Last September it was the velvety feel of Parade’s End, this year it’s the sharp sensation of Peaky Blinders, a six-part drama that couldn’t care less if you like it or not, because everyone’s too busy threatening and bullying everyone else to pay any notice to you and your damn soup.
The year is 1919, and Birmingham is the accent capital of the United Kingdom; where everyone talks with a strange composite Northern twang that undulates between Brummie, Scouse, and Mancunian and never quite settles on one. Yes, it’s bemusing, but it’s a short-lived distraction.
Thrust tongue-first into this linguistic free for all, Cillian Murphy is Thomas Shelby, high-ranking member of the Peaky Blinders gang (specialising in illegal betting and protection, ask us about our racketeering for a 10% discount) and possessor of cheekbones sharper than the razors in his cap. Before he even says a word you’re in awe of Murphy, who manages to communicate outward threat and inner torment with his eyes alone.
When we first meet him he’s riding a horse that’s also a four-legged metaphor for his own ambition through an immersive industrial filmscape of flat caps and fire. You’re in no doubt he’s the sheriff of a lawless town – the conquering Alexander wearing a crown of razor blades – but like all your 21st century telly gangsters, from your Tony Soprano to your Nucky Thompson, Shelby is a complicated man.
Memories of the Great War hang over him like a miasma from one of the many factories that squat in the filthy streets, and everyone, including Shelby, is touched by its toxic trauma. In the mud and the fire and the violence of the working-class trenches of Small Heath, he and his returned comrades haven’t escaped war so much as found a new battle to wage on home turf.
‘Procuring’ a large shipment of military arms, Shelby sees chance to extend his power and take control of the Blinders from Arthur Shelby and Aunt Polly (Paul Anderson and Helen McCrory, both magnetically unpleasant). But with opportunity comes danger from all corners. Not simply the growing Communist revolutionaries and the IRA, but the police force. And here’s where things get really good.
It’s Sam Neill who steals the show as the Belfast forged Chief Inspector Campbell, dispatched to Birmingham to investigate the theft of the guns. Silent, meditative for his early scenes, the first time he makes a sound it’s with a thunderous scolding of his police officers, bellowed in a strident Ulster vocal cannonade. A fire and brimstone promise to burn away the grime.
And Peaky Blinders is grimy. And grim. And it’s not after your love. But you’ll probably give it readily, so accomplished is its cast and production. So spin that thermostat, grab your soup, and let yourself get wrapped up in a drama we’ll all be talking about come BAFTA season.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 12 September 2013 on BBC Two.
Watch the trailer…
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