There has been an awful lot of excitement surrounding the BBC’s new period drama Peaky Blinders – which is not surprising. Dirty Pretty Things writer Steven Knight is the writer and creator, while the cast includes Helen McCrory, Sam Neill and Cillian Murphy. Even tub-thumping comparisons to Sky’s Boardwalk Empire didn’t put me off (I watched the first series of Scorsese’s drama and while it looked lovely, it moved so slowly I ended up dying of boredom).
Blinders starts promisingly, with an engaging opening sequence in which a Chinese woman blows red powder up a sleek racehorse’s nose. Turns out she is regarded by the locals as a witch, and her ‘spell’ means the nag was now destined to win its next race. While its rider, Tommy Shelby (Murphy) is happy with lots of people betting on the horse, his twitchy, unstable brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) isn’t so sure. Before long, however, they have more to occupy their minds than emptying the wallets of local bookies. The Shelby clan, led by Tommy, are gangsters and have their fingers in all manner of illicit pies, but when a cache of guns and ammunition accidentally falls into their laps, it brings them sharply to the attention of fearsome Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill).
He has been drafted in from Northern Ireland, by none other than Winston Churchill, to clean up the mean streets of Birmingham – and Campbell is soon out to destroy the ‘peaky blinders’, the Shelbys’ gang thugs and hoodlums, who won their name thanks to their habit of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their caps. While it might strike fear into the hearts of the lower orders, Campbell is unfazed – and even resorts to beating the living daylights out of Arthur to find out where the guns have vanished to.
Unfortunately for Arthur, he’s got no idea that Tommy is the man with his hands on the contraband – but the clan’s nearest thing to a matriarch, the indomitable Aunt Polly (McCrory) does, and she’s furious, insisting that Tommy get rid of the weapons as fast as possible. But he has other plans…
Peaky Blinders looks fabulous, it’s all smoky landscapes, grimy, grubby streets and buildings that are frayed around the edges, offering an insight into the brutality of working-class life in 1919. Many men are traumatised by the First World War, while their women who, for four years enjoyed a new-found freedom, are unceremoniously forced back into the home. It’s an explosive mix, making for a tense and edgy atmosphere that is ladled out with relish – especially in a magnificent scene charting Campbell’s entry into Birmingham.
Having said all that, there was one flaw in this opening episode: accents. Cillian Murphy may be able to pin me to a wall with that thousand-yard stare of his, but I had absolutely no clue where his character actually came from. Sometimes he sounded Irish, other times Liverpudlian. I swear there was a Yorkshire twang in there at one point. Shockingly, Helen McCrory is also guilty of the odd lapse in what I guessed was mostly a Brummie lilt, and she’s damn-near untouchable in my eyes. At least Sam Neill brought more than enough vocalisation to the table with a barnstorming Ulster delivery (aided and abetted in perfecting it off screen, so I’m reliably informed, by Nor’n Irish stars Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt). I was also assured by someone who knows about these things that Neill was pretty much pitch perfect.
Hopefully the roaming vowel sounds won’t prove too much of a distraction in future episodes, because, that minor quibble aside, I reckon Peaky Blinders is going to be brilliant stuff.
Peaky Blinders Starts Thursday 12th September on BBC2
Contributed by Scheenagh Harrington