Peaky Blinders BBC2, with Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory PREVIEW

BBC2 Peaky Blinders John Shelby (Joe Cole), Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), Jeremiah Jesus (Benjamin Zephaniah)
The gang’s all here – the Peaky Blinders. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★½

BBC2: starts Thursday, 12 September, 9pm

Story: Birmingham, 1919. Thomas Shelby is a war veteran, and head of feared gang, the Peaky Blinders, who make money from illegal betting, protection and the black market. However, when Tommy comes into possession of a crate of guns from the local arms factory, the government is alarmed and the stakes for the gang are raised dangerously high.

BRITISH GANGSTER mythology usually focuses on loudmouth Londoners in sharp suits, with a bit of Newcastle and Brighton thrown in, as caught in films such as The Krays, The Long Good Friday, Brighton Rock and Get Carter. For 30 years, ITV’s Taggart chipped in for Scotland.

But Birmingham? Perhaps the curse of Crossroads lingers, but Brum is the least fashionable city on UK telly. Peaky Blinders dares to go there, portraying a violent period for the second city.

Sam Neill as Campbell in BBC2's Peaky Blinders
New sheriff in town – Campbell

It’s a new gangster chapter, and it’s a bit of a shock to see a Brit series with strong undertones ofAmerican classics such as Once Upon a Time in America, Gangs of New York and Boardwalk Empire.

Cillian Murphy is gang leader Tommy

Like the HBO series, Peaky Blinders is set immediately after the First World War, when many men – including our anti-hero Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) – are still suffering from the trauma of conflict. The difference for Shelby is that he is a leading force in the Peaky Blinders, so-called because

Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) Peaky Blinders BBC
Campbell ‘interrogates’ Arthur Shelby

they keep razors in their flat-cap peaks, and in the post-war turmoil, Tommy wants to increase his gang’s power.

The recreation of the city as an industrial cauldron is terrific, with smoke and ash, and foundries illuminating the hectic streets. The fashions, the slo-mo entrance of ruthless Belfast copper Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill), and the raucous electric blues soundtrack all give this six-parter a distinctly American feel.

But the drama’s real power comes from the fact this is a personal project for writer and creator Steven Knight, a Birmingham native whose own family history inspired the story.

Inspired by real family figures

‘It’s based on real events,’ says Steven, who also wrote the movies Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders BBC2
Tommy Shelby plays a dangerous game

Promises. ‘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!’

As a child his mother was a bookies’ runner, carrying illegal bets to self-styled bookmakers. ‘And in one area of Birmingham it was organised and run by my Dad’s uncles – who were the Peaky Blinders.’

The opening episode starts with an almost surreal street scene in which Tommy performs a stunt with a Chinese woman, believed to be a witch, during which he blows red smoke into a horse’s face. This horse is going to run a race and the magic smoke is a scam to make the locals think it will make the

Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis) in BBC2's Peaky Blinders
Barmaid with a secret – Grace

horse run faster and so is worth backing.

Robbery gone wrong

But Tommy is also involved in a robbery in which the stakes are far higher. The planned theft of motorcycles from the BSA plant goes awry when Tommy’s drunken gang accidentally steal machine guns instead.

At a time when the streets are full of Irish Republican sympathisers, socialists and disgruntled unemployed former soldiers, Winston Churchill and the government fear that the munitions will be used in an uprising.

Aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory) in BBC2's Peaky Blinders
Aunt Polly warns Tommy to dump the guns

Brutal Belfast copper Campbell is dispatched to Birmingham with his own band of Untouchables, specials who will circumvent the bent local force and ruthlessly root out whoever has the guns.

Sam Neill as the righteous, psychotic Campbell

Neill, with a good Ulster accent (the New Zealander was actually born in Omagh), is the show’s equivalent to Boardwalk Empire‘s Van Alden, a fire-breathing, puritanical zealot come to clean Birmingham. His methods are illegal and brutal.

There is one corny scene in which beautiful Grace (Annabelle Wallis), sporting a hairstyle straight out

Peaky Blinders BBC2 Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), Aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory)
Arthur after meeting Campbell

of 2013, sings her way to a barmaid’s job in a pub where the punters enjoy spitting and fighting as much as drinking.

But there are not many other duff notes. The performances are strong. Cillian Murphy has plenty of charisma as Tommy, and Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly, the gang’s matriarch, is very believable.

Peaky Blinders packs a punch. It is a distinctive new drama for British TV, full of conflict and feistiness, while taking us down a murky and rarely glimpsed alley of England’s criminal past.

Cast: Cillian Murphy Tommy Shelby, Sam Neill C.I. Campbell, Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly Gray, Annabelle Wallis Grace Burgess, Iddo Goldberg Freddie Thorne, Paul Anderson Arthur Shelby, Sophie Rundle Ada Shelby, Andy Nyman Winston Churchill, Tommy Flanagan Arthur Senior, David Dawson Roberts

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