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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Peaky Blinders — Killer TV No.39

Peaky Blinders series 1 BBC
Mob-handed – Thomas Shelby and the Peaky Blinders. Pics BBC

BBC2, 2013-

‘You don’t parley when you’re on the back foot. We’ll strike a blow first.’ –Tommy Shelby
Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Annabelle Wallis, Iddo Goldberg, Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Andy Nyman, Benjamin Zephaniah
Identikit: A gangster family clan in post-First World War Birmingham, England, are led by Tommy Shelby in a bid to expand their empire.


2013 saw three exceptional crime dramas produced by UK television – Broadchurch, The Fall and Peaky Blinders. Like the first two, the success of this epic story is down to it being the inspired project of one writer with what seems to be little buggering about from know-nothings in management. Chris Chibnall and Allan Cubitt were the masterminds behind Broadchurch and The Fall respectively, while Steve Knight based Peaky Blinders on knowledge of his hometown, Birmingham, and family tales he had heard about the Peaky Blinders, gangsters of the 1920s famed for the razors hidden in the peaks of their flat caps. ‘It’s based on real events,’ he says. ‘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.’ From these recollections emerges a series that is a world away from most UK crime series, with their detective/sidekicks, serial killers and cosy settings. This is gangster tale heavily influenced by American productions from Once Upon a Time In America to Boardwalk Empire, down to the rock soundtrack (Nick Cave, the White Stripes, etc), the slo-mo sequences and the Roaring Twenties styles. Thomas Shelby is a decorated combatant from the trenches,

Annabelle Wallis as Grace in Peaky Blinders series 1
Barmaid with a secret – Grace

who has returned home damaged by his war experiences. He assumes control of the family’s crime empire of illegal bookmaking and protection, bypassing his elder brother Arthur and family matriarch Aunt Polly, who ran things during the war. After Tommy takes charge of machine-guns stolen from the local BSA factory, the city is targeted by the government – and Winston Churchill – who fear the weapons may be used in an uprising, such is the level of post-war unrest. The brutal Chief Inspector Campbell (a menacing performance by Sam Neill) is summoned from Belfast to find the guns at all costs. The rivalries (particularly with gambling crime boss Billy Kimber), the lust (Tommy is lured by Irish spy Grace Burgess) and the family tensions (Tommy’s sister becomes pregnant by his one-time best friend) are played out well against the unforgettable recreation of industrial Birmingham, with its foundaries and soot and street braziers. The accents wobble, but Cillian Murphy is charismatic as Tommy, Helen McCrory has authority as Polly and Annabelle Wallis is intriguing as the beautiful but steely Grace. The cinematography is luscious, offering a vision of the period that isn’t twee window-dressing, but which instead reveals a genuine fascination for the political turmoil and social mores of a Birmingham largely forgotten (how refreshing to see Britain’s second biggest city in the spotlight). This is ambitious drama-making that is seen too seldom on play-it-safe British TV. A second season is in the pipeline for 2014.

Theme music: Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Classic episode: The story comes nicely to the boil in episode three, when Tommy’s wartime trauma is revealed (he was deployed in tunnelling under the Germans), and despite his cold exterior he seems to be warming to the woman sent to spy on him, Grace.

Watercooler fact: New Zealander Sam Neill is particularly convincing with the difficult Ulster accent because he was actually born in Northern Ireland.

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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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