Odyssey, BBC2, Anna Friel

Tight spot – Anna Friel in Odyssey

Tight spot – Anna Friel in Odyssey


US soldier Anna Friel goes on the run when she learns explosive secrets in this sprawling, convoluted thriller

★★★ BBC2, Sunday, 28 June, 9.15pm

NEXT TO SERIAL KILLERS, perhaps the biggest scare figures in modern thrillers must be corporations. In fact, the 2003 documentary The Corporation made a good case for modern corporations having all the traits of a psycho – being cruel, ruthless and without feelings.

This new American 13-part thriller, made by NBC, has its own ominous psycho-corp called SOC, which our heroine, US Army sergeant Odelle Ballard, discovers is secretly funding terrorists.

Desert storm brewing –Sgt Ballard makes a shocking discovery

Desert storm brewing – Sgt Ballard makes a shocking discovery

Played by British actress Anna Friel – in a fresh attempt to break into US television following the demise of Pushing Daisies – Ballard is the heart of a complicated story. We first see her during a raid in Mali in which an Osama Bin Laden-type leader is killed, and she stumbles on a computer showing that the US company has been sending millions to terrorists.

Odyssey v Homeland

The plot thickens when privately contracted military group OSELA turns up and betrays Ballard and her team. She is reported dead but has escaped with her damaging evidence against SOC. She hides amid Tuareg desert nomads, hunted by OSELA.

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Stonemouth, BBC2, Peter Mullan, Christian Cooke, Charlotte Spencer

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 21/04/2015 - Programme Name: Stonemouth - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: BBC Two Launch 2015 Don (PETER MULLAN), Ellie (CHARLOTTE SPENCER), Stewart (CHRISTIAN COOKE) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Mark Mainz

Three’s a crowd – Peter Mullan, Charlotte Spencer and Christian Cooke 

Beautifully filmed and acted romantic mystery based on Iain Banks’s best-selling novel.

★★★ BBC2, starts Thursday, 11 June, 9pm

THIS BBC SCOTLAND production is a cheering reminder of Iain Banks’s fine talent for conjuring dark tales with edge and wit. As if that wasn’t enough, it also has a great setting and cast.

Stewart Gilmour returns to sea town Stonemouth following the apparent suicide of his once best mate, Callum. He was run out of town two years previously by the gangster father of his ex-fiancé, the beautiful Ellie Murston, who is also Callum’s sister.

Programme Name: Stonemouth - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Stewart (CHRISTIAN COOKE) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Mark Mainz

Suspicious – Stewart

Stewart obtains the permission of Don Murston – an extremely gruff and menacing Peter Mullan – to return for Callum’s funeral, after which he has to skedaddle. It’s obvious that all sorts of skeletons are about to charge out of cupboards during Stewart’s return.

Charlotte Spencer and Christian Cooke

Programme Name: Stonemouth - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Ellie (CHARLOTTE SPENCER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Mark Mainz

The love of Stewart’s life – Ellie

Ellie is the love of his life and Stewart, who received a message from Callum the day before he died saying he was in trouble, has his doubts that his friend’s fatal plunge was self-inflicted. It’s not long before he also stumbles on an explosive secret concerning Don – or more specifically his wife. And with every thug in town – including one played by Brian Gleeson – eyeing him with suspicion, it’s clear Stewart’s visit is going to be memorable.

The story’s background unfolds in flashbacks so that we see Stewart and his circle as children and teens, bonding and falling in love. Charlotte Spencer, so good last year in C4’s Glue, is alluring as Ellie, and well complemented by another English actor convincingly playing a Scot, Christian Cooke as Stewart.

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The Fall 2, BBC2, with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan PREVIEW

The Fall - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  DSI Stella Gibson (GILLIAN ANDERSON), Paul Spector (JAMIE DORNAN)  - (C) The Fall 2 L
DSI Gibson (Gillian Anderson) and Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★½

BBC2: starts Thursday, 13 November, 9pm

Story: It has been ten days since Paul Spector told DSI Stella Gibson that she would never catch him. As Gibson tries in vain to help Spector’s surviving victim remember the identity of her attacker, Spector is forced to deal with the loose ends that he left behind in Belfast.

SERIES ONE of The Fall had its uncomfortable moments of violence against women and the brutal murder of a victim’s brother in its final episode. The second series’ opener again spends a lot of time in the spine-chilling company of serial killer Paul Spector, but the horror is kept at bay – for now at least.

