BBC (available on Netflix) has released the fourth season of “Peaky Blinders” recently, a show centered around British gangsters of the same name in 1919. We follow Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, as he takes his small, hometown, family-run gang beyond the small pickings of local crime and into some high-risk high-reward criminal ventures. They are beset by all sorts of obstacles, be it a zealous detective, rival gangs or internal family disputes, and the road is paved with blood and the slow ebbing away of their souls. It is not a week-by-week, episodic show — the stories sweep across episodes and seasons alike.
“Peaky Blinders” has one consistent theme running through each season: the devastation wrought through British society after WWI. In a portion of my “Pages of War” series, I read through several books written prior to WWI, during WWI and just after. The changes in society are readily apparent, as the subject matter, tone and themes all take a wild turn — some are more depressing, some are grittier, some are simply more realistic — all are born from the horrors of WWI, seen by the average man who, in the 20th century, now has the means to channel their emotions into their writing and have it published.
The Great War completely upended society. The profound blanket of sadness and despair that has nestled into the hearts of every British soldier does more than create a few extra drunks. Where there may have been respect for authority before, there is an absolute disrespect toward those who stayed at home while they fought. Where there were gang rivalries, there is a mutual respect as they fought side by side on the fields of France. Where there might have been a family hierarchy, a younger brother having proven his mettle and returned a war hero might be the new head of the family. Where there may have been a population of young men, there may just be vacant houses and no one to support their families — surging the number of working women. Decadence and the ensuing “Roaring Twenties” was one way of coping (or repressing) the memories of such a conflict. Age and education mean little anymore — experience means everything.
And this is where “Peaky Blinders” begins. Ironically, the strongest of them all, the most capable and smartest, is also the one most open about his traumatic experiences (perhaps there is a connection between knowledge of self and strength). Grace, a young woman come to work in a Peaky Blinder’s bar, offers to sing Shelby a sad song. She warns him that it might break his heart, to which he replies: “It’s already broken.” He talks like this throughout the show, a sad reflection of the entire society around him.
One aspect of the show I personally appreciate is that, though it deals with the heavy weight brought by war (especially a war like WWI), it doesn’t play into the typical “I saw and did hard things, therefore I’m a broken shell of a human being, useless to everyone around me” trope that often comes out of Hollywood today. This accepts the very real burdens of war without over-dramatizing it beyond reality.
In the show, Tommy Shelby fought in the Battle of the Somme, a real battle that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both fought in. Lewis was a 19-year-old infantryman at the time, and British soldiers would lose 57,000 soldiers on the first day of fighting. These sorts of numbers are staggering and unimaginable, and would be especially devastating when you realize that they enlisted boys from the same area together — you would have entire groups of friends wiped out, or an entire generation of young men in a town killed in the same day. This manner of enlistment would be changed because of this.
The show is fiction, only loosely based on the real Peaky Blinders gang. However, its tone is staggeringly similar to that of the literature written around the same era.
I would highly recommend “Peaky Blinders,” though it is a slow burn show at the beginning. Cillian Murphy plays the part incredibly, and his co-stars Paul Anderson, Helen McCrory, Joe Cole, Annabelle Wallis and Sam Neill make for an outstanding cast. Tom Hardy, though his scenes are scant, plays one of my favorite characters in one of his best roles. It’s not an average crime show — it ties a vivid criminal storyline in with the raw bones of history and intelligent, compelling plot-lines.
Images courtesy of the BBC.