ORsee the past five-and-a-bit series, Peaky Blinders has had no shortage of knowing cameos from genuine historical figures. So far, the current run has resembled an interwar history textbook that has come to life, then been moodily lit and mumblingly soundtracked, with Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and Winston Churchill all popping up. The BBC has even devoted an entire two-part crime documentary, The Real Peaky Blinders (whose finale airs tonight), to the show’s love of real-life history – presenting the true stories that inspired dramatist Steven Knight.
But who was the best? Who was the most historically accurate? And who was fairly impossible to judge against their real-life equivalent, but we don’t care because they’re current Tom Hardy? Here’s our ranking of every real-life figure that has rubbed tweed shoulders with the Shelby clan …
12. Al Capone
Bottom of our ranking because Alphonse Capone hasn’t yet appeared on-screen, although Tommy was overheard on the phone to him. When Tommy sent cousin Michael to forge alliances Stateside, these included a bootlegging deal with the Chicago mobster. Mafia rival Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) sneered “You been talking to that fat fuck?” – shortly before Arthur spattered his brains all over a gin still.
When Stephen Graham joined the series-six cast, there was speculation that he’d play Capone, as he did in Boardwalk Empire. However, writer Steven Knight told a podcast: “It’s a minefield once you get into Chicago gangsters. I referred to him but didn’t want to go too far west.” Watch this fat fuck-shaped space.
eleven. Arthur Bigger
Played by craggy character actor Donald Sumpter (AKA Game of Thrones’ Maester Luwin), Bigge was the desk-thumping King’s Private Secretary who dealt with the series four case against Polly, Arthur, John and Michael, which almost got them hung until a last -gasp reprieves.
The real Bigge was a decorated army officer who became an influential senior courtier to Queen Victoria and King George V, serving monarchs for 36 years. The Notorious BIGGE, as nobody has called him until literally just now. A floating incidental character, hence his low placing of it.
10. Billy Kimber
A decent villain who loses points for lack of historical accuracy. This spivvy slimeball, portrayed by Charlie Creed-Miles in series one, was leader of The Birmingham Boys who ran local horse-racing rackets. The Peaky Blinders made a power-grab for their turf, resulting in a gunfight outside the Garrison, during which Tommy shot Kimber in the head.
As The Real Peaky Blinders makes clear, Kimber was actually a far bigger figure in gangland history. The burly bruiser started out in Brum street gangs at the age of 12, worked his way up the underworld ladder, expanded his empire south and become Britain’s first nationwide crime kingpin. The documentary calls him “Britain’s answer to Al Capone”. The real Kimber was shot during a fight with Alfie Solomons (more of him shortly) but survived and fled to the US – where he ended up working for Capone himself.
A cheeky entry who only appeared in pictorial form. After the Garrison was blown up in series two, Tommy visited the rival Black Lion pub to find answers. Behind the bar was a framed portrait of famed Irish revolutionary leader, Collins, mounted on a tricolour flag. Tommy was duly hooded and led to an abattoir rendezvous with the IRA.
This tied into the conspiracy plot that saw Winston Churchill and Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) hiring Tommy to bump off Field Marshal Russell – a facsimile of loyalist politician Sir Henry Wilson. In real life, it was Collins who was suspected of orchestrating Wilson’s 1922 shooting. Collins was himself assassinated two months later.
8. Brilliant Chang
Billy “Brilliant” Chang has a pivotal role in the Peaky endgame as source of the plot-driving opium. Played by Andrew Koji, he’s the Triad leader who hired an assassin to pose as a sex worker and hold frisky Finn Shelby at gunpoint. This got the attention of big bro Tommy, to whom Chang offered a lucrative shipment from Shanghai: the purest opium ever seen on European shores. Its $5m value promised to make up for the losses Tommy suffered in the Wall Street Crash.
The real Chang was a charismatic immigrant who ran a Cantonese restaurant in Birmingham before moving into the drug trade. The press dubbed him a “dope king” but his empire crumbled after he was implicated in the death by overdose of bar hostess Freda Kempton. Police found cocaine in Chang’s home and he was deported. Not so brilliant after all. He really did wear fancy fur-collared overcoats, though, so the show is at least sartorially specific.
7. Diana Mitford
Smugly announcing herself as “Oswald’s most recent and last-ever mistress”, the Sieg Heil-ing Sloane arrived only last week but wasted no time becoming a hiss-boo villainess. Played by Amber Anderson, she name-dropped our “friend in Berlin”, flirted with Tommy and tried to humiliate Lizzie – who clapped back by pointing out that she’d “fucked your future husband”. Touché, baby.
MI5 files described the real-life Mitford as “far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband”. Her 1989 episode of Desert Island Discs, during which she denied the extent of the Holocaust, was one of the show’s most controversial hers. Even Sue Lawley sounded shocked. Mitford’s dramatic alter ego of hers is suitably vile but there have been grumbles that Anderson’s accent is n’t posh enough. Ella hints that she is an amphetamine-using bisexual are also a little fanciful.