Instead, we get closer to the characters. Things are not going too well for the arch fantasist and evil
manipulator Spector, played with pent-up menace again by Jamie Dornan.

He’s now in Scotland, to where he fled with his wife and children after taunting DSI Stella Gibson at the end of the last series. However, his estranged wife, Sally, has returned to Belfast, and Annie Brawley, the dark-haired young accountant of his last thwarted attack in the Shankill, has given police a description of him.

Spector returns to Belfast

Gibson is also working hard to get a proper statement from Rose Stagg, the woman who was an early

Paul Spector (JAMIE DORNAN)  - (C) The Fall 2
Losing control? Spector

survivor of the killer’s. Finally, there is the problem of Katie, the 15 -year-old family babysitter he got rough with.

When he returns to Belfast to tackle these blips in his well-ordered campaign of murder, Katie taunts him about the lock of hair that he kept, one of his trophies. She stirs trouble for Spector with his wife…

So, while initially steering away from the shocks and violence, writer/director Allan Cubitt opens up the second series by posing new problems and possibilities for Gibson and Spector. Continued…

Gibson’s vulnerability

In exploring the mindsets of the hunter and hunted, he gives us glimpses into Gibson’s vulnerability and Spector’s brazen superiority complex. On a train in Belfast, he laughingly asks an attractive woman sitting opposite if she thinks a newspaper’s photofit image of the serial killer looks like him.

DSI Stella Gibson (GILLIAN ANDERSON) - (C) The Fall 2
Gibson is under pressure

Gibson tells Annie how she coped when ‘feelings and emotions overwhelmed me’. Was the detective also victim of an attack? Gibson and Spector mirror each other in many ways, particularly in Gillian Anderson’s exceedingly cool and controlled portrayal of the senior officer.

It’s an opening episode that ups the ante for all concerned, and throws open many questions as it delves into the psychology of Gibson and Spector and the complexity of this kind of investigation.

Brilliant twist in the tail

Annie Brawley (KAREN HASSAN) - (C) The Fall 2
In danger – Annie Brawley

The Fall was BBC2’s biggest drama to launch in eight years in 2013, grabbing 3.5m viewers. Signs
are that series two’s intriguing portrait of its protagonists, to say nothing of the mystery of the killing of Gibson’s one-night stand, detective sergeant Olson, should keep viewers rooted to their sofas.

The final line of dialogue in the curtain-raiser is also something of a humdinger that makes it almost impossible not to watch the next episode.

Cast: DS Stella Gibson Gillian Anderson, Paul Spector Jamie Dornan, Sally Ann Spector Bronagh Waugh, Asst Chief Con Jim Burns John Lynch, Prof Tanya Reed Smith Archie Panjabi, Annie Brawley Karen Hassan

Check these links…
Interviews with Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan and Allan Cubitt
The Fall 2 trailer

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Peaky Blinders 2, BBC2, with Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy PREVIEW

Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), John Shelby (Joe Cole)
Flash mob – Arthur, Tommy and Joe paint London town red. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC2: starts Thursday, 2 October, 9pm  

Story: As the 1920s begin to roar, business is booming for Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders gang. Shelby starts to expand his legal and illegal operations, with sights set on the race tracks of the South. The only problem is, the London Jewish and Italian gangs are in his way…

PEAKY BLINDERS has muscled in on new turf in British television. The Beeb and ITV have rarely ever ventured into the full-blown gangster drama.

Peaky Blinders pub is blown up
Boom town – the new series gets an explosive start

BSkyB gave it a go with a couple of nasty series based on Martina Cole’s novels (Tom Hardy was particularly good in 2009’s The Take), but the mainstream broadcasters have generally stuck with heist jobs (Widows, Inside Men), cop series (The Sweeney, New Tricks, Lewis, Scott & Bailey etc etc), cosies (Poirot, Father Brown), serial killers (The WidowerThe Fall) and whodunits (Broadchurch, Murder on the Home Front).

When they have featured gangsters, such as in C4’s The Fear in 2012, starring Peter Mullan, it’s all a bit small scale. There have been some classic Brit gangster movies, of course – Brighton Rock, The Long Good Friday, Get Carter, Sexy Beast for starters – but TV has largely steered clear.

