You’ll no doubt be amazed to hear that there isn’t a Guinness World Record for ‘Number of sex acts performed in an hour of BBC Two drama’.
If there were, tonight’s episode of Peaky Blinders would without doubt be the new world record holder; raising that Guinness certificate in one hand and triumphantly gripping its throbbing bollocks in the other. Basically, there’s a lot of sex this week, and Peaky Blinders does not approach sex with a prude’s eye – it’s putting the ‘anal’ into bacchanal.
How times change. You might remember back when audiences, newspapers and The Daily Mail were half-protesting, half-ogling over the content in the BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters’ lesbian love story Tipping the Velvet. 14 years later we’re now nonchalantly watching an artfully composed shot of Arthur Shelby demanding more vodka while, in the background, a waiter performs fellatio on another, and a Cossack thrusts against a prostitute bent over a piano.
I’ll bet that orgy sends a few tutting letters from what’s left of the Mary Whitehouse brigade to Points of View.
Peaky Blinders has always been Marmite television, but on occasions its also run close to spreading itself too thick. That’s almost the case this week, but it gets away with it by having, in between each gratuitous thrust and moan, some really solid character development and a display that sex, consensual or violent, has consequences.
As extras are fucking with merry, sweaty-backed abandon, some of the best character work is born from the result of sex, both casual and criminal. Michael (Finn Cole) who has until now been a bit player, is made into something more three dimensional, sharp corners and all. His one night stand with posh totty Charlotte in the season opener has, no surprise, resulted in her pregnancy. Cue an uncomfortable talk about a back-street abortion, with all the discomfort placed on we the viewer because we know what that involves.
It forces Michael to get his hands dirty, to grow up quickly, and ends up with Finn Cole doing a dynamite impersonation of Tommy. With two new seasons commissioned, you get the feeling the foundations for his character are being bolstered for a more prominent role in the future, almost as a proto-Tommy. You’ll find no complaints from here. But as he’s becoming ‘a man’ he’s also remembering his childhood, and the sexual abuse he suffered under Father Hughes (absent this week, but with his shadow lurking over everything).
And he’s not the only one dealing with past violations. His mother, our Aunt Pol, finally gives in to the desperate, gouache-stained charms of art-puppy Ruben Oliver, only to be suddenly reminded of the ordeal of her rape by Inspector Campbell back in Season 2.
In a show with some ridiculous sex scenes (‘Tommy Shelby’s Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation Adventure’ being the straw that breaks the hump), it’s a reminder that character is still foremost, and that for all the Caligula-grade debauchery, this is a show that recognises its audience has a moral compass.
Unstained by sex or lust, and sending the moral compass spinning, Tom Hardy’s back as Jewish ‘rum baker’ and jeweller Alfie Solomons. It’s a performance that’s straight from the ‘Hard Man’ pages of the Tom Hardy portfolio – a little Bane, a little Bronson, a little Ronnie Kray – and it still works as well as it did in Season 2. You could beat the tension to death with a cudgel whenever Hardy’s Solomons is in the room, whether he’s winding Arthur up over his religion, or antagonising Russians. It’s a good job Hardy doesn’t appear in this more, else he’d steal the show away with him.
Maybe that’s unfair to say. Everyone is good in this. Especially good. Good-er than usual. There’s not one misplaced performance. Episode 5 is a challenge for everyone to keep true to character in situations which are alien to them, whether that’s trying to keep true to your wife while a Russian duchess fondles your roubles, or trying not to imagine making love to your dead wife while that same Russian duchess strangle-shags you. And they say variety’s dead.
I said last week that Peaky Blinders left OTT dead in an alley. This week it’s shagging on OTT’s grave while innuendo looks on, dumbstruck. It’s an utterly crazy but brilliant hour of TV. It’s Peaky Blinders at its most Peaky Blinders. Peak Blinders.
It’s the show at its best and bravest, but also its most self-indulgent and off-putting. It’s an orgy of serious drama and erotic adult pantomime. It’s all the reasons you love this hour on a Thursday, and the only excuse your partner/housemate/dog needs to leave the room when it’s on. It is a unique, bare-chested bellow across the varied landscape of TV drama. You may like it, you may think it’s finally gone too far. There are no wrong opinions when judging it.
But I reckon I’m right in giving it five stars.
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 2 June 2016 on BBC Two.
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