How is the conflict of Historical authenticity and dramatic expectation represented in the characters of Peaky Blinders?

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This study explores how the BBC Television series Peaky Blinders represents the conflict of historical authenticity within its characters. By dissecting if there can be a genuine balance upon using fictional characters in a historical setting, I am able to research if in which it can be authentic as well as following the conventions of dramatization, in order to meet expectations of its audiences. As Hansen and Machin observe “All scholarly research starts with choosing a topic, that is a decision about what to research” (Hansen and Machin, 2013, p. 15).

The Television Series itself is an ideal example to use during this topic, whilst being well established it also holds the correct elements in order to really challenge and be a candidate for the research. Set in the early 20th Century it forms around the authentic gang called ‘The Peaky Blinders’; although the gang was real the actual character’s, including the ‘Shelby’ family, were not.

As viewers we often misplace the occurrence of legitimacy in period dramas through its overall visuals and ambience as the interpretation of the genre is “informed by a respect for history, a sure feeling of the period, and a deep and precise sense of place and time” (Toplin, 1988, p. 1225). But like many, this case study is seen to be successful in the execution of bending the truth of legitimacy through its characters, and embracing these untruths as it is more stimulating than what actually happened in history. We see this through characters as it is “rather better at exploring the emotional life of its characters than conventional scholarly historiography” (Bell and McGarry, 2013, p. 14).

Through this theoretical framework I am using specific research methods that are tailored to this study to delve deeper into how fact really works in fiction. ‘It is argued that research methods should be carefully grounded in an understanding of the nature of the investigated phenomena’ (Svensson and Doumas, 2013, p. 442). Conforming to this, my review of literature explores the portrayal of characters and their narratives. Whilst debating how true to the original source the direction given by producers is; as they try to execute the best outcome when representing Elite History. This, complimenting my methodology, of interviews and questionnaires of both audience as well as producer from primary research.

Literature Review

The ideal framework for this research is to decode various approaches and analysis, this includes: the encoding and decoding of messages provided by the medium, and the literary theory of New Historicism. The literature review is used to inform and evaluate existing secondary research as well as to implicate connections with my own primary research and findings, which you will find later in this essay.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall explains that when analysing audience response to media content, you should focus on “the social and political context in which the content is

produced” (Baran & Davis, 2012, p. 257). This being the content of Television and what the audience is consuming from it, in regards to social and historic conventions. Hall’s

‘Reception’ approach considers the theory of encoding and decoding messages through this medium, in which “the producers of media content embed their intended or preferred

message within the text” (Baran & Davis, 2012, p.258) in order for the audience to read in different ways. This corresponds to my methodology and the reasoning why I am interviewing a director from Peaky Blinders. As it will touch on the intended outcome of how the producers represent characters for their audience.

In regards to character development it is that through encoding and decoding that you can read oppositional readings. It is easier to do that through characters rather than events as it is not stating anything of the time but rather telling it through someone’s actions and/or experience. Dramas tend to use this cognitive approach as they are open to alternative

discourses, as it is a broader overview. This conforms to Author Philip Elliott’s conclusion that Television Dramas do not provide society with a homogenous pattern but with “a variety of ways of managing and assimilating knowledge and opinion, in some cases by presenting and reinforcing established perspectives, in others by challenging or cancelling particular points of view” (Elliott, 1972, p. 145). This highlights Hall’s approach and restores producers a range of possibilities to explore negotiated and oppositional stances within the program-making process. By using complicated characters, making them multi-functional, and making them face of the past.

When applying Hall’s approach of looking at the wider discourse of a text, it constitutes that in order to betray a more entertaining trail of events of history, a producer may utilize their power of the sender to “evoke the past through powerful images and colourful characters” (Rosenstone, 1988, p. 1174). This is in order to create a more exciting narrative to their audience, thus creating an untruth to its content.

Umberto Eco argues that through the individuality of each audience member their understanding would differ regardless of the intended message. This is called aberrant decoding (Hartley, 2012), and is due to an individual’s own prior knowledge and experiences etc. Coinciding with this Hall stated in his article, Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse, that “language and media do not reflect the real, but simply constructs

something similar on our behalf ” (Procter, 2004, p. 46). Arguing that they are playing to their advantage of utilizing character development and character focused plots rather than taking homage of a pure representation of history.

In accordance to this, Robert Toplin argues that historical television dramas should be considered as “constituting an interpretation, not a detached, encyclopaedic rendering of history” (Toplin, 1988, p. 1216). Therefore, depicting a new understanding and not conforming to an ‘elite history’ of a mass overview that would be considered through a Documentary styled piece. But establishing individuals being represented, and allowing access to the past in that convention and their social discourse.