England’s little-known gangster past

Why is that? While Britain has never had the wild illegality of Prohibition or the industrial scale Gomorrah to see how enormously international the Neapolitan crime empire is), there have been major crime groups here that have somehow never sparked a major TV drama.

Charlie Strong (Ned Dennehy), May Carleton (Charlotte Riley), Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy)
Charlotte Riley is the aristocrat May Carleton

criminality of the Mafia or the Camorra (read Roberto Saviano’s terrifying

Oddly enough, one of the few UK television series to get into gang culture was also set in Peaky Blinders‘ rarely portrayed hometown of Birmingham. The BBC’s Gangsters, starring Maurice Colbourne and Saeed Jaffrey, ran for two series from 1976 and featured the city’s multi-cultural criminal community, along with strong violence and bold storytelling.

But even so, there’s never been a series made here that has leant as heavily on the American gangster tradition as Peaky Blinders does. Creator Steven Knight has drawn on the stories he’d heard as a lad about Birmingham’s post-First World War gangs with razors in the peaks of their flat caps – and conjured up England’s little known gangster past.

Tommy Shelby’s face-off with London’s gangs

This second series has really found its feet, too. The action steps into the 1920s as Tommy Shelby

Aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory), Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy)
Tension between Aunt Polly and Tommy

plans to boldly break into the lucrative illegal race-track gambling in the South, currently run by London’s vicious Jewish and Italian gangs.

It’s a brash gamble that Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) and younger brother John Shelby (Joe Cole) are concerned about. With everything going so well in Brum, why stick their neck out?

In fact, problems are mounting for Tommy in his hometown, with Irish terrorists causing him a lot of grief and Sam Neill’s virtually psychotic Chief Inspector Campbell back gunning for him. All of which makes Tommy’s Southern move particularly risky.

Brum is grittier than Downton Abbey

So many British TV dramas milk a soppy faux past to give the action a vintage feel. Father Brown, WPC 56, Murder on the Home Front, Downton Abbey – all have a period gloss because TV honchos obviously think viewers are seduced by sham history.

Peaky Blinders, in contrast, has soot under its fingernails. Steve Knight takes the history seriously and has pored over old editions of the Birmingham Evening Mail and books about the era to research his story.

It is an absorbing portrait of that time, much as Boardwalk Empire, currently in its last series on Sky Atlantic, is also a fascinating window on Prohibition. The black streets of industrial Birmingham with their blast furnaces and the throb of machinery on the soundtrack create a suitably hellish vision of the city.

Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy)
Big shot – Tom Hardy as gang boss Alfie Solomons

Tom Hardy as gang leader Alfie Solomons

Cillian Murphy is again on good form as the emotionally dead soldier turned gang leader. The sets and the cast are bigger and the raucous soundtrack – everything from Nick Cave to Johnny Cash – is pounding as in series one. The opener finishes with a particularly brutal finale that poses a powder keg of dramatic possibilities for the ensuing episodes.

And with Tom Hardy – superb in Knight’s fine claustrophobic movie Locke and whose casting is a coup for a BBC drama – about to arrive in episode two as gangster Alfie Solomons, Peaky Blinders should become cult viewing this time round.

Cast: Cillian Murphy Thomas Shelby, Sam Neill Chester Campbell, Helen McCrory Aunt Polly, Paul Anderson Arthur Shelby, Joe Cole John Shelby, Charlotte Riley May Carleton, Tom Hardy Alfie Solomons, Noah Taylor Sabini

Check out these links…
Peaky Blinders series one
Peaky Blinders playlists
Facebook page

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The Honourable Woman, BBC1, Maggie Gyllenhaal

MAGGIE GYLLENHALL is THE HONOURABLE WOMAN (Nessa Stein) on BBC2
It’s a dangerous road for The Honourable Woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★½

BBC2: starts Thursday, 3 July, 9pm

Story: Nessa Stein’s father was a Zionist arms procurer. As children, she and her brother Ephra witness his assassination. Later, as an adult, inheriting her father’s company, she inverts its purpose from supplying arms to laying broadband cable networks between Israel and the West Bank – a decision that makes her many powerful enemies…

THE SHADOW LINE was not as big a hit as Broadchurch or Happy Valley, but the BBC2 cop thriller from producer/writer/director Hugo Blick was one of the most distinctive and stunning crime series of 2012.

