Monday 23 September 2019

Pat Stacey: Has Peaky Blinders peaked already?

Opinion: There's a distinct sense that this season is mostly spinning on wheels

Cillian Murphy (Tommy Shelby) in Peaky Blinders | Series 5 (BBC One) | Episode 04. Photographer: Robert Viglasky © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd. 2019
Cillian Murphy (Tommy Shelby) in Peaky Blinders | Series 5 (BBC One) | Episode 04. Photographer: Robert Viglasky © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd. 2019

Pat Stacey

It would need to be an exceptionally cold day in hell to make me utter a seriously negative word about Peaky Blinders.

It’s a great series, one of the best things to come out of the BBC in a long time and one of my personal favourite television series in recent years. There’s nothing else quite like it.

It has all the dash, flash and visual panache of a prestige American period crime drama (Boardwalk Empire being the obvious comparison, even though Peaky creator Steven Knight says he’s never watched it), but pumped up to extreme levels.

Somehow, though, it manages to retain a uniquely English — or more precisely, uniquely English Midlands — sensibility that’s rooted in real, class-ridden English history, even if the link is a tenuous one much of the time.

Peaky Blinders (Robert Viglasky/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd. 2019)
Peaky Blinders (Robert Viglasky/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd. 2019)

The real Peaky Blinders, the Birmingham gang who ran racecourse gambling and specialised in extortion, had more or less fizzled out, their power stolen by rival outfits who overwhelmed them, by the period in which the series is set.

And while they exerted a degree of political influence at local level, they never became deeply involved in the affairs of state the way their fictional leader, Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, does.

Nor did they make a fortune on the American stock market, only to see it wiped out by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and then have to rebuild their finances by falling back on criminal activities.

Despite appearances by a handful of real historical figures like Winston Churchill, with whom Tommy has covert dealings, and, in the current season, fascist leader Oswald Mosley, played with oily menace by Sam Claflin, the series takes outrageous artistic licence with the events, major players and timelines of history.

If you were a professional historian and went to the trouble of pulling the scripts apart, you’d no doubt find dozens of inaccuracies and anachronisms.

And this is not even the most outrageous thing about Peaky Blinders. There’s also the highly stylised presentation, which throws all sorts of modern flourishes into the mix.

The ultra-violent action is as choreographed for maximum coolness as in any of John Woo’s Hong Kong action movies.

The soundtrack doesn’t hum with the music people in the 1920s and 30s would have been listening to; it pulsates with modern rock songs.

And there’s what’s become very much the Peaky Blinders trademark touch: the swagger, as Tommy, often flanked by his brothers and his Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), who’s transformed into a sort of Brummie Bonnie Parker, struts toward the camera in slow motion, smoke billowing and sparks erupting in the background.

In one way it’s ridiculously over the top, edging dangerously close to self-parody. But it’s also ridiculously good fun and impossible to resist.

Some critics consider Peaky Blinders of being all style, no substance. I’ve never felt that. And yet, they might just have a point about this fifth season. It’s faintly unsatisfying.

There’s been no shortage of memorable set-pieces, to be sure: the elevator murder of the journalist; the brutal crucifixion of Aberama Gold’s (Aidan Gillen) son by Jimmy McCavern (a ferocious turn by Brian Gleeson); the volcanically disturbed Arthur (Paul Anderson) cutting up his wife’s innocent friend — a scene made all the more unsettling by being suggested in silhouette rather than graphically depicted.

But with just two episodes to come, it’s feeling like a succession of set-pieces with little happening in between. There’s a sense the season is spinning its wheels until the big climax, when the truth about the cunning game Tommy has been playing all along is revealed.

The trouble is, Peaky Blinders has pulled this kind of last-minute denouement before. For a series that’s always thrived on confounding expectations, the last thing you want it to be is predictable.

Peaky Blinders continues on BBC 1 on Sunday at 9pm.

Herald

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