Hall sees Television as a meaningful discourse as it presents “the different areas of social life” as “mapped out into discursive domains” (Hall, 1980, p. 134). This is used as a mediating role for producers, as they end up “acting in such a way as to reproduce the

hegemonic signification of events”. Including surrounding a narrative around a particular time e.g. Peaky Blinders is set during both World Wars, so therefore it has political intent but through connotations and social discourse. As the characters themselves are foregrounded, it is told through them and their own experiences rather than a mirror image to the facts of the time.

This however, comes into conflict with Geoffrey Cowen in his book The Legal and Ethical Limitations of Factual Misrepresentation (1998). As he states that producers have an

“ethical duty of care to their audiences”(Cowan, 1998, p.157), when describing the encoded messages prevailed in historical dramas; as historical fiction have a social responsibility to uphold a truthful representation of the time. Producers therefore have to assure to their audience that the “essence of the characters, the dialogue, and the story remain faithful to the truth” (Cowan, 1998, p. 162). This is effortlessly important when regarding its broadcasters of the shows- including the BBC for Peaky Blinders. As a trusted broadcaster they cannot be seen as deceiving to their audience and have to uphold the upmost true depiction of the past.

Producers have been able to uphold techniques, however, which are encoded in their text in order to conform to this ethical dispute whilst still being able to express themselves. Robert Rosenstone outlined 6 various techniques in order to do this: 1. mainstream film tells history as a story, 2. Film insists on history as the story of individuals, 3. Film offers us history as the story of a closed, completed, and simple past, 4. Film emotionalizes, personalizes, and dramatizes history, 5. Film shows history as process, 6. Film so obviously gives us the ‘look’ of the past (Rosenstone, 1995, p.5). Although this is primarily a film approach, it works in accordance to Television as both mediums include the same elements of visual and character representation regarding history.

These techniques are seen to be employed effectively through the use of characters, as they provide their own accuracy of detail to screen. This can include something as simple as the

looks or apparent auditability of an actor to play someone” (Rosenstone, 1995, p. 12). All of this being decoded, consumed and processed by the audience as they are more likely to seek further interest when they “identify with the protagonists and become emotionally

involved in the story” (Poulit and Cowen, 2007, p.253). Thus, bringing attention and emotion to those historical narratives that may not have been there through simply reading about it.

This leads on to the contemporary theory of New Historicism, in which we cannot just look over history objectively, but rather we interpret the events as products of our time. This is explained by Theorist Lois Tyson because "... we don't have clear access to any but the most basic facts of history... our understanding of what such facts mean... is... strictly a matter of interpretation, not fact" (Lab, 2020). This displays the way of representing and consuming historical events through cultural context. This re-produces in a new way how to translate what has been done rather than just relaying it, and it gives it new meaning. Justin Wren- Lewis states that “it retains strong traces of a relay view, which it was designed to replace, about the way ideological dominance is secured” (Wren‐Lewis, 1983, p. 181).

This new-found realism for history is evident in the absorption of its audience’s interpretation of it “as the perceived realism of television increases, so does the audience’s motivation to learn its content” (Perry, 1992, p. 197). Regarding that historically based dramas are more likely to retain attention from their consumers, so much so that it would prompt them to learn more about its context. This comes in to play with the power of influence the media has, as the audience can interpret it in their own way. But this deems the question, is fictionalisation okay? As dramas such as Peaky Blinders may change the historical understanding of that era and therefore be remembered differently by the audience.

As this is a different way of learning about historical events, this comes under fire by traditional historians. Rosenstone explains, though, that by in which accepting the changes in history that dramas presents is not undermining the standards of historical truth but actually is “accepting another way of understanding our relationship to the past, another way of pursuing that conversation about where we came from, where we are going, and who we are” (Rosenstone, 1995, p.21). He continues, with the notion that drama can be compared to being a postliterate of the preliterate way of representing the past.

As a new way of representing and exploring the past, researches are unable to relay what constitutes as being the right or wrong way of representing it. This specifically highlights the question “what methods of visual interpretation deserve acclaim or a disapproving state, or which liberties taken by producers are in the bounds of professional acceptance” (Toplin, 1988, p. 1211).

It cannot disregard what we already know to be the past, so therefore all methods and inventions of expressing interpretations must be appropriate to the truths of the discourse.

But the combination of such methods used to do this still emphasises “one of the field’s prevailing questions: “How should appropriate questions about accuracy and responsible representation apply to the loose treatment of fact evident in historical dramas?” (Toplin,

1988, p. 1224). In regards to this, through my own research and methodology that you will find later in this essay, I will try to pave one way of exploring this notion further by reviewing the impact it has had on audiences as well as seeing first-hand how it is created by producers.

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