Taboo and Peaky Blinders: Some Things Stay the Same

Taboo and Peaky Blinders

Yes, there are spoilers.

I’ve been blogging about Peaky Blinders for awhile now, and given that we’re in the #PeakyBlindersBleakMidwinter, I thought I’d try writing about Taboo, a Tom Hardy-Steven Knight joint project.

I’ve been following Knight’s film work to see how it compares with his writing for Peaky Blinders, and it turns out that some of his favorite tropes are in Taboo as well.   There are roughly 100 years between the two stories, but the parallels are there.  Some of the similarities are about looks, some are about character traits, some are about situations, but there are striking similarities between the two.

Take these examples.

You Must Bring a Hat

img_3136If Tommy Shelby and the Peaky Blinders have a defining trait, it’s their caps.  As it turns out, James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy’s character in Taboo) can rock a curly brimmed beaver with the best of them.

There aren’t razor blades in Delaney’s hat — at least none that we know of yet — but it looks lethal.  (Also, I’d suggest reading Emily Bricks’s Taboo Premiere:  The True Star of Tom Hardy’s Gothic Fairy Tale Is His Hat.”)

The Peaky Blinders, meanwhile, rely on their newsboy caps, both as evidence that they belong to the gang and as weapons.   As designer Lorna Marie Mugan put it, “”We used pictures the police had taken of genuine Peaky Blinders and saw that they had this very particular way of dressing: their hats were very big and sloppy so they could hide their identity, rather the way a hoodie would be now.”

In both Taboo and Peaky Blinders, the hats create dramatic effect, allowing them to hide their eyes and cast shadows.

And I’ve gotta say it:  They just look cool.


“Get Yourself a Decent Haircut, Man”

As Otto Bathurst explained:  “I wanted to create a really, really specific look.  As an audience, you go, ‘That is a very, very strong haircut.’  I’m loving that.”  The look was based on the Crooks Like Us book.  Bathurst adds, “It literally took a week to persuade our four men to go the whole way.”  (If you’ve never watched this video, I can’t recommend it enough.)

Cillian Murphy has been open about the fact that he doesn’t much care for the haircut.  But Otto Bathurst was right:  The cuts give the show a distinctive look.

As Tom Hardy told the New York Times about his cut for Taboo:  “In that time, people used to have their hair in a certain way that emulated the statues from the Roman days, the Greek days. His hair looks like a horse has chewed it. It just looks bad. So for me it’s defiance.”

But in both cases, it’s about more than hair.  The cuts speak to larger thematic issues.

img_3109There’s Plenty of Ink

It’s been clear since the early behind-the-scenes photos from Taboo leaked that body art plays a significant role in defining James Delaney’s character.  His tattoos are inscribed on his body to show that his time in Africa left him changed — and they are part of him, not just an accessory he takes on and off as the mood changes.  In addition, one tattoo is always visible on his neck.  This would represent a real defiance of strict Regency England social norms.  But their full meaning has yet to be revealed.  (GQ points out that tribal tattoos are culturally insensitive.)

Tommy Shelby’s tattoos have been a source of fan speculation since the beginning of Peaky Blinders.  lululululunaposted on Reddit, “I believe it is the Romani Chakra. I am not 100% sure of the symbolic meaning other than it is a wheel, representing the traveling nature of the Romani people.”  (I believe Cillian Murphy said in an interview that one is from his time in the military, but I can’t find the link.)

He added a new tattoo, Charlie’s initials, for Series 3, and surely there will be some Grace ink added as well.

img_3108They’re Both Big on Making Dramatic Entrances in a “Dusty Black Coat”

If you’re going to make a dramatic entrance, there’s no better way to do it than with a greatcoat or duster.

Both Taboo and Peaky Blinders have gotten this one down.  In fact, it’s unusual to see James Delaney outside if he’s not wearing his greatcoat.  And swirls around like the man is bringing hell itself with him.

Still, it’s very dramatic.

The Shelbys know how to use their coats to make an interest as well.  While the Peaky Blinders are all about being well dressed men, their coats provide the final touch.

img_3165“I Can Charm Dogs”

When it’s a Tom Hardy project, a dog is an expected cast member.  This time, he manages to bring home a stray from the docks — the kind of dog that feeds of suicides who jump from the bridge, Delaney is told.

That doesn’t slow him down.  The dog follows him home, and Delaney lets him into the house.

Tommy Shelby’s dog-charming skills were on display in Series 3.  When Father John Hughes attempts to intimidate Tommy with a doberman, he’s unimpressed.  “I can charm dogs,” he says.  And then he does.

