Thursday, July 21, 2022

Peaky Blinders

The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently dedicated 18 consecutive evenings to watching the BBC/Netflix series Peaky Blinders from start to finish. We saw the first five seasons a couple of years ago and were frustrated we’d have to wait for Season 6 due to covid. When the last episodes finally dropped on June 10, we resolved to watch it from the start to refresh our memories.


I have a lot to say about this show, too much to fit into one blog. It is not a perfect show, and its flaws are fairly close to the surface. That said, the tone, attitude, and pace of the storytelling make these issues recede until reconsidered in the light of the next day. Sometimes the next week.


What makes it so compelling? As usual, the characters. The Shelby family are gypsies who have settled in Birmingham, England in the years prior to World War I. The multi-tiered dynamic of the Shelby family, their alliances, and the willingness of upper-crust English society to accept Tommy so long as he does their dirty work, is continually fascinating.


As with any such story, this works because of excellent writing and superb acting. Cillian Murphy as Tommy, Paul Anderson as his older brother Arthur, the late Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly, Sophie Rundle as sister Ada, and Natasha O’Keefe as Lizzy stand out, but everyone is outstanding. If your impression of Sam Neill is based on Jurassic Park and The Hunt for Red October, look again. He is the pluperfect bastard as Major Campbell. (Of course, Tom Hardy dominates every scene he’s in, and the creators have the good sense to use him judiciously.)


The setting is generally bleak. The Shelby gang, known as Peaky Blinders for the caps they wear and the razor blades sewn into the brims for blinding adversaries, live in the Small Heath section of Birmingham. The residents’ homes, the factories where they work, the pubs where they drink, are close together as herring in a tin. Cars and horses occupy the cobblestone streets together in early episodes. Narrow boats ply the canals. Flames erupt randomly from factories to remind everyone that, no matter how tender a moment may be, the harshness of life in Small Heath is ever present.


The music serves the story and the tone as well as any I have heard. Wholly inappropriate to the era, the frequent outbursts of punk rock put an edge to how the Peaky Blinders do business. There is no relaxation when they’re around. They run things in Small Heath, so much so it’s no rarity for Tommy or Arthur to proclaim an edict, or commit some heinous act, and all anyone needs to know is contained in the shout of “By order of the Peaky Blinders.” The theme song - “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave - may appear at any time, especially during the earlier seasons. The song does an excellent job of describing Tommy Shelby, even though Cave wrote it more than 15 years earlier.


The show does suffer from what I call “plot conveniences,” notably the ease with which characters can get information when they need it, without explaining how they came by said information. It’s not a deal breaker, and the pay-offs are more than adequate, but they do become evident when bingeing the shows, where what a British audience might have forgotten was left hanging last week is fresh in my mind.


Another point is both a strength and a weakness: characters’ accents. I’ll defer to the BBC as to their authenticity, but the Birmingham/Midlands accents are thick, as are the Irish, and all bets are off when the gang from Glasgow makes an appearance. The Beloved Spouse™ and I used subtitles when we first watched, but were more ambitious this time, now that we had an idea what was going on. (I dislike subtitles as a rule, because I find myself reading instead of watching,.) On the other hand, the accents do as much as the locations for setting the tone and atmosphere.


Maybe the greatest strength of Peaky Blinders is its ability to provoke thoughts. The setting and time are just far enough away from our own to grant some perspective while still occasionally prompting thoughts of “some things never change.” That’s high praise, especially for a vehicle as entertaining as this. I’ll have more to say about some of the thoughts inspired in future posts.




E. Ellis said...

I enjoyed the program and your comments (as always). I could watch Tom Hardy read the insert from a medicine bottle. He is such a wild card in his acting.

My major complaint of this series was the absolute unlikeable portrayal of Thomas Shelby's character. The writers gave me no reason to feel anything toward his character at all. This is bizarre to me because I felt more toward his drug-addicted brother and his mayhem all through the series. I think his vices gave him reason to be likable through his villainy - if that makes sense.

Oh, one last complaint - the cigarette smoking. Not that I object to it being portrayed, but in so many programs - especially it seems in countries outside of the US and in programs based in the past - there seems to be a writing trope of cigarette usage as a creative way to portray action, fine acting or deep, contemplative thought.

Dana King said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree completely about the smoking. If Netflix feels a need to cite a warning for it, maybe shows could do less of it.

Tel U said...

Peaky Blinders one of the best series