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
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The Great Train Robbery, BBC1, Luke Evans, Jim Broadbent, Neil Maskell, James Fox PREVIEW

Robbing the mail train. The Great Train Robbery BBC1
Rogue mail – the Great Train Robbery in action. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC1: Wednesday, 18 December, 8pm

Story: Part one is called ‘A Robber’s Tale’, and follows Bruce Reynolds and his gang as they plan and carry out the £2.6million robbery of a mail train. The second film, ‘A Copper’s Tale’, will be told from the viewpoint of DCS Tommy Butler and his elite squad of investigators.

ALONG WITH the assassination of President Kennedy and the pilot episode of Doctor Who, 1963 was famous for the Great Train Robbery, a startlingly audacious bit of blagging that shook Britain when the news of it came out in August that year.

For channel honchos at the Beeb, the attraction of dramatising it is obvious – it’s based on a true event (ITV are playing the same game with soon-to-be seen Lucan), and it’s got period clobber and old cars, a must every other drama these days.

Bruce Reynolds (LUKE EVANS) Great Train Robbery BBC1
Ambitious Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans)

For the writer Chris Chibnall, who also wrote this year’s major crime drama Broadchurch, he was fascinated by the crime as ‘piece of modern folklore’ and the attraction of exploring the ‘huge untold story’ of the Flying Squad officers who tracked the robbers – which he does in episode two.

ITV took an interesting take on the crime with Mrs Biggs last year, and Phil Collins played Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster, but considering how much newspaper ink the police, the escapes and escapades of this bunch of crooks generated, Chibnall and the BBC would seem to have plenty of untold story to explore.

Luke Evans is charismatic as Bruce Reynolds

And they tell it really well. It is tinged with nostalgia but also captures the element of class aggro

The gang celebrates its haul. The Great Train Robbery BBC1
We’re in the money!

involved, with gang leader Bruce Reynolds – the focus of the first of two 90-minute films – out to get rich while taking on the establishment.

The establishment definitely noticed, as Reynolds and his crew shocked themselves and the whole country with a then monstrous haul of £2.6million from the overnight mail train from Glasgow (equivalent to £41million today). The first film is full of a young generation of actors as the robbers, such as Neil Maskell, Jack Roth and Martin Compston, with Luke Evans outstanding as Reynolds.

Reynolds’ appetite for a big robbery is fuelled following the poor takings from a well-planned and stylishly filmed airport robbery. After getting a tip from a mysterious Ulsterman that the mail train is a sitting duck, with no police or guards protecting it, Reynolds is hooked on devising a heist.

‘It’s Her Majesty’s mail, mate,’ says Buster Edwards (Maskell). ‘Nobody would have the nerve – that’s how they see it.’

E-Types, Jags and beehives

Reynolds pulls together a 15-strong team with near military precision to halt the train and offload it.

DCS Butler (JIM BROADBENT) Great Train Robbery BBC1
In part 2 we meet DCS Butler (Jim Broadbent)

Good heist stories always have plenty of adrenaline and tension, and this one doesn’t fall short. But it also has some laugh-out moments.

Such as the scene in which Gordon Goody and Reynolds, trying to teach themselves how to drive a train – they will have to move the mail train once they’ve captured it – steal a train from a depot and then can’t find the brake. They finally leap from the speeding train into the snow, leaving the runaway engine to plough on into the night.

The period is sharply invoked here, with E-Types Jags and beehives and music from Nina Simone and Sinatra. It looks good and is a fascinating story, right up to the moment the gang in their farmhouse count the huge piles of used banknotes.

Jim Broadbent and Robert Glenister

The irony is that all it bought them was a life on the run (see what happened next to the robbers here: What Happened to the Great Train Robbers). As Reynolds says, ‘It’s too much.’

Great Train Robbery BBC1 The robbers. Gordon Goody (PAUL ANDERSON), Brian Field (DEL SYNOTT), Roy James (MARTIN COMPSTON), Buster Edwards (NEIL MASKELL), John Daly (JAMES BYE), Bruce Reynolds (LUKE EVANS), Charlie Wilson (JACK ROTH), Alf (BILL THOMAS), Roger Cordrey (NICHOLAS MURCHIE), Ronnie Biggs (JACK GORDON), Tommy Wisby (JORDAN LONG)
The gang’s all here – Bruce and his lads

An older generation of actors – with Jim Broadbent as DCS Tommy Butler, leading the likes of Robert Glenister, Tim Piggott Smith and James Fox – will steal the spotlight in the second part of the story, A Copper’s Tale, which should be particularly compelling, if Chris Chibnall is on the money, as it were.

As one of the robbers says, ‘We kicked the establishment up the arse.’ And the pressure to nab them after that was immense.

Cast: Luke Evans Bruce Reynolds, Neil Maskell Buster Edwards, Martin Compston Roy James, Paul Anderson Gordon Goody, Jack Roth Charlie Wilson; Jim Broadbent DCS Tommy Butler, Robert Glenister DI Frank Williams, Nick Moran DS Jack Slipper, Tim Piggott Smith DS Maurice Ray, James Wilby John Wheater, James Fox Henry Brooke

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