This ability to communicate with animals suggests both Tommy and Delaney have a kind of extra-human ability to communicate.

In short, it gives them power that most people don’t have.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

img_3134From Revelation 19:11-16

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse!  The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.12  His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.15  From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.  He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.16  On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Both Tommy and Delaney have an affinity for white horses.  Granted, I hadn’t thought of Grace’s Secret as a bringer of doom — Tommy’s attachment to the horse seemed a bit sentimental.  But it’s clear that Delaney is all about the apocalypse, and with that in mind, it’s interesting to rethink the symbolism of Grace’s Secret — and the white horse Tommy buys from the Lee Family.

I’ve argued that horses in Peaky Blinders are about illustrating the advent of modernity.  (And they’re one of Tommy’s soft spots.). But perhaps it’s time to rethink that assumption.

img_3115“I Don’t Believe”

Tommy and Delaney are both godless men.

It’s a primary way of introducing Delaney to the audience.  He enters the church, still wearing his hat, and doesn’t remove it.  In addition, he doesn’t pray when the rest of the congregation does.  We know immediately that he lives by a different set of rules and that he will refuse to conform.

Tommy’s never kept his hat on in church, but there’s a sense that even though he’s rejected his Catholic upbringing, it still has some power over him.  For Tommy, the church often provides a quiet place for a meeting.  It’s where he’s visited with Polly and Arthur (who isn’t about bringing a bottle with him).  It’s also where he hires Grace before kissing her.  Tommy rejects the church, but he isn’t defiant about it in the way that Delaney is.

That said, both men still have spiritual lives.  Tommy Shelby still recognizes his Romany heritage — he goes for forgiveness so that he can sleep again.  And Delaney is practicing a religion he adopted in Africa.

img_3162Troubled Pasts

Something has happened to both Tommy and Delaney.  And it happened when they were soldiers, another shared past experience.

Delaney’s hallucinations are unexplained at this point, but they are mystical and (I suspect) sacred to him.  They are also a way of establishing that he’s not like everyone else in Regency London.

Tommy’s nightmares go back to his time as a tunneler in France.  In Series 1, to cope with them, he self-medicates, but his ability to handle his trauma is a way of establishing him as a strong but flawed character.  They also provide a measure of his love for Grace.  After they make love, he says, “I don’t hear the shovels against the wall,” and we’ve not seen him have a nightmare since.

img_3166The Whore with a Heart of Gold

I’ve been critical of Steven Knight’s female characters (see here,  here and here), and I suspect that won’t change with Taboo.

The criticism for Peaky Blinders has been the gutting of Grace’s character in Series 3 to a society-obsessed Stepford wife.  But the female characters fall into stereotypes and lack the kind of development they deserve.  But perhaps the worst-used character is Lizzie.  She began as a prostitute and continues to sleep with Tommy, even after Tommy was the cause of her being raped and John killed her lover.   Lizzie has skills, and she can take care of herself.  Why in the world would she stay with Tommy?

Helga is the whore with the heart of gold in Taboo.  We’ve learned she has a 13-year-old daughter she is trying to keep out of prostitution.  In the second episode, Delaney removes her wig.  “I like to know what’s beneath,” he says.  In doing so, he reveals her hidden gentler self as well as her desire for him.

This formula is old and tiresome.

img_3168Daddy Issues

Delaney and the Shelby Brothers are working through some serious father-son problems.

Exactly what has happened with James and Horace remains to be seen, but given that the old man’s likeness is throughout the house so that James can look at him often, it’s clearly big.  And it’s Horace’s death that brings James back from Africa.  After all, Taboo appears to be the story of a son getting revenge for his father.

The Shelby Brothers are less interested in their father.  While Delaney left his father, Arthur Shelby abandoned his sons.  He returns to take money from them — and it’s clear that Arthur is more susceptible to him than the other boys.  But given that Arthur comes up in Series 3 after he dies, it’s clear that the elder Shelby’s ghost continues to haunt the family.  I suspect this will play out more as Tommy experiences fatherhood and tries to be a better parent than his father was.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it.  A few similarities to consider.  I’m sure there are more I’ve missed, but there are striking parallels here.  I don’t know yet if this is parodic revision on Knight’s part or just falling into old tropes.

But we’ll know soon enough.

Publication date:  15 January 2017

Return to A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Blog

Peaky Blinders, Allied, & the Problem with Steven Knight’s Female Characters

Peaky Blinders,Breaking Bad, & the Problem of Grace Burgess

Peaky BlindersReview:  Romany Culture and Tommy Shelby’s Otherness

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  Family, Power, and Revolution

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

Parody, Pastiche & Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders, the Church, & Sacred Spaces

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