there – but it stands up very strongly against them all.
I’ve so far only seen Series 1, but I’ve seen snippets of Series 2. I’m very excited to keep going and hopefully catch the soon to be released Series 3! I’d strongly recommend Peaky Blinders. It’s ful of foul language, as any good TV show seems to these days, and full of violence. None of that is gratuitous in the slightest though. With it’s strong historical setting, giving an insight into a fascinating and otherwise forgotten corner of British history, we start to understand why families like the Shelbys existed and why they did what they did. That’s not to condone their criminality in the slightest, but it’s valuable to understand it.
4.5/5 is the Salad rating – give it a watch if you can!
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