Crime, Masculinity and the Post-War Era in Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire

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WARNING: CONTAINS POTENTIAL SPOILERS

 

I have recently finished watching the entire five series of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the era of prohibition, spanning the decade until 1932. Earlier this year, I also watched both series of the UK drama Peaky Blinders, which was set in Birmingham at the end of the First World War. Both series are about the rise of criminal gangs in the post-war era and have many overlapping themes. I think these overlapping themes are worth exploring and here are some preliminary thoughts about them.

The reintegration of ‘damaged’ men at the end of the war

Both series focus heavily on the plight of the returned soldier at the end of the First World War. In Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy Darmody is the protégé of the Treasurer and crime boss of Atlantic City, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson and has returned from the Western front after dropping out of Princeton University. Rather than resume his studies, Darmody becomes Thompson’s driver and right-hand man, convinced by the brutality of the war that there is no social good and that crime is the only path open for him now. At the end of the first series and at the beginning of the second, Jimmy joins forces with several others to attempt to remove Thompson from power. This is partly driven by Jimmy’s disdain for those older men who encouraged him (and other young men) to fight in the war, but left those who returned with little reward. Darmody also suffers from the guilt of surviving the war, which leads him to befriend another former soldier, Richard Harrow, a sniper with a disfigured face. Both Darmody and Harrow use the skills they learnt in the war to become ruthless criminals in the post-war era.

In Peaky Blinders, brothers Tommy and Arthur Shelby had fought on the Western front and the younger brother, Tommy, had earned commendations for his actions during the war. Back in Birmingham in 1919, the Shelbies, along with many other young men, use their military experience to commit criminal acts, or in the case of Freddie Thorne, to agitate for a communist revolution. It seems that Tommy Shelby had become been the leader of many of the local men in France and they still looked to him as a leader in the peacetime. The Shelbies are able to exploit this as they seek to expand their criminal empire. Both Tommy and Arthur, as well several others, suffer from flashbacks and remain traumatised by their wartime memories. The worst of these is suffered by Danny ‘Whizz-Bang’ Owens, who has repeated hallucinations that he is back in the trenches, leading to him to stab to death a local bystander during one episode.

Both series depict the trauma experienced by soldiers during the First World War is a reason for their inability to reintegrate into society in the post-war era and serves as a partial explanation for their criminal behaviour.

Patriarchal figures and the attempts to build a ‘family’

In both series, the patriarchal figure in the criminal ‘family’, Nucky Thompson and Tommy Shelby, are obsessed with the idea of family and go to extreme lengths to maintain their families. In Boardwalk Empire, we learn that Thompson’s wife and child had died a long time ago, so Thompson lives vicariously through the large family of his brother, Eli, who begins the series as the local sheriff. Thompson eventually marries an Irish woman (whose husband is killed by Eli and other police officers), Margaret Schroeder and adopts her two children as his own. However Thompson’s criminality means that both of these families are driven away, with Margaret separating Thompson and living on her own in New York, while Eli’s family suffers from his exile to Chicago after killing a FBI agent.

In Peaky Blinders, Tommy is obsessed with keeping the family together, but his ambition also provides tensions between family members, particularly as his siblings feel that he puts the idea of ‘family’ above their well-being. Tommy’s younger sister, Ada marries Freddie, the communist activist, and eventually runs away to London to escape Tommy’s grip. On the other hand, Tommy’s younger brother John is convinced to marry the daughter from another crime family to help Tommy’s criminal ambitions.

Both Nucky and Tommy try to argue that their actions were for the good of their family and to provide a legacy. However both series show that this idea of ‘family’ is warped by their criminality and each time they attempt to secure their family’s future, their actions negatively impact on those around them.

Crime as social mobility

At the heart of both series is that the idea that crime can bring some form of social mobility, generating extraordinary wealth, but it cannot bring legitimacy. In the first series of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby’s plan is to takeover the bookmakers’ operations at racetracks across the south and west of England and then transform these into a legitimate bookmaking business. In the second series, it shows that this does not quench Tommy’s ambition and he is keen to seize the business of other bookmakers in London and across the north of England.

