It was a very common thing for there to be a strong woman in any illegal organisation. My dad had an Aunt Pol, so she’s sort of based on a real character. It was also to reflect the fact that when the soldiers came back from the First World War, they found that things were being run quite nicely by women, and it was a real source of trouble. Somebody like Polly, who ran the business perfectly well – probably better – is an interesting character. . . . With an actress like Helen, it’s easy, she’s so good.
— Steven Knight in Den of Geek
Calling them the ‘main players’, he explained: ‘The female characters are strong and central. They are main players within the whole thing.’
Speaking about Knight, Charlotte, 32, said: ‘The women can be, with male writers, left on the sidelines but with Steve he really enjoys writing women.
She continued: ‘He does it very well. So for us ladies we were all like “Yeah”.’
A thing that always frustrates me as I’m sure it does you is these questions coming up time and time again about rape in TV and supposed gratuity. It’s odd because we’re at a time when everyone’s trying to highlight how much rape is a serious issue and how it’s everywhere in society and we need to do something about it, but then for some reason when it’s reflected in art people say “why are you putting it in?” It’s like, “okay, should we just plaster over it?”Mmm yeah. I think we’ve got the right balance in our show. My solution is always what would really happen? How would it really be? And the truth is that of course women were abused at that time.
Helen McCrory in Independent:
McCrory resists describing Polly as a ‘strong female character’, agreeing with my growing suspicion that the ambiguous term littering film and TV articles in the name of equality is ironically doing little for it. “I don’t really have any idea what it means,” she says, genuinely perplexed. “Does it mean slightly stroppy bolshy bint?” What McCrory looks for, and what the acting industry so desperately needs, is complexity. She has no interest in whether a woman is seen as strong, weak, empowered or the victim, so long as the part is written with truth and explores what that woman’s position is. “I just want to see what she feels and what she thinks,” she says. “To fill the screens with women who are walking around in six-inch stilettos and telling everyone what to do is as uninteresting to me as filling them with bimbos in bikinis falling into pools and laughing at your jokes. Neither are particularly interesting.”
Olivia Armstrong in Decider:
The women of Peaky Blinders make up the breadth of the supporting cast and are all involved with Tommy Shelby’s operation in one way or another. They’re ruthless in their own unique ways, in addition to being far more tactful than the men who run the streets of Birmingham. The men of Peaky Blinders are obsessed with status, while the women each represent a future free of the muck. Though they don’t always get along, each heroine is a feminist role model all on her own and transcends her place in time.
I’ve said it before, but to reiterate the point that the supporting cast, particularly Polly, could keep the show running if Tommy were to be offed. That’s how important her and the rest of the dames are in this series. Cheers to you, Steven Knight, for giving the media landscape strong, realistic, intelligent female characters we can’t wait to see next season.
Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, and Writing
Vince Gilligan and Steve Knight have very different approaches to writing.
Gilligan has been clear in his defense of the importance of the writers’ room, a writing process that involves a group of writers who collaborate heavily on a script. Consider this comment in The Guardian (which was excerpted from Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution):
“The worst thing the French ever gave us is the auteur theory,” he said flatly. “It’s a load of horseshit. You don’t make a movie by yourself, you certainly don’t make a TV show by yourself. You invest people in their work. You make people feel comfortable in their jobs; you keep people talking.”
In his room, he said, all writers were equal, an approach that he insisted had less to do with being a Pollyanna than with pure, selfish practicality. “There’s nothing more powerful to a showrunner than a truly invested writer,” he said. “That writer will fight the good fight.”
Contrast that with Steven Knight’s comments to Neil Landau in TV Outside the Box: Trailblazing in the Digital Revolution. Landau asks if Knight has a “typical writers’ room,” to which he answers, “No, it’s just me” [Laughs]. He goes on to elaborate:
I think that the problem of any meeting of people is, the conclusion will always be a compromise because people are quite nice, or afraid, or dominant, or whatever, and the conclusion will reflect the room. Maybe the person who is is dominant isn’t the smartest person. But will get their way, maybe, and therefore the story that comes out of it won’t be so good. The real reason for me is I can’t do it any other way. You’ve got to do it yourself — I can’t delegate things that are so personal.
I suspect Gilligan would argue this point with Knight. But viewers are becoming more critical of Knight’s ability to write believable female characters — there are threads on Reddit that address this. It’s impossible not to wonder if, perhaps, a writers’ room would have helped Knight have a different perspective on Grace’s character.
Writers Guild Lessons learned on “Peaky Blinders.” Execs at Netflix are almost competing with each other to give the fewest notes possible! Spinning many plates is good fun. Be careful about killing characters – you might regret it. Anti-heroes do bad things for good reasons, which is one of the most compelling character traits to explore. Fiction obeys the rules, reality does not – this is a line that Knight has been trying to blur with “Peaky.”
Question: Do the characters change at all?
Steven Knight: Well, I want the characters to change in that they become more successful financially. It doesn’t necessarily mean they become more successful human beings. Can people from this background escape and gain respectability? I don’t have the answer myself”
I found his comments about the characters “not necessarily becoming better people” to be unsettling. I’ll be honest with you: If characters aren’t growing and learning, the story becomes stale pretty quickly become the plot becomes narrative based rather than character based. VanArendonk’s example is Entourage. I’ll go with Outlander. For me, after the first novel, Claire and Jamie see little character development, and instead these characters go on adventure after adventure. I stopped reading halfway into the third novel because if character isn’t driving the plot, I’m not interested.
For me, that stands in contrast to Game of Thrones. Say whatever you want, but those characters learn — and if they don’t learn, they don’t live very long. I could provide many examples, but the first one to come to mind is Jamie Lannister. The Jamie we see at the end of A Dance with Dragons is very different from the one we meet in Game of Thrones. He’s experienced some tough things, and they have profoundly changed his character. He’s much more interesting (and likable) in the fifth book than he is in the first. Now, that’s good writing because George R. R. Martin, while not a perfect author, knows how to write dynamic characters, which, in turn, leads to better plots.
Knight’s comments suggest that character development is less interesting to him than seeing if the Shelbys can improve their social standing. I find that problematic because if the characters aren’t changing, does the question of social standing even matter? For all my frustration with Polly’s character, at least her exchange with Ruben in 3.6 suggests that her character is growing. But I don’t see that in the other characters, and that suggests problems for Peaky Blinders going forward if it becomes a plot-driven show (or Entourage with better suits). WAIT. ARTHUR CHANGED. TOMMY CHANGED A LITTLE.
And that brings me to Grace, who is easily the most problematic character. In Series 1, she emerges as a fully formed character. She has her own story and her own motivation, and she falls in love with the wrong man. She, too, is trying to build something: She’s trying to build peace for herself by finding and punishing her father’s killers. But when she and Tommy meet and fall in love, there’s a clear suggestion that she and Tommy will try to build a life together. In watching Series 2, where the cliffhanger rested on which woman Tommy would marry, the viewer thought that in addition to that story about building respectability, there would be the story of building a marriage. Given how rich both Tommy and Grace were, this story had tremendous potential, and fans bought in.
Their hopes were destroyed in Series 3 when after the wedding, Grace emerged as little more than a stereotypical wife, obsessed with social climbing, and was then murdered.
Compare Cillian Murphy’s comments on fan tatoos (“It’s quite alarming. Maybe just buy the box set!”) to Joe Cole’s (“It just shows how popular and beloved the series is. It is a great reflection on everyone’s hard work, from the cast and crew”). Cole understands fandom better than Murphy does.