I am originally from the North of England, and now find myself living in Australia, pretty much as far away as I could possibly get from where I grew up. Thankfully, hearing the broad, Northern accents on display in Peaky Blinders is like having a chorus of angels herald me home over the course of each 60 minute installment of the Netflix Original Series (though perhaps that’s just me).
Peaky Blinders is the story of a Birmingham gang (headed by the Shelby family) who run a gambling ring, whose individual brand of violent justice includes the use of razor blades sewn into the peaks of their flat-caps (ergo the title).
The head of the family (Thomas Shelby) is played by Cillian Murphy, an actor who, while always being excellent, is in top form here as the merciless, broken Tommy. He leads his gang with a cold efficiency, invoking memories of Michael Corleone in a likewise, scheming manner. It’s easy to make Godfather comparisons, as this is the story of a crime family moving towards legitimacy, while facing rival gangs and confronting internal strife. The thing that really serves to elevate Peaky Blinders above simply being another crime story, however, is its Northern England, colloquially inflected setting.
The show is set in Birmingham in 1919, just after the Great War has ended, an international engagement that casts a long shadow across the entire show. Each character has lost something in the war, and is struggling to deal with it. The fact that PTSD wasn’t an official medical diagnosis back then (and men were expected to be men and put the war behind them) affects a lot of the characters and supporting plot-lines. Arthur Shelby, Tommy’s brother (and a character who is somehow both Fredo and Sonny at the same time), suffers from the “Flanders Blues,” which takes the form of violent outbursts and fits of melancholy, his treatment consisting of simply being a man and getting over it, his only medicinal salve consisting solely of bromide and opium.
As for the male characters who didn’t go to France and fight, such as Major Campbell (a brutal policeman tasked with finding a cache of guns that the Peaky Blinders may or may not be in possession of), a different form of PTSD afflicts him, and serves to render the Major consistently disrespected and ridiculed for a lack of service to his country.
My favorite character, though, is Aunty Polly (played by one of my favorite actresses, Helen McCrory). Polly has been running the company while the boys were deployed in France, and is a key cog in the Peaky Blinders machine. She is funny, wise, tough-as-nails, and tasked with the thankless role of mothering a group of violent sociopaths. McCrory is incredible, and brings a whole lot of warmth to a character whose life could have made her a much colder character.
Available on and produced by Netflix, Peaky Blinders is a tightly written show with beautiful production values, and a fantastic soundtrack, with music composed by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, and more. The Netflix Original Series follows the trend set by the BBC of only featuring six episodes in any given season (as opposed to the 20-plus or more typical of American fare), removing any need for fatty sub-plots or filler episodes, making Peaky Blinders ideal for a binge viewing session as soon as you finish reading this article.