Parody is the practice of copying the mannerisms, style or appearance of a work or its author’s voice to make a point about that work (or sometimes unrelated other works). By adopting the guise of the attacked work, the artist reveals its inherent ridiculousness.
Pastiche copies or mimics elements of another work’s style, possibly in a humorous way, but usually just as an affectionate nod to another artist’s work. While the artist may have made the pastiche in homage, the work itself does not necessarily make any points, favorable or unfavorable, about the original. In a sense, it is a collection of references.
First, I want to be clear about something: I am a serious fan of Peaky Blinders. The series has utterly captured my attention, and this blog is (among other things) my attempt to understand why. But I also want to be clear about something else: I’m a student of literature and criticism. This means that while I find plenty to celebrate in Peaky Blinders, I’m also interested in exploring what doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean that I’m any less enthusiastic about the program; rather, I am interested in seeing how it responds to intellectual stressors. I’ve found that subjecting any text to these stressors can lead to new insights. Texts are constantly evolving, just as we are as viewers, and the ongoing dialogue between text, viewer, and creator provides a space for constant vision and revision. It’s dynamic. It’s why when you return to a book or movie or song, you’ll find new insight because you’re different and the context is different. For me, this is one of the most exciting features of art.
This blog post is about a problem that’s been nagging me for a long time. One of the surprises of this blog is that it has taken me back to thinking about literature in ways I hadn’t in a long time. But in this case, it was the only way I could resolve the problem that had been bothering me.
But first, I need to lay a foundation for the argument I want to make.
Peaky Blinders and the Western
I remember perfectly the moment I fell in love with Peaky Blinders: 1.1 when Tommy Shelby rides through a Birmingham slum on a gorgeous horse. For me, the iconography was clear: Here was a self-conscious revision of the western. The camera shots echoed High Plains Drifter where Clint Eastwood rides into town as awed townspeople watch. In Peaky Blinders, the rider is in complete control; every gesture is meticulous; violence thrums in the background; his blank visage promises a complex story.
[S]o I think the narrative of America is that what happens here [in America] is worthy of mythology.
[Think of] westerns, where they’re telling the story of 19th-century agricultural labourers, cowboys. These are people who were employed to herd cows from one place to another, and their story has become [part of] the mythology of the western world. Americans have done that to something mundane.
In Europe, I believe, our mythologising was done with knights and chivalry. We don’t really do that anymore. I don’t believe [this is] the result of anything other than timidity on our part. The stories in Peaky Blinders are based on what was told to me when I was a kid, and they were stories of things that happened to my parents when they were kids. They saw all of that through children’s eyes, which makes everything more mythological – everything a bit darker, and brighter, and better. I was a kid when I heard the stories [secondhand] and they were double-mythologised.
I deliberately chose in that first-ever series to keep the mythology there, not to say, “Let’s make it gritty and urban, isn’t it a shame.” Why? That’s why the first scene in the [very] first episode is Tommy on a horse riding into town, which is the start of any western. That was the point: I wanted to reference westerns.
I’ve always wondered if Knight doesn’t see himself in the boy who explains the tableau to his friend as Tommy Shelby rides down the street: “He’s doing a magic spell to make him win a race.” The awe is on the boy’s face and in his words.
There are other references to the western: The Garrison, which more resembles a saloon from the American West than a British pub (production designer Grant Montgomery has said Heaven’s Gate was his primary influence); Chief Inspector Campbell, a villain complete with his own horse and posse; the Webley gun Tommy carries. This iconography is straight out of the American western.
But there are also significant differences.
First, Tommy Shelby isn’t wearing Clint Eastwood’s cowboy hat and serape, and he doesn’t look like he’s been riding through the desert for weeks. His appearance is meticulous — a suit that puts him in the 20th century; a British accent — not Eastwood’s American growl; and the urban sprawl of a city — not Eastwood’s town providing a oasis on the road to nowhere. Those parallels were self-conscious. Steven Knight and Otto Bathurst knew exactly what they were doing. “Peaky Blinders came along and nobody had ever heard of it. Birmingham had been flattened at that time, the early 20th century is a lost era. That was really exciting because it gave me a blank canvass. I could create this epic, almost like a Western. Peaky is like a big epic western/gangster movie,” says Bathurst.
