With series two starting this week, and having missed it first time round, I decided to catch up on series one of Peaky Blinders. This was a good plan!
Cillian Murphy heads up the cast as Tommy, second son of the Shelby clan; small time gangsters from Birmingham. Just returned from WWI, Tommy and his brothers are trying to settle back into their lives when a shipment of heavy artillery is ‘misplaced’. Chief Inspector Campbell is sent over from Northern Ireland to trace and reclaim the guns before the IRA can get their hands on them, but Tommy has other ideas…
First things first; the writing is superb. With the possible exception of Ada- who seems to exist only to be annoying, get pregnant, and then be annoying some more- everybody convinces as a genuine, complex character. Almost all of them are flawed somehow, with their own motives, and each responding to situations in a convincing way. The script made the most of its time and place as the men struggled to shake off the horrors of war and return to their former lives, and the women they left behind try to readjust to a world where they are no longer in control. The Troubles impact on the lives of these English gangsters, and there are powerful gypsy and Italian families also vying for control. In lesser hands, it could all have been a bit too much, but here you just get a sense of a complex, shifting world where moral absolutism doesn’t really apply.
Ideas of morality and loyalty run through the whole story. Is Tommy taking control for selfish reasons, or for the good of the family? Does the end justify the means, as Campbell seems to feel? Is it right to follow your heart if it may destroy everyone around you? Should you be loyal to causes, or to people? It’s all fascinating stuff, and all played out so brilliantly here. It’s got an epic quality but operates at a human level at the same time. Even the supporting characters feel fully realised. You get the feeling they all go about their lives when you aren’t looking. It doesn’t hurt that the performances are uniformly excellent. Cillian Murphy as a lot of work to do, playing this damaged, ambitious and clever man, but he makes it looks easy. I liked that the women get a look-in too, with Helen McCrory doing a great job as Poll: ‘You know the words. The baby will be a bastard and you’ll be a whore. But there’s no word for the man who doesn’t come back.’
The whole thing looks fantastic as well; all dark, satanic mills and squalor. Almost the only bit of grass you see is at the cemetery. You can almost forgive the Blinders for their law-breaking ways in an environment so harsh and unforgiving. The period details are excellent, with actual sawdust on the pub floor and pints being served from a bucket in the snug. I also loved Grace leading a sing-song with the punters, at least ‘til the Blinders walk in…
The use of music was particularly clever. Grace declares that her singing ‘…made the men cry and stop fighting’, and you can almost believe it. Annabelle Wallis does a wonderful job with the songs; including a beautiful rendition of what I think was ’Carrickfergus’, and a heartbreaking version of ‘Black Velvet Band’. This could easily have been cheesy, or just badly done, but it really works. I think this is partly because of the quality and emotional resonance of the singing, but also because it is incredibly stripped back, with no accompanying music or fancy editing. It feels very raw and real; a powerful contrast with Tommy’s emotional restraint. It also works strangely well with the programmes’ modern soundtrack; I recognised Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ and various White Stripes tunes. This looks set to continue next series, with Johnny Lee Hooker’s ‘Bang Bang Bang Bang’ accompanying the season two trailer. It gives the whole programme a distinctive edge, setting it apart from other historical dramas, and yet it never feels like a gimmick or a distraction. All of the music seems to have been really well thought out, and even the modern stuff never jars. On the contrary, it seems always to contribute to the meaning and power of a scene.
Any criticisms at all? Well, the accents were occasionally a bit wonky, often sounding more Scouse than Brummie to my ear; and Sam Neill’s Northern Irish accent didn’t quite convince. However, the overall quality of the show more than made up for any such slips. And given that series two is only days away, it would seem that the BBC didn’t mind that much either.
What did you think? Did the accents put you off? Did you enjoy the soundtrack, or find it irritating? Any ideas if Grace or Campbell will make it to series two? Have I missed anything of note? Let me know below!
PS Given that I box-setted this on iPlayer (cheers, Beeb!), do you think watching a show this way impacts your understanding or enjoyment? Do you love to binge, or do you prefer a weekly dose?