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[OPINION] Why You Should Be Watching... Peaky Blinders



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Warning: There are minor spoilers in this article but no major plot points are revealed as this is designed to be a new-viewer friendly article.

It is 1919, and the First World War has finished, with many of the soldiers who fought in it being abandoned by the Government, spat back out onto the streets from where they came changed forever, shallow reflections of the people that they once were. Rival street gangs run the cities from London to Birmingham, whilst Winston Churchill, not yet Prime Minister, is still a Member of Parliament and the IRA is a constant threat across the Irish sea. It is violent times, and we’re about to meet violent men.

We are introduced to one of the war’s survivors, a local man, Thomas Shelby, as he rides a horse through the streets of Birmingham. He’s here to fix a race – against the orders of Billy Kimber. He’s a gangster who doesn’t play by the rules, always in control and the coolest guy in the room. The music that accompanies Tommy as everyone moves to get out of the way is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Red Right Hand, as anachronistic as they come but it couldn’t be more appropriate for the character and his intentions. He’s got dreams of unlimited power and aspiration, far more than just controlling Small Heath, Birmingham. Played by Christopher Nolan regular Cillian Murphy, it is through Tommy that we are first introduced to the world of Peaky Blinders, which borrows its titles from the name of the street gang, named so after the razor-sharp blades that they keep in their flat-caps. They are anti-heroes, not afraid of committing acts of violence, but in a rather expositionary line of dialogue uttered fairly on in the first season, it’s stated that the locals of Small Heath would take the Shelby family over anybody else: “You're bad men but you're our bad men,” is the line stated from a recently disposed head of the local pub named The Garrison (a regular haunt for the Peaky Blinders) who’s doing his best to sum up the series in one line. And based on the reaction that the British public has had to the series, he’s right.

What started as a show that started airing on BBC Two in 2011 with little fanfare and barely any marketing budget has gone on to become a national hit in the UK as beloved as series like Downton Abbey, with viewing figures for season five reaching over 6.2 million for episodes one and two according, dwarfing the 3.3 million people who watched the launch of the previous season. It’s a hit for the BBC – moved from BBC Two to BBC One, in a peak primetime slot, after spreading largely purely through word of mouth, and now, it’s become an obsession - fans are getting their haircuts stylised after the main characters, even dressing like them, and you can visit filming locations in the North of England as a public attraction - most prominently found in the Black County Living Museum in Dudley, where they host Peaky Blinders-inspired days for those wanting to immerse themselves in the era. The show has even released its acclaimed soundtrack on Vinyl and CDs, complete with lines of dialogue taken from the series – and counts Michael Mann, David Bowie, Snoop Dogg and Dennis Lehane among the celebrity fans of the series. Bowie’s Lazarus is featured on the soundtrack, and Snoop Dogg even did his own version of the Peaky Blinders theme as a promotion for season five.

Those who sought out and watched Peaky Blinders at the start helped in no small part get it to where it is today, convincing other fans to watch this gangster drama which is often billed as the British version of Boardwalk Empire (which Knight didn't watch before writing the show) or The Sopranos, but truth be told, it’s better than Boardwalk and rivals The Sopranos at its peak, offering an insight into the working class lives of the era in a way like few other British dramas have before. From the first few moments you get the sense that Peaky Blinders is something special, something different, stylish and incredibly atmospheric from start to finish.

Its characters are well-defined, as we spent time with each of the Shelby family in return, and writer Steven Knight doesn’t make the sadly all-too common mistake of establishing a smart character like Tommy Shelby and then having him make stupid decisions that he shouldn’t make for drama to happen, each of Tommy’s decisions are justified and reasonable, and he balances Tommy’s character out by having a rogue’s gallery of intimidating antagonists that each get even more smarter, cunning and deadlier as the series progresses, and you always get the feeling that he's met his match each season, rather than feeling that they're beneath him, starting with Sam Neill’s Major Chester Campbell and culminating in the toughest foe that Tommy has faced yet, real-life fascist Oswald Mosely, played scaringly well by the talented Sam Claflin (also despicable in Jennifer Kent’s twistingly disturbing revenge drama The Nightingale), who is more than a match for Tommy and constantly stays five steps ahead.

Even when Tommy is outmatched you get the sense that he’s still the smartest person in the room, he radiates control and the need to always be in control is what defines Tommy’s character. His weakness is that he has to make other people do the tasks for him, he can’t do everything himself, and the others don’t always follow his instructions to the letter. You get the hot-tempered, brash, violent and abusive brother Arthur, who is possibly even scarier, the right-hand man in the Shelby operation and Tommy's attack dog, suffering from a cocaine addiction. He’s played by Paul Anderson, who is consistently one of the show's most brilliantly underrated performers.

