You’ll probably have noticed Twitter was abuzz last night about the BBC’s new drama series Peaky Blinders. The reaction was almost universally positive, and this time, the internet was right. If you haven’t got on board already, here’s why you should be heading straight to the iPlayer.
1. First of all, don’t be put off by the title.
The Peaky Blinders were a real gangland family in 1920s Birmingham. They ran the bookmakers, as well as the streets, and were so-named because they would sew razorblades into the peaks of their caps. This new six-parter is a gorgeous and involving gangster romp. The accents are a bit all over the place but never mind.
2. Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby.
Even before you found out anything else about Peaky Blinders it was enough of a sell that it has tempted the star of Batman Begins and 28 Days Later to the Beeb. “I haven’t done television in many, many years and there’s kind of a golden age with television now and for actors to get to explore characters over the course of six hours is a real treat, especially when you have writing of that calibre.”
Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, the head of a feared Birmingham family, haunted by his experiences of the First World War, and determined to go up in the world, at any cost.
3. And he is a smouldering, electrifying presence.
The magic of Murphy’s performance is how the danger behind this man’s eyes is so underplayed. The mixture of torment and menace is wound like a tight spring and he owns the screen every scene he’s in, which is a good job as it’s most of them. “Many of [these men] were highly traumatised and obviously PTSD and stuff like that didn’t exist and they were just sort of thrown back into civilian life and told to get on with it.”
This comes out in Tommy through menace. “He’s seen the fragility of life and how it disappears and so Tommy thinks; right I’m here and I’m gonna do something with this life and this family; and so we see him being very driven but not quite sure what he’s driving towards.”
4. Most of this really happened.
The first episode does an exceptional job of building a world, but it’s more striking to realise that it’s a part of our history you didn’t know very much about existing. Post-war, Britain was in a period of massive change and new heirarchies were being built. The Irish troubles were approaching a breaking point, and the threat of a Communist revolution was very real. The lawless streets of Birmingham were one such place where everything was changing and the criminal Shelby family were rising to power. “It’s all based on real events,” says creator Steven Knight.
“My parents, particularly my Dad, had these tantalising memories of from when he was nine or ten years old of these people. They were incredibly well dressed, they were incredibly powerful, they had a lot of money in an area where no-one had any money and… they were gangsters!”
5. Sam Neill as Chief Inspector Campbell.
The show’s other big star, and to play off Murphy’s quiet simmering is Sam Neill, clearly having a fabulous time devouring scenes as the gruff and boorish cop sent over from Belfast. Campbell has been sent by Winston Churchill to investigate a haul of stolen arms, and a papertrail that leads back to the Murphy family. “He’s probably fairly psychotic but he’s a righteous man,” says Neill, “an upright man whose mission is to clean out the cesspit that is Birmingham 1919 and by God, he’s going to succeed.”
6. It’s more than just a British Boardwalk Empire.
Peaky Blinders was hyped up with a generous comparison, but that show doesn’t half drag on sometimes. This spins out a similar web of layers and intrigue, but does it with a brisk panache. You’re straight into things a soon as it begins.
7. Helen McRory as Aunt Pol.
Tommy may run the streets, but it’s the matriarch who runs the family, wise and suffering no fools yet with a gangster’s sense of honour. Pol was in charge of the business while the men were away at war, and she’s reluctant to relinquish control. “She really is the brains, with Tommy, behind the family and you see the difference of how to rule. One from a male point of view, which is much more physical and violent and threatening, and one from a female point of view, which is just as physically violent and threatening, but is all psychological.”
8. In fact, the women in general.
This is not just a macho gangster series. From Pol to Shelby sister (Ada) struggling to get her voice heard over her brothers, and Grace (Anabelle Wallis), the strong women of Peaky Blinders are telling of the period. “Women who had been through a First World War, had coped with those men being away and had also done the things that men had done before,” says McRory. “So you’re looking at a new generation of women that were no longer happy to stay at home with a clothes mangle and were coming out.”
9. The music.
The show does the anachronistic trick of using modern-day music for its soundtrack, chiefly with using Nick Cave’s murkily evocative “Red Right Hand” as its theme music. This is probably a taste thing - having the White Stripes blast in at every turn will take some people out of the moment. But the taste is impeccable: as well as a lot of Cave and Stripes, there’s The Black Keys and Tom Waits in the mix.
10. It has awesome performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah in it.
In a minor role as a preacher, but still, Benjamin Zephaniah!
11. Winston Churchill.
According to the real-life events the story is based upon, CI Campbelll was sent by Churchill, then a mere Secretary of State, to clean up Birmingham. He makes a brief appearance in episode one, played by Andy Nyman, and is not quite the stoic hero of legend. Steven Knight told The Guardian: “At the time, people worried for Churchill’s sanity. He was so convinced there was going to be a Bolshevik revolution, he had to be taken out of office temporarily.”
12. There really is a horse with no name.
Peaky Blinders does like to box-tick its gangster and western cliches. So you need to be down with that sort of thing really, it’s fun.