Friday, 13 September 2013


Image from here

Not everyone enjoyed last night's new and undoubtedly original BBC2 crime drama but I loved it and it appears to have gone down well with others too.

I was hooked from the moment the haunting face of actor Cillian Murphy came into view as he sat bareback astride a magnificent black horse. He rode through those dark, grimy post World War One Birmingham streets full of drunks and paupers to meet a Chinese woman who put a magic spell on the animal to make it win a race. In reality, it was probably an early form of drug doping to give that competitive edge.

The programme had all the authenticity of the day with a bit of modern relevance thrown in for today's audience. The music, for example, was very much of our age and the drugs. We might have seen old fashioned men committing old fashioned crimes, but the menace of opium addiction and the reasons for it were made all too clear as Murphy in the role of Tommy Shelby battled with his demons following life after his near death trench experiences in Flanders fields.

Nicknamed The Brummie Sopranos, this was the English version of mafia-type mob violence and organised crime with a very British name. The term ‘Peaky Blinders’ was, apparently really used back in the day to describe gang members in the least glamorous setting of a big urban Midlands town.

These criminals did exist which is why the West Midlands Police Force dug into its archives to give us a peek at the real faces and the type of crimes committed by those early mobsters who went back to lives of crime after they came home very different and changed men.

The character Danny Whizzbang suffers shell shock and soon gets into trouble with two Italian gangsters who demand justice is done after their brother is stabbed to death by Whizzbang during one of his manic bouts. The Italians may have been based on the Sabini Brothers of London who saw off competition from the Brummie Boys who moved into the capital city led by Billy "Bookmaker" Kimber.

Whizzbang's impending end was all very amicable as Tommy explained why he had to "dispatch" his friend to stop gang warfare between the two tribes breaking out. It hit home that those poor men in reality were taken from the battlefield and its horrors and dropped back into their lives where they were expected to just carry on as before. There was no counselling, no understanding of trauma, no compassion or sympathy for those who came back mental cripples. I was pleased it ended up as it did for the character but he's now been sent on that mission to London that can only end in a mess because of his unpredictable condition.

I don't care that the women in it are kept in their place. That's how it was. Awful, I know, but true. Some of the new feministas would like to see women in less traditional roles in such a ground-breaking new drama but history is what it is and shows us how far we have come. A nice girl working in a rough working man's club might have faced the prospect of being raped which is why, generally, nice girls didn't work in such places. Bad girls may have told secrets they should have kept which is why their brothers and fathers wouldn't want them mixing with nice boys like Ada Shelby does with the communist worker Freddie Thorne.

Mention of how the women ran the gang in the men's absence could have been ignored by the writers but it wasn't. The first world war gave many women a new found freedom and aided the cause of the suffragettes and I'll bet women married to crime lords did their bit in their husband's absence too. Maybe as the six part series progresses we'll see some of the everyday trauma the women went through. They were tough and they had to be.

Some girls found themselves on the receiving end of the most terrible violence. In one case, a 15-year-old thug knifed his girlfriend in the back simply because she refused to go out one evening. She was lucky to survive. A far worse fate visited 18-year-old Emily Pimm, who once broke a jug over her boyfriend James Harper's head during a row. Harper knocked her to the ground, and then kicked and stamped on her face with heavy army boots with metal tips on the heels and toes. The assault killed her.

According to police files before the war, Birmingham was infested with gangs. Most favoured fighting pitched battles in the middle of the slums. No mercy was shown to anyone in the way, and women and children were often badly injured in the fracas. However, it seems that in reality the gangs were little more than groups of semi-organised thugs who loved a good scrap and the way they looked. The Peaky Blinders wore heavy metal-tipped boots, skin-tight moleskin or corduroy trousers and silk scarves around their necks. They wore bowler hats with brims that came to a point worn on one side to ensure their natty quiffs stuck out on the other.

The TV series producers clearly did their homework as we saw those trademark clothes worn by the cast. The police also released the charge sheets of some of the criminals, which gives an illustration of the types of crimes these young men, and boys, would have committed.

Harry Fowler, 19, for example, had been charged with the relatively minor crime of bicycle theft, while Stephen McHickie, 25, had been arrested for breaking into a draper’s shop. Thomas Gilbert, a comparatively old man at the age of 38, had been charged with ‘false pretences’ which sounds like the equivalent of the modern crime of fraud.

In March 1890, a young man called George Eastwood stopped at the Rainbow pub one Saturday night. A teetotaller, he ordered himself a ginger beer. Unfortunately for Eastwood, his request was overheard by some gang members. ‘What do you drink that tack for?’ asked the gang’s leader, Thomas Mucklow. ‘Mind your own business,’ replied Eastwood. After Eastwood left the pub, he was followed by the gang. When he reached a quiet spot, Mucklow shouted: ‘Now boys! Give it him hot!’ Eastwood was savagely beaten. He managed to escape and hid in a house. When he got himself to hospital, he was diagnosed with a fractured skull and was operated upon. Such attacks were so common, that there was little the Birmingham police could do to deter or to detect them. They themselves were considered fair game by the gangs.

On one occasion, a policeman tried to stop a fight between a drunken gang member and his girlfriend. The policeman and the thug soon ended up having a vicious brawl on the pavement. Two passers-by grabbed the policeman’s whistle to summon help. However, it attracted more gang members, who set upon the policeman and the two passers-by and almost beat them to death.

Only a copper in the fictional guise of C I Chester Campbell, played by actor Sam Neill, could match their ruthlessness and gain the upper hand in bringing some form or law and order to those wild cobbled streets and murderous canal sides.

However, he is there for one purpose - to find the guns stolen from the BSA factory by order of the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Tommy has them but has ignored the family matriarch's advice. Aunt Polly, played by Helen McCrory, urges him to dump them where the police can find them but Tommy has other plans.

The series continues next Thursday at 9pm and is one definitely not to be missed.

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