[26 November 2013]
“One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound.”
We can’t really blame Austen for the above sentiment. The city of Birmingham, the second largest in the United Kingdom, has a rather unfortunate reputation. Outside its midland region, it’s best known for the distinctive accent of its inhabitants, a rather dour set of inflections that compress vowels into a dull sing-song and render ‘years’ as “yuurrs” and “I’m” as “Oim”. Whenever surveys are taken to assess the desirability of each of the UK’s cacophony of accents, the Birmingham one, called, like its inhabitants, “Brummie”, invariably comes last.
Viewed kindly, Birmingham occupies a similar cultural space in the UK to Detroit in the US. Like that Michigan city, Birmingham and its environs has long been known as the location for much of the UK’s automotive business. Manchester which, with its textile businesses, drove much of the industrial revolution, was known as Cottonopolis. Birmingham, in which was located heavier industry, was the “workshop of the world”.
Like their Detroit cousins, Brummies drove their industrial surroundings into music. However, where Berry Gordy borrowed the hyper-efficient work methods of the GMC and Ford production lines, Birmingham bands, among them Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, imitated the driving, heavy sound of the factories to create heavy metal. It’s just another instance of bad luck that the city’s main contribution to culture is the least respected branch of popular music.
For the most part, Birmingham quietly gets on with things. It lacks the chippy swagger of Manchester, the fierce identity of Newcastle and is not even well regarded enough to be the butt of jokes (Liverpool’s scousers remain favorite for that). Culturally speaking, Birmingham is a city of a million people that all too often is simply not there.
It would be a sad reflection in any circumstances, but it’s especially so given the importance of regionalism to the British, and especially the English, mindset. Despite its small size (roughly that of Louisiana), England’s history and culture have created a patchwork of strong regional cultures and localized identities either side of a heavy north/south axis. For Brummies, the axis is the problem. If your local cultures are primarily identified by their “northern-ness” or “southern-ness”, how are your midlanders to identify themselves?
It’s important to understand this backdrop to develop a full appreciation of Peaky Blinders. Creator Steven Knight was moved to develop the series with the express intention of remedying Birmingham’s “invisibility”. His, largely successful, method has been to place Birmingham’s own history within the skein of the social and political developments of the 20th century and to set it as the locus of several interconnecting strands of Britain’s national history. Several of these elements and their importance to the cast and crew, are outlined in an informative, though brief ‘making of’ available on the DVD.
Peaky Blinders begins in 1919, an age full of young men lucky enough to have returned from war but unlucky enough to have to contend with the peace that followed it. Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, a soldier recently returned to civilian life. Like Jimmy Darmody, his Boardwalk Empire counterpart across the Atlantic, Tommy is of that generation that may has grown up to find all Gods dead and all faiths in man shaken—but not quite all wars fought. Drawn into the lucrative orbit of organized crime, Tommy becomes a kingpin of the Peaky Blinders, a violent gang who took their, admittedly odd, name from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peaks of their caps and using them in fights. If the name still sounds too jocular know this: they would go for the eyes.
The term is an improbable one (the show’s title attracted mild derision on broadcast), but broadly accurate. It originated, with the same gruesome derivation, as a term for delinquent youth in Birmingham. The real Blinders were not quite a formal gang with an organized hierarchy; instead the term was used as a general descriptor of juvenile delinquents in the area. Easily identifiable, their chief recreations, including burglary, affray and assault, were carried out while wearing distinctively fashionable clothing.
The name also carried a regional connotation. Manchester had “Scuttlers”, London, “Hooligans”. The Peaky Blinders were uniquely Brummie. Regardless of how it sounds to modern ears, the title Peaky Blinders is a statement of intent. This is a show that is resolutely about Birmingham.
Knight is fortunate in his historical material. Fashionable or otherwise, Birmingham, and the activities of his characters, had a key position in the interwar years. The importance of heavy industry is presented through repeated background shots of shirtless men, coated in sweat and grime while working at furnaces and bellows. The images are left largely without comment, but the presentation is not merely ornamental, it’s a deliberate and effective attempt to show what the Midlands were contributing.
It’s often noted, by the city’s inhabitants at least, that Birmingham contains more miles of canal than Venice. There are far fewer gondolas however; these are industrial canals, cut to provide the means of transporting the product of all this hammering and drilling.
