Created by Steven Knight, ‘Peaky Blinders’ is an epic crime-drama series. The story begins in 1919, not long after World War I, and predominantly revolves around a mixed Irish Catholic and Romani crime family, the Shelbys. Ambitious and brilliant Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) assumes the leadership of the Birmingham-based Peaky Blinders street gang following his return from the war and faces various challenges throughout the series, both to ensure the safety of his family and the realization of his titanic aspirations.
‘Peaky Blinders’ is a period show filled to the brim with time-appropriate costumes, set design, and accents. Many historical figures are part of the narrative as well. If that has made you wonder whether ‘Peaky Blinders’ is inspired by actual events, this is what you need to know.
Is Peaky Blinders a True Story?
‘Peaky Blinders’ is a heavily fictionalized version of a true story. As implied above, numerous components of history have been incorporated into the narrative of the show. For instance, while Tommy Shelby and his family are fictional, the Peaky Blinders were a real street gang in Birmingham.
Asked where the idea of ‘Peaky Blinders came from, Knight told Esquire UK, “It’s actually from things that were told to me when I was a kid by my parents. My mom and dad grew up in Small Heath in Birmingham in the 1920s, and they always told me stories about their childhood that I always thought were so glamorous and wild and amazing. But I always thought it would make an incredible drama.” He also told BBC that the show was “based on real events.”
In a different interview, Knight elaborated on his father’s experience with the Peaky Blinders and how it inspired the show’s creation. “One of the stories that really made me want to write Peaky Blinders is one my dad told me: he said that when he was eight or nine his dad gave him a message on a piece of paper and said ‘go and deliver this to your uncles,'” he said. “His uncles were the Sheldons, who eventually became the Shelbys. Even though the history books say the peaky blinders were only around until the 1890s, they weren’t – people in Small Heath knew these people as peaky blinders.”
When Knight’s father arrived to deliver the message, the Sheldons, who were his maternal uncles, were sitting around a table covered with money, “immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns in their pockets.” They were using jam jars to drink beers. This was a period in British history when a significant portion of the population was impoverished. So, the opulence Knight’s father witnessed was incredibly rare, particularly among the working class. “Just that image – smoke, booze and these immaculately dressed men in this slum in Birmingham – I thought, that’s the mythology, that’s the story, and that’s the first image I started to work with,” Knight added.
The historical Peaky Blinders reportedly became active in Birmingham in the 1880s. As shown in the BBC Two (later BBC One) series, the gang’s name stems from the belief that they hid razor blades in their peaked caps. This notion was allegedly popularized by author John Douglas, who wrote about it in his 1977 novel ‘A Walk Down Summer Lane.’ However, scholars have since disputed this claim. They have also mentioned that the gang members were mainly interested in fighting. Despite what is depicted in the series, Peaky Blinders were not part of organized crime. That particular type of criminal culture arrived on the British shore in the 1930s.
Peaky Blinders witnessed a steep decline before World War I. One of the reasons for this was their escalating feud with the rival gang, the Birmingham Boys. By the 1920s, the actual Peaky Blinders had pretty much disappeared, but by then, the phrase “Peaky Blinders” had become an umbrella term to denote any street gang in Birmingham. It is possible that what Knight refers to as “Peaky Blinders” is one of these post-war gangs and not the actual one.
Historical figures such as Winston Churchill, the Birmingham Boys leader Billy Kimber, trade union leader and communist Jessie Eden, fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley, and Chinese restaurateur and alleged drug dealer Brilliant Chang appear in the series and play important roles in the narrative.
At its core, ‘Peaky Blinders’ has a profoundly anti-war message. It underscores how traumatized Tommy Shelby and young men like him had become due to the horrors they witnessed during the war. “One of the wider issues that I wanted to point out was that all of these men had returned from the First World War where they had been instructed to carry out mass murder every day on an unprecedented industrial scale,” Knight told BBC. “They’ve returned very damaged and they are violent as a result of their experiences so you have that very interesting dynamic of men returning from the front line and finding they cannot live an ordinary life.”
Ultimately, ‘Peaky Blinders’ is a mix of history and fiction. While it has several components of truth in it, it also contains things that Knight and his writers created.
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