OOver the past five-and-a-bit series, Peaky Blinders has had no shortage of well-known cameos from real historical figures. So far, the current series has felt like an interwar history textbook brought to life, then moodily lit and mumbled by a soundtrack, starring Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and Winston Churchill who all appear. The BBC has even dedicated a two-part comprehensive crime documentary, The Real Peaky Blinders (the finale of which airs tonight), to the show’s love of real history – showcasing the true stories that inspired playwright Steven Knight.
But who was the best? Who was the most historically accurate? And that was pretty impossible to judge against their real-life equivalent, but who cares because they’re Tom Hardy? Here’s our ranking of all the real-life personalities who have rubbed shoulders with the Shelby clan…
12. Al Capone
Bottom of our rankings because Alphonse Capone has yet to appear on screen, although Tommy has been heard from him on the phone. When Tommy sent his cousin Michael to forge alliances in the United States, these included a smuggling deal with the Chicago mobster. Rival mobster Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) sneered “Did you talk to that fat jerk?” – shortly before Arthur splashed his brains out on a still of gin.
When Stephen Graham joined the series six cast, there was speculation that he would 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. Look at this space in the form of a big fuck.
11. Arthur Bigge
Played by crappy character actor Donald Sumpter (aka Maester Luwin from Game of Thrones), Bigge was the King’s private secretary who handled the series four case against Polly, Arthur, John and Michael, who almost had them hanging down to a last suspended gasp.
The real Bigge was a decorated army officer who became an influential courtier to Queen Victoria and King George V, serving the monarchs for 36 years. The Notorious BIGGE, as no one literally called him until now. An ephemeral accessory character, hence its poor ranking.
10. Billy Kimber
A decent villain who loses points for lack of historical accuracy. This mischievous slimeball, played by Charlie Creed-Miles in the first series, was the leader of the Birmingham Boys who ran local horse racing rackets. The Peaky Blinders took over their territory, resulting in a shootout outside the garrison, during which Tommy shot Kimber in the head.
As The Real Peaky Blinders makes clear, Kimber was actually a much bigger figure in gang history. The burly murderer started in Brum’s street gangs at the age of 12, rose through the ranks of the underworld, expanded his empire south and became the nation’s first crime kingpin. in Great Britain. The documentary calls it “Britain’s answer to Al Capone”. The real Kimber was shot in a fight with Alfie Solomons (more on him shortly) but survived and fled to the United States – where he ended up working for Capone himself.
9. Michael Collins
A cheeky entry that only appeared in pictorial form. After the Garrison Explosion in the second series, Tommy traveled to the rival Black Lion pub to find answers. Behind the bar was a framed portrait of the famous Irish revolutionary leader, Collins, mounted on a tricolor. Tommy was duly hooded and taken to a slaughterhouse rendezvous with the IRA.
This was linked to the plot which saw Winston Churchill and Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) hire Tommy to overthrow Field Marshal Russell – a facsimile of loyalist politician Sir Henry Wilson. In real life, it was Collins who was suspected of orchestrating the shooting of Wilson in 1922. Collins was himself murdered two months later.
8. Brilliant Chang
Billy “Brilliant” Chang has a central role in Peaky’s endgame as the source of the opium that drives the plot. Played by Andrew Koji, he is the leader of the triad who hired an assassin to pose as a sex worker and hold Finn Shelby at gunpoint. This caught the eye of big brother Tommy, to whom Chang offered a lucrative shipment from Shanghai: the purest opium ever seen on European shores. Its $5 million worth promised to make up for Tommy’s losses in the Wall Street crash.
The real Chang was a charismatic immigrant who ran a Cantonese restaurant in Birmingham before getting into the drug trade. The press dubbed him a ‘drug kingpin’, but his empire crumbled after he was implicated in the overdose death of bar hostess Freda Kempton. The police found cocaine in Chang’s home and he was evicted. Not so brilliant after all. However, he really wore fancy fur-collared overcoats, so the show is at least sartorially specific.
7. Diana Mitford
Smugly announcing herself as “Oswald’s newest and last mistress”, the Sieg Heil-ing Sloane only arrived last week but wasted no time in becoming a sibilant villain. Played by Amber Anderson, she named our ‘friend in Berlin’, flirted with Tommy and tried to humiliate Lizzie – who clapped back, pointing out that she had ‘fucked your future husband’. Touched, baby.
