Last night's viewing: Peaky Blinders is no ordinary period drama

New Birmingham gangster drama has HBO well in its sights

It's rare that a television show makes me sit up and exclaim: "Wow, what on earth was that?" but BBC2's new period crime drama Peaky Blinders managed it. Forget the awkward name (which refers to the razors our anti-heroes, a Birmingham gang, carry in their caps), this was one of the most enjoyable things I've seen in some time.

From the moment Cillian Murphy's First World War veteran-turned-bookmaker, Tommy Shelby, appeared on a horse, silhouetted against the gloomy skyline to the doom-ridden strains of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand", it was obvious that this wasn't a straightforward historical drama.

Instead, writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) has clearly looked across the Atlantic Ocean to HBO for inspiration, setting his tale of Brummie gangsters in a vivid, darkly compelling world and adding a modern soundtrack, sharp haircuts and an inescapable sense that this way trouble lies.

Comparisons with Boardwalk Empire, which covers the same period and shares a similar interest in the horrors visited on a generation by the First World War, are inevitable, but it's worth noting that Knight first pitched this show 12 years ago, based on the memories and stories of his family. If anything, it owes more of a debt to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America or David Milch's Deadwood, a Western in all but name complete with a righteous law man (Sam Neill in full voice and with a dead-on Northern Irish accent), an outlaw family gang and a beautiful girl working in a down-at-heel saloon.

It could have been clichéd but Knight and director Otto Bathurst pulled the strings with such confidence that the whole thing felt vibrant and new. They also made early 20th-century Birmingham seem like a positively thrilling place to be. The Midlands city is often described as the least glamorous area on Earth but Knight gave his hometown swagger and style and it was refreshing to see a British gangster drama set outside of London or Brighton.

They were helped, too, by their choice of leading man. Murphy, with his still, angular face and haunted eyes has always had a slightly unearthly quality about him, and Peaky Blinders plays to that, shooting him framed by both fire and darkness, Lucifer fallen to Earth. You never doubted that his Tommy, driven by war demons and always one step ahead of his opponents, was a man who could and would kill. Similarly, Neill was utterly convincing as the God-fearing Chief Inspector Campbell and there were strong turns from Paul Anderson as Tommy's less sharp older brother, Arthur, Helen McCrory as family matriarch Aunt Polly and Iddo Goldberg as communist activist Freddie Thorne.

It's not perfect. Annabelle Wallis's Grace is something of a cipher, there was the odd hammy line ("In Ireland my singing made them cry and stopped them fighting") and some of the accents, particularly Murphy's, sound as though they reached Birmingham by way of the Irish Sea, but these are minor quibbles in a show this propulsive. Indeed, the most incredible thing about Peaky Blinders is that a world so saturated in death can feel this wonderfully alive.

Bates Motel was something of a curiosity: a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which tells the story of young Norman Bates, but is inexplicably set in modern-day America. Freddie Highmore was nicely understated as Norman, with only the odd flash behind his eyes hinting at a darker soul, while the magnificent Vera Farmiga was compelling as his mother – and their stifling relationship was cleverly drawn.

In the first episode, teenage Norman negotiated the standard traps of an American high school, while Mama Bates tried to do up her creaky newly purchased motel. It's the sort of show that really shouldn't have worked. Somehow, against all odds, it did.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable