Peaky Blinders, the Church & Sacred Spaces

The places and sites that have special religious significance and spiritual qualities.  These include churches, temples, sites of miracles or specific holy events, holy wells, and monuments.  Such sacred spaces are often the focus of pilgrimage, with members of a faith travelling to a site often along a set, well-worn route, to pray or take part in a particular ceremony or event, or to seek spiritual healing.  Sacred spaces are understood by believers to hold transcendent spiritual qualities, locations where one can be closer to the divine and in which one can be contemplative and celebrate one’s faith. 

 — Noel Castree, Rob Kitchin & Alisdair Rogers, A Dictionary of Human Geography

In this post, I’d like to explore the importance of sacred spaces in Series 1 of Peaky Blinders.  Although the Shelbys are Catholic and a number of scenes take place in a Catholic church, the characters find their real sacred space elsewhere.

In Peaky Blinders Series 1, these scenes take place in the church:

  • Peaky Blinders, 1.1
    Peaky Blinders, 1.1

    1.1 — Tommy tells Polly about the guns in the church.  This scene serves several purposes.  First, it makes clear that Polly is religious.  She goes to the church to pray, and Tommy finds here there.  It also establishes that Tommy isn’t religious.  He enters the church to meet with Polly, but for him, it’s just another place of business.  When he walks in, he still removes his hat, however, which shows that some vestiges of his religious training have stayed with him.  Ultimately, the church provides a private place for Tommy to tell Polly about the guns.  In terms of narrative, this is the scene that provides the viewer with essential exposition.  In that sense, both Polly and the viewer are in the church to learn from Tommy what is going on.

  • <I>Peaky Blinders</I>, 1.2
    Peaky Blinders, 1.2

    1.2 — Polly is again praying in the church when Chief Inspector Campbell enters to search for the guns.  Before the officers arrive, Polly explains to Campbell, “I’m lighting candles for the boys from The Garrison who lost their lives in France.  There’s a list there.  Look.”  Then she goads Campbell by pointing out that he didn’t serve in France.  He violently kisses her (which foreshadows her rape in Series 2).  On Campbell’s command, the officers ransack the church looking for the guns.  That is, this sacred space is violated by the law.  Although Campbell prides himself on being a religious man, he has no respect for the Shelbys’ church, just as in Series 2, he will violate Polly’s body.

  • 1.3 — After John tells Tommy that Arthur has the “Flanders Blues,” Tommy finds him in the church, and the two brothers discuss Arthur’s frustration at being left out of the family business.  Arthur is drinking there — another violation of a sacred space — and Tommy points out he’s taken control of the business to give Arthur a break before telling him about the guns.  Tommy is attempting to repair his relationship with his brother.
  • <I>Peaky Blinders</I> 1.5
    Peaky Blinders 1.5

    1.4 — In this episode, one night Tommy takes Grace to the church after she closes The Garrison.  For viewers, it’s a moment of apprehension because there’s concern that he may have figured out that she’s a spy.  Indeed, Grace is also nervous, making sure she can reach her gun.  Instead, Tommy takes her there to offer her a job and then to make clear his interest in her.  Like his meeting with Polly, this is about business.  The scene culminates with their kissing.  But the important point is the notion of confession.  As Tommy tells her, “Well, then you know it’s here people come to confess.”  The confession Tommy makes, however, is hardly religious, and the one most needing confession — in this case Grace — keeps her sins to herself.

But the real sacred space in Peaky Blinders Series 1 is not the church but rather The Garrison.  Consider these shots from 1.3.  In the first, Tommy sits behind Arthur in the church; in the second, after they have left the church, they enter The Garrison.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, 1.3
Peaky Blinders, 1.3
<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, 1.3
Peaky Blinders, 1.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice the contrasts:  In the church, they sit, hatless, in darkness; in The Garrison, they enter a lighted space full of people, and they wear their hats, which are sources of identity and power.  The Garrison means community and acceptance.

Steven Knight’s description of The Garrison is telling  As he explains to Neil Landau in Outside the Box:

If you imagine my mum and dad at 9, 10, 11, 12 — everything they saw was filtered through a kid’s imagination in which everything’s bigger, more fantastic, more wonderful.  So the actual pub, The Garrison, which is the HQ of the Peaky Blinders still exists, but it’s actually just a modest pub.  When my dad told me the stories, in his mind it was like this massive sort of cathedral.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, 1.4
Peaky Blinders, 1.4

So on one level, Knight is infusing The Garrison with the awe that his parents experienced as children and calling attention to its religious symbolism.  Its appearance also links it to the Western, one of America’s great mythologies.  On another level, The Garrison becomes Tommy’s sacred space.  It is, after all, where he conducts business; it’s where he goes to relax; it’s where the family meets in the snook; and it’s where he and Grace fall in love.

Tommy Shelby is not a church-going man.  As he readily admits, “I don’t believe.”  Matthew Shaw writes, “For some, the futility and brutality of the lethal conflict destroyed any vestige of faith.”  Tommy is one of them, but in a post-World War I world, there is still a fundamental need for sacred space.

The Garrison brings to mind Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean Well-lighted Place,” specifically this passage:

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself.  It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.  You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music.  Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours.  What did he fear?  It was not a fear or dread.  It was a nothing that he knew too well.  It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

Just as Hemingway’s old waiter is familiar with the dark chaos of a post-war world, so is Tommy.  The church can no longer provide salvation, but sacred spaces like The Garrison can, if only briefly.  For Tommy, The Garrison means meeting Grace, who brings light and music back into his life and teaches him to love again.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, 1.6
Peaky Blinders, 1.6

In 1.6, when Billy Kimber comes to destroy the Peaky Blinders, Tommy says, “Now, they’re gonna come for the pub.  And it belongs to us, right?”  Then, the Peaky Blinders successfully defend The Garrison.  That is, Tommy and his fellow veterans save this sacred space.  It’s also no accident that in Series 2, Campbell announces his return to Small Heath by blowing up The Garrison.  By doing this, he destroys that sacred space, and even though Tommy rebuilds, The Garrison is never the same.  The gold paint doesn’t work, and the slant of light is never quite right.  In Series 3, The Garrison is missing altogether — as is Grace.  Tommy can never go back, reminding us that all sacred spaces are only temporary.

— Published on 25 August 2016

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Peaky Blinders Review:  Mirroring — Tommy, Arthur & Grace

Peaky Blinders 3.5 Review:  Language, Cultural Identity, and Disruption


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