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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The Fear starring Peter Mullan Ch4 PREVIEW

Red alert for Richie Beckett (Peter Mullan) in The Fear. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★★ 

Channel 4: starts Monday, 3 December, 10pm  

Eyeball to eyeball with the Albanians

Story: Richie Beckett, former gang boss turned respected Brighton businessman, pledges money to help rebuild a pier. But Richie’s mind is in turmoil and the empire he runs with his sons is endangered by a vicious Albanian gang.

Tony Soprano famously suffered panic attacks and had to see a shrink. In C4’s new hard-knuckle crime drama The Fear we have another gang boss whose mind is under assault.

But Richie Beckett’s turmoil is more serious and urgent, because just when his Brighton-based empire is under siege from a gang of Albanian psychos, Richie is starting to lose his identity.

He is suffering from some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s. This would be alarming enough in the new role he has taken on as respectable local businessman, but when his family and interests are suddenly under threat from the vicious newcomers in town, this is calamitous.

Richie with sons Cal and Matty

Grisly killing
Peter Mullan is excellent as the fearsome family head, veering alarmingly between menace and bewilderment. Harry Lloyd and Paul Nicholls are his sons, Matty and Cal, who, along with their mother (Anastasia Hille) think their father is on the booze again.

Cal, the eldest and a creep who revels in his dad’s notoriety, wants to broker some deal with the family of Vajkal, the Albanian guvnor. But the Albanians implicate him in the grisly murder of a prostitute he has used, keeping her beheaded corpse as evidence to incriminate Cal if the Becketts don’t fall into line.

Richie is therefore dragged into a meeting at the Albanians’ farmhouse retreat. Irritable, sleepless, forgetful – Richie can’t even remember battering a young man on the front in broad daylight – his presence at the farmhouse is as sensible as juggling gelignite.

Cal (Paul Nicholls)

Peter Mullan is terrific as a gangster in decline
The Fear is being shown over four consecutive nights and is a bruising but riveting portrait of a criminal in decline, haunted by his past and out of touch with the present. And it’s a story with emotion, as in the scene where Richie enters his wife’s bedroom and asks if he can lie with her. Amid his confusion and increasing aggression, he seeks some feeling of closeness with his estranged wife.

Brighton is evocatively photographed as a lurid but at the same time genteel backdrop, regency buildings juxtaposed with drag entertainers and night-time revellers.

Writer Richard Cottan has created a rich thriller, though having Richie’s wife buying a couple of paintings called Confusion 1 & 2 was not the most ingenious bit of symbolism.

Still, the opener sets up a drama full of tension and dread, setting in motion what can only be a fearsome, tragic train of events.

Cast: Peter Mullan Richie Bennett, Anastasia Hille Jo Beckett, Harry Lloyd Matty Beckett, Paul Nicholls Cal Beckett, Demosthenes Chrysan Vajkal, Dragos Bucur Marin, Shaban Arifi Davit, Julia Ragnarsson Zana, Danny Sapani Wes

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