Telly Review: Peaky Blinders

TV Columnist Em Whalley takes a look at BBC’s answer to Boardwalk Empire

peaky blinders review tv

The sixth and final episode of the BBC mini-series Peaky Blinders aired last Thursday on BBC 1, bringing the show to a shocking and perhaps unsatisfactory conclusion.

The series, now available complete on iPlayer, was marketed as Britain’s answer to HBO’s high-budget historical dramas, but how does it compare to the likes of Boardwalk Empire?

Peaky Blinders

Slightly less ominous when you realise they’ll all be speaking in Brummie accents.

The show follows the conflicts within both the business and family life of the small time Birmingham mobsters the Peaky Blinders, run by the notorious Shelby Family.

Set in 1919, a rich historical context provides the backbone of the series. The continuation of the troubles in Ireland and the legacy of World War One, both in terms of individuals and the burgeoning socialist movement, are integral to the story.

Serious stuff aside, here we have a drama series that lies somewhere between Shameless and The Sopranos. There’s violence, corruption, family pride, sex, love, betrayal. In short, all the things you would expect to see in a comparable American drama rather than a traditional BBC period piece. There’s no hint of the saccharine nostalgia of Downton Abbey.

When your cheekbones are this harsh, there's no room for sweetness

When your cheekbones are this harsh, there’s no room for sweetness

 

The show owes a lot to its two stellar leads; Cillian Murphy (Inception, 28 days later) is Tommy the patriarch of the Shelby clan, and his antagonist Chief Inspector Campbell is played by Sam Neil (Jurassic Park,) an Irish loyalist sent over from Belfast to help clean up Birmingham’s gangs.

Murphy, as would be expected moving from silver to small screen, proves a solid lead skilfully portraying the complexities of a hard man who has been severely shaped and scarred by his war time experiences.

Neil, almost unrecognisable under his moustachioed face and thick Northern Irish accent, is instantly dislikeable. His character reveals himself as vengeful and hypocritical, challenging the viewer to question whether the Shelbys and Campbell are really so different.

Not to be forgotten is Helen McRory (aka Narssica Malfoy) who plays hard-edged Aunt Polly, the matriarch of the Selby family, providing a powerful female presence in the show. The relationship between her and Tommy highlights a greater struggle for women after the war, and personally for appreciation from her own family. Sadly, it’s not until the final episode that real depth is added to her character, making her references to her own children and the confrontation with Tommy’s lover Grace all the more poignant.

The shows lustrous production gives Peaky Blinders a stylish sheen. The stylised urban scenes really illustrates the grit and grey associated with turn of the century industrial hubs, and these are set off against sweeping, perennially overcast countryside scenes.

Equally as sharp are the costume and detailing, I particular appreciated the surprisingly fashion-forward hairstyles of the Shelby men (short back and sides anyone?). Controversially, they also chose to use a modern soundtrack including the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and the White Stripes. This bluesy accompaniment  complements the action on screen in a way that historically accurate music simply couldn’t, adding a sharpness and energy to the mostly gun-less fight scenes that could easily have seemed dated or laboured.

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‘Peaky Blinders’ refers to the razor blades they’d stick onto the front of flat caps, so they could be used as weapons. Who needs guns?

There will always be limitations to a six episode series. The skips and jumps along the story-line and underwhelming key reveals are symptomatic of the British format, the American 13 or 22 episode seasons can develop and deliver far better in those areas.

Nevertheless, Peaky Blinders is an engaging, emotional and well polished affair with quality performances and a high standard of production.

Overall the result is something that is distinctly British; British talent, British setting, British production but which equally processes the quality and finish of those high-budget HBO shows. With a frustratingly inconclusive finale, the potential for another series lingers, and I for one will be hoping for a second series and a chance for home-grown historical drama to break the American monopoly.