Over the last few weeks, I’ve been watching the BBC’s excellent crime drama Peaky Blinders, written by Steven Knight. With the news that the show has been renewed for a fourth and fifth series, I decided to explore what it is that makes it so unique and addictive.
Peaky Blinders first aired back in 2013 (although I shamefully didn’t get around to starting it until recently). From the very first episode it was clear that this show was something special. I have never seen such a bold, confident and stylish opening to a television series before. What strikes the viewer immediately is just how amazing the show looks: the cinematography, sets, and costumes are all perfect, and it’s no exaggeration to say that every single shot is a work of art. The show’s juxtaposition of the slick and stylish with the dark and gritty is represented perfectly in the bleak yet grimly beautiful industrial landscapes, soot and smoke staining the streets and skies of 1920s Birmingham.
The plot centres around the real life gypsy gang The Peaky Blinders, although its connections to real history are very loose: this show never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, and what a fantastic story it is. Each series shows the gang, led by protagonist Tommy Shelby and his family, face new challenges from rival gangs and law enforcement, as well as conflict within the family itself. In the same vein as shows such as The Sopranos, the relationships between family and business are explored to great effect. Every character that we see scheme, drink, and fight is engaging and believable, and portrayed brilliantly.
Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby perfectly (I’ve never seen an actor convey so much with such a narrow range of facial expressions): an intriguing mix of intelligence, ruthlessness, ambition, and devotion to his family that recalls similar on-screen crime boss antiheroes such as Tony Soprano, Nucky Thompson, and Walter White. In this respect, Blinders is hardly breaking new narrative ground, but what the story sometimes lacks in originality it makes up for in style, and always manages to seem fresh and exciting. Supporting characters also shine: Paul Anderson’s Arthur Shelby is volatile, dangerous, tortured, and vulnerable all at once. The Shelby brothers’ aunt Polly, played by Helen McCrory, provides a more measured and diplomatic angle to the organisation, but is capable of extreme cold-bloodedness and violence when it comes to defending her family. Guest appearances from hugely successful actors such as Tom Hardy and Paddy Considine feel natural and effective rather than distracting.
The soundtrack also adds to the stylishness, from the eerie theme tune by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to songs from artists such as Arctic Monkeys, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Royal Blood, PJ Harvey, and many more. While I’m not usually a fan of anachronistic music, in this instance it works to great effect, showing the dark history of Birmingham through a modern, hyperreal filter.
For years, the US had been consistently producing superior TV drama to anything us Brits could come up with. When I first saw the BBC’s Sherlock, I could sense that we were starting to up our game. Peaky Blinders continues that trend, possibly signalling the start of a golden era for British TV drama. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop what you’re doing right now and watch it, and strap yourself in for a whisky-soaked, blood, soot, and nicotine-stained rollercoaster ride.
And don’t forget the words of Aunt Polly: