Your living room is in danger of being invaded by criminals with Brummie accents. Not a reason for fitting a new burglar alarm, I hasten to add, but an alert for the BBC’s new series of Peaky Blinders. Set in the early 1920s, the second instalment of an epic tale of a Birmingham family on the up, intent on making the transition from back-street hoodlums to respectable businessmen, has just begun.
The second series will continue to follow gang-leader Tommy Shelby, (Cillian Murphy) on this upward path as he expands his bookmaking empire ever outwards from its heart of England base.
The story is close to my heart, too. I worked as the historical adviser on the first series, employed to iron out historical inaccuracies and to lend an extra sense of place to the tale. This was important because it was also the first piece of TV drama for a very long time to take Birmingham seriously as a film location. In normal television circumstances, “gritty” means further north. The Brummie accent on the other hand has been long stereotyped as suitable only for comedy.
Steven Knight, the writer, is himself a Brummie. Peaky Blinders offered him an opportunity to import an American kind of heroic quality into a working-class Birmingham neighbourhood. There is something of the Wild West about the tale. Fitting, perhaps, as the American West’s infamous Wyatt Earp himself had West Midlands origins.
The real Blinders
If the stories of the Wild West flit notoriously between myth and reality, so too do those of the Peaky Blinders. The Shelbys themselves are Steve Knight’s creation, but there were plenty of young men in post-war Birmingham who aspired to be like them. Historically they originated as petty criminals from late Victorian and Edwardian Birmingham, whose flamboyant dress sense marked them out as different. The peaked cap was a tag, a piece of disguise and, indeed, also a weapon. It’s said that they sewed a razor-blade into the peak; at the very least it was a serious fashion statement.
But police records suggest that they ventured no further than small-scale burglary and off-course bookmaking. And of course further detail is beyond the normal range and reach of documentary evidence. The Peaky Blinders operated, not only outside the law, but equally outside written history. In such circumstances, oral history helped to supply detail and texture other sources could not.
The BBC’s dramatisation was probably most historically accurate in terms of the gang itself in the first couple of episodes. The series gives a real sense of what it was like to live and work in that dark and industrialised world. Plenty of Birmingham families did exactly this. But as Cillian Murphy’s Peaky Blinders get ever more ambitious – in series two they look to London – they depart ever further from their historical forebears. And so the myth of the Peaky Blinders – like that of Wyatt Earp – grows with the series and its growing audience.
The real Peaky Blinders never reached such glories. But, by the middle of the 20th century, any lad with a sense of his own importance and a disdain for the technicalities of the law was locally described as a Peaky.
Attention to detail
Nevertheless, for a series to look right, lot of attention has to be paid to historical detail. The words people used, how things would have looked, felt, heard. This presents particular (and, to me, unanticipated) challenges for a historian. When writing or researching history, one does not have to visualise it in its totality. In normal circumstances, the historian selects his or her evidence and uses it in a process of deduction or argument. When we examine a letter from Henry VIII, though we may try to tease out his state of mind, we do not need, as it were, to see him writing it.
Once that action is put onto the screen, that is exactly what matters: the lighting, the size of the room, the background noise, the time of day.
I had an early introduction to that challenge in the first episode, when Winston Churchill, as home secretary, meets the Birmingham chief constable in a railway carriage at Snow Hill Station. When faced with a character as iconic as Churchill, there’s additional pressure to get him right. The questions I was asking myself in front of a host of historical source material were pretty alien to me. What did Winston do with his cigar? Did he tap the ash precisely into an ash-tray or carelessly let it fall on his jacket?
Once the director elected to use contemporary pop music – supplied by Nick Cave – to accompany the action, Peaky Blinders was, in a sense, released from the strait-jacket of costume drama. Despite this, a historian’s personal obsession to get the detail right remains obstinately in place.
What I enjoyed especially in the first series were the wider historical themes Steve Knight wove into the storyline. The year 1919 was a time of political ferment, trade union dissent and Irish troubles, all of which were exacerbated by the raised expectations brought by the end of war. Birmingham was full of war-damaged young men with a new sense of entitlement after sacrifice. Where, indeed, were the homes and the jobs fit for heroes?
The most successful historical drama has always presented the personal (often fictional) stories of the protagonists, against a background that rings true to the period. Often, however, those two levels become hopelessly distant from each other. By adding a strong sense of locality to the mix, the writer – with a little help from the adviser – can pull those two planes together.
And so if Peaky Blinders works, then it’s because the characters are firmly rooted in their city. Some artistic license has been taken in terms of the gang itself, but if you want to imagine what life was like in post-war Birmingham, then Peaky Blinders is no bad place to start.