Peaky Blinders, the hit BBC One crime drama, has always offered a blend of fact and fiction. Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby has met Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill, and series 5 saw him in conflict with fascist politician Oswald Mosely (Sam Claflin) – historical figures are as much a part of Peaky Blinders as those drawn from creator Steven Knight’s imagination.
However, the Shelby family - or, at least, what they got up to - aren’t completely a work of fiction: Knight was inspired by a number of stories about real Birmingham gangs, which were first relayed to him as family legend.
“My parents grew up in Birmingham in the 20s,” explained Knight to the Radio Times. “My dad’s uncle was part of the Peaky Blinders. It was reluctantly delivered, but my family did give me little snapshots, of gypsies and horses and gang fights and guns, and immaculate suits.”
When did the Peaky Blinders operate?
Still, a fair amount of it is invented – Peaky Blinders the television series takes different accounts of the gang and dramatises it, taking creative liberties where necessary. One of the most glaring, for example, is the era: where Peaky Blinders the series is set in the interwar years, looking at a society still reeling from one world war as another looms in the distance, the real Peaky Blinders gang was most active from the 1880s to 1910s.
For the most part, they’d disappeared by the 1920s, when the television show begins. There’s a couple of reasons for that – for example, investment in education and harsher policing and sentencing lead to a decline in gang activity among the mainly youth membership of the Peaky Blinders.
It’s also understood that their clashes with other gangs – in particular the Birmingham boys and the Sabini gang, both of whom also appear in fictionalised form in the television series – eventually lead to the Peaky Blinders leaving Birmingham, further diminishing their influence.
How did they get their name – did they really keep knives in their hats?
There’s some debate as to whether or not the Peaky Blinders really kept razor blades in their distinctive flat caps, as they do in the television series.
The idea is that a razor blade in the brim of a hat could be used to slash someone’s forehead, or to make headbutting someone more dangerous; the ‘peak’ of the hat would blind someone, hence the name. It’s something you see a lot in popular depictions of the gang – not just in the BBC series, but in the unrelated book A Walk Down A Summer Lane, by Birmingham author John Douglas.
However, it seems likely that’s apocryphal: disposable razor blades, as the Peaky Blinders were suggested to use, were first manufactured on a wide scale in the UK in 1908, as the real gang were starting to fall from prominence.
Historian Carl Chinn has proposed an alternate explanation for the name, suggesting it was just a slang term to describe someone who was particularly well-dressed, as the gang were known to be. “Peaky” references the flat cap, and “blinder” is Birmingham slang for someone dapper.
It’s also been suggested that gang members would angle their hats down during robberies – meaning victims wouldn’t be able to describe their faces to the police.
Have any real Peaky Blinders been depicted in the show? Was Tommy Shelby a real person?
A number of real gangsters from that era have been depicted in Peaky Blinders. The most notable two include Billy Kimber (involved in both the Peaky Blinders and the Birmingham Boys) who appears as an antagonist played by Charlie Creed-Miles in Series 1, and Charles Sabini, the English-Italian mob boss portrayed by Noah Taylor.
Tommy Shelby - and, indeed, the whole Shelby family - were made up wholesale for the television series.
In later series of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby becomes an MP for the Labour Party. He represents the constituency of Birmingham South - which had actually been abolished in 1918, prior to the events of the series, and was never represented by a Labour MP.
Birmingham South was replaced by Birmingham Deritend and Birmingham Mosely, both of which were dissolved in 195 themselves; the former was represented by both Labour and Conservative MPs, and the latter only ever elected Conservative MPs.
The series is routinely criticised for being not quite historically accurate – its depiction of real-life communist organiser Jessie Eden drawing particular ire – but it’s clear enough that the broad strokes of the series are genuinely informed, influenced, and inspired by real historical events.
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