6. Darby Sabini
Series two saw the Shelby brothers “on fookin’ holiday” in London, causing a kerfuffle in The Eden Club – a bacchanalian nightspot belonging to scar-faced Italian mob boss Sabini (moustachioed Noah Taylor). In retaliation, Sabini’s men kidnapped Ada and performed impromptu dentistry on Tommy. The Peaky Blinders ultimately prevailed by seizing Sabini’s bookies’ pitches on Derby Day. Sabini resurfaced as a background presence in series four, helping Luca Changretta with his vendetta against Tommy.
The real Charles “Darby” Sabini was a former welterweight boxer who carried a hammer and kept a revolver under his pillow at night. I have headed a profitable Clerkenwell-based gang but deliberately dressed shabby to keep a low profile (a detail that the style-conscious drama omitted). Humiliatingly, Sabini was bankrupted by losing a libel action against a newspaper that called him a gangster. Well, duh.
5. Jessie Eden
The union firebrand arrived in series four, played by Happy Valley’s Charlie Murphy. Eden was the shop steward who led Tommy’s female factory workforce out on strike, before staging a mass equal-pay protest in the Bull Ring. When Tommy tried to broker a wage deal, she outmaneuvered him by knowing about his murky past. They later bonded over their mutual postwar heartbreak and became lovers, with Tommy slyly using Jessie for information on her communist contacts of her.
The portrayal cheesed off historians, who criticized the focus on a fictional romance rather than Eden’s real-life achievements as a champion of worker’s rights. Put it back in your worsted trousers, Tom.
Four. charlie chaplin
A cool cameo, albeit a fittingly silent one. The Little Tramp made a series two appearance when Tommy took lost love Grace on a night out in that fancy London. He knew Chaplin’s bodyguard, Wag McDonald (another name borrowed from a real-life gangster), who fixed it for the couple to meet the megastar (played by Robert Elkin) while he was in the capital promoting his latest film.
There has been long speculation that Chaplin, who officially hailed from south London, was actually born on the Black Patch, a Gypsy camp in Smethwick, but kept his Romani roots secret. He was mentioned again in the series-six opener when Lizzie name-dropped: “This projector was a gift from Charlie fucking Chaplin. I have felt it all the way from Hollywood.” Clang.
3. Alfie Solomons
“Shalom, Arfur, Shalom!” Played by a bewhiskered Tom Hardy since series two, fan favorite Alfie is the volatile leader of a Jewish gang in Camden. He runs an illegal rum distillery and aligned with the Peaky Blinders against his longtime rival Darby Sabini. He and Tommy have since been frenemies who take it in turns to do business, betray one another and swap ownership of Cyril the dog. It’s always a highlight when wind-up merchant Alfie tips up to chew scenery, ramble on like a glitching Guy Ritchie DVD and turn the air blue with baroque swearing.
The real-life Alfred Solomon (singular) was a Jewish bookmaker with underworld connections who was involved in the racetrack wars and ran a bakery as a front. He was convicted for manslaughter after fatally knifing a fellow thug during a card game. It probably wasn’t Snap or Strip Poker. Alfie earns a high placing for loveability but only a bronze medal, due to cartoonishness.
two. Oswald Mosley
“You’ve met bad men before. But the man you’re about to meet is the devil.” So said Tommy in series five as fascist leader Oswald Mosley swaggered into view. Played by ‘tache-twirling Sam Claflin, he’s suavely sinister, shags anything that moves and has influential allies everywhere. Tommy’s attempt to assassinate Mosley backfired so badly that Tommy wondered if he was “the man I can’t defeat”.
The real-life Mosley was a skilled orator, once tipped as a future prime minister, who crossed the floor from Tory to Labor before founding the British Union of Fascists in 1932. The party built a sizeable following as fascism spread across Europe but Mosley wound up disgraced and imprisoned. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke. Peaky Blinders captures his reptilian charm and influential connections well but Mosley can’t win, because, well, he just can’t.
1. Winston Churchill
Well, who else could top our chart than dear old Winnie? As in real life, he triumphs for longevity and the reassuring sight of his hulking, Havana-puffing silhouette. Virtually an honorary Peaky Blinder, the jowly statesman has been a recurring presence since series one. Then secretary of state for war, he set the whole story in motion by sending prize git Campbell to Birmingham to recover a stolen cache of machine guns.
In series two, cheeky Churchill was seen sketching a nude life model in his office. He saved Tommy’s life so he could serve the crown, mainly by carrying out assassinations. Tommy now feeds his twinkly old ally intel on the fascists. Churchill has been portrayed by a tag-team of actors: first Andy Nyman, then Richard McCabe, now Neil Maskell. Next in line is probably Churchill the insurance dog. Oh Yes.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism