I’ve previously discussed the portrayal of inter-war British burial practices and cemetery landscapes in the popular television series Peaky Blinders Season 1 and 2. Visiting graves is portrayed as an aspect of traditional practice, and the cemetery as a focus of illicit activities and competitive display by a Birmingham gangster gang in the years following the First World War. In Season 2, there is a further cemetery scene, again seemingly filmed at Bradford’s famous Undercliffe cemetery.
The Peakies recruit a naive and simple lad – Harold Hancox – and pay him to get arrested. He is recruited because he displays such innocence and has no prior criminal conviction.
Unbeknownst to them, Hancox is targeted by a revenge attack by the Shelby’s rivals whilst in prison . The young man is killed in a gruesome manner, aged only 19, his short dalliance with criminality forestalled in tragic fashion.
Hancox’s funeral is portrayed, and Thomas Shelby attends to pay their respects. Only two mourners are there: Hancox’s mother and (presumably) grandmother). The mother attacks him enraged, but the grandmother hangs back and receives Shelby’s pay-of.
The grim reality of the gangster life and its cost in human lives comes to the fore. We are reminded in stark fashion the human cost of Thomas Shelby’s ‘line of business’. I don’t need to labour the point tha this is early an early 21st-century cemetery, with its closely shorn grass, no borders to grave-plots whatsoever, and tarmac on the drive. Still, in this portrayal, four interesting dimensions of burial and memorial practice can be pointed out.
- The funeral scene decides to conflate different stages of the funeral. His gravestone is already erected, with years, not dates, of birth and death portrayed, with the trapezoidal wooden coffin placed directly in front of it and suspended on planks over the grave-cut. I honestly don’t know off the top of my head why this is done, and how it might have been possible to have a gravestone, even a simple one, prepared so rapidly for the funeral. Also, why have the coffin over the grave itself. I’m happy to be proven wrong if this is based on a viable scenario, but it doesn’t immediately strike me as feasible in practical or ceremonial terms;
- The layout and character of the gravestone are odd. The stone’s texture and colour, and its lettering, all appear fine and in keeping with the Victorian graves behind. However, such a simple, stark memorial message is counter to most inter-war gravestones I have seen. Indeed, the message and the layout of the text appear very modern to my eye. It seems more a memorial of the 2010s, not the 1910s, even for a poor family;
- The scene portrays coffin-top flowers and a grave-side offering. Namely, in addition to a small bouquet of flowers on top of his coffin, Harold’s wooden guns – emblematic of his naivety and delusions of the romance of gangster life inspired by watching Westerns – are suspended from his gravestone. This is striking, and a common trope of modern films. I discuss it for The Walking Dead here. Additionally, it is extremely ironic, in a series overtly intent in glamourising British gangsters in a fashion akin to, and foreshadowing, the long-running Hollywood celebration of criminality and gun violence;
- Most positively, there is a brief representation of grave-diggers. This final point is a universal dimension of funerary practice past and present, and I’m glad that it makes the cut. Two men stand resting on shovels, one seemingly downing a shot of spirit. It is left ambiguous as to whether this is to keep out the cold, or a private grave-diggers’ ritual honouring the departed. Top marks for that one from me!