Peaky Blinders Review: What’s Up with John Shelby?

Joe Cole as John Shelby (Source: Robert Viglasky)
Joe Cole as John Shelby (Source: Robert Viglasky)

“It’s like coming off the subs bench in football, it’s a challenge to make your mark when you’ve only got limited time.”

— Joe Cole in

Peaky Blinders is the story of four Shelbys:  Tommy, Arthur, John, and Polly.  Tommy is the complicated boss (of both the family and the business); Arthur is the displaced, haunted brother; and Polly is the matriarch, struggling to parent her son and her extended family while working in the business and facing her own demons.

And then there’s John.

John’s role is the family is less clear, which is an idea I’d like to pursue here.  While Tommy, Arthur, and Polly all have clearly developed storylines, John’s place is less well defined.  He’s a fascinating character, but one with little consistency.  Joe Cole has grown into the role, and I wish he had more to work with.

<img class=”size-medium wp-image-2737″ src=”; alt=”Peaky Blinders, Series 1″ width=”300″ height=”162″>Peaky Blinders, Series 1

Series 1 

Surprisingly little is known about John.  He is the third son; he fought in the war; he is loyal to his family; he is widowed; he has five children; he prefers cigars to cigarettes.  Beyond providing some muscle and good humor, he initially doesn’t have much to do.

He does, however, look great.   As Keith Watson puts it, “[Joe Cole is] happy to admit that, thus far, his character John, brother of lead Peaky Tommy, has done a lot of looking moody in a flatcap.”  Similarly, costume designer Stephanie Collie agrees with Clothes on Filmthat Joe Cole looks “fantastic”:   If he’d had that cap any more swung around he’d have it on backwards.”

John’s moment arrives in Episode 4 when he announces his intention to marry Lizzie Stark.  The family laughs at his plans as he confesses, “I need someone.”  Ultimately, Tommy arranges a marriage with Esme Lee, and John’s life continues.  But his children, like John’s character, are amorphous, shadows in the background that never settle into anything definite.

Series 2 

<img class=”size-medium wp-image-157″ src=”; alt=”Peaky Blinders, Series 2″ width=”300″ height=”169″>Peaky Blinders, Series 2

In the second series, John’s character becomes a bit clearer.  He still works in the family business, though he is subordinate to Tommy and Arthur, and is married to Esme (with the sense that they’ve had more children).  There is a clear suggestion that John is henpecked.  He expresses reservations about the move to London, which echoes Esme’s thinking, and Tommy and Arthur suggest that he’s become much too domesticated.  

After they take over the Eden Club, with John looking at all the women in the club and even kissing one, Tommy says, “There’ll be no more talk about chickens,” indicating that he, not Esme, controls John’s actions.  When they go to the horse auction, Tommy tells him to stay with the rest of the group, which suggests he has a tendency to wander off and find women.  When May arrives at the betting shop, John looks her over carefully before Tommy signals that he needs to get lost.

But the biggest moment is at the end of 3.6 when he has his conversation with Lizzie.  First, he comforts her after her rape before she tells him, “You should get out.”  The scene suggests there is still intimacy between John and Lizzie, but that moment is unexplored.  In short, John’s character remains a mystery.

John Shelby in Peaky Blinders, Series 3 (Source:
John Shelby in Peaky Blinders, Series 3 (Source:

Series 3

This is how Joe Cole describes Series 3 John to the BBC:

I think John is most interested in the illegitimate side of the business.  That’s where he gets his enjoyment and it’s all he’s ever known.  The family is very much stepping into a more legitimate world and we see how that impacts John.  He wants things to stay as they were but the world around him is definitely changing.  John is a loyal soldier and sometimes Tommy takes advantage of that. In this series you’ll see just how much that impacts on John and how his sense of value within the company is tested.

In the third series, John is given some of his best material to date — the scenes when he and Arthur have to deal with the Changrettas are stunning.  John shows himself to be deeply conflicted between his commitment to Tommy and his respect for his fourth-grade teacher.  (And the shot on the beach where he walks away from the camera is terrific.)  Add to that the scenes where John and Arthur wait to blow up the train in 3.6.  That’s fine acting.

But the problems with John’s character continue.  He seems to genuinely love Esme (his speech about buying her a house and sleeping outside is deeply moving).  But his treatment of Angel Changretta suggests he’s still in love with Lizzie.  His behavior in the scene where they attempt to negotiate with the Changretta family is jarring because it seems so out of character for John.  Who is this person?  And he seems very comfortable at the Russian orgy.  I realize relationships, especially marriages, are complicated, and that it’s possible to love more than one person, but given that Tommy and Arthur are so clearly defined by their relationships with women, it seems that John’s character would get equal treatment.  That isn’t the case.

<img class=”size-medium wp-image-2740″ src=”; alt=”Peaky Blinders, Series 3 (source:” width=”300″ height=”200″>Peaky Blinders, Series 3 (source:

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the lack of focus for John’s character can be explained by something Joe Cole told Interview,

Initially my part was two characters, which is hard to believe.  There were five brothers originally, which was probably closer to the real family — there was just shitloads running about.  But they just made it one character, and then they brought in the cousin, Finn, in the second series . . . .

In other words, John’s  character has lacked clear focus from inception.  I suspect the story that was supposed to drive his character, a sociopathic desire to be in control, was given to Michael Gray.  This would make sense for two reasons.  One, it gives Polly a stronger story to work with.  Two, it allows Series 1 to establish the fundamental family dynamics before Michael’s character complicates things in Series 2.

The problem is that John still lacks the cohesive story and character he should have.  Joe Cole has done solid work in Peaky Blinders, and John Shelby deserves better.

Published on 22 July 2016

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Related Blog Posts

Peaky Blinders 4.1 Review:  Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Peaky Blinders 3.2 — Arthur

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

Peaky Blinders Review:  What Happened to Elizabeth Gray?

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

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  The Series Changes Focus — It’s About Masculinity

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2 thoughts on “Peaky Blinders Review: What’s Up with John Shelby?

    1. Thanks for your note. When I make mistakes, I want to correct them.

      Actually, what you’ve pointed out is an error in a quote — I’m just citing it as it appeared in the original text. And I suspect that Joe Cole in his answer was being unclear by referring to his real-life brother Finn as the cousin Michael Gray.

      Thanks for reading!


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