Not Just Window-Dressing: The Strong Women Portrayed on Peaky Blinders

By Maureen Thomas


Gritty works for me. I find the ultimate escape in strong characterization, violence and mayhem, with a good dash of sex thrown in the mix. Bonus points for an historical backdrop, gorgeous visual appeal, a kickass soundtrack, and, drumroll please….strong women characters.

Peaky Blinders is all of the above. This BBC import, now on Netflix, tells the fascinating, albeit somewhat historically inaccurate, story of a Jazz Age Irish-Romani gang in Birmingham England. The Peaky Blinders derive their name from their peaked caps with razor blades sewn in the brim, making the caps weapons that slash opponents and ‘blind’ them with blood in a fight. Creator Steven Knight based the idea of the series on true stories handed down by his father,

“It’s based on real events…. They were incredibly well dressed, they were incredibly powerful, they had a lot of money in an area where no one had money and… they were gangsters!”

In reality, the Peaky Blinders, who didn’t really sew blades in their caps, existed at the turn-of-the century, and by the 1920’s, which is the time period of the show, were, in effect, wiped out. The gang is a composite of several gangs. According to researcher Carl Chinn,

“The Peaky Blinders were followed by a large pre-war gang called the Brummagem Boys…

By the 1920s, … a group called The Birmingham Gang emerged, many of whom had come from the Brummagem Boys. They went onto become the most feared gang in the country.”

The flash and swagger of the 1920’s adds to the visual and stylistic appeal of the show. The grim, heavily industrialized setting of Birmingham is no Highclere Castle, and the characters are far from the posh denizens of most British period pieces. Producer Caryn Mandabach, who made her name as producer of such U.S. hits as The Cosby Show, 3rd Rock From the Sun and Nurse Jackie, says,

Peaky Blinders is exceptional is because it was the first period drama to bring the working class into focus. You think of England in that time and most people imagine castles, aristocrats. But 95 percent of British people then belonged to the working class.”

The protagonist, Thomas Shelby, is one of a trio of brothers who has returned from World War I highly decorated, but emotionally damaged. The show flashbacks to the men, who were known as “clay kickers”, digging and fighting in tunnels in the Battle of the Somme. Shelby is played to perfection by Cillian Murphy, whose surreally blue eyes and sculpted cheekbones create the perfect backdrop for his complex, often murderous character. Shelby, like so many gangsters in real life and fiction, is attempting to legitimize the family’s illegal bookmaking and smuggling activities in Birmingham and beyond.

Seasons one and two feature A-list actor Sam Neill as C.I. and then Major, Campbell, Shelby’s nemesis, a special agent with a vendetta against the family. According to Neill, Campbell is,

“psychotic and monomaniacal and a man of the righteous mission” …”There’s a bent moral compass in there somewhere, but it’s pretty goddamn bent.”

Season two, and the upcoming Season Three have none other than the chameleon-like Tom Hardy, playing real-life Jewish gangster, Alfie Solomons. As usual, Hardy gives an amazing performance as the mordantly funny criminal.

And the women? They actually have roles as juicy and conflicted as their male counterparts. The first woman character we are introduced to is Polly Gray, the family matriarch (Helen McCrory). Polly is aunt to the gang leaders, and has held down the fort while the men were fighting in the war. She and Tommy are in constant conflict over who holds the strings of power in the family. In Season Two, however, we see another side of her, as she reunites her with her long lost son, Michael Gray (Finn Cole), who despises his existence with his pious adoptive mother in a bucolic English village, and eagerly takes up the gang life in Birmingham.

At one point, she is raped by the hypocritical Campbell in exchange for Michael’s freedom when he is jailed and tortured. But Polly exacts her own vengeance on Campbell, as she shoots him in the heart in the last episode because, in her words,” “Tommy thought it should be me who finished the job.” The camera pulls back to show her coldly triumphant, leaving the scene, her expensive suit marked with blood just below her heart.

What would a true drama be without a love interest? The mysterious Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis) gets a job as a barmaid at The Garrison, the pub owned by the Blinders on the show (supposedly frequented by them in real-life). Her beauty, bar skills, and angelic singing voice get her hired over the manager’s initial protests. Alas, Grace is an undercover agent, working for Campbell. This is historically implausible; while there were some women police officers in England at that time, notably Lilian Wyles, who was the first woman to become a Scotland Yard detective, it is extremely doubtful that a woman would have been given a role as an undercover investigator. Yes, the star-crossed lovers are a trope, yet as a couple, Tommy and Grace generate some serious heat. And Grace herself is an enigma. As Wallis says,

“Grace is the embodiment of a woman in all her complexities…shades of grey….a constant struggle with the light and the dark. She is brave and bold — unafraid. I liken her to feminists of the time like Emmeline Pankhurst…she is flawed but you never lose faith in her…..

Tommy and Grace fall for each other, yet part over her betrayal of the gang at the end of Season One. Somewhat surprisingly, Grace returns in Season Two, albeit married to a rich businessman. Meanwhile, Tommy has become involved with May Carlton (Charlotte Riley). In real life, the actress is married to Hardy, and expecting a child. Will this be written into the Season Three plot? Carlton, a wealthy, widowed horse trainer, makes no bones about her very progressive attitude toward Tommy; he intrigues her, she wants him, and she has the wealth and connections to help him achieve legitimacy in his business dealings.

Meanwhile, Tommy and Grace reunite, and Season Two closes with Tommy announcing his impending wedding. Viewers are left to wonder will he choose the woman he loves who is pregnant with his child, or the woman he is fond of who holds the power and connections to finally legitimize his business? In a tense scene at the Darby, while Tommy is carrying out a complicated plan, the two women meet, and piece together the place each has in Shelby’s life. Grace looks ethereal in soft pink, and May is a warrior in red. Grace tells May that she wants him back. May hints at her connections and scoffs at the notion that Tommy could love anyone. Grace wins the scene with the ultimate one upper when she asks May if she knows the name of Tommy’s racehorse, which is Gracie’s Secret.

There are other notable supporting women roles in this series, Aida, the Shelby sister, (Sophie Rundle) falls for a union activist, marries him, and has his child. At one point, she stops gang warfare by pushing a pram with her infant between the two factions, and gives a rousing speech that stops the gangsters in their tracks,

“You were all in France, so you know what happens next… I’m wearing black in preparation. I want you all to look at me. Who will be wearing black for you?”

Lizzie Stark (Natasha O’Keefe) is a former hooker, who remains in employment of the family as the secretary/bookkeeper, It is obvious that LIzzie carries a torch for Tommy, and in his cold-blooded fashion in the final episode of Season Two, he prevails upon her to use her former talents to aid him in an assassination mission. And finally, Esme (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the distant Romani cousin who is married off to John, Tommy’s brother, is showing signs of turning into a surprising force of her own. It will be interesting to see if their roles expand in Season Three.

While the show can be cliched at times, for me it is the ultimate in addictive, escapist entertainment. It is extremely popular in Britain, and has gained a cult following in the US. and each season is only six episodes, making viewers anxiously await the return of the Peaky Blinders and their fascinating women.

All images are property of BBC Television and Legendary Women, Inc. does not own or profit from them.

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