Playing a Blinder

Alex Young, Orion’s Senior Marketing Manager, reflects on series two of Peaky Blinders, the BBC2 period gangster drama that’s had ratings soaring.

Ah, Birmingham. Home to Cadbury’s chocolate, the Bull Ring, the Mini and other giants of pop culture, such as Nigel Mansell and Black Sabbath. My knowledge of the city is limited at best. And while I’m not sure that Peaky Blinders will expand it that much, it’s a novelty to watch a drama that’s not totally rooted in ‘that London’.

I missed the first series when it was on, only catching up when the Beeb repeated it before the start of the second. But I was instantly hooked. The soundtrack is fabulous – mixing up bits of Nick Cave, P. J. Harvey and even the Arctic Monkeys is a bold step for a costume drama, but it works. (Peaked) hats off to the series’ music consultant.

Visually, Peaky Blinders is filthy, smoke-drenched, dark, with Lowry-esque visions of fire-breathing chimneys and braziers on every corner, broken up by forays into the pubs and warren-like houses from which Peak Peakie Tommy Shelby runs his various ‘businesses’. Any light is filtered through venetian blinds and fag smoke, or stained-glass windows (undercover meetings take place in churches). It’s the 1920s, but about as far from Gatsby glam as you can get.

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Tommy and his extended family, though, are impeccably dressed, despite spending swathes of time beating their rivals to a pulp. Peaky Blinders is very visceral. I’ve had to turn away from the screen – most often when Arthur, Tommy’s brother, is off his face on booze or coke to cope with post-trenches PTSD, and enters a kind of fugue state of ultra-violence.

It’s an interesting aspect, the contrast between how the men – nearly all have had to fight in the war – deal with the fall-out from life in the trenches, and how they use brutal violence in their day-to-day lives to get what they want. OK, fighting in the war was horrific. But it doesn’t stop you having to smash a man’s head repeatedly against a sink in the gents’ at a racecourse because you need to take down a rival gang.

It also doesn’t mean that you’re not going to assemble a de facto army of varyingly unhinged blokes to take on London (Camden looking like the seventh circle of hell) and join forces with Alfie Solomons – aka Tom Hardy playing a floured-up Fagin complete with tats, a vast hipster beard and an accent that is verging on comically cockney. Although laughing at him could lead to you becoming the filling in one of Sweeney Todd’s pies.

For me, the first series was more satisfying for being more contained, both geographically and plot-wise. There were only two enemies: Billy Kimber’s gang of rival racecourse bookies, and Major Campbell, dispatched from Ireland with Glamorous Undercover Grace in tow, to try to recover a load of missing guns, on the orders of Winston Churchill. Series two is proving harder to keep up with: there’s an array of villains, a near-constant shifting of allegiances, and most of the action takes place in badly lit alleyways. I often lose track of who is being beaten up by whom and why.

 

 

Noah Taylor (camp villain Sabini, a softly spoken, sandwich-eating sociopath) and Tom Hardy appear to have waged a bet as to who can chew the scenery most and have the biggest riot while doing so. Major Campbell and Tommy are now frenemies. (The accents waver about a bit: you’ve got Cillian Murphy, who is Irish, being a Brummie, and Sam Neill’s fellow Aussie Noah Taylor doing some kind of cockney Italian.)

Series two seems to be down on dramatic speed and tension as well. Series one was propelled by the Shelbys pulling together to take down Kimber’s gang, and the will-they-won’t-they of Tommy and Undercover Grace’s relationship. I had sympathy for Arthur, and loved tough-as-nails matriarch Polly (Helen McCrory, working a selection of excellent hats, scarves and withering looks).

Polly, now reunited with one of the children taken away from her (Michael, in possession of both an education and an affinity for violence: dangerous) and ensconced in a big fancy house, seems to be unravelling. Arthur’s going mental with the barware in the Eden Club in order to take it over, and, spiralling into a vortex of coke ’n’ ho’s, has lost any sympathetic edge. I reckon one of his own will do for him by the end of the series, as he’s too much of a loose cannon. (Props to actor Paul Anderson, though – he’s really selling it.)

I’ll keep watching to see how the various threads are drawn together (the Shelbys are moving into export, smuggling booze into Prohibition USA and Canada in crates of car parts), and, of course, to just stare at Cillian Murphy. If you took out all the shots of him striding around in slow-mo, smoking fags, necking whisky and looking dolefully at files of people he’s been told to dispense with, each episode would last a third of the time. But damn, he’s good at it.