In Boardwalk Empire, Thompson and his brother already occupy positions of power within Atlantic City and are economic and political kingmakers, but while extremely wealthy and powerful, Thompson is plagued by feelings of illegitimacy. For Thompson, his continued involvement in the bootlegging business brings him into contact with the criminal elements of society, which he detests. In the final series, he campaigns for an end to prohibition (which had brought him enormous wealth over the previous decade) in the belief that this would bring him legitimacy and confirm his role at the high end of society. However even as he campaigns for this, he finds that many businessmen are unwilling to associate with him because of his criminal associations.

Like many other cinematic and televisual depictions of organised crime, both series become morality tales of how crime can bring people almost to the top, but their criminality (and ambition) will always make them fall in the end – although we are yet to see what happens in the third series of Peaky Blinders.

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The Irish as ‘outsiders’

In the inter-war period, the Irish in Britain and the United States were still viewed by many with suspicion and those of Irish descent were often associated with criminality and deviance. This is explicit in Peaky Blinders where the authorities bring in a Protestant Chief Inspector from Belfast to investigate the criminal and subversive behaviour of the Irish community in Birmingham, specifically looking for a weapon before it falls into the hands of the Irish Republican Army (or the communists). For the Shelbies, this suspicion of the Irish in England convinces them that the only way to move up the social ladder is to become involved criminal enterprises.

For Thompson and his brother, they cynically tap into the divisions between Anglo and Irish American society to gain favour with those in the Irish-American community in Atlantic City. This involves obtaining money and votes from the community when needed. Thompson also makes overtures to the IRA in Ireland to obtain whiskey in exchange for weapons and uses a shared Irish heritage to try to convince the IRA leadership to accept this deal.

The plight of the Irish in America is also portrayed in Boardwalk Empire through the character of Margaret Schroeder (later Thompson), a migrant from Ireland. Margaret occupies a range of professions during her life in America and lives close to the poverty line while married to her first husband in Atlantic City. She escapes this by marrying Nucky Thompson, but once she leaves him and moves to New York, she once again struggles to keep herself and her children housed until she strikes a deal with gangster, Arnold Rothstein.

The changing role of women in Western society

Following from this, we also see the changing role of women in Britain and America after the First World War. The first series of Boardwalk Empire takes place in 1920 when the debate over whether to give women the vote in the US was raging. Thompson is in favour of giving women the vote as he believes that they will vote for him, as he is running for re-election as Treasurer. To ensure this support, Thompson speaks at the local chapter of the Women’s Temperance Movement and uses this as a platform to call for the vote for women and his re-election. For the women of the Temperance Movement, 1920 was a victorious year, gaining the right to vote as well as seeing the prohibition of alcohol.

In Peaky Blinders, the changing role of women is demonstrated through the character of Aunt Polly. While the Shelby boys were away during the war, Polly looked after the family business and raised the remaining Shelby children (including John and Ada). When the war ended, Tommy (and to a lesser extent, Arthur) came back to Birmingham to take over the business from Polly. Polly resents that after running the business for the duration of the war, she is now supposed to go back to her pre-war role – a situation that was commonly experienced by working class women across Britain in the years after the First World War.

Political extremism in the post-war era

Both Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire depict the great political upheaval that occurred at the end of the war and these crime dramas play out against a background of political violence and extremism. In Peaky Blinders, the ‘threat’ of communism and Irish republicanism is ever present and intermingle with each other and the criminal underworld in Birmingham. Tommy Shelby negotiates with both political movements in his plans to take over the bookmaking business of his rival Billy Kimber.

In Boardwalk Empire, the spectre of communism and the ‘red scare’ is conspicuously absent, but Irish republicanism does feature, as mentioned above. The threat of the Ku Klux Klan is depicted in several episodes and is shown as a nuisance to Thompson’s business, who helps Albert ‘Chalky’ White take revenge on the KKK in return to White’s loyalty in the bootlegging business. In the last two series, the Pan-Africanist organisation of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, is featured heavily as Dr. Valentin Narcisse emerges as a rival to ‘Chalky’ White, selling heroin out of an establishment in Harlem.

In both series, the authorities (the Special Branch in Peaky Blinders and the fledgling FBI in Boardwalk Empire) are more concerned with the political threats than the criminal activities of Shelby and Thompson. However individual agents, namely CI Chester Campbell in Peaky Blinders and Agent Jim Tolliver in Boardwalk Empire, press that the focus should be on Tommy Shelby and Nucky Thompson, rather than the IRA or the UNIA. In the end , these become personal vendettas that are blown apart by the changing political situation in both Britain and the USA during the inter-war period.

