‘It’s about the American President and his aides/the New Jersey mafia/the murder of an eco-activist/Baltimore drug dealers’… Anecdotally, the best television is often the stuff that doesn’t look much on paper, but on screen opens a window into a meticulously built world peopled by characters from whom you can’t look away.
Peaky Blinders, a new six-part series about a gang of bookmakers in post-WWI Birmingham, does exactly that.
Episode one’s first five minutes – and the fifty-three after them for that matter – are a lesson in world-building. Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) paints 1919 Birmingham, his home town and a place he calls “probably the least fashionable city in England”, as a Wild West frontier. Our protagonist, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) is introduced on horseback, his fearsome reputation as a leading member of the Peaky Blinders gang cutting through the milling street kids, factory workers and housewives like a hot knife through butter.
What follows sets the pieces on the board for a satisfyingly complex serial. Tommy and his family – including a magnificent Helen McCrory as matriarch Aunt Pol – are variously at war or in bed with Communist agitators, gypsies, Italians, racetrack kings… and their chief opposition, CI Campbell, imported from Belfast to clean up Birmingham’s streets and retrieve a stolen shipment the British government desperately needs found.
Omagh-born Sam Neill – doing a Belfast accent borrowed from his dad – is powerfully good as Chief Inspector Campbell, Tommy’s opposite number. Neill’s performance is wordless for the first half-hour of the episode, but when he finally opens his mouth, the speech that comes out of it is a furious, Revelations-style treat. Judging by the next episode, it’s not the last of those we’re going to hear from him either.
Neill’s fury and bombast meets its opposite but equal in Murphy’s contained, understated turn as Tommy Shelby. Murphy keeps his performance small as Tommy, a man traumatised by his time in the trenches, but bidden, like the rest of his generation, to silence about the experience. Tommy’s clever, a keen-minded strategist with a devil’s sense for PR and media manipulation. The restraint of the performance makes you want to lean in and listen harder.
It’s all quite beautiful to boot. Directed by Black Mirror’s Otto Bathurst, Peaky Blinders is the latest of this year’s TV dramas (after The Returned, Southcliffe, and Top of the Lake) that would feel entirely at home on a cinema screen. Bathurst frames not just faces – and later, action – attractively, but gives us handsomely composed wideshot after wideshot, establishing post-WWI Birmingham not just as an infernal pit of industry and vice but somewhere glamorous; rich not just in character and incident, but also scenery.
Peaky Blinders is a British working class period drama, but you’ll find no washed-out mill workers trudging through sepia drudgery or rosy cheeked farmhands gadding through meadows here. Unlike its TV peers, it’s neither a romanticisation nor a misery zoo. It’s compassionate, stylish, intelligent, and more than a bit exhilarating.
To achieve its rock star swagger, Peaky Blinders makes bold use of an anachronistic music catalogue. Nick Cave, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and The Dirty Three typify not the era, but the grimy thrust and activity of the setting and its characters.
Based on a real gang and real-life characters – some from creator Steven Knight’s family – Knight says his task with Peaky Blinders was to “find what’s really there, pretty much stick to what happened, and then make it look good.” Not knowing the era, I have to take his word for the first two, but I’m more than happy to vouch for the third. I’ve seen episode one three times now, and each viewing has been a feast. Just wait until you see what’s coming up, too.
Expect to read more about Peaky Blinders’ music choices, more about its similarity to Boardwalk Empire (or less justifiably to Downton Abbey, which also takes place in the same era, just 150 miles up the road and social ladder) and plenty about its accents over the next six weeks. Abstain from headline-grabbing comparisons and jeering at the odd misplaced vowel though, and you can enjoy it for what it is: a fine, substantial British drama that’s not only admirable but also great fun to watch.
If it has to be summed up in a single phrase, then I’m reliably informed it’s this one: Peaky Blinders?It’s bostin.
Peaky Blinders starts on BBC 2 on Thursday the 12th of September at 9pm. Come back next week to read our interview with creator Steven Knight.
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