Peaky Blinders, Fandom, & Some Thoughts on Causation

<I>Steve Wright in the Afternoon</I>
Steve Wright in the Afternoon

In the course of promoting his new film Anthropoid, Cillian Murphy made an interesting comment on BBC2’s radio program Steve Wright in the Afternoon when asked about the success of Peaky Blinders:

It all kind of crept up on us all.  We never really expected the level of sort of fandom that there is, and people have really invested in the show.  And not just here in Ireland but kinda all over in the most bizarre places, which is great.

Creator Steven Knight has made similar comments to Neil Landau in TV Outside the Box:

The interesting thing for me about television is the level of loyalty that comes with it.  So, people watch a film and they love it.  But they won’t have that evangelical loyalty that they have with television.  I still don’t know why it is, but people will watch a particular TV series, and they will become like proselytizers:  “You’ve got to watch this!  It’s brilliant!” 

In this blog post, I’d like to suggest (in no particular order) a few reasons that explain why Peaky Blinders has developed such a loyal fandom.

Source: robertviglasky.com
Source: robertviglasky.com

Great Characters and Storylines

Nothing tops great writing.  Period.

When three-dimensional characters are placed in interesting situations, that’s the basis for a compelling plot.  Think back to Series 1:  A damaged World War I veteran with loyalty only to his family pulls off his biggest scheme ever.  His motives in doing this are noble — he wants to become a legitimate businessman — but his methods are questionable.  In the course of doing this, he encounters two formidable adversaries.  The first is an arrogant cop; the second is a barmaid/spy with whom he falls in love.  That story provides the basis for the other series, but the foundation was laid in the beginning, and the tension within the family is a running thread.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 2
Peaky Blinders, Series 2

Great Acting

Where even to begin?

The show belongs to Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby.  His ability to show complex emotions without even speaking always stuns me.  As Sarah Hughes wrote in The Guardian about 2.6, “[T]his is Cillian Murphy’s show and, boy, did he demonstrate it this evening.”  Truest words ever!

But working with him is a strong cast:  Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly who carries tragedies of her own that have made her stronger; Paul Anderson as Arthur Shelby, the displaced older brother who fights his own demons; Joe Cole as John Shelby, the brother with the most swagger and the least direction; Annabelle Wallis as the lovely spy caught in her own trap who teaches Tommy to love again; Sophie Rundle as Ada Thorne, the sister who defies the family and yet loves them deeply; Sam Neill as Chief Inspector Campbell, a man without scruples but who, at the end of the day, simply cannot recover from a broken heart; Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons, the gangster who gives Tommy as good as he gets.

I’ve had issues with some plot lines but never with the acting.  It’s always top notch.

Source: robertviglasky.com
Source: robertviglasky.com

Costumes

Peaky Blinders is very much about the look.  Steven Knight wanted to reproduce the glamorous look of his gangster uncles, and he’s done it with style thanks to Otto Bathurst and Stephanie Collie. and in later seasons Lorna Marie Mugan

First, consider the haircuts.  As Otto Bathurst told the BBC:

The big one with this was going to be the haircuts. I wanted to create a really specific look, that as an audience you go that is a very, very, very strong haircut! And so we showed the actors the haircut and they said ‘You’re joking! I’ll look like an idiot, I can’t do that, I can’t do that’ and it literally took a week to persuade our four men to go the whole way.

In the Daily Mail, Bathurst said, “We spent a lot of time getting the clothes and haircuts right so that they look cool, just like they do on GoodFellas.  I’m creating a mythology.”

Not only does the show look great, but it’s also the kind of look that fans who enjoy cosplay can reproduce.  Do a Google search for “How to dress like a Peaky Blinder,” and you’ll get over 16,000 hits and find lots of suggestions.  (The first hit, by the way, is an interview with Stephanie Collie in which she provides pretty clear instructions.)  The fact that Steven Knight is starting Garrison Tailors, “a luxury menswear brand, made in Britain,” suggests that it’s not just casual fans who appreciate this look; there’s also an upscale market.  But cosplay is a popular avenue for fan engagement.

Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders

Music

Otto Bathurst said early on that Peaky Blinders is rock and roll, a fact reflected in the soundtrack.  Steven Knight concurs:

For me it was never an option to use music from the period because if you do that, you’re putting another barrier between the audience and the characters. . . . Nick Cave and the White Stripes establish in a subliminal way that these are contemporary emotions.  We kept the music to a very limited number of artists because otherwise your soundtrack starts to sound like a juke box.

The use of contemporary music is sophisticated, but at the end of the day, Peaky Blinders plays the kinds of songs you want to listen to:  The White Stripes, PJ Harvey, Radiohead.  The list is extensive and impressive.  And every time you press “play” and listen to “The Hardest Button to Button” or “Katherine” or “You and Whose Army?”, you’re back in the Peaky world.  Playlists recreate the soundtrack, and fan vids reinterpret both the music and the series.

Again, the music provides a forum for fan engagement because they are engaged with the show even when not watching.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 1
Peaky Blinders, Series 1

Mythic Storylines

Knight has been clear that he is using American film techniques from classic westerns and gangster movies to mythologize the British working class:

Americans have no fear of mythologizing their own history: 19th-century agricultural laborers become cowboys.  In England, we’re almost embarrassed by that kind of thing but I wanted Peaky Blinders to have the same kind of boldness you see in American westerns.

On a thematic level, that’s interesting.  But practically speaking, when a text taps into existing mythic stories, there’s a group of fans of the original form who may be attracted to the revision.  I’ll be honest:  I came to Peaky Blinders through the western, which has been an area of research focus for me.  In 1.1 as I watched Tommy Shelby ride down an urban wasteland on Monaghan Boy, I knew the director was creating a parody (I use that in the postmodern sense) of the western, and I was hooked.  Then the characters drew me in.

So from the get go, Peaky Blinders had a built-in fanbase of those who watch western and gangster movies.

Source: robertviglasky.com
Source: robertviglasky.com

Cinematography and Details

Where even to begin?  Peaky Blinders looks gorgeous.  Steven Knight says:

Cinematography was the area most affected by the idea that this world is being seen through the eyes of kids.  My mom and dad remember a throbbing city filled with smoke, dust, fire—you’d see huge flashes coming from factories that operated 24 hours a day.  The thumping and pounding and smoke never stopped.

The shots are carefully crafted and interesting.  The sets and locations are compelling — Black Country Museum, Liverpool docks and streets, the set of The Garrison.  The look ties Peaky Blinders into those mythic genres it is engaging.

As Otto Bathurst put it, “Peaky is like a big epic western/gangster movie. Birmingham looks like Blade Runner.”  He adds, “The piece was all about attention to detail.  If you watch TV and the barman is crap, or the street sweeper is crap, it bursts the bubble.  So we were hanging out in boxing gyms and factories to find proper faces. They were our extras and the world they created was totally believable. We had amazing sets and locations and were using proper equipment: we had big toys.”

Otto Bathurst, Cillian Murphy, & Benjamin Zephaniah

Final Thoughts

So I guess my answer to Cillian Murphy and Steven Knight would be this:  Why wouldn‘t fans become attached to the story you’re telling?  You’ve done good work.  All the pieces for a rich fandom are there, and, indeed, just look at all the great Tumblrs, Twitter feeds, Pintrest boards, GIFs, fanfic.  Peaky Blinders has a rich fandom.  I’ve blogged elsewhere about my frustration with fan engagement (see here and here), but I’m optimistic — and the fact that those who make the show are become aware of fandom seems like a good sign.

— Publication Date:  9 September 2016

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