AT IT’S heart Peaky Blinders is a gangster family drama, but it’s oh so much more.
It’s classy, lavish, gritty and intense, driven by compelling performances.
And it has moments; scenes you watch sitting forward, eyes round in surprise as the writers dangle threads set to lead to nail-biting tension or dark revelations about characters.
Peaky Blinders follows a family gang called the Peaky Blinders in post-First World War Birmingham.
They take their name from their practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their caps and make their money from illegal betting, protection and theft.
The Peaky Blinders control the neighbourhood of Small Heath in Birmingham.
These lawless, slum streets in 1919 are a jungle where returned soldiers, Communists, gangs and even the IRA all battle for survival amid changing economic times.
The power within the family lies not with the eldest brother, Arthur Shelby, but the intelligent and charismatic Thomas (Cillian Murphy, of Batman Begins).
Thomas is a decorated war veteran so haunted by trench warfare he takes morphine to escape the nightmares.
We meet him on horseback riding through Small Heath. People clear out of his way until the street is eerily deserted. A Chinese couple approaches. The woman says strange words and blows red dust onto the horse – apparently some sort of “spell”. Thomas shouts out the horse’s name to everyone watching from behind curtains.
Put some money on the horse, he says. But don’t tell anyone else.
Of course they tell everyone, which is what Thomas wants.
The horse wins. It wins a second time. His brother Arthur is angry; the family has lost money.
But Thomas explains the trick. Two wins and everyone believes the red dust magic works. And they spread the word so when the horse finally loses – third time unlucky — everyone has backed it and the Peaky Blinders reap the rewards.
It’s an example of a subtle mind at work; Thomas Shelby is a young man who thinks many steps ahead.
Even when the horse trick brings the family up against the feared villain who controls the race tracks, Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles), Thomas is prepared.
But despite his cleverness, Thomas has a new and ruthless adversary.
Police Chief Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) arrives from Belfast to clean up the city and recover stolen guns.
Thomas has the guns. His aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), the woman who ran the Peaky Blinders while the men went off to war, warns him to get rid of them
Campbell is under government orders to get them back, whatever it takes.
He has a weapon of his own to help him do it – Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis). The beautiful Irishwoman takes a job at the pub where the Peaky Blinders meet.
Unlike Campbell, she straight away recognises Thomas is the real leader of the Peaky Blinders.
Campbell hints that to get close to Thomas she might have to do something he can’t bare to ask.
“You always underestimate me,” she replies scornfully.
The scenes between Grace and Thomas are compelling, building tension in a dangerous game.
She’s in the service of the government but who, ultimately, will win her loyalty? And at what cost?
Campbell ups the stakes when he raids homes and smashes up pubs under the protection of the Peaky Blinders.
He tries to set up a meeting with Thomas, but Thomas won’t bargain from a position of weakness. When he does meet Campbell, it’s after he’s sent a message of his own.
Peaky Blinders has taken a while to make it to free-to-air TV: it has already been renewed for season three.
However, at last it is here and it’s well wor th a look. This series is a gripping, sometimes brutal, story about a notorious crime family.
At times it is violent but that violence isn’t gratuitous.
The setting in 1919 is crucial; memories of the war still linger and Thomas, a war veteran, is quick to throw at Campbell the fact that the police officer didn’t serve his country.
There’s a touching scene where a man clearly suffering PTSD staggers into a pub and breaks up furniture, unaware of what he’s doing. Thomas subdues him, telling him he’s safe, the war is over.
Peaky Blinders is based on true events but it’s far from a documentary and there’s lots of poetic licence taken with characters and the story.
You might wonder why Nick Cave’s music plays in a series set in 1919 but it works.
The characters are wonderful, the performances exceptional. Cillian Murphy has one of those faces that you can’t look away from.
He’s compelling and mesmerising as the cool, thoughtful Thomas; a true screen presence with those strange blue eyes.
His performance is the one that everything else hangs upon. He makes Thomas fascinating. We don’t know what he’s thinking and we badly want to. Is he lonely? What happened during the war that makes him turn to morphine?
There’s a weariness to his character that reminded me of Sherlock Holmes and his need to use opium to escape boredom.
Sam Neill is, as always, excellent as Campbell, the perfect nemesis for a dangerous and complex villain.
The female characters, too, are strong and multi-layered, from Aunt Polly to Grace.
Add to that a gritty, well-paced story, a fascinating setting and high production values, and Peaky Blinders is one of the better series to debut on free to air TV this year.
The bottom line is it’s entertaining. And cool. And smart. And stylish.