I’ll put it on my list, is invariably what I reply, an unthinking reflex, when someone urgently recommends their New Favourite Thing. This is a lie, of course. I don’t have a list, and even if I did, it would be far too long to add said “must-watch”. I already spend too many of my waking hours – and a few of what should be my sleeping hours – consuming pop culture. And so I draw arbitrary lines – yes to police dramas, no to true-crime documentaries.
Until recently, one such arbitrary line was: I don’t watch Peaky Blinders. I had never seen the Shelby brothers stalk, Reservoir Dogs-style, through the muddy streets of Small Heath, Birmingham, or discovered the joy of Tom Hardy’s borderline deranged performance as a Camden gangster. I certainly didn’t believe that a Brummie accent could be sexy. But then series five landed on the BBC, and I was in a fallow period TV-wise – and so I caved.
At six episodes a series, Peaky Blinders is a more manageable binge than most. The first series starts in 1919; war veteran Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has returned home to Birmingham, where he and his family – among others, Tommy’s brothers, the animalistic Arthur (Paul Anderson) and scrappy John (Joe Cole), and their mighty matriarch, Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) – head up criminal gang the Peaky Blinders.
We were off to a strong start with the show’s skulking theme song, Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” – a love of Nick Cave was one of the values instilled in me by my dad. (See also: supporting Manchester United, the importance of a firm handshake.) Peaky Blinders’s fabulously anachronistic soundtrack sounds like my iTunes on shuffle, only with the embarrassing bits removed: in the latest series a funeral procession is set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”.
I picked up the rules of the Shelby universe pretty quickly. Parties tend to end badly, à la Game of Thrones. Planning a wedding? A charity gala? Someone is going to get shot. Which brings me to rule two: when someone appears to have been fatally wounded, there’s a good chance they’re not dead. Like American politics, Peaky Blinders requires a common enemy to best function, and so, series after series, there’s a fresh foe: the Italians and the Russians, the Billy Boys and the IRA. Similarly, no money-making enterprise is off limits: they fix horse races and football matches, trade gin and opium.
The expansively intelligent Tommy (Murphy’s Brummie accent is dense and fluid like molten metal) somehow always outmanoeuvres events. He is unendingly ambitious: over the course of five series, Tommy goes from gang leader to unlikely Labour MP; from the shadowy railway arches of Birmingham to a Warwickshire stately home. Courtesy of the show’s slightly irritating insistence on inserting itself into history, we encounter Churchill as colonies secretary, the 1926 general strike, and the Wall Street Crash.
Peaky Blinders is well-known for its Tarantino-like violence, but after five seasons I barely register it (in one recent episode, Polly threatened a nun with a dagger, and I gleefully intoned to my boyfriend, “She is so cool”). The true queasiness in the latest series comes from Sam Claflin’s sharp portrayal of Oswald Mosley. In a speech announcing the launch of the British Union of Fascists (three years too early, the show and reality out of sync), an irate Moseley says: “We will offer a new conception of politics in which the great character of the British… will be reborn… The ranks of our heroes of the Great War have been betrayed again and again by politicians. But hear this… England lives tonight and marches on… Our message can be summarised with these words: Britain first.” To an audience well accustomed to physical brutality but all too sensitive to the spectre of fascism, his words have their own kind of violence. Twenty nine episodes in, Peaky Blinders proves it can still pack a punch.
So by all means, maintain those arbitrary lines; reserve for yourself a few hours of sleep. But make an exception to find out where the scheming Shelbys end up next, by order of the Peaky Blinders.
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace