This glossy, stylish gang drama is outstanding.
Peaky Blinders is set in post-WWI Birmingham, and follows a family of bookmakers and racketeers rising to power in a factionalised criminal underworld.
Known as the ‘Peaky Blinders’ because of the razor blades they sew into their caps, the Shelby family is headed up by Tommy, a quietly cunning veteran of the Great War. He’s backed up by his mercurial brothers Arthur and John, and by ruthless matriarch (and gang treasurer) Aunt Polly.
The Blinders make a brutal enemy in Chief Inspector Campbell, a fire-and-brimstone Ulsterman and agent of the Crown, sent to Birmingham by Government minister Winston Churchill. They also face conflict with Fenians, Communists, gypsies, and rival bookmakers. The superb second series then sees the Shelbys expand to London, where they clash with the local Italian and Jewish mobs.
This really is a thrilling bit of TV, in my opinion definitely comparable with the best that HBO has to offer. Firstly, the cast is awesome. Cillian Murphy takes the lead as Tommy, and he dominates the screen with that electrifying, ethereal, frightening, vulnerable face. Helen McCrory brilliantly plays Polly as a battle-axe with a surface of steel hiding the regret and pain of her past. And Sam Neill has a ball as Campbell, moustache-twirling, thunderous, and enjoyably over-the-top. Series 2 sees the cracking addition of Tom Hardy, also having fun as the foul-mouthed and unpredictable Alfie Solomons, a Jewish bootlegging boss.
The writing is excellent, with a gripping and satisfying storyline and nuanced characters who can be empathised with and rooted for even when they’re behaving appallingly.
Peaky Blinders is heavily stylised, with elements of on-form Guy Ritchie and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire present in the slow-motion and the modern off-beat rock soundtrack (Nick Cave, The White Stripes and The Arctic Monkeys feature heavily). This could have been gimmicky, but it’s well-judged and ends up working effectively.
The setting is cinematically and imaginatively evoked. 1920s Brum is recreated as a sort of fantastical, apocalyptic metropolis, its streets filled with black smoke and gouts of flame, and lined with dangerous taverns and red-lit brothels.
The one gripe I have with Peaky Blinders is that each series is only six episodes long, so it all seems a bit rushed. Plotting and characterisation of this standard should be able to have a bit more room to breathe. This is the advantage that the big US productions still have over the Brit offerings.
But that’s just a minor moan. Peaky Blinders is must-watch drama. And a third series has just been commissioned, so there’s more scrapping with the ‘Bloinders’ yet to come. Bring it on…