Peaky Blinders Series 1 Review: A Story in Contrasts

Peaky Blinders is a remarkable program for any number of reasons, but my thinking about the first series was very much influenced by executive producer Jamie Glazebrook’s comments on The COP Show.  In that podcast, Glazebrook discusses the challenges involved in writing the first episode of any new show.  His comments are worth quoting at length:

I think the first episodes are really, really hard.  The best thing you can do to teach yourselves drama is to choose those brilliant first episodes like The Sopranos or House of Cards or Breaking Bad.  You look at those, and in that hour they’ve set up, you know how the next 40 hours is going to play out.  It’s an absolutely brilliant, surgical thing when someone attains a brilliant pilot.

He later says:

This is only for returning series.  If you’ve got a lead character like a Walter White or a Tony Soprano or a Don Draper, you stick them in the middle and then you surround then with interesting returning characters, all of whom shine a different light on that lead character.  So for Don Draper, he’s pretty horrible to his wife, Betty, in that first episode, but Peggy, he’s actually pretty decent to, he’s a good father figure to.  Pete Campbell, he’s like a terrible father to, and then Roger, he’s mates with.  Before long, you’ve got a really dimensional lead character. . . .  What’s the show about?  Look at that lead character. . . .

In terms of storytelling, for the first few episodes, every scene, either Tommy Shelby is in the scene, or he’s the elephant in the room, or that scene you’re about to watch is going to come back into Tommy Shelby’s face in sooner or later.

For Glazebrook, the lead character provides the direction for the story.

That Tommy Shelby will be the focus is clear from the opening moments of Peaky Blinders.  But one interesting way in which Steven Knight defines Tommy is through is clear through his use of contrasts, especially between Tommy and Chester Campbell.


Notice how the viewer sees Birmingham in the opening scenes of Peaky Blinders.


We watch Tommy ride through city streets in which he is very clearly comfortable and a source of authority.  The varied reactions to him help establish some of the character complexity Glazebrook describes.  We see his charity when meeting the blind veterans as he drops a coin in their cup; we see the deference he receives from those in the street as he passes and men (including the police) tip their hats and refer to him as “Mr. Shelby”; we see the beginnings of his relationship with Jeremiah.

For Tommy Shelby (as for Steven Knight), this is home.  Obviously, it’s a manufacturing city, but Tommy is a member of this community — and this all happens before we are introduced to the Shelby family.

Contrast that with Inspector Campbell’s impressions.  As he rides through Watery Lane at night, he sees nothing but depravity:  a drunk throws up in the street; children seem out of control; there is rough sex; people throw rocks at his car.  Eventually the driver turns around and leaves.  Campbell is an outsider here, and everything he sees reinforces his opinion of the city and its people.

For Campbell, they are little more than animals, and he shows no empathy or compassion.  Indeed, he routinely uses animal imagery when referring the the inhabitants of Small Heath — to his fellow officers, he refers to the IRA, the Peaky Blinders, and the communists as a “three-headed beast.”

Initially, Grace shares his perspective.  “I’m quite shocked by how these people live,” she tells Campbell in the first meeting we see

with him.  It’s worth noting that they meet in a museum statuary, presumably because they have few fears that they will encounter any of those they are investigating in an art exhibit.  In that sense, they are attempting to use class as a protector.

That changes as the series progresses — as Annabelle Wallis writes in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders blog, “What I love is that Tommy, this dangerous and feared man, becomes her moral compass.”  As that happens, as she falls in love with Tommy and comes to understand the working of The Garrison as well as Small Heath, she begins to see Birmingham in the way that he does.

Source: Peaky Blinders
Source: Peaky Blinders

The scene where she leads the singing in The Garrison illustrates her coming, despite herself, to participate in and understand this community.  This is a chasm Campbell will never bridge; indeed, he has not desire to close it.  It is an early way of defining characters — and of establishing the community of Birmingham.

Military Service

Another way in which Tommy (and his brothers) are contrasted with Campbell is through their military service in World War I.

Campbell is aware of the Shelby brothers’ service from the earliest moments of the episode.  It’s one way in which he attempts to draw in Arthur to cooperate with the investigation.  As Arthur tells the family, “He says we’re patriots.”

Tommy, however, is less impressed, and points out to Charlie Strong that Campbell did not, in fact, serve.  Politically, this is Tommy’s greatest contrast with Campbell, and he makes the most of it, a point that is made explicit in the second episode when Tommy says to Campbell, “Now, why would I shake the hand of a man who wouldn’t even fight for his king?”  Tommy’s willingness to use his record as a war hero becomes a tool for him in fighting (and annoying) Campbell, but ultimately, it allows him to gain the attention of Winston Churchill, which will have significant plot implications as Peaky Blinders‘ narrative progresses.

The Letters

This contrast with how Tommy and Campbell see Birmingham is echoed in Episode 6.  Early on, Grace receives a letter from Campbell.  In it, he attacks

her and questions her integrity.  His is the voice of an angry, frustrated suitor.  She has betrayed him, and he punishes her for it.  Here’s what he says:

Dear Grace:

I write this letter to you with a heavy heart.  I know exactly what you did and with whom.  I will not mention any of it in my report.  However, you should be aware that I know you gave yourself to the man who is our sworn enemy.  That is not only treason, it is disgusting beyond all measure.  Your father would be ashamed of you.  And as for myself, I am beyond desolation.  You have betrayed every principle and standard of honor that was your birthright.  And for what?

To this, Grace quietly and in tears, answers, “Love.”  This voiceover is spliced into Campbell’s rape of Chin.

The episode ends with Tommy’s letter to Grace, and the tone could not be more different:

Dear Grace:

Without a secretary, I write my own letters, and I write without malice.  I learnt long ago to hate my enemies, but I’ve never loved one before.  The idea of New York is interesting, but I have worked so hard for this day, for this victory.  I have responsibilities here for people I need to protect and people who I love.  Before the war, when I had an important decision to make, I used to flip a coin.  Perhaps that is what I will do again.  Polly tells me you fell in love for real, and Polly is never wrong about matters of the heart. 

I will give you my decision within three days.

All my love,

Tommy Shelby

“Dear Grace:  Since I no longer have a secretary, I wrote my own letters, and I write without malice.”  (That Tommy writes of Jack White’s version of “Love Is Blindness” reinforces the unexpected ways in which loves changes who we are and how we view the world.)  He later writes, “Long ago, I learned to hate my enemies, but I’ve never loved one before.”  He closes with “All my love, Tommy Shelby.”  If anyone has a right to be angry with Grace, it’s Tommy.  She has, after all, betrayed him in every way.  But the rage and spite that Campbell feels is missing from Tommy’s letter.  That is, despite everything, including betrayal and heartbreak, he writes Grade with love.

Even though they do not stay together, it’s clear that Grace has become part of Tommy’s community and his family.  She and Tommy change each other; Campbell is left alone with his rage.

Published on 6 Sept. 2015

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Related Posts

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

Peaky Blinders 1, 2, & 3:  Which Is Best?

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  What Happened to the Strong Female Characters?

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

Peaky Blinders 3.2 — Arthur

Peaky Blinders 3.2 — Grace

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