I decided I was going to watch Peaky Blinders, eventually, more than a year ago. Maybe a couple of years. Time passes so quickly these days.
I know a married couple, maybe ten years younger than me (which you would call middle-aged, I’m sure, although I prefer “ten years younger than me”), who are among my favorite customers at the post office, where I am a window clerk. We bonded early on because she was wearing a SAMCRO t-shirt, which led to numerous conversations about Sons of Anarchy, a series I had enjoyed immensely. It was this SOA connection that led to their recommendation of Peaky Blinders. It was, they assured me, another good crime drama. They also warned me that it was British, in case that was a deal breaker.
I’ve realized over the years that I’m a bit of an Anglophile (Cheers, to my cousins in the UK), so this wasn’t a deal breaker at all. I’m not sure I would ever have come around to watching the series without the recommendation, however. Peaky Blinders seemed an odd show title at the time, maybe the title of a preschool kiddie series on public television.
This is not a kiddie show. This is a gangster family epic set in Birmingham, England, that begins just a few months after the end of World War I. The milieu is based in truth. There was a criminal gang in Birmingham called the Peaky Blinders, who were known for their sartorial elegance, including a signature top coat and peaked flat cap. The apocryphal story, which is used in the series, is that the name was derived from the fact that the gang members sewed razors into the peaks of their caps, which were then used to blind their foes. An alternate explanation put forward by Birmingham historian Carl Chinn suggests that “peaky” was a term in popular usage at the time referring to any flat cap with a peak, and that “blinder” was Birmingham slang (still used today) to describe something or someone of dapper appearance. I tend to believe Mr. Chinn’s explanation, but the razor thing makes for more compelling television.
Aside from the name of the gang, some other things in the show are based in fact. Billy Kimber was the name of an actual Birmingham gangster, for instance, and I have it on good authority that Winston Churchill existed. But, the rest of the characters in this drama are just that: fictional characters. They may have been based, in part, on some real-life counterparts, but the Shelby family is only as real as the Corleone family, existing to serve the story itself.
I propose that this is a good thing. Historical dramas, too often, are hamstrung by having to be factual. Reality is often confusing and frequently illogical. We demand that our fiction makes sense and entertains us. Peaky Blinders does that quite handily.
Like any good first act, this six-episode first season introduces us to our major characters, many of whom I’m certain will remain important throughout the overarching story that will span seasons.
Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) is the antihero protagonist of the series. Although not the eldest male Shelby, he is the leader of the gang. Murphy has the same otherworldliness about him as Benedict Cumberbatch. My opinion, at least. It’s not something I find easy to put into words. He’s different, in a way that reminds me of David Bowie or Prince (to namedrop a couple), without being strictly androgynous. He has an allure that demands the viewer to focus on him whenever he’s on the screen, an allure heightened by a character who comes across as coldly efficient and ruthless.
The seasonal story arc involves a crate of weapons that the Peaky Blinders steal by accident. This is the moment of change that sets the plot in motion. Thomas has ambitions to grow the wealth and influence of his gang, going up against the firmly established gangster Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles). Thomas isn’t one for sharing a lot of information as he makes his moves, not even with older brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) or the Shelby family matriarch Aunt Pol (Helen McCrory). Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) is brought in by Winston Churchill to locate the crate of weapons before they fall into the hands of the IRA or the communists. Campbell is, in many ways, as ruthless and underhanded as Tommy Shelby. The Irish policeman places undercover agent Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis) in the Shelbys’ pub, The Garrison. Of course, she becomes a romantic interest.
While the question of the missing crate of guns fuels much of what goes on in the season, there are other things going on at the same time. Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundle), Thomas’s sister, is romantically involved with known communist Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg) and is eventually pregnant with his child. There are other Shelby brothers who don’t figure heavily into the plot this season. Tommy Flanagan (of SOA fame, among many others) makes an appearance during the fifth episode of the season as Arthur Shelby Sr., Aunt Polly’s brother and the father of all the Shelby brood. But, in the end, the story of this season belongs primarily to Thomas, Inspector Campbell, and the lovely Grace, the woman between them. And, secondarily, the conflict between Thomas Shelby and Billy Kimber.
The series was created by Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplay for Eastern Promises, a movie I enjoyed, and was one of the creators of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which has enjoyed worldwide success.
I enjoyed this first season a lot. It packs a lot of info into just six episodes, and the character building is a thing of beauty. The viewer learns a lot about Thomas Shelby and his family, in addition to Birmingham during the early Twentieth Century, and this knowledge is imparted primarily through showing rather than telling. Long before the season finale, I found myself rooting for Thomas’s success.
The season does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, which was a cheap trick. But, no major plot points were left hanging, so I’ll forgive the makers of the show for this.
Firewater’s The-Soldier’s-Minute: In-Battle-That’s-All-You-Get Report Card: A
Not exactly family friendly, but good adult fare about people with their own code of behavior and questionable morality. If you like well-told stories about antiheroes, you’ll find something to like here.