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These are just some initial thoughts and hopefully I will have time to flesh these out in the near future. As usual, any comments or queries are most welcome. And if you know of any scholarly work looking at these two series, please let me know.

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for this – as it happens I’m working on a piece on Peaky Blinders for a new book on class and TV drama. Here’s the abstract and I’ll share the paper in due course if interested:

    ‘I had these snapshots of stories that I’d never read about in the history books.’ History, Class and Region in the Imaginative Landscapes of Peaky Blinders.

    The self-conscious project of the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders (2013-) is apparent from its first episode. It opens amidst grimy tenement streets; a foreboding soundtrack anachronistically cites the ambiance of blues music; Chinese characters, their conversation subtitled, are summoned at the behest of a strikingly handsome and enigmatic man astride a white horse while the people of this abyss watch warily from doorways and behind dustbins and street lamps. While the peak of a flat cap rather than Stetson shields the rider’s eyes, the aim is to pose a question about where and when this milieu might be. The answer comes in a caption: ‘Birmingham, 1919’.

    Written by Stephen Knight and now in its second series, Peaky Blinders can be set alongside series such as Ripper Street (2012-), which makes the Victorian East End its milieu or, more directly, Downton Abbey (2010-). Katherine Byrne (2014) has argued that Downton Abbey offers a sanitized although insistently ‘authentic’, portrait of a historical period marked by instability and rapid change. The ‘post-heritage’ of this series draws its drama from the familiar iconography of the country home and the interplay of servant and employer, re-treading aspects of the 1970s BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75). Peaky Blinders offers a different, and potentially radical political, historical and aesthetic perspective on the same period and nature of class relations, recalling political and social aspects of another 1970s series When the Boat Comes In (1976-81). The eponymous Peaky Blinders for instance comprise an illegal and violent bookmaking gang, tied by family loyalties and Gypsy identity. The central male characters are psychologically scarred by their experience of the Western Front while the women exhibit a strength and independence that comes from not simply being left to manage the home front. The city is akin to an inferno as industrial forges bellow flame into the street, a heat echoed in political reactions to communist agitation and IRA gunrunners managed by a brutal police force.

    Peaky Blinders makes much of Birmingham’s place at the centre of a physical modernity as a means of installing it as a site for historical drama. David Stubbs has written in The Guardian that:

    ‘In 1919, Birmingham was the biggest industrial city in the world. Yet it has always been considered deeply unfashionable when it comes to settings for TV drama, while cities like Liverpool have been consecrated by the likes of Alan Bleasdale. “It is unfashionable,” agrees Birmingham-born Knight. “In fact, it’s almost invisible.’ (Stubbs, 2013).

    The aim of this paper then is to explore the project of Peaky Blinders as one which explores a distinct and insistently regional working-class life, agency and interiority in the context of a largely unexplored industrial environment. It assesses how, in addressing a televisual (and historical) absence, Knight delights in the imaginative possibilities of milieu and character in which fictional characters and historical figures interact. In encompassing a variety of reactions to the series’ historical fidelity and adequacy as a representation of a specific time, place – and class – further questions arise about the ambiguities of representations of working class life on British television.

    1. I think you underplay the significance of the music in Peaky Blinders. Far from being “blues music” contemporary to the story though anachronistic in place, the Nick Cave tracks which permeate the series are a strikingly modern, savage post industrial accompaniment to the plot which force us to bridge the emotional gap between us and the historical characters. The music is very much of “now”, but the clanking metallic rhythms also evoke industrial Birmingham of a century ago.

      1. Thanks Ian – interestingly that useful reading (or hearing) is not unlike some of the ways in which the origins of heavy metal (via Brum’s Black Sabbath) is discussed. You are right of course that the music and its deployment is a key feature of the series and is deserving of closer attention. Is this something of which you have more to say?

  2. Thanks for replies. Paul, I’d be very interested in reading the full version in the future!
    Jessica, thanks for the links to your blogs. Very interesting to see how a historian of the period sees the show.
    The one thing about the show is that it is set in 1919 and Freddie is a communist, although the CPGB didn’t form until the following year.

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