Peaky Blinders and ELT: Relating to identity

Peaky Blinders, ELT, Diversity, Birmingham

I have just finished watching the third series of one of the most excellent TV programmes ever.  Peaky Blinders is set in the aftermath of World War I and tells the story of the Shelbys, a war-torn family bringing the fields of France back to Birmingham in the industrial heartland of the UK. While trying to deal with the madness of the war and find a way to make their own riches, the Shelbys create their own crime gang that initially battles for dominance in their city and then attempts to spread further into London and beyond.

I love everything about the series; the acting is amazing, the script is wonderful, the story, if a little over-complex in the third series, is riveting and it has some of the best music outside a Quentin Tarantino film that I have experienced.

There is also a deep anger communicated by many of the characters at their exclusion from some parts of society.  There is an anger from the working men who, despite their sacrifices in WWI, are forced to work in degrading conditions.

There is a slowly developing anger from the women at their positions in life, at how they are used and thrown away by the men, at how they are seen as second-class citizens despite having had to carry their families and the country during the war.

There is an anger from the Shelbys that, no matter how much money they make or how many stately homes they buy or how much they do the dirty work for the government, they will never be accepted into the upper echelons of society.

All of this anger is released through violence, sex, alcohol, drugs and lots and lots of cigarettes.

Not Downton Abbey

This anger and this dealing with the reality for the working classes sets it apart from the likes of Downton Abbey, which is set at a similar time but deals with how an aristocratic family deals with a changing world.  I have absolutely no time whatsoever for Downton Abbey.

I assumed my love of Peaky Blinders was down to the story, acting, directing, sex, music, violence, anger and so on, pretty much all of which Downton Abbey has none of.

Harry Fowles: One of the original Peaky Blinders
Harry Fowles: One of the original Peaky Blinders

But then I realised something else.  Peaky Blinders takes place in my home city.  I can relate to a lot of things from the series that perhaps others can’t; I recognise the places they mention, I get some of the references to other people and areas, I half know some of the stories and, perhaps most importantly, the accents that are used could be those used by many of my friends and family.

This idea of relating to actors and characters is important.  My city of Birmingham is almost never featured on homegrown television in the UK.  We had a terrible soap opera called Crossroads when I was a kid, and then there was a series about a former fireman called Boon.  And, as far as I can recall, that’s it.

The Birmingham accent (those used in Peaky Blinders aren’t always totally accurate, but they are close enough), and Birmingham itself, is seen in a very negative light in the UK.  We are seen as stupid, thick and uncultured.  The city is described as an ugly boring lump of grey.  You might not be surprised to hear that I totally disagree with all of this.

And it isn’t just accents that can help audiences to relate to actors and their characters.  There is quite a debate at the moment in the UK about the use of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) actors and crew in British television.  The claim is that these communities are woefully underrepresented.   The Bechdel test seeks to highlight how poor many female roles are in film and television.  There is a current furore about the portrayal of disabled people in the film ‘Me Before You’.  In the wake of the recent outrageous attack on the LGBT club Pulse in Orlando I found it interesting to read this article about how a Rod Stewart song from 1976 called ‘The Killing of Georgie’ provided the opportunity for ‘identity and independence’

As a straight, Anglo-Saxon (my roots are actually Irish, but you’d never know it) man, I am not usually in a position of not being represented.  I might know about it, but I don’t usually feel it.

What has this go to do with ELT?

I would argue that it has a lot to do with ELT, and education in general.  If we find it easier to relate to characters in screen who in some way are similar to us, then surely this is also true of our teachers. English teachers who are the same colour, from the same socio-economic background, have the same sexual orientation, believe in the same god and enjoy the same activities will be great for students who also fall into the same category, but perhaps not for others.

The same is also true for other areas of education.  Do the people who write coursebooks all conform to a particular type?  What about those who own schools or set educational policy?  There

I am not the first to raise diversity in ELT as an issue.  Work is being done to promote equality of opportunity between NEST and NNESTs, as well as equality between genders (it is surprising how few prominent conference slots are given to women).

I’m not saying that a student can only learn if they have a teacher who represents them, just as I don’t claim that you can only relate to actors and stories that are from your own area.  Neither am I saying that the whole ELT industry is biased to one particular community (I have no data to say it is or isn’t).  Indeed, when it comes to teachers at least, the issue would differ from country to country.  What I am saying is that diversity is important in order to provide role models and points of reference to our students who are often affected in ways they perhaps are not even aware of.