Add to this the music. When Tommy Shelby rides through Small Heath to Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s “Red Right Hand,” it signals a self-aware director. The wasn’t derivative Ennio Morricone from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Rather, the music signaled that Peaky Blinders was self-conscious. Knight and Bathurst understood that they were revising the western, and the music let the viewer in on it.
Parody and Pastiche
Consider the definition of “parody” given above: “[T]he practice of copying the mannerisms, style or appearance of a work or its author’s voice to make a point about that work (or sometimes unrelated other works). By adopting the guise of the attacked work, the artist reveals its inherent ridiculousness.” So a parody is more than a Saturday Night Live skit. Instead, it is a self-conscious dialogue between two texts — in this case Peaky Blinders and the classic western — and the result of such a dialogue is always an elucidation of both texts.
Understanding the western isn’t essential to enjoying Peaky Blinders. However, it’s a more meaningful experience if the viewer has a knowledge of the western. Conversely, after watching Peaky Blinders, it’s impossible to see High Plains Drifter in the same way again. Texts are always in dialogue. And in these dialogues, the creator making the parody is always in some way making a statement both about the original text and their own work.
The western is a versatile and important genre. There are the classic westerns — for example, Stagecoach, The Searchers, High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales — that set the baseline. But — and this is true of all genres — other works engage and revise those original texts. So given that the western is a masculine-dominated genre, a character like Sharon Stone’s gunfighter in The Quick and the Dead becomes important because she replaces the male gunfighter and finds a nontraditional resolution. Or Near Dark, a western that happens to be about vampires, makes a statement about violence in the western. Or films like Smoke Signals show the experience of contemporary Native Americans. The entire undertaking is subversive because it is completely devoid of cowboys and undercuts a primary American film genre by allowing Native Americans to tell their own story. This is why HBO’s Westworld is so intriguing: Where will the western go next? That’s a central question because genres evolve just as cultures evolve.
That’s where the notion of pastiche comes into play. A pastiche is, basically, an homage to a work or genre. Whereas the parody draws sharp contrasts and comments on cultural evolution, the pastiche revels in what made the genre great. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, it’s a less challenging and less rich form. Moreover, if a pastiche isn’t careful, it runs the risk of failing to acknowledge cultural change, which may render it a subject of out-of-time ridicule.
But here’s the other thing about parody: It requires a creator to participate fully in the dialogue of the art form. In other words, if a creator is truly going to create a parody, then they have to immerse themselves in it. Take the Felina episode of Breaking Bad. When Walter White is listening to a Marty Robbins cowboy ballad, the western is fully invoked. Although Breaking Bad is hardly a western, Vince Gilligan had studied the form enough to parody camera angles and themes. Gilligan likes working in dialogue with others. He has said that the writers’ room is key to the success of programs he runs. Moreover, he has the kind of encyclopedic knowledge of film and television key to successful parody. Gilligan fully embraces the dialogue he has begun.
Now consider Steven Knight. Knight has said repeatedly that he does not watch contemporary film and television. As he tells Graham Young:
I don’t get the time and I don’t want to be too influenced by other films because you then end up making films like other films.
I found this instructive, and here’s where Steven Knight and I disagree about how art works. I see art as engaged in constant and dynamic dialogue; Knight sees the possibility of imitation and plagiarism.
Knight has also said that his understanding of the western rests on classic texts. As he notes,
As a child, I wasn’t exposed to cinema much at all, apart from Westerns which my Dad used to take me to go and see. At the time I thought it was embarrassing, but now I am very pleased I did, because in John Wayne films like The Searchers  and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , they were telling these fantastic stories. They were an influence mostly, and then I studied old English literature and modern American literature that influenced me even more. So in the end, it was mostly reading books rather than films that influenced me.
That is, his influences are classic westerns, rather than more postmodern revisions, which explains his pastiche rather than parodic approach.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize. Peaky Blinders isn’t really the parody I thought I’d signed up for. It’s a pastiche. It has appropriated elements of the western, but there’s no real engagement of the genre or its values. Rather, Knight wants to use this American vehicle for mythologizing the working class and transport it to Birmingham. There’s nothing wrong with that — and Otto Bathurst is absolutely brilliant in realizing this vision — but moving from pastiche to parody would have given Knight the opportunity for a much richer narrative.
(This is the first in a series of blog posts about Peaky Blinders and the western.)
Publication Date: 15 September 2016
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