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By Order of the Peaky Blinders

Senior Teaching Fellow in Policing and Security studies, Jonathan Jackson explores what we can learn from one of BBC’s most successful television programmes. 

Jonathan Jackson
Teaching Fellow in Criminology

Peaky Blinders 1200x450 - Black and white photo of a man in a peaky cap

 “By order of the Peaky Blinders”. Sound familiar? Arthur Shelby’s most famous statement has become iconic in one of the BBC’s most successful drama series. The Peaky Blinders has grown into a global commercial success, attracting fans from all over the world, who tune in regularly to follow the exploits of the Shelby family and their attempts to make it big in Birmingham during the turbulent 1920’s and 30’s.

However, criticism has been levelled from some who feel that the show looks to glorify the actions of gangsters, arguing that crime does pay. Colleagues in the Criminology department at Birmingham City University describe it as forming part of a sociological concept known as deviant leisure, in which people increasingly take voyeuristic pleasure in observing criminal acts and violence, with the Peaky Blinders looking to exploit our darkest obsessions.

However, is this all just a little unfair? Certainly, when trying to discuss with students the history and development of criminality in England and Wales, the programme brings to life the stark realities of British society following the chaos and destruction of the Great World.

The fictional Thomas Shelby represents many disenfranchised soldiers who returned from the Western front, angry and disconnected. Uncertain job markets and the rise of extremes led to wide scale strikes and economic turmoil with hundreds turning to crime. The often forgotten police strikes of 1919 saw officers from a range of constabularies down tools leading to wide scale looting and eventually martial law. It is this which Peaky Blinders so actively brings to life and demonstrates to younger viewers the realities for many of their great grandparents.

The storyline features in detail the unseen scars which former soldiers returned home with and how many found comfort in drink, drugs and violence with the Shelby brothers struggling to manage their nightmares, shell shock and post-traumatic disorders. It also exposes the drastic steps taken by communities to deal with those who suffered with such terrible mental health conditions and how the lack of appropriate welfare provision led to former soldiers committing suicide.

Laid bare in much of the series is how the fictional Shelby family carefully exploit the uncertain police provision during the early 20th century to establish themselves as a formidable powerhouse of crime in the Midlands.  It is again true that this period was one of development and change in policing with various Police Acts attempting to centralise constabularies which had been historically local and independent. The often cosy relationship between police officers and villains should not be played down and Peaky Blinders tackles this issue head on.

The history of Britain’s second biggest city is indeed fascinating and it is true that the programme is far from an accurate portrayal of the real peaky blinders. Work by Professor Carl Chin and the West Midlands Police Museum has brought to the public a much more accurate representation of this famous razor gang. Some of the characters featured in Peaky Blinders are in fact real, but many are not and, like often is the case with media portrayals of people, places and things, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

The core question that we must once again ask ourselves is: does this all really matter? In reality, Peaky Blinders has brought international fame to Birmingham and has seen tourist numbers increase since 2010.  The show has brought historical realities to life and exposed how contemporary society still struggles with managing the care of the most vulnerable, street violence and the exploitation of social tensions by organised crime groups. So maybe our Peaky Blinders guilty pleasure is not so guilty after all and is in fact a stark reminder of how history has an unnerving ability to repeat itself, but that through understanding our past, we will only help to strengthen our future.