The New Golden Age of television, or whatever they’re calling it now, has a number of stylistic and thematic attributes contributing to its critical and commercial success. Moral conflicted main characters; brutal-yet-graceful violence; an ability to monologue like a stage production and perform like a cinematic one. A swiftly rising trademark was also that this Golden Age was made primarily in America. Until Peaky Blinders.
Created by Steven Knight and starring Cillian Murphy, BBC Two’s poetic and lethal drama encapsulates this new ideology: a protagonist, whose main weapons are politics and strategy, rises to the top by taking risks and choosing to fashion his own success, rather than adhering to the rules of the old ways. A number of bitingly strong female characters are crossed with ruthless armies of conflicting factions, ever betraying and uniting. Money and goods play second fiddle to the true rewards of power and respect.
This is Birmingham. 1919. And the streets run red with the Peaky Blinders.
When Thomas Shelby (Murphy) takes unofficial lead as the brains of his cutthroat family business – bookmaking mixed with racketeering – his battle for power attracts attention from every source. Churchill himself sends C.I. Chester Campbell to clear up Brum’s deadly criminal enterprise. Played by Sam Neill, Campbell uses his experience as a lawman outside of the law to destroy the Shelby family, their support and their values. Neill’s calm, soothing demeanour are a perfect fit for Campbell’s vicious tactics, giving him a role in which he can express a raging stillness. Both the actor and character are nothing less than mountains.
Some of Shelby’s challenges are a little closer to home. His Aunt Paula (Helen McCrory) deems his actions unwise, after her steady leadership of the Blinders during the war. McCrory is commendably fearsome as Paula, whispering sense and family while her eyes stare daggers. Naturally, though, Murphy rules the production as the alpha male amongst the gangsters, veterans, gypsies and Communists. He’s distant but admirable, cruel but relatable. Knight and Murphy are both to be admired and thanked for producing such a measured anti-hero.
Staggering in and out of focus, the show mixes the smoke and rust and poverty of post-war industrial city with an aural fever dream in the form of Jack White. Blending a solemn, thoughtful piano with striking, wailing guitars, this modern soundtrack is the soulmate of a show set nearly a century ago.
With its signature production, enviable characters and those hats, Peaky Blinders cares little for mantels like “Golden Age” or “modern”. Like Shelby himself, the BBC production is a timeless being of patient hunger, of endless war and of blood-spattered, charming style.
Peaky Blinders Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.