Not all British period dramas are the same. They don’t all involve servants faithfully tendering to lovable members of the aristocracy. Many do, of course, especially given the commercial imperative of appealing to affluent Americans, most of whom like Britain’s history posh.
Downton Abbey is just the latest in a long line of such skewed renditions of the UK’s national past, one that merely emulates the success of Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970s. This was a TV series that itself largely reworked Cavalcade, Noel Coward’s hit 1931 play. Such dramas do depict class difference – reality must intrude eventually – but only to emphasise what their creators suppose are Britain’s transcendent One Nation values. It is no accident that Julian Fellowes, Downton’s presiding genius, is a Conservative peer.
A period drama that takes a very different view of Britain’s past is Peaky Blinders, which recently returned to BBC2 in the UK. Set in the immediate post-World War I period, the series shares the same chronology as Downton, but that’s about all. Downton’s Yorkshire country estate is replaced by inner city Birmingham, which is presented as a multi-ethnic, industrial Hades where poverty is inescapable. Instead of the landed Crawleys, Peaky Blinders’ central figures are the Shelbys, whose core business is illegal gambling.
Peaky Blinders is not unique in focusing on the working class. In the 70s, while Upstairs Downstairs glorified class harmony in a West End of London household, other period dramas looked lower down the social scale and further north. These series were often incredibly popular but are now little recalled by historians.
Series such as Sam, When the Boat Comes In and The Stars Look Down were set in the early and middle years of the 20th century. As with Peaky Blinders, they had protagonists drawn from the working class, but from a different section: the “labour aristocracy” of respectable, hard working proletarians who strove to better themselves, their families and neighbours through the labour movement. Often these dramas involved discussions about socialism and the possibility of building a better life beyond capitalism. If not utopian, most mapped out a recognisably social democratic vision.
But there is no such hope for a better order in Peaky Blinders. The Shelbys also want to improve themselves, but they exhibit the kind of individualism and family values (if not respect for the law) of which Margaret Thatcher would have been proud. They seek financial salvation through exploiting their neighbours’ weaknesses. Hopeful people exist – such as Tommy’s childhood friend from the first season, Communist trade union activist Freddie Thorne, though they have a difficult relationship. But this echo from the 70s shows just how far popular perceptions of the past have changed. In a key scene-setting discussion, Tommy tells Thorne that they both give “fake hope” to the poor:
The only difference between you and me, Freddie, is that sometimes my horses stand a chance of winning.
It is Shelby, the self-described “businessman”, the guy who thinks socialism a “fantasy”, who prospers. Thorne in contrast ends up impotent and in jail. And if viewers were in any doubt as to whether in this world the labour movement was relevant, the second season started with Thorne’s funeral.
BBC/Mandabach/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky
If communism and trade unionism offer mere dreams, Peaky Blinders suggests that violent criminality is the only way out of the ghetto. This perspective is emphasised in the second season, which sees the Shelbys move up in the world and expand their nefarious business activities to London, where they confront better resourced rivals. The Shelbys in fact echo the position of the drug gangs currently stalking the streets of some of Britain’s cities, those convinced that diligence in low-paid jobs is for mugs, that in a world where trade unions are broken reeds and the Labour party run by Oxbridge geeks, criminal entrepreneurialism is the only rational response to poverty.
And, unlike in Downton and its progenitors, the series offers no solace in authority, for those in power are arguably worse than the Shelbys. Indeed, Tommy, his brother and friends have been brutalised by fighting in the trenches, psychologically disturbed in the service of a king and country who in peacetime have turned against them. And when not corrupt, the police are on a loose leash to maim or kill those suspected to be enemies of the state. Even Winston Churchill – voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll – is seen encouraging the local forces of law and order to break those laws to the point of murder. Significantly, and further challenging his established heroic reputation, in the second season Churchill is a growing and ever-more suspect presence.
Dramatised visions of Britain’s past are usually about as historically authentic as a nine bob note, and Peaky Blinders is no better a guide than is Downton Abbey. But period dramas do give an insight into the kind of historical myths that resonate with contemporaries, fantasies that change with the times in which the dramas are produced.
In Britain the most abiding and popular historical myth is that of One Nation, which is one reason why Downton Abbey has regularly attracted 9m viewers. In contrast, the audience for the first episode of this series of Peaky Blinders was 1.7m. But Downton is comfort viewing for middle-aged, Middle England while Peaky Blinders is aimed at a younger and more edgy demographic, a group that survey after survey suggests has lost much of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith in authority.
That Peaky Blinders shows such authority to be uncaring and oppressive, and the labour movement powerless to resist, suggests that the series is very much a period drama for our times.
Steven Fielding receives funding from the British Academy that allows him to research period dramas.