TV REVIEW: Peaky Blinders - Episode One

Set in post-war 1919 Birmingham, Peaky Blinders follows the exploits of the titular gang, so-called due to their custom of sewing razor-blades into the peaks of their flat caps, and their role in a time of industrial and social upheaval. Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby, leader of the pack and scarred war veteran who is looking to move his criminal organisation up in the world with a stolen arms shipment. However, Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman) is looking to crack down on the lawlessness in Birmingham and brings in Chief Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) to help as well as Protestant Northern Irishmen to bolster the corrupted police ranks.

As openings go, it's near-perfect and by the fourth minute, it's fairly clear if you're going to love it or not. This isn't so much staid period drama as it is Western set in the Midlands with Murphy entering the proceedings astride a horse and to the strains of Nick Cave's Red Right Hand. It's not a new technique by any stretch, but the inclusion of the Western genre influences gives Peaky Blinders a unique look and feel, especially when compared with recent BBC dramas from this inter-war period such as Upstairs Downstairs. The anachronistic music lends an edge to the unfolding narrative and works well to mesh with this world of strikes, gangsters and blustering policemen.

With the need to establish this world quickly and effectively for the audience, it is rightly left to the actions of the characters and not reels of exposition to do so and it arguably results in two brilliant entrances. The afore-mentioned entrance of Murphy's Shelby quickly sets up his presence with barely a word spoken as people scatter from him in the streets. In fact, Shelby isn't the most talkative anyway but Murphy plays him like a coiled spring and there's a steely reserve that remains calm whilst other characters resort to shouting and gesticulating. Despite his laconic way, there's clear ambition and drive behind it conveyed in only a look, often in response to his elder brother Arthur, who takes a much more gung-ho approach to the proceedings.

So, it would seem, does Sam Niell's Chester Campbell, a man given to speechifying and puritanical policework. His journey through the streets occupied by the Peaky Blinders on his arrival to Birmingham was my favourite scene in the opening episode, a dimly-lit, hellish nightmare of debauchery and violence narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah's scripture-spouting Jeremiah. The Revelation-themed Day of Judgement speech about an all-knowing God passing his judgement cutting to shots of Campbell observing the proceedings wasn't subtle, but it was brilliant, perfectly establishing the character, again without him saying a word.

When Campbell does speak, it is in similarly scripture-themed sermons of hellfire and damnation for those who stand in his path. His speech to the other officers, all low-angled shots and imperious expressions, was suitably foreboding especially when contrasted with Shelby's quiet reserve. The prospect of seeing Neill and Murphy in a scene together is really quite tantalising and one gets the impression it will be a case of a rock meeting a hard place. 

Elsewhere, the recent Great War overshadows the proceedings, a connection that is made clear visually with Shelby's dream and the final lingering shot of the canal as Danny Whizz-Bang leaves for his new job in London. It's a backdrop for each character and for the society as a whole as men deal with the psychological trauma and the women are forced to give up the liberty they once had whilst the men were away. The way in which it permeates each scene, politically, socially and psychologically, binds each of the characters and their situations together in a cohesive whole. It's a world that is still rebuilding itself, much like the characters are forced to do.

Steven Knight has achieved something here; the opening episode of Peaky Blinders is a brilliant exercise in how to establish a world your viewers might be unfamiliar with and do it well. Next week already seems so far away.

- Becky

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