Period drama plays a Blinder
Peaky Blinders (BBC2, 9pm, Tonight)
FROM the moment Cillian Murphy rides into the Chinatown district on a horse, like Clint Eastwood in a Fistful of Dollars, his eyes in shadow, the locals scattering nervously out of his path, it's clear that the superb Peaky Blinders is taking us into fresh territory: a raw, edgy world that's both familiar and at the same time fabulously alien.
The setting is Birmingham in 1919, yet this is a Birmingham – an early 20th-century England, for that matter – unlike anything we've ever seen on TV. Murphy's character may be dressed in the kind of cloth- cap-and-tweed-suit combo James Bolam wore in 1970s favourite When the Boat Comes In, with which Peaky Blinders shares a historical setting, but the suit is better tailored and the similarities entirely superficial.
Creator and writer Steven Knight's six-parter is something totally new, an electrifying blend of gangster thriller, western and period drama. Some critics have conveniently dubbed Peaky Blinders the British Boardwalk Empire.
In fact, the gritty, grimy tone is more in keeping with Deadwood, while the dazzling visuals – sweeping, panoramic shots of cobblestoned streets, steaming slums and packed pubs; brown, cavernous interiors bathed in a woozy half-light – recall the striking opening scenes of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.
Murphy is Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, a real, family-run gang that once ruled Birmingham's simmering underworld. They had a stranglehold on the city's gambling, robbery, extortion and protection rackets. Their name came from their habit of stitching razor blades into the peaks of their caps in order to, as one character puts it, "blind those that see and cut out the tongues of those that talk".
Most British period dramas plod along through acres of expository dialogue. Peaky Blinders is different. Knight's lines are smart, punchy and stylised. It's the language of the movies – appropriately, since Peaky Blinders looks gloriously cinematic.
Then there's the soundtrack, which throbs with a contemporary score by Martin Phipps. It should be gratingly anachronistic; instead, it fits the action perfectly.
Tommy is back from the trenches of Flanders. So is his friend Freddie (Iddo Goldberg), who saved his life and is having a secret relationship with Tommy's sister. Both men want their due. For Freddie, a communist and union activist, that means fair wages for the local factory workers. For Tommy, it means vanquishing his competitors, who include the local Chinese gangs and the notorious Birmingham Boys.
Behind every bad man, of course, is an even worse woman; this is Aunt Polly, played ferociously by Helen McCrory, who's been running the family business while the men were away at war.
When she hears the Blinders have stolen a huge consignment of arms and ammunition, she's appalled. "You have your mother's common sense but your father's devilment," she tells Tommy. "You see them fighting. Let your mother win."
Tommy also has to worry about the new sheriff in town, a stern, brutal chief inspector from Belfast called Campbell, who, fresh from battling the IRA, has been sent to Birmingham by Winston Churchill to stamp out the Catholic Peaky Blinders.
Frighteningly played by Sam Neill, Campbell is a mixture of policeman, thug and Bible-thumping preacher. His first act is to have his band of Protestant enforcers-for-hire snatch Tommy's older brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) and beat him to a pulp.
Peaky Blinders is rooted in a history of Birmingham that teems with gangsters, communists, anarchists and whatever breed of revolutionary you're having yourself, but I imagine Knight has taken some liberties. If so, they're justified, because this is intoxicatingly brilliant television.
British broadcasters have been trying for several years to come up with something to match the best of what the US has to offer. Well, here it is.