Peaky Blinders Review: The Show Gets Meta (Or, How Did I Miss This?)

Source: robertviglasky.com
Peaky Blinders, Series 1 (Source: robertviglasky.com)

In writing about Peaky Blinders, I have often quoted Steven Knight on the guiding question of the show:  Is it possible to escape a social class?  As he told Den of Geek‘s Louisa Mellor:

But I just want to see Tommy become this huge, respectable businessman and see if he can ever escape.  Because it’s also about, if you’re born in that environment, can you get out, ever? Can you actually ever escape? And we’ll see.  In terms of social class, can he ever be accepted? Obviously racing is one of those places where you’ll see the aristocracy, will he ever be able to break into that world?  You have to look at history, it’s very difficult.

Series 3 ends with Tommy answering Knight’s question as he explains to his family that they will never be allowed to escape their Birmingham gangster roots:

Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Peaky Blinders, Series 3

But I’ve learnt something in the last few days.  Those bastards are worse than us.  Politicians, fucking judges, lords and ladies.  They’re worse than us, and they will never admit us to their palaces, no matter how legitimate we become, because of who we are.  Because of who we fucking are, because of where we’re fucking from.  Our Ada knows.  She got smart about the revolution.  And she knows you have to get what you want your own way.

(I’ve discussed this subject here, here, and here.)

But then, something occurred to me – and I can’t believe I missed it.  In the course of tweeting articles and interviews from the first series of Peaky Blinders (#PeakyBlindersRewind), I’ve been struck (again) by writer, producer, and actor comments on how Peaky Blinders both questions and revises the traditional portrayal of the working class in British culture, particularly in film and television.

Consider these statements:

Steven Knight in Den of Geek: 

Steven Knight, Peaky Blinders Series 3
Steven Knight, Peaky Blinders Series 3
Source: Birmingham Mail

The great thing about America is that people take its history and mythologise it.  I mean, if you said you were making a film about nineteenth century agricultural labourers, that’s a cowboy film, but it’s just looking at it a different way.  What Westerns did was to take a world and mythologise it.  What I wanted to do was to really look at what really happened in Birmingham – and in other cities – in the twenties and see it for what it was. Very bizarre, very glamorous, very unexpected, very un-English, not un-English but working class English.

I think there’s a tendency in England, when you look at the past, to either have upper middle class period drama with its own rules, or if you’re going to look at working class people, you have to do that in a particular ‘Isn’t it a shame, aren’t they oppressed’ way, or it’s treated comically. When I was a kid though, my dad wasn’t a comedy figure, he was a hero, so do it like that, do it as it really is.

Steven Knight in Independent

There’s such a wealth of literature from the 18th century and 19th century, George Eliot…Jane Austen… that’s all about a gentile high society, relationships, all of that stuff.  There wasn’t ever really, apart from Dickens, a literary evocation of working class life. So there was sort of nothing to draw from.  Peakys is all based on word of mouth and stories that I heard.

Helen McCrory to BBC Media Centre:

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

Steve Knight shows this world in a way that we’re not used to in British storytelling. We’re used to seeing our victims as that, as victims.  People who are not part of society. People who are the criminal class must be there because they’re forced there.  They must have something wrong with them. They must always want, you know, absolution for their sins and they must generally be seen as failures.  He has written them as heroes, in the style of the Western, in the style that the Americans do so very well. . . .

I think the difference is the tone in which the story’s been told.  I also think the difference is in the visual landscape.  They have shot it in a way that does remind you of those old Westerns. Huge epic scenes and then the lone man who never describes why he’s doing what he’s doing in the centre of this. We’re all the characters around him that are those archetypes that are uncommon to British audiences.

Producer Caryn Mandabach in The Hollywood Reporter:

Class is at the center of a very big dialog in the U.K. and has been forever. . . . I think the reason why Peaky Blinders is exceptional is because it was the first period drama to bring the working class into focus. You think of England in that time and most people imagine castles, aristocrats.  But 95 percent of British people then belonged to the working class.