It has been a tantalising wait to see what he would come up with next, particularly when a stellar cast was announced for his follow-up, The Honourable Woman, with names such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Katharine Parkinson and more.

Well, the eight-parter is now just a few weeks away, and I can confirm that it’s another superb intrigue from Blick, though different from The Shadow Line.

Maggie Gyllenhall as Nessa

Maggie Gyllenhall, with a very good Brit accent for her first TV project, is Nessa Stein, who has inherited her assassinated Israeli father’s business. Where he dealt in guns, Nessa embarks on a more ethical approach to business, installing broadband cable to Palestinians and Israelis.

Nessa Stein (MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL) The Honourable Woman BBC
Nessa is the enigma at the centre of the thriller

This desire to build connectivity and understanding is worthy, but it generates for Nessa a hornets’ nest of enemies and deadly dealings. To start, when she selects a Palestinian businessman to take on the next phase of the project, he commits suicide on the day she announces the deal.

Suspicious? Well, the Israeli she had previously worked with is enraged, the British secret service suspect Mossad of murder, while the Metropolitan police, the FBI and US military also stick their various oars in.

Hugo Blick’s the master of TV suspense

The first episode pulls off the feat of being hard to follow but gripping at the same time. And once again Blick proves inspired at creating a disorientating, threatening mood that draws you in.

By episode two, the story is easier to follow but still full of mystery and danger. Blick is the master of the set piece moments, and here there is a terrific sequence in which an FBI agent is not sure if she has been betrayed and has to go on the run. The writer/director loves telling the story visually, played out with music or a voiceover.

Blick also clearly relishes writing roles for Stephen Rea, who was breathtaking as the menacing Gatehouse in The Shadow Line. He steals the show again, this time as the soon-to-be-sacked spy Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle.

Lindsay Duncan and Janet McTeer

If he’s not delivering killer lines – ‘Haven’t seen anything like that since David Nixon and Ali Bongo’ – he’s pursing his lips and raising a dubious eyebrow. His scenes with Lindsay Duncan (who plays his ex-wife) and Janet McTeer (boss and ex-lover) are lip-smackingly delicious.

While The Shadow Line also had many scenes that had to be relished and was hugely entertaining, it stretched a little too far by the end.

The Honourable Woman is just as riveting, but with its interplay between several fascinating women – particularly Nessa and the nanny Atika, who were once kidnapped together and are haunted by it – and its tangled plot, it will be interesting to see if Blick’s latest drama will be resolved with more cohesion.

Either way, it is a further sign that we’re being spoiled by a glut of excellent TV dramas right now, no doubt fuelled by The Killing, Breaking Bad and other imports.

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal Nessa Stein, Lubna Azabal Atika Halabi, Eve Best Monica Chatwin, Andrew Buchan Ephra Stein, Lindsay Duncan Anjelica Hayden-Hoyle, Janet McTeer Dame Julia Walsh, Tobias Menzies Nathaniel Bloom, Igal Naor Shlomo Zahary, Genevieve O’Reilly Frances Pirsig, Katherine Parkinson Rachel Stein, Stephen Rea Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle

See also…
The Shadow Line review
Hugo Blick interviewed by Bafta

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Inspector De Luca, BBC4, Alessandro Preziosi, PREVIEW

Rating: ★★★½ 

BBC4: starts Saturday, 22 March, 9pm

Story: In Riccione, Italy, in 1938, the body of a young prostitute is found on a beach not far from Mussolini’s holiday residence. The police chief is terrified of scandal and wants to close the case quickly by charging the victim’s pimp – but Deputy Inspector De Luca is unconvinced that the case has been solved.

AFTER Inspector Montalbano and Young Montalbano‘s successful seduction of BBC4’s crime fans, here is another slice of Italian noir. The difference this time is that Inspector De Luca is a period drama, set in Mussolini’s pre-war fascist state.

The opener, called Unauthorised Investigation, introduces us to the seaside setting Riccione in 1938, and the title refers to Deputy Inspector De Luca’s refusal to abide by the conclusion of his boss that a prostitute has been murdered by her pimp.

The police chief’s haste is down to the crime having taken place near private beach of Il Duce, and he wants to avoid any scandal.

Menace and intimidation in Mussolini’s Italy

The series is interesting in that the setting and era are used well. The Riccione area was once considered the summer capital of Fascism, and the story lovingly employs the costumes and lush hotels of the period to fine effect.