Then there’s his sister, Ada, who starts off caught in a secret relationship with Tommy’s best friend and communist in a time where Britain is facing a potentially violent revolution, Freddie Thorne. Ada’s conflict with Tommy fuels much of the early seasons, and Sophie Rundle gives Ada depth to make her a compelling protagonist in her own right, with every character here being remarkably well-defined. There’s also the Shelby family Matriarch, Polly Gray (Helen McCrory). The community of Small Heath feels bustling full of life whether the characters at the heart of the drama are Shelbys or not – Annabelle Wallis’ double agent Grace is sent to infiltrate the Peaky Blinders after they steal some guns in the first season which is used as a launching point for the series, and she crosses paths with both Tommy and Major Campbell. The Grace and Tommy conflict remains one of the show’s most emotional storylines, utterly compelling and utterly rewarding.

Campbell is followed by a revolving door of varied antagonists and anti-heroes, each offering a different threat and character from another played usually by a brilliant guest actor, ala Line of Duty; one one hand you have the Italian mobster Luca Changretta (played by Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody), who is calculated and controlled, whilst on the other, you have the devious, unpredictable occasional ally and force of nature that is Tom Hardy’s Alfie Solomons, the scene stealingst of scene stealers, who gets some of the show’s best lines and has the best accent to boot. Characters and the actors’ performances of these characters are the show’s biggest strengths, as they make Steven Knight’s scripts come to life in the best way possible.

Peaky Blinders uses music like few other series have before it, and it’s an important part of the show as much as everything else – there are many stylised slow-motion shots of characters walking to a delightfully punk soundtrack. You wouldn’t have imagined a show set in the 1920s to use songs from the Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey, Joy Division, Royal Blood, Anna Calvi, The White Stripes or IDLES and it to work so well, yet Peaky Blinders utilises the artists’ songs to perfection with many having composed original covers of the show’s Red Right Hand theme for the series. Yet it isn't just done for style points; the music does a good job at getting into the characters’ headspace in a way that never feels on the nose, and it feels appropriate for the characters who are outsiders in society themselves, existing on the fringes and playing above the law. Better still, the music advances throughout the seasons as the years go by - from starting with a soundtrack predominantly filled with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The White Stripes, Peaky Blinders moves beyond that, gradually replacing them with a newer and equally talented group of artists befitting of the show's changing nature. It even borrows the score from Max Richter's hauntingly brilliant work for The Leftovers in the show's fifth season.

The cinematography of Peaky Blinders gets better and better as it goes on and it would be wrong to overlook the impeccable work done by the show’s directors and cinematographers. Otto Bathurst, Tom Harper, Colm McCarthy, Tim Mielants, David Caffrey and Anthony Byrne carry their vision across to the show in its respective seasons and each bring a sense of narrative cohesion - whilst Si Bell is impeccable in the latest season with several visually stunning shots as the latest cinematographer for the show. Characters walk past factories, wait by canals for rival gang members and raid pubs in gloomy, atmospherically-lit scenes that all lend themselves to stylistic choices as the show revels in exploring an area in British history rarely covered by television – it feels often like there are, with shows like Victoria, The Crown and Downton Abbey to name a few, too many period dramas focused focused on rich people and their problems, whilst that is very much not the case with Peaky Blinders, a show that almost feels grounded and down to earth with its strong working class roots, taking place between the two World Wars. It's clear that Steven Knight’s intention was start the show at the end of the first World War and end it when the bombs start falling over London in the Second, and so far, he looks set to remain true to that vision, with the show moving into the 1930s and the turn of the new decade, addressing the chilling rise of fascism in England, whilst dealing with key historical events that happened around the time that the series is set, tackling the fallout from the Wall Street Crash, showcasing its devastating effect on the economy.

Filled with gunfights that are as entertaining as they come, constant double crossings, arranged weddings and plenty of family drama, Peaky Blinders has it all, and feels like the perfect show to catch up on during quarantine. With all five seasons available on Netflix in the USA and the show currently available on Netflix and BBC iPlayer in the UK and a sixth season in the works (with production currently stalled due to the global pandemic of COVID-19), with each season compromising of six hour long episodes, you’ll get through this ambitious, fast-paced and unpredictable drama in no time at all.

WATCH THE TRAILER FOR SEASON ONE HERE.

WHERE TO WATCH PEAKY BLINDERS: All five seasons are available to watch on Netflix in the US, whilst Seasons 1-4 are available on Netflix in the UK with Season 5 currently available on BBC IPlayer before it makes the transition to Netflix in April.

WATCH THESE NEXT/PERFECT FOR FANS OF: Boardwalk Empire (HBO), The Sopranos (HBO), Animal Kingdom (TNT), Breaking Bad (AMC), Mad Men (AMC), Downton Abbey (ITV), Gentleman Jack (BBC), Suburra: Blood on Rome (Netflix), Gomorrah (Sky Atlantic), Money Heist (Netflix), Dickinson (Apple+), Taboo (BBC), The Crown (Netflix), Ozark (Netflix), Sons of Anarchy (FX), Godless (Netflix), Penny Dreadful (HBO) & Ripper Street (BBC).

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