|Flash mob – Arthur, Tommy and Joe paint London town red. Pics: BBC|
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.
|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 Widower, The 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.
|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
|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.
|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