Grace Dent on TV: Peaky Blinders, BBC2 – This is the least frightening crime gang name ever
This new BBC drama with a daft title is big, beautiful, Brummie... and a bit bloody slow
“Those… Peaky… Blinders!!!” fumes C I Campbell, somehow apopleptic in the face of the silliest, least frightening crime gang name ever. Seriously, it's awful. The Goombay Dance Band would have more chance of extracting money from me via menaces. As a historical fact it should have been politely fudged, not made the title of BBC1's new epic drama. Peaky Blinders sounds like a winsome, over-promising tag-line from a new double-lash intensifying Maybelline mascara. Peaky Blinders sounds like an eager but nauseating gang of child sleuths in an Enid Blyton tale of intense derring-do.
Peaky Blinders, in fact, is a Brummie answer to Boardwalk Empire – protection rackets, illegal betting, miscellaneous gangster folly – with all its gore, gall and grimness. The gang stitch razor blades all over their hats. They'd literally have your eye out. This was one of the more interesting ideas of the first episode, in which – aside from a lot of family arguing featuring the very excellent Helen McCrory and Paul Anderson in full roar, plus some beautifully shot scenes with Cillian Murphy and his racehorse – there wasn't a great deal going on. Peaky Blinders, much like Boardwalk Empire, is big, beautiful but a bit bloody slow.
They've put a daft 1920s moustache on Anderson, whom I adore. He has been given the part of the slightly stupid brother who doesn't quite understand race-fixing, which is a waste as Anderson excels at playing the thoroughly terrifying man who is seven steps ahead of everyone else and would feed you to pigs without a second thought.
Of course the problem with any 1920s gangster drama is that it can only ever feature a finite amount of burly men, chasing other squash-nosed gangster types, in very shonky cars no quicker than a milk float while the rest of the non-gangster population sits covered in soot, dying in childbirth or dealing with First World War post- traumatic shock. Aside from the alpha plotline where the Peaky Blinders – no, still looks silly to write, even at this stage – have stolen a number of machine guns and angered Winston Churchill, the majority of the fun to be had was from listening to the entire cast wrestle with a Birmingham accent, struggling to keep it on the right side of dark, Brummie and brooding (like a tour-battered UB40 roadie), and away from squeaky, jovial Vic and Bob Slade-in-Residence territory. Coincidentally Nick Cave provides the theme tune in full Shooting Stars “pub singer mode”, full of intense, guttural yelps, although you can never be sure he's not just really drunk and doing “The Locomotion” by Kylie.
Sam Neill playing C I Campbell is so bloody furious about those damn Peaky Blinders and their dangerous hats that he can only remember to be Irish for some of his scenes. But who can blame him? These people aren't just machine gun thieves, they're skilled milliners. What will they attach to their hats next? Cactus plants? Pecky birds? Cat fur to upset the allergic? These Peaky Blinders must be stopped.
The remainder of the episode gave us a lot of maddening moments, there for dramatic purposes. When the fierce Shelby matriach Aunt Polly learns about the stolen machine guns she flies into a rage, slapping her chest with her bare hands. Polly, I want to say, you're the leading female in Birmingham's most notorious crime family, who explained to us earlier that you took the reins of the whole operation during the war. Why are you behaving like Scarlett O'Hara over some dodgy machine guns?
Meanwhile, the Shelby clan's youngest daughter is secretly dating a communist of whom her brothers disapprove. Despite being a born-and-bred gangster brat, she is so lost in love she divulges their secrets merrily. Birds, eh? Later a mysterious Irish girl turns up to demand a job at the rowdy local pub where gangsters go to cough up phlegm and throw glasses. She's told by the landlord she'll probably get raped but is adamant this is the job for her. By the close of the episode we learn she's actually working undercover for C I Campbell, but – via a lot of smouldering looks in the direction of Cillian Murphy – we guess she's going to find herself emotionally and professionally torn in the face of such a hunk.
Peaky Blinders proves women shouldn't worry themselves with this gangster business, or, for that matter, with jobs at all. In fact if Al Capone had been Val Capone then The Chicago Outfit would have stayed out of jail for about six weeks before Val accidentally blurted out the framework of her bootlegging operation at her Tuesday Well Woman seminar. I shall tune in again next week, as Murphy is enormously lovely to watch as he winds up every villain north of the Watford Gap. The problem with being a hardman is there's always someone harder who wants to punch you. Not the face, though, not his beautiful face.
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