If Peaky Blinders is about the Shelby family, it’s equally about the villains that test the Shelbys. While there are plenty of bad guys to choose from, I’d like to focus on the two who strike me as most compelling, Chief Inspector Chester Campbell and Father John Hughes. Both of these characters prove to be Tommy’s greatest foes, but I’ve been intrigued by the traits that make these villains interesting, and I’d argue that (in terms of bad guy-ness) one is better than the other.
Chief Inspector Chester Campbell
Upon his entrance in Small Heath, Campbell is clearly defined as an outsider. As he is driven through the neighborhood, he looks out and sees a nightmare: unruly children; drinking, sex, chaos. His job is to bring order — the King’s order — to this community, a task Grace shares with him. His Irish Protestant heritage and unwillingness to serve in the War further distance him from the place he has entered.
His violence is established early when he beats Arthur and ransacks the community. As he character develops more fully, he grows increasingly lawless even though he, ostensibly, represents order. That he comes from a lower social class than Winston Churchill is another defining moment of his character. He simply isn’t comfortable around the wealthy even as he is eager for their approval.
However, in all of this, one thing sets him apart: He loves Grace. He has a history with Grace and her family, and they work together to find the guns. Ultimately, her rejection of him and her decision to embrace Tommy and his home drives Campbell to new levels of cruelty that play out more fully in Series 2. He rapes women, he kills, and he breaks his word. All the while, he sees himself as on the side of the angels, a point he makes to Tommy during their last conversation.
Chester Campbell is a bad man, but his true tragedy is that he never has a moment of self-realization.
Father John Hughes
Father Hughes emerges in Series 3 as the villain who moves between corrupt Section D and the church. His evilness is evident from the start: He is a pedophile with no respect for human life.
His first meeting with Tommy establishes him as arrogant and attracted to wealth and power; moreover, and his violence is apparent throughout. Consider the scene in 3.2 when he threatens Tommy in the prison cell or later when he attends the gala. Father Hughes makes clear that he is powerful and enjoys watching others submit to him, everything a priest should not be. He is also attracted to wealth, as is apparent in his relationship with the Russians.
Like Inspector Campbell, Father Hughes, a religious man, ostensibly represents a positive cultural order; on further investigation, however, it becomes clear that he is utterly bankrupt. The scene in 3.4 where he forces a beaten Tommy to confess to him is one of the most powerful in Series 3, bringing together Hughes’s arrogance with the corruption of the church.
When he orders the deaths of working men in the railway explosion, it is a decision he makes without emotion. In addition he has molested Michael and stolen Charlie. setting up another scene with Tommy at his mercy, agreeing to anything, which is out of character for him.
Still, with all that, when Father Hughes dies, it is a just ending.
So Who’s the Worst?
Perhaps the better question would be “Which is the most interesting villain?”
For me, that goes to Inspector Campbell. Both Sam Neill as Campbell and Paddy Considine as Hughes give fine performances — this isn’t about acting. Rather, this becomes a writing issue. Campbell has the more compelling storyline, and that’s because he has a history and is a more developed character.
As Sam Neill tells BBC:
He’s a tough cop from Northern Ireland. He’s probably fairly psychotic but he’s a righteous man, an upright man whose mission is to clean out the cesspit that is Birmingham in 1919 and by God, he’s going to succeed. Campbell is clearly a man of his time and haunted by several things. There’re other dimensions to Campbell apart from being a maniac: he’s kind of sad character too, he’s got a sad dimension to him. I think he probably served in the Boer War and he learnt some practices that probably shouldn’t have been reimported back to the British Isles.
He has been a cop in Ireland, he was close to Grace and her family, and Grace’s rejection pushes him over an edge. There is, too, his fascination with Polly, made clear when he first meets her in the church, later when he rapes her, and finally when he tries to convince her not to shoot him. It may not be a very original story, but it gives his character heft.
That level of development is missing from Father Hughes. As Steven Knight puts it, Hughes is “the most evil character that Peaky Blinders has ever seen.” In other words, he’s just evil. Period. His motivations are unclear, and there’s no story. He’s just a bad guy. Characters, even villains, are more compelling when they’re interesting. Father Hughes is just a stereotype.
I would argue there are too many characters and plot lines in Series 3, which means less character development, and that generally hurts a program. (I’ve written about John’s lack of character development here, which.) This happens routinely happens in multi-series programs: New characters are introduced to drive plot, but because there are so many characters, many lack development. (Game of Thrones provides a case in point. It became a better series with fewer, more developed characters.)
So for me, the dubious aware of “Best Villain” goes to Chief Inspector Campbell. He may not be “on the side of God,” even though he thinks he is, but he does have better character development.
Publication Date: 29 July 2016
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