Warning: contains spoilers!
If you’re old enough to remember Last of the Mohicans – the first, amazing, black-and-white-but-blood-red-scarlet-on-the-inside, Philip Madoc version in which he learned the Mohawk language to play the part, not the ghastly, plastic Daniel Day Lewis vehicle – will know that once in a while, the BBC steps beyond its comfort zone of measured, over-sexed costume drear-fests and into a world of exceptional drama.
The most recent of these, and the one that stands out from any pack you might choose to cluster around it, is PEAKY BLINDERS. Stephen Knight’s family history translates onto the screen with a verve and vivacity that is utterly engaging and completely real. The basic plot is simple: a gang of lads returns from the Somme and the horrors of war and proceeds to take over the back streets of Birmingham. The Peaky Blinders are so known because they secrete razor blades in the peaks of their caps and when someone pisses them off (which just about everyone from rival gangs to police are wont to do), they use the cap as a weapon.
Their alpha male is Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy and the English language does not have superlatives that do justice to the mix of vulnerability, ruthlessness, ingenuity and raw, grinding courage that he brings to the part. He has eyes to die for – and many do. He leads the Shelby family on a slow path from back street betting to licensed bookies, from selling bootleg Scotch to prohibition America, and from gun running for the IRA to a kind of war where he finds himself the target of the Red Hand of Ulster. In all of this, he has his family around him, his women as (generally) willing aides – and his nemesis is the Irish agent of the Crown, one Major, and then Inspector, Chester Campbell (Sam Neill), as twisted, vicious, unprincipled a villain as you could fear to have on the other side. The two men vie over the same woman, so it’s never going to end well.
The women are an interesting lot. Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) ran the gang while the boys were away and holds something of an honorary partnership with Tommy – except she doesn’t really because every time they clash, he wins. The two love interests, Grace (Annabelle Wallis) and May (Charlotte Riley) are united in that they are gloriously pre-war gorgeous, semi-independent women: May is an heiress whose father was killed at Ypres and who walks through the social circles to which Tommy aspires while Grace starts out as an undercover agent for the bad guy, changes sides, skips the country and comes back to get herself pregnant by Tommy. He is loved by them both. Whether he is capable of loving either of them back is open to question and not really the point: he uses both mercilessly, just as he uses his brother Arthur, whose post traumatic stress disorder makes him the perfect attack dog, or Lizzy, the reformed prostitute whose rape in the final episode of season two may not be as gratuitous as some of television’s recent pornographic endeavours. The point for the Blinders is that Tommy will do what it takes to get them where they need to go, even at the risk of his own life.
The point for us is that there hasn’t been a single episode yet that passes the Bechdel Test which requires that there be one scene – only one – in which two or more women talk to each other about something other than a man. There’s a nod in the right direction at one point when Polly talks to a gypsy woman about her lost children, but given that her daughter is dead and it’s son Michael who returns… it doesn’t really qualify. That’s the fly in the ointment and I don’t suppose it will change. But it doesn’t detract from production values that put this series in a category all its own. The colour palette is a careful almost-sepia that renders Birmingham of the 1920s in a kind of glorious not-quite-monotone, full of rich textures. Each scene is rendered with the care of a movie production, or a carefully laid still life, while the music is modern, upbeat, and very, very edgy.
The theme for the second series of the ‘Red Right Hand’ is one of those running gags that becomes clear only in the penultimate scene of the final episode and it’s well worth the wait just of the ‘Oh-my-God, that’s so very clever!’ moment that comes after it. And at the bottom line – this series has made Birmingham cool. The accent and the look have eclipsed the tired old dockland-hackney that for so long marked out English ‘working class’ drama. Not only that, but it’s created its own look. When my stepdaughter got married this year, most of the lads had Peaky Blinders haircuts. And if you go to Aston Villa or any of the other Black Country matches on a Saturday, the stands are full now of Peaky Blinders outfits. It’s changed the way an entire region thinks about itself and you can’t say that about many things on the goggle box nowadays.
Season Two has just finished. There will be a season Three. I imagine, actually, we might still be here in season eight, heading into the second World War with Tommy’s kids old enough to fight. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and get the box-set for Christmas. This is something the whole family can grow to love.
Manda Scott is a prolific author of historical fiction and the chair of the HWA. Manda’s fiction includes her critically acclaimed Boudicca and Rome series (published with the name MC Scott) as well as a number of contemporary crime novels. Her latest book is Rome: The Art of War