It’s difficult for me to get excited about anything to do with Birmingham. It’s the city that has burdened us with Jasper Carrott and Frank Skinner, the accent makes you want to bash your head against a wall and over the last decade, the city’s football clubs have managed to turn the beautiful game into an exercise in attrition. Peaky Blinders may be the thing to prove me wrong and restore a bit of excitement to the second city.
Picking up two years after the end of the first series, the Peaky Blinders step into the jazz age of the 1920’s. Of course, the Roaring Twenties means bigger, flashier and more ostentatious, and the show has never made any objection to that. The Shelby’s business, legal or otherwise, is booming and with chauffeurs on retainer and four Bugattis, the Brummies have come a long way from the days when riding a horse through Small Heath was a show of power. In fact, with business doing so well the Shelbys set their eyes on the bright lights of London.
Of course, London notoriously isn’t kind to newcomers. The debauchery of the city make the Shelbys look positively puritan, and the local gangster families are all too willing to send the provincials packing, only with fewer words and more emergency dentistry.
The Thomas Shelby of last year, played to icy perfection by Cillian Murphy – an actor perfectly at home letting his cheekbones and steely glare do his talking for him – always seemed at least three steps ahead of the rest of the room. This time around, Tommy’s imperious veneer is slipping – everything’s falling apart in his hands. The Shelby clan seems to be sharpening their knives; Tommy’s clashes with Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) have become more personal than business, mad-dog brother Arthur’s mental stability continues to deteriorate, and younger brother John (Joe Cole) seems ready to pull a Fredo Corleone at any moment.
To make matters worse, Tommy finds himself a pawn in the ongoing game between the IRA and the British state. One moment he’s being blackmailed into a hit for the Fenians, the next he’s in the pocket of his old adversary, Major Campbell (Sam Neill), whose crusade to weed out dissidents seems to have tipped him over the deep end. His new limp and wolf-head cane could so easily have made Campbell a cartoonishly, Dickensian villain but it does quite the opposite. This new, less forgiving Campbell is satanic.
Fire and smoke has a way of defining Peaky Blinders. It transforms Birmingham into a hellish, otherworldly place, and, in the past, Tommy was to Small Heath as Satan to Pandemonium. But now every furnace blast reminds us that Tommy is trapped in a hell of his own making, and there are bigger, darker devils than him lurking in the shadows.
The accents wander of course, and the show plays fast and loose with the facts. But if Downton Abbey can rewrite history to make the upper classes an omnibenevolent force, why can’t Peaky Blinders have some fun with working class history? Because that’s exactly what the Peaky Blinders are, a working-class gang elevated to mythological status. It’s a show soaked in Irish whiskey and violence, with Nick Cave and Johnny Cash croaking away in the background. Most of all though it’s just sheer fun.