MI5 files described Mitford’s real life as “much smarter 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. Even Sue Lawley looked shocked. Mitford’s dramatic alter ego is suitably vile, but there have been grumblings that Anderson’s accent isn’t fancy enough. Hints that she is an amphetamine-using bisexual are also a little fanciful.
6. Darby Sabini
The second season saw the Shelby brothers “on fucking vacation” in London, causing a kerfuffle at the Eden Club – a bacchanalian nightclub owned by scar-faced Italian mob boss Sabini (moustachioed Noah Taylor). In retaliation, Sabini’s men kidnap Ada and perform impromptu dental work on Tommy. The Peaky Blinders ultimately prevailed by seizing Sabini’s bookmakers’ locations on Derby day. Sabini resurfaced in the background in the fourth series, aiding Luca Changretta in his vendetta against Tommy.
The real Charles “Darby” Sabini was a former welterweight boxer who carried a hammer and kept a gun under his pillow at night. He ran a profitable Clerkenwell-based gang but deliberately dressed shabby to keep a low profile (a detail the style-conscious drama omitted). Humiliating, Sabini was bankrupted by losing a libel suit 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 female workers at Tommy’s factory on strike, before organizing a mass equal pay protest in the Bull Ring. When Tommy tried to negotiate a pay deal, she foiled him knowing about his troubled past. They later bonded over their mutual post-war grief and became lovers, with Tommy slyly using Jessie to gain information about his communist contacts.
The depiction has disgusted historians, who have criticized the focus on a fictional romance rather than Eden’s actual accomplishments as a champion of workers’ rights. Put it back in your woolen pants, Tom.
4. Charlie Chaplin
A cool, albeit perfectly silent, cameo. The little tramp made an appearance in series two when Tommy took lost love Grace on a night out in posh London. He knew Chaplin’s bodyguard, Wag McDonald (another name borrowed from a real-life mobster), who arranged for the couple to meet the megastar (played by Robert Elkin) while he was in the capital to promote his latest movie.
There has long been speculation that Chaplin, who was officially from south London, was actually born on the Black Patch, a gypsy camp in Smethwick, but kept his Roma roots a secret. It was mentioned again in the series six opener when Lizzie lost her name: “That spotlight was a gift from Charlie fucking Chaplin. He sent it from Hollywood. Noise.
3. Alfie Solomon
“Shalom, Arfur, Shalom! Played by a mustachioed Tom Hardy since season two, fan favorite Alfie is the unstable leader of a Jewish gang in Camden. He runs an illegal rum distillery and has aligned himself with the Peaky Blinders against his longtime rival Darby Sabini. He and Tommy have been enemies ever since, taking turns doing business, betraying each other, and trading ownership of Cyril the dog. It’s always a highlight when clearance dealer Alfie shows up to chew on scenery, scoot around like a Guy Ritchie DVD and turn the air blue with baroque swear words.
The real 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 of manslaughter after he fatally stabbed another thug during a card game. It probably wasn’t Snap or Strip Poker. Alfie gets a high place for love but only a bronze medal, due to his cartoonishness.
2. Oswald Mosley
“You have met wicked men before. But the man you are going to meet is the devil. So said Tommy in series five as fascist leader Oswald Mosley strutted into view. Played by blot-twirling Sam Claflin, he’s suavely sinister, fucks 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 beat”.
The real Mosley was a skilled orator, once tipped as a future Prime Minister, who crossed Tory soil to Labor before founding the British Union of Fascists in 1932. The party built a sizable following as fascism spread across across Europe but Mosley wounded in disgrace and imprisoned. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. 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 charts than dear old Winnie? As in real life, it triumphs for longevity and the reassuring sight of its imposing, puffy figure in Havana. Practically an honorary Peaky Blinder, the jowly statesman has been a recurring presence since the first series. Then Secretary of State for War, he set the whole story in motion by sending the Campbell Prize to Birmingham to recover a stolen cache of machine guns.
In the second series, the cheeky Churchill was seen sketching a nude life model in his office. He saved Tommy’s life so he could serve the crown, mostly by carrying out assassinations. Tommy now feeds his scintillating old ally information about the fascists. Churchill was played by a team of actors: first Andy Nyman, then Richard McCabe, now Neil Maskell. Next is probably Churchill, the insurance dog. Oh yes.
Peaky Blinders aired Sundays at 9 p.m. to BBC One. The real Peaky Blinders are broadcast Mondays at 9 p.m. to BBC Two. Both are available at iPlayer.