There was a happier time, in the floppy-fringed days of the Nineties, when the mighty British gangster flicks roamed the box offices, gorging themselves on Generation X’s power fantasies, enriching an entire class of Cockney screen stars, and making the glottal-stop an essential accessory of Cool Britannia cinema. The extinction of these mighty beasts is still a mystery to most, although one suspects the In Bruges had a role to play in making us all realise how silly Lahn-dan guv’nors looked when trying to pull off the brutal criminal intelligence that our American cousins had cultivated with the Sopranos.
The bottom line is that British culture’s been severely lacking in wholesome, good-old-fashioned organised crime in the last few years, but the arrival of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders could herald a rebirth. Taking a leaf out of HBO’s book, the lavishly produced show transplants the traditional crime family to a more glamourous time period (the years in the wake of the Great War): a technique I’m starting to suspect is a conspiracy carried out by the Wardrobe Department Union, forcing directors to deck out every member of the cast in eye-wateringly expensive period costume. Whilst one doesn’t bat an eyelid if Steve Buscemi wanders the boardwalks in Jay Gatsby’s hand-me-downs, it does look at little odd to see the BBC’s impoverished characters sauntering through the slums of industrial Birmingham wearing immaculate three-piece-suit.
Peaky Blinders is, if nothing else, fantastic to look at: incredible care has been given to crafting a Brummie ring of hell, lit by blazing Edwardian furnaces and crawling with soot-stained, foul-mouthed proletariats. The world that director Otto Bathurst puts together is perhaps the strongest reason to keep watching, its ochre palet and looming shadows making it the perfect antidote to the clean lines and high ceilings of its period cousin Downton Abbey.
Licence-fee be damned, no expense seems to have been spared on the cast either. Both Cillian ‘Cheekbones’ Murphy and Sam ‘Oh my god, Jurassic Park was twenty years ago, what have I been doing’ Neil are major favourites in the LS office, and are put to excellent use as an aspirational gangster and a preacher-like Ulster special agent respectively. Both have an arresting presence on the screen, the sort that makes a viewer salivate at the prospect of their inevitable showdown later in the series. They even throw in a cameo from Benjamin Zephaniah, which is frankly just spoiling us. The script has the occasional clunky bunch of dialogue, but Murphy, Neil, and most of the rest of the cast deliver the lines with such snarling aplomb that you hardly have the chance to notice. Peaky Blinders is Very Good Television.
CORRECTION: Peaky Blinders is set in Birmingham, not Liverpool as originally stated. Sorry.