Prompted by his new TV series Taboo I have finally caught up with Steven Knight's Peaky Blinders. And I have to say I'm delighted. It's a lot more solid and consistent that Taboo and has already achieved a higher level of interest and involvement, at least for this viewer.
This may well be due to the fact that Taboo was co-created by its star Tom Hardy and his dad along with Steven Knight, but Peaky Blinders is entirely Knight's brainchild. It is a 1920s gangster saga but a completely fresh one. For a start, it's British, so prohibition of alcohol is not the engine for crime (Brits never adopted such a silly policy).
The story is set in Birmingham where the 'Peaky Blinders' are the dominant gang. Their name refers to the fact that their flat caps, which every adult male — and a lot of small boys — wear, have razors blades gleaming in their peaks. The cap can then be swept off and used as an offensive weapon, slashing at the face of an enemy. Nasty.
The gang, which really existed, is led in this fictional version by one Tom Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. ('Cillian' is pronounced with a hard 'C': "kill - ee - an.")
Murphy is an impressive actor with icy blue eyes who has been knocking around for years, often cast as a sinister heavy or a psycho in American action movies. He's better than this material and Peaky Blinders is his breakthrough, showing what he can do.
The series has intriguing parallels with Boardwalk Empire. The shadow of World War One hangs heavily over the characters, and Tom's post traumatic stress is rather more strikingly depicted than anything concerning Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in Boardwalk.
Tom was a sapper — which means an engineer, who dug tunnels towards the enemy under No Man's Land. He still dreams that the Germans are scraping through the wall of his bedroom, and smokes opium to suppress these nightmares.
Peaky Blinders is a great show with a dynamite cast. Set in opposition to Tom is formidable Belfast cop Inspector Campbell, brilliantly played by Sam Neill. Tom's love interest is Grace Burgess, played by the striking Annabelle Wallace. And Tom doesn't know she's an undercover cop, working for Campbell.
It's a visually stunning series, superbly photographed by George Steel. One of the most striking images is of Tom Shelby riding on horseback through the grimy industrial streets. And director Otto Bathurst (a Hammersmith boy) does a supremely impressive job of bringing Steven Knight's vision to life (Bathurst and Steel worked on the crucial first three episodes of the series).
Also demanding mention is the music. Instead of a period score we get anachronistic but wonderfully effective menacing rock songs by Nick Cave (notably 'Red Right Hand'), evoking the use of Tom Waits's 'Way Down in the Hole' in The Wire.
The period detail is strong and convincing throughout and so far the only false steps are a reference to 'the clap' as syphilis (it's actually gonorrhea) and a rather implausibly harmless hand grenade explosion.
Minor quibbles. Great show.
(Image credits: The blu ray cover is from Amazon. The cool photos of Cillian Murphy, Annabelle Wallace and Sam Neill are all from TheTVDB. The group shot is from the very useful BBC website for the show.)