Monday, September 16, 2013

Is Everything a Western now?

Catching up with TV the other day, we watched the first episode of the new series, Peaky Blinders. I have to say at the start that I enjoyed it, and it looks like a bit of escapism, complete with anachronistic music and one or two suspect Brummie accents (although not being a native I may be wrong).

What did strike me after a few minutes was that I was basically watching a Western. Not the ones which are about fighting Native Americans, but the version where there's a bad bunch terrorising the town, and a new marshall/sheriff (never did work out the respective role descriptions) comes into town and fights to create law and order, sometimes at the request of the governor or some other higher authority.

In Peaky Blinders, we're not in the Wild West, but industrial Birmingham. Most of the men are veterans of the great war and nearly all men seem to have, not surprisingly, undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Worryingly, many of them appear to be armed.

Just like the West, there are gangs and families who operate outside the law with a blind eye being turned to their activities. In place of the saloon, there's a pub. And every Western has a barmaid, and she soon arrives. The gang is, on the face of it, run by a patriarch, but a son is working on taking power and a matriarch doesn't trust him.

In place of the settlement with wooden buildings in the middle of a dusty nowhere, one of the main streets goes through a stylised industrial site, complete with coal, ash, and lots of flames so you know we're in industrial England. In place of stealing weapons from a wagon or railroad, they've been nicked from BSA, and the preferred mode of escaping trouble is by canal. 

But make those substitutions, and we might as well be in the wild west. The Western's moralistic marshal is replaced by a police chief imported from Ulster, who has terrifying religious zeal in his pursuit of righteousness, and he's sent, not by a state governor, but a young(er) Winston Churchill, who fears Irish Republicans and Communists in equal measure.

There'll be no shoot-out by some rocks and a couple of cacti, but otherwise it's all there. You can do the same sort of analysis with Ripper Street - that series even includes the classic 'house of ill repute' run by a powerful woman and includes an American doctor of dubious moral character. Ideal Wild West material in the middle of Whitechapel.

Not sure why TV has taken this turn, but both series give us a stylised look at life in periods of British history which often only get portrayed in aristocratic circles and big country houses. Personally I enjoy them both.

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