Reading these comments after watching the Series 3 finale led me to a conclusion I can’t believe I didn’t make sooner.  And that’s where the meta part kicks in.  I’ve argued that in Series 3, the Shelbys discover that the system they thought they wanted into will never accept them; how Tommy will disrupt that system remains to be seen.

<I>Downton Abbey</I>
Downton Abbey

But on another level, Peaky Blinders the television series is doing exactly what the Shelbys are doing:  It provides a subversive, working-class view of British culture, one that has been largely overlooked.  It’s been called the anti-Downton Abbey with good reason.

But there’s more to it than the focus on working-class characters.

First, the use of contemporary music in an historical drama sets Peaky Blinders apart.  As Knight explains: 

The idea of the soundtrack is that the emotion of music is timeless so at that time, that music is appropriate to use. That’s the other thing about writing period stuff. What I’ve tried to do is make the characters modern, because there’s no such thing as non-modern characters. People are people and maybe they have a different culture, but they are as modern in their jealousy and anger and spite and all of those things, they don’t change. So with the music, in order to reflect what’s in the characters’ heads for a modern audience, you need to give them a modern reflection.

By using contemporary music in this way, Knight is showing how Peaky Blinders is moving away from conventional (and dated) British historical drama.

Second, Peaky Blinders brings cinematic values to television.  Here’s what Series 1 director Otto Bathurst told the Birmingham Mail:

Source: robertviglasky.com
Behind the scenes, Peaky Blinders, Series 1 (Source: robertviglasky.com)

I had no interest in just making a historical drama, in rewinding the clock and telling you what it was like in 1919. I was passionate that this should be lit and shot in exactly the same way as if this story was completely contemporary. Once I took off the shackles of historical accuracy, then you kind of go ‘Cool,. now we can have some real fun here we can make a really cool show.’

Although not unique to Peaky Blinders, its look is more like a movie than traditional television.  As Steven Knight puts it:

I feel that as television improved, now that everybody has virtual cinema screens in their house, that’s when the look of something became more relevant. Things have got to look great to survive on that big screen. You don’t get away with much at the BBC but I think Peaky Blinders looks much more expensive than it really was.

So in addition to the artistry of a project, there is a practical reason to embrace cinematic values in television.  And bringing those film values to a television program about a working-class family makes a statement on its own about how this series and these stories should be valued.  Television isn’t a second-class citizen anymore; it has embraced the values of film.

This is closely tied to the third reason:  Part of the success of Peaky Blinders comes from an evolving way of delivering television.

Steven Knight
Steven Knight

Viewers stream whole seasons from anywhere in the world.  Producers and networks have less control.   The show’s popularity in the United States (and around the world) is largely due to Netflix, which has radically altered how viewers access and watch entertainment.  As Steven Knight told Deadline:

Without the platform there’s nothing. What I’m finding really exciting even increasingly in the last two or three months is the amount of people who have now seen the first two series. A lot of people have only just seen them and the amount of response and amount of love for the show, the way it’s affecting how people are dressing and behaving differently, the way that in the States we’re hearing that Hispanic and Black audiences are responding; that’s fantastic. Without a platform they’re never going to get a hold of it and I think these are exciting times in television because we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. It’s all being stirred. People in America are willing to watch something set in Birmingham, whereas I don’t think that was necessarily true when we started.

Think about what Knight is saying here:  Not only has Peaky Blinders upended the traditional British drama, but it has also engaged audiences that are very not-British and very not aristocratic British.  What’s happening in Peaky Blinders is about more than characters and stories.  It’s about contributing to an ongoing revision of British drama, which is as class based as the social structure the Shelbys are trying to destroy.

Publication Date:  2 July 2016

Return to A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Blog

Related Posts

Peaky Blinders Review:  Tommy, Grace, and the Symbolism of Framing

Peaky Blinders Series 3 Review:  Are the Shelbys on the “Wrong Path?”  (Answer:  I Don’t Think So)

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  Family, Power, and Revolution

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  A Disappointing Finale

Peaky Blinders 3.5 Review:  Tommy, Tatiana, and Khlysty — Yes, That Scene

Peaky Blinders 3.1 — Displacement


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