The canals feature in Blinders, as does the BSA factory, to which characters refer both as employer and location of industrial discord. BSA, or the Birmingham Small Arms company, was based in the northern part of the city and produced weaponry, which is great business in war time, rather less so in peace. An expansion into bicycle and motorcycle manufacturing helped to slow a decline in the company’s fortunes and would, in a large way, help make the transition to the automotive business that would make the city’s name in the middle part of the twentieth century.
That’s not to say that post-war industrial relations were without strife. These difficulties are set out largely through the character of Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), whose experience of the war years made him an ardent communist agitator. “They” says Freddie of the factory bosses, “use same whistles they used to blow to send us over the top they now blow to break us up.” It’s an explicit connection with the rigid class hierarchy that obtained in the trenches and another reminder of the regionalist, even localist, viewpoint of early 20th century Britain. The units that were conscripted to fight in European mud were assembled regionally. They called them “Pals Battalions”, in which men from the same streets would serve alongside one another, and, in a fair number of cases, die alongside one another, too.
The dead were perhaps the lucky ones. Tommy and his pals were together in France and brought a little of it back with them. One friend, Danny Owen, is prone to violent hallucinations and sudden outbursts of terror. We’d call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he and his friends call it “the Flanders Blues”. Those same mates refer to him as “Danny Whizz-Bang” after the troops’ nickname for German artillery. Facing a likely death, his concern is that his children don’t suffer as he had done. “Make sure they get apprenticeships” he begs Tommy “in the BSA factory or something”. It’s a pathetic plea. The then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, talked of rebuilding Britain as “country fit for heroes”, Peaky Blinders offers the case for his failure.
It’s little wonder that Tommy, by some distance the smartest character in the show, looks elsewhere for his living. His primary source of income is from rigging gambling, particularly of horse racing. This is another nugget of historical truth from the mine of hidden Birmingham, as gangs from the city were heavily involved in such enterprise. The racket, made famous by Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, was a significant moneyspinner for British gangs between the wars and rivalry for control of race tracks was the catalyst for their brutality.
Tommy’s cozy world is threatened when he comes into possession of the season’s McGuffin, a cache of stolen guns. This deadly haul brings the Peaky Blinders to the attention of several outside forces, and focuses attention on activities in Birmingham. The value of the cache is intensified by the troubles of the day, whether communist agitation or the growing threat of violence from Ireland, which was then in the middle of the Civil War. Winston Churchill, then Minister for War, has a particular paranoia for external threats (Bolsheviks more than Irishmen) and calls in Ulsterman CI Campbell, a determined Inspector played with a glowering menace by Sam Neill.
Campbell’s proximate problem is, of course, the guns but he has a general one too, namely Birmingham itself. He arrives to find an urban environment in thrall to local and international interests, communists, Italian and Chinese gangs, Irish insurgents and, somewhere in the middle of it all, the Peaky Blinders. Their sway over the territory is explained by the laxity of the local police force and it is here that Campbell lays his most severe accusation of blame. “You are worse than them”, he tells an assembly of bewildered bobbies, his voice heavy with fire and brimstone “you who have taken their bribes, who have looked the other way. God damn you for soiling your uniforms.” The cops briefly interrupt their games of snooker and poker to hear him.
As a drama, Peaky Blinders is a solid, serviceable piece. Its central characters are performed well, with Neill as the stand-out. There is, however, a problem with the accents. Very few of the performers are Birmingham natives and effective impersonations have beaten them. Murphy makes a solid stab, but lacks consistency while Helen McCrory, playing his Aunt Polly, sounds as though she’s from Liverpool. The best of the bunch is the New Zealander Neill, the son of a Northern Irishman, who delivers a note-perfect Northern Irish accent as a fierce growl. It’s unfortunate that the best accent is the one not native to the environment under consideration.
It may seem unnecessarily pedantic to focus on accents, which would be unnoticeably especially to an international audience, but it is important. As an attempt to rehabilitate Birmingham, the derided accent is crucial and as valuable a part of this great city as all the industry, politics and vice in the world. They becomes especially problematic when the effort to recreate the old Birmingham and, by extension, create a new idea of the city in which it can express a pride equal to that of its regional rivals, no matter how they speak.