The Younger, Scrappier Cousin of ‘Downton Abbey’
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This BBC headliner is capturing a time you thought you knew — in a new, violent Technicolor light.
By Jack Doyle
Tired of snobby upper-class Brits but can’t get enough of those sumptuous period costumes? You’re not alone — and at long last, the BBC has provided its own answer to the Downton Abbey dilemma.
Downton returned to British TV screens on Sept. 21, but its younger, scrappier cousin will be hot on its heels when its second season kicks off Thursday. The BBC’s flagship drama Peaky Blinders drew rave reviews and controversy when it aired last year. And while it may not have Downton’s audience or budget, this show packs too fiery a punch to ignore. Quite literally.
It’s a side of 20th-century Britain we rarely see up close, even in historical dramas.
Peaky Blinders opens amid the flames and smoke of 1919 Birmingham, a city struggling to recover from the Great War, poverty and lost faith. It’s a side of 20th-century Britain we rarely see up close, even in historical dramas, and emerging from the throngs of shellshocked veterans, working community and street preachers, comes the show’s ruthless and ambitious star, Tommy Shelby.
Tommy, played by Batman favorite and Golden Globe nominee Cillian Murphy, is the leader of the Peaky Blinders, a notorious real-life gang so named for the razor blades they stitched into the brims of their caps and used to blind their victims. A tormented World War I veteran, Tommy returns home intent on reviving his city through a betting empire and the support of his family. Sound familiar? Boardwalk Empire fans will not be disappointed.
The first season saw Tommy and his crew launch their business endeavors while battling rival gangs, a ruthless Belfast policeman and a beautiful undercover agent. Cue racetrack fights, illicit romances with communists and plenty of blinding razor blades.
Despite its TV budget, Peaky Blinders feels Hollywoodesque. Its cinematography is often breathtaking, from slow-motion street magic to delicate pub scenes, and the show’s lavish costumes have inspired a 1920s fashion revival, with many Brits now sporting the Shelbys’ distinctive undercut. And in one of several hat-tips to Baz Luhrmann, the show features a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, from Nick Cave’s haunting “Red Right Hand” to brash White Stripes slammers.
Its working-class characters are not all cheerful Cockney stereotypes but a diverse and empowered lot.
Unlike a number of British TV programs, the show deals sensitively with some of the more controversial social issues of its time period. Its working-class characters are not all cheerful Cockney stereotypes but a diverse and empowered lot. Tommy’s sister Ada pursues a relationship with Marxist Freddie Thorne, prompting discussions of abortion and the real possibility of a postwar labor revolution. The Shelbys maintain a complex, respectful relationship with the Romani, an ethnic group last seen on British TV in the much-criticized My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
Peaky Blinders’ first season, noted for its violence and bold directorial choices, attracted a niche audience, and this season is poised to top the earlier fireworks by blowing the lid clean off.
The Shelbys are expanding their crime empire to London, and Hollywood star Tom Hardy joins the cast as an East End Jewish gang leader. And perhaps most thrilling: The Weinstein Co. has bought Peaky Blinders’ U.S. television distribution rights.
No news yet on when this promising young series will light up American screens, but with the second season hitting the U.K. on Thursday, there’s no underestimating Tommy Shelby’s future success.
- Jack Doyle Contact Jack Doyle