Is this the West Midlands or the Wild West? As Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) rides into a slum that simmers with fear and violence to the strains of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, there’s no doubt which genre has most inspired Steven Knight’s gorgeous-looking drama series, for all the inevitable ‘Boardwalk Empire’ comparisons. But the writer of ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ and ‘Eastern Promises’ has given this American staple a British twist.
We’re in 1919 Birmingham, where Sam Neill’s hard-nosed police chief has been brought in to clean up an underworld divided between communists, Fenians and gangsters. Shelby is one of the latter, a racketeer caught between a quick-to-anger brother (Paul Anderson) and mob matriarch Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), having inherited his ‘mother’s commonsense and father’s devilment’.
So well imagined and presented is this hellish world that there’s a danger of style over content with ‘Peaky Blinders’ (so-called because of the razor blades hidden in the caps of Shelby’s mobsters) – not least when it comes to the sparing but still shocking slo-mo violence. But stick with it – the cast (watch out for poet Benjamin Zephaniah as a street preacher) is superb and the plot, as it shakes off a few early clichés, becomes truly absorbing.