After six weeks’ worth of episodes, ‘Peaky Blinders’ finally came to an end last night, Set in post-Great War Birmingham, this series introduced us to the Shelby family (Arthur, Tommy, John, Ada, Finn and Aunt Polly) who ruled their town with threats, fights, and razor blades hidden in their flat caps.
Although there were real lawless gangs of the type depicted in the series in 1919’s Birmingham, the family is fictional – although the race-fixer, strutting Billy Kimber, is based on a real-life character of the same name. Steven Knight’s series was touted before its launch on BBC2 as ‘the British Boardwalk Empire’, and certainly in stylised cinematography and eclectic soundtrack (mainly Nick Cave), it was fresh and very different to anything we have seen on British television for a while.
By the end of the first episode we had the seed of a story which would grow over the next few weeks into a family saga, a period drama, a crime thriller, a love story, and a series of betrayals. Inspector Campbell, a policeman from Belfast, is recruited by Winston Churchill (the only false note in this series, as the depiction of Churchill is close to caricature, and too old) to find a cache of guns which have been stolen en route to Ireland to assist the IRA. Along with him is an undercover agent, Grace, who finds work in a pub frequented by the Shelbys, notably Tommy, the second son and the acknowledged head of the family, a complex character who suffers from flashbacks of the trenches and is emotionally detached from life.
By halfway through the series we know that Tommy has the guns and is using them for bargaining power. It is also clear that Grace, whose policeman father was killed by the IRA, has the makings of a cold-blooded killer herself, although the Inspector seems to view her as someone to be looked after and protected (his interest is proved by the last couple of episodes to be far from fatherly). Because of their close proximity and wary trust of each other, Tommy and Grace become attracted to each other and there is a lengthy love scene in the fifth episode which will become the catalyst of the final betrayals of the closing instalment.
There’s been humour, too (sometimes unintentional, with various attempts to get the regional accent right), and family conflict – the Shelbys have gypsy kin on their mother’s side, the Lees, who at first are sworn enemies and then, through the marriage of a Lee to the third son, John (who had wanted to marry the local whore), families in blood. Meanwhile Ada falls pregnant to a Communist agitator who grew up with Tommy and served with him on the front lines – they will marry, but until Freddie Thorne is of use again he will be thrown into prison, to be tortured and left in despair (his friend and comrade was murdered by the police of Birmingham in an attempt to extract Freddie’s whereabouts).
As despicable and dangerous as the Shelbys are, their family bonds are strong – Polly prays for their safety in conflict, young Finn nearly falls victim to a Lee-set bomb intended for Tommy (who saves him and tells him ‘never pretend to be me’) – and they have notable weaknesses, most obvious in the way eldest son Arthur is pushed aside as he is unable to protect his family, or keep secrets from the ever curious Grace.
So on to the series finale. Inspector Campbell is full of rage and jealousy after realising the girl he loves, or lusts after, has given herself to the enemy. His vicious rape of a Chinese prostitute is harrowing and pitiful, and the hatred he clearly feels for Grace the woman is pronounced in the scenes where he requests the record show she was ‘a faithful servant of the Crown’, and the encounter in the whorehouse with Tommy Shelby where he goads the younger man into doubts and insecurity by telling him ‘by the end of the day your heart will be broken’.
Some critics have argued that Shelby would have killed Grace once he realised she had betrayed the family again and again – leading Campbell’s men to the guns, tipping off Kimber’s men via the police – although it would have been more fitting had Polly simply stabbed her with the hat pin as she clearly intended. Would Tommy Shelby really engage emotionally with a woman when all the signs showed he only came to life in the heat of battle or street brawls? Remember he seemed to enjoy ‘executing’ Danny Whizz Bang in one of the early episodes.
I think he would, and this is why I think the ending was the right one (I would prefer to think that just as he was writing ‘all my love’ to Grace in a letter, she was taking a bullet from the man she scorned, but a second series might simply mean she pulled out her weapon first, or another member of the Shelby family did for her assailant … who knows?). Tommy, remember, saw Grace kill for him. The fact that we know that she most likely killed for her father and hatred of the IRA rather than for any sense of the need to save a Shelby, is irrelevant.
I think Grace’s attraction turned to love as she watched Tommy Shelby viciously kill the IRA man who would have put a bullet into him rather than make a fair trade for the guns. And to Campbell, her betrayal was not to kill anyone, but to find love with, and compassion for, someone who he simply sees as a ‘beast’. It’s almost as if Campbell becomes Iago taunting Shelby’s Othello in the final episode, but ironically both come across as a mix of good and bad. As Campbell says, ‘mirror images of each other’.
Did Polly ultimately betray Grace’s plans in order to keep her family together? Does she see in damaged Tommy the ghosts of the children who were taken from her, as she tearfully recounts to Ada during the final episode? And if she did, will she be the hunted one in any further series?
I don’t think ‘Peaky Blinders’ should be classed in the same breath as ‘Boardwalk Empire’ as they are two very different shows – period gangster pieces, sure, but this one has a peculiarly British feel. Irish actor Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby (never has an actor’s eyes been more effectively used to convey the complexities of the human mind). New Zealand’s Sam Neill is Campbell, with a note perfect Northern Irish brogue and all the baggage from previous roles (notably Damian in Omen III). Annabelle Wallis, a niece of Richard Harris and one of the two actresses to play Jane Seymour in ‘The Tudors’, is Grace, the Unionist girl who passes for a Catholic barmaid, right down to the lilting songs she brings back on Saturday nights. And Helen McCrory is in fine form as Aunt Polly, the glue who binds the tough family together, and the one who will ultimately stop them ever going straight. Paul Anderson (Arthur) and Joe Cole (John) have smaller roles, but they are effective on the sidelines.
This series was a sharp and engrossing six-parter. In a way I’d like to see it end here, and leave that final toss of a coin / gunshot juxtaposition for each viewer to make their own closure. But then I think of Tommy Shelby – and I, for one, would definitely like to spend a bit more time with this psychotic, yet sensitive, individual.