Why Peaky Blinders tells us all we need to know (and more) about the 1920s

Matt Houlbrook

Matt Houlbrook

Two episodes into the second season of the BBC television series Peaky Blinders and I’m already reminded of why the exploits of Thomas, Polly, and the rest of the Shelby family tell us all we need to know (and more) about 1920s Britain. Or, at least, give us all the questions we need to ask to understand the aftermath of the Great War.

Let’s get this straight: I know that the Birmingham gang the series riffs on were around in the 1890s rather than the 1920s. And sure, the story plays fast and loose with historical figures like Billy Kimber and Darby Sabini, two of the most notorious leaders of the violent race course gangs of the period. But (with all due respect to one of my colleagues here), if all you have to say about an imaginative and engaging piece of television is that it doesn’t fit with the ‘facts’ then you really are showing a spectacular failure of imagination. Is it really that important to ‘iron out historical inaccuracies’ for the show to work?

Perhaps things would be different if I was writing about the Peaky Blinders for an academic journal, or if this was a documentary about Birmingham in the aftermath of war. But it’s not. Peaky Blinders is entertainment. Challenging and provocative, operatic in scale yet intimate in the way it captures the emotional dynamics of Shelby family life and the texture of everyday social relations in the working-class neighbourhood of Small Heath, it nonetheless succeeds in giving us an impression of the 1920s in ways that Downton Abbey never can.

In one sense the success of Peaky Blinders rests in the questions it confronts us with. When the show first aired the internet was full of the mutterings of disgruntled Brummies complaining that Cillian Murphy and the rest of them had mangled the ‘real’ Birmingham accent. Yet how do we know how working-class men and women like the Shelbys sounded over 90 years ago? Regional accents change over time. And don’t tell me that your grandparents or great-grandparents didn’t talk like Aunt Polly: individual accents change over time, particularly in a period when wireless and television allowed ordinary Britons to hear different patterns of speech in daily life.

As the historian Jessica Meyer said last year, however, the real success of Peaky Blinders is the way in which it manages to suggest a mood – a way of being or thinking – that compels us to think about what it might be like to live in the aftermath of a wrenching, dislocating conflict like the Great War. Ex-soldiers waking in the middle of the night consumed with nightmarish visions of tunnels and death; bereaved parents seeking the consolations of spiritualists and charlatans; the tensions of lives lived constantly on the edge of violence; Bolsheviks and Irish republicans, telephones and motorcars. Rather than just ‘convincing’ period details, all of these convey a sense of unease and edginess – of the uncertainties of individual lives and social worlds thrown into crisis by four years of war.

Too many people have kicked off about the supposed anachronisms Peaky Blinders. For some, it seems, a contemporary soundtrack and stylized aesthetic are ‘fictions’ obscuring the ‘truth’ of the past. Yet it is often these anachronisms that allow the show to suggest a mood characteristic of the aftermath of war. The guitars and drums of the White Stripes, like Nick Cave’s atmospherically moody song Red Right Hand create a sense of dissonance and unease. So does the noise of the iron foundries, the flaring lights of the furnaces, and the vivid red of Birmingham’s Chinatown.

In the first episode of series two, Tommy, Arthur, and John find themselves in Darby Sabini’s opulent London nightclub. Confounded by the experience of the new, for a moment they are stunned into silence by the jarring sounds of a black jazz band, the sight of same- and opposite-sex couples kissing, dissonant noises and dislocating colours. Is this how London’s nightclubs looked in the early 1920s? It might be. But I don’t think it really matters. In capturing the disorientation of the Shelby brothers in this scene Peaky Blinders gives us we need to ask about the legacies of the Great War, and the nervous times of 1920s Britain.

 

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