My current favourite viewing is Peaky Blinders on BBC2. I watched the last series and it is now three episodes into the second series. I am not a TV critic and I dread to think how I would come across on Gogglebox but I have to say that Peaky Blinders is, my humble opinion, excellent television.
It is dark, gritty, violent. The whole thing is set to fantastic modern music which despite its setting in the 1920s seems entirely appropriate somehow. And the cast are fabulous. There, that's my review!
I have started to wonder about the historical basis for the series though. As ever, I was also thinking about the family history aspect.
The Peaky Blinders did indeed exist in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Birmingham. The name Peaky Blinders first came to national notice in around 1890. It has long been thought that the name referred to razor blades having been sewn into the peaks of the caps worn by the gang, for use in slashing victims or rivals. However, a new book by Birmingham historian Carl Chinn disputes this.1. Chinn himself discovered, during his research, that his great grandfather had actually been a Peaky Blinder! He knew that he came from a line of illegal bookmakers but it turned out that, another generation back, there was a violent and abusive gang member.
Apparently, many of the descendants of members of the Birmingham gangs - the Peaky Blinders were definitely not the only one - are unaware of their ancestors' criminal pasts. Their deeds were not discussed, whether from shame or guilt or whatever.
Carl Chinn actually began his research in the 1980s and 1990s, well before the current interest in the gangs obviously. He was lucky enough to manage to get some first hand testimony from people who had lived through the period when the gangs were prevalent.
In terms of family history, this is a major point of good practice. Always question as many people as possible, especially elderly relatives, as a starting point. You never know what snippets of information you might come across. I wish that I had asked more questions when my own grandparents were alive, that's for sure.
There was a character referenced in the first series of Peaky Blinders called Billy Kimber. Kimber did indeed exist and ended up as a wealthy man in retirement in Torquay (sorry, now biting down on the desire to reference the view from Torquay hotel bedroom windows... love Fawlty Towers...). He had made his money as a big hitter of British crime though. The television series portrayed him as a Londoner but he too was actually a Brummie. Chinn also traced a descendent of Kimber:
Justine said: “My family had thought of Billy Kimber as a criminal, we knew that much, who had done time in Winson Green.
“But we had absolutely no idea just what a major gangster he became. We had assumed he was simply a local thug.
“We are not particularly proud of his career, but of course it is rather exciting knowing one is directly related to a godfather of organised crime.”
Good grief, the producers of Who Do You Think You Are? would probably fall over themselves if a celebrity subject could be proved to have such an ancestor. Can you imagine the "journey" that they would be taken on? Through the streets of modern day Birmingham, probably into Winson Green prison, a list of victims for them to shed a tear over.... maybe that's what they will do with Carl Chinn's book about the real Peaky Blinders - start tracing them forwards to see if they have spawned any likely celebrities! [There is a long running joke - urban myth? - that Michael Parkinson's family tree was done by the programme but his roots were considered too boring! One can't help thinking that the stories which are shown are the tip of the research iceberg...]
Another aspect which piqued my interest is the fact that even if we find a criminal record for an ancestor, this is not necessarily the whole story. On last night's episode of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby (played by the lovely Cillian Murphy - see above) ordered two gang members to get themselves arrested in order to avenge the death inside Winson Green prison of a stooge who had been paid by the gang to go to prison (to give the police an arrest for bookmaking and keep them off the real criminals). So if that had been real life, three men would have criminal records. One for no reason other than his family were promised money and two for some minor offence when they were actually violent gang members! You can see how descendents became less and less aware of what happened, as the years passed. Below are the pictures of some real life Peaky Blinders. Their listed offences are actually things like stealing bicycles...
I must say that the violence shown on the television series is quite extreme. But somehow because of the setting, it does not feel that it is shown gratuitously. Although I could have done without watching Cillian Murphy being beaten to a pulp... far too lovely for that... Sadly, 1920s Birmingham, many people could not just change channel when faced with such violence.
1. The Real Peaky Blinders: Billy Kimber, the Birmingham Gang and the Racecourse Wars of the 1920s - Carl Chinn (paperback, 10 October 2014)