The whole mood of intimidation and menace emanating from those close to the regime is also a powerful feature of the story.

We soon realise De Luca, with his half-hearted fascist salute, is no great devotee of Mussolini. He is patronised by his colleagues and superiors, most of whom are eager to curry favour with the regime.

The production looks handsome and the story has a good quota of intrigue and glamour. If De Luca’s character is as well-developed during the series as Montalbano’s, he might just give his modern counterpart a run for his money.

Cast: Alessandro Preziosi Deputy Inspector De Luca, Kasia Smutniak Laura Utimpergerr, Rolando Ravello Roberto Rassetto, Corrado Fortuna Leopoldo Pugliese, Richard Sammel Silvestri, Bruno Armado Tarantini, Ken Duken Dannunzio

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Line of Duty 2, BBC2, with Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar, Keeley Hawes PREVIEW

Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (MARTIN COMPSTON), Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton (KEELEY HAWES), Detective Constable Kate Fleming (VICKY McCLURE) in Line of Duty, BBC
In the spotlight – Denton (Keeley Hawes) is monitored by Arnott (Martin Compston) and Fleming (Vicky McClure). Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC2: starts Wednesday, 12 February, 9pm

Story: A police convoy is ambushed and three officers are killed and a witness seriously injured. When evidence suggests that a police source may have leaked the convoy’s whereabouts, suspicion arises that the sole surviving police officer, Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, could be the prime suspect. 

LENNIE JAMES put in a blistering performance in series one as the detective chief inspector under scrutiny for corruption. The success of this follow-up series will also depend on the new cop under the spotlight being as slippery and intriguing an adversary for the anti-corruption unit AC-12.

On hearing that the role is being played by Keeley Hawes, you might think she’s too glam, too

Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton (KEELEY HAWES) in Line  of Duty, BBC
Victim or perpetrator? DI Lindsay Denton

lightweight to cut it as a hardened cop scrapping for survival in the shark-infested police hierarchy.

But, actually, she’s a revelation here. Forget all her larking about in Ashes to Ashes and dressing up in Upstairs Downstairs. She’s discarded some of the make-up, dresses down a bit and really keeps the viewer on their toes in a terrific opening episode.

Suspicion falls on Keeley Hawes’s detective inspector

It bursts into life with a tense sequence in which her character, Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, is improvising a highly dangerous and hastily thrown together transfer of a witness from one compromised hide-out to another location.

When the police convoy is ambushed on a quiet back road, with three officers being brutally killed and the witness badly injured, it seems a fair guess that someone leaked the convoy’s route. Suspicion falls on the lone police survivor of the disaster – DI Denton.

A car in a police convoy is set alight by a masked person in Line of Duty, BBC2
The brutal ambush by masked gunmen

The injured inspector is initially vulnerable, ostracised by colleagues and superiors on her return to duty. There is a shocking scene on her first day back when the officers inflict a brutal welcome on her in the Ladies.

Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar return

And then AC-12 use an interview with her to make veiled accusations that she may have been behind the leak. Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar revisit their roles as Arnott, Fleming and Hastings, with Hastings as the smiling inquisitor – to the discomfort of Arnott and his new colleague DC Trotman (Jessica Raine). He tells Denton she was a ‘desk destective’, implying she was out of her depth on this frontline operation.

But the series writer and creator, Jed Mercurio, gives us glimpses of another side to Denton that keep us wondering about her role in the ambush. He also develops the characters of the AC-10 officers further while creating a web of ambitions and dodgy goings-on that make it difficult for viewers to know who to side with.

Superintendent Ted Hastings (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (MARTIN COMPSTON), Detective Constable Kate Fleming (VICKY McCLURE) in Line of Duty, BBC2
Watching the detectives – Hastings, Arnott and Fleming

The opening episode combines pacey storytelling with interesting, believable characters in addition to an explosive end. I felt series one started well and became a bit lurid as it went on.

But if series two keeps up the terrific quality of episode one, it will put even Lennie James and his series in the shade.

Cast: Keeley Hawes Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, Martin Compston Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott, Vicky McClure Detective Constable Kate Fleming, Adrian Dunbar Superintendent Ted Hastings, Mark Bonnar Deputy Chief Constable Mike Dryden, Jessica Raine Detective Constable Georgia Trotman

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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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