Birmingham is many things to many people. I grew up within torpedo range of the city but it’s never been a favourite of mine. This is a touch unfair, as the centre is not so different to any other big British town in many ways: floor to ceiling concrete, copy and paste high streets, chain bars and the fumy concrete ribbons of dual carriageways. It’s clear that this is a personal thing, as I spent many a sticky-eyed morning in my adolescence rolling up to building sites there to be greeted with “MOORNIN ME BABBOY”. Thus, I associate the city with disturbed sleep, digging and earache.
In any case, Birmingham is broodingly alive in the BBC’s crime drama Peaky Blinders, which has just completed its first series. Set in the clanging, industry-choked streets of the second city, in terms of era and looks it is kind of like a Broad Street-walk Empire.
It is shortly after the Great War, and a lucky load of Brummies have made their way back from the crumps, lice and lack of rum across the channel. Among them are assorted members of the Shelby clan, a group of moody brothers who run an illegal bookies and protection rackets, among other shady activities.
Their gang is the Peaky Blinders of the title, so named due to the actual gang’s habit of fitting the brows of their caps with razor blades in order to slash and blind – with a well-aimed head butt – any opponents. The group was active in robbery and riot alike, arming themselves with hammers and knives. Like many gangs, they also liked to stylise themselves, and according to a BBC article would ‘wear a silk scarf tied around their necks, bell-bottom trousers and a flat, bladed cap tilted to one side.’ It’s not quite do-rags and South Central colours, but it’s in the ballpark.
To get back to the fiction, the show traces thetrials and tribulations of the gang, both commercial and familial. There is a birth, a communist, a gypsy war, a gypsy wedding, armed robberies, numerous turf battles over racecourse pitches and a grand larceny of munitions early on that sets up the central narrative arc of the show. Wary of these guns falling into the hands of the IRA – or, perhaps worse, the Bolshies – Churchill, who looks like the film critic from The Simpsons, parachutes in hard-faced, hard-arsed joy vacuum Chester Campbell, a Belfast lawman who makes sternness into an art form. He is tasked to recover these guns and, in pursuance of this, runs an undercover agent, the not-at-all-unpleasant-to-look-at Dublin songbird Grace Burgess, inside the Shelby-owned local, The Garrison.
For the sake of brevity I’ve not delved too much into the ins and outs of Peaky Blinders, but it is a layered and utterly entertaining series. It helps that it is universally well acted by a cast perfectly suited to the purpose. Cillian Murphy, as Tommy Shelby, is magnificent, bringing a taciturn, glacial menace to proceedings, his distinctive cheekbones as sharp as the blades secreted in his cap. Sam Neill is a revelation as Campbell who, with a swingeing Norn Irish accent that would slash a rhino’s hide, searches for ‘tha gons’, his morals falling away like a snake’s shed skin with each episode. Helen McCrory is also completely apt for the role of Aunty Pol, the classic tough nut hiding a broken heart.
As entertaining and well put-together as it is, it is not perfect. While Neill nails his accent, others make varying fists of theirs, the tone swinging from London to Liverpool and back again from syllable to syllable. It’s not quite the wince-inducing verbal criminality perpetrated by DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, but it does break the spell at times.
What also jars – for me - is the music, which is a deliberately anachronistic use of what seems to be Jack White’s entire back catalogue; for effect, consider There Will Be Blood with a Guy Ritchie soundtrack. Again, it’s not a deal breaker, just not something I’d have gone with. The dialogue at times is also occasionally lumpy, the actors themselves practically contorting lips and face to get the words out, as if they are trying to prise stubborn leftover toffee out of their molars with their tongue.
That said, it wouldn’t do to put the boot in unduly, as these small gripes do not detract from the intrinsic excellence of Peaky Blinders. Spoiled as I am by the cornucopia of quality American dramas, I tend to blank most domestic TV as it looks anaemic by comparison. Peaky Blinders definitely stands up though, and I can’t recommend it more highly. I put it to the BBC as Campbell might: ‘Brong et bak fur onutha saizun.’
O, and one last thing. During a Twitter Q&A I brazenly asked the angelic Annabelle Wallis, who plays Grace, to marry me. While her reply didn’t feature an explicit ‘yes’ there was most definitely not a ‘no’. So, Annabelle, we need to sort colour schemes and venues. Call me. Cheers.