‘You don’t parley when you’re on the back foot. We’ll strike a blow first.’ –Tommy Shelby
Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Annabelle Wallis, Iddo Goldberg, Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Andy Nyman, Benjamin Zephaniah
Identikit: A gangster family clan in post-First World War Birmingham, England, are led by Tommy Shelby in a bid to expand their empire.
2013 saw three exceptional crime dramas produced by UK television – Broadchurch, The Fall and Peaky Blinders. Like the first two, the success of this epic story is down to it being the inspired project of one writer with what seems to be little buggering about from know-nothings in management. Chris Chibnall and Allan Cubitt were the masterminds behind Broadchurch and The Fall respectively, while Steve Knight based Peaky Blinders on knowledge of his hometown, Birmingham, and family tales he had heard about the Peaky Blinders, gangsters of the 1920s famed for the razors hidden in the peaks of their flat caps. 'It's based on real events,’ he says. 'My parents, particularly my dad, had these tantalising memories of from when he was nine- or 10-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 money and... they were gangsters.’ From these recollections emerges a series that is a world away from most UK crime series, with their detective/sidekicks, serial killers and cosy settings. This is gangster tale heavily influenced by American productions from Once Upon a Time In America to Boardwalk Empire, down to the rock soundtrack (Nick Cave, the White Stripes, etc), the slo-mo sequences and the Roaring Twenties styles. Thomas Shelby is a decorated combatant from the trenches,
who has returned home damaged by his war experiences. He assumes control of the family’s crime empire of illegal bookmaking and protection, bypassing his elder brother Arthur and family matriarch Aunt Polly, who ran things during the war. After Tommy takes charge of machine-guns stolen from the local BSA factory, the city is targeted by the government – and Winston Churchill – who fear the weapons may be used in an uprising, such is the level of post-war unrest. The brutal Chief Inspector Campbell (a menacing performance by Sam Neill) is summoned from Belfast to find the guns at all costs. The rivalries (particularly with gambling crime boss Billy Kimber), the lust (Tommy is lured by Irish spy Grace Burgess) and the family tensions (Tommy’s sister becomes pregnant by his one-time best friend) are played out well against the unforgettable recreation of industrial Birmingham, with its foundaries and soot and street braziers. The accents wobble, but Cillian Murphy is charismatic as Tommy, Helen McCrory has authority as Polly and Annabelle Wallis is intriguing as the beautiful but steely Grace. The cinematography is luscious, offering a vision of the period that isn't twee window-dressing, but which instead reveals a genuine fascination for the political turmoil and social mores of a Birmingham largely forgotten (how refreshing to see Britain’s second biggest city in the spotlight). This is ambitious drama-making that is seen too seldom on play-it-safe British TV. A second season is in the pipeline for 2014.
|Barmaid with a secret – Grace|
Theme music: Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Classic episode: The story comes nicely to the boil in episode three, when Tommy's wartime trauma is revealed (he was deployed in tunnelling under the Germans), and despite his cold exterior he seems to be warming to the woman sent to spy on him, Grace.
Watercooler fact: New Zealander Sam Neill is particularly convincing with the difficult Ulster accent because he was actually born in Northern Ireland.