And so we arrive at the beginning of the end of Peaky Blinders. Someone should say a prayer, or throw out a curse, or play the loud parts of Carmina Burana at top volume. Those who rend their garments at the thought of Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel departing the BBC (they’re off to Global, the owner of LBC) know not what they do. Don’t they grasp that no podcast, no number of witty takes on Donald Trump, could ever touch even so much as the hem of Steven Knight’s magnificent creation, let alone Cillian Murphy’s extraordinary cheekbones, which look like the sails of some beautiful old yacht in moonlight? There is a reason why Tommy Shelby’s Wikipedia page is almost as long, and as intricate, as that of David Copperfield. Put aside his bold notoriety, his metallic badness. He is us, we are him.
But I’m getting carried away. Let me come down from my pulpit for a moment to tell you where are we are. Season six. Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory, who died of breast cancer in April 2021) is dead. The funeral service makes a pyre of a gypsy caravan. As it burns, it clatters: the sound of bones, best china and silver photograph frames. Four years pass. It is now 1933. Tommy (Murphy) is a changed man, which is to say that he no longer drinks, a baffling development for those around him, the world of plastic Evian bottles still far in the future. On some godforsaken island off Newfoundland, he’s trying to do business with the South Boston gang, among their number his cousin, Polly’s treacherous son, Michael (Finn Cole). “I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end,” Tommy intones, lines from William Blake’s “Poison Tree”. But then, a phone call from Lizzie, his wife (Natasha O’Keeffe). In England, in his grand house with its mullioned windows that at times seem to semaphore an indecipherable code, his daughter, Ruby, has fallen ill. She has been muttering Romani words. Terror rises inside him, and so he returns home.
As opening episodes go, this is quite something, though I must not say any more. In Peaky Blinders, every scene – every line –is somehow vital; I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, not now we’ve come so far. Suffice to say that I watched it transfixed, utterly mesmerised by the strip of astrakhan on the collar of Tommy’s coat, and that thing he does with every cigarette, rolling it lightly over his lips as if he loves it more than anything – anyone – in the universe. Peaky Blinders is its own world, to the degree that its frequent anachronisms hardly dent its sides. People say, in wonderment, that Knight’s drama has made Birmingham – Birmingham! – seem glamorous (a statement both true and untrue), when really they should reserve their awe for the way he has played with the story of these islands, grave questions of class, politics and identity (Irish, Jewish, Romani) daringly woven into the screenplay’s more obvious criminal excitements. But in the end, it would be next to nothing without Murphy: his marble eyes, his lily-pad lips; above all, that insensible, commanding, permanently adulterous voice.
“I am myself,” says Tommy, in this new series. He has always wanted “everything, already”. These lines: they’re straight out of Dickens, famished and self-mythologising. For some time now, he has been a Member of Parliament. A gangster politician, which is funny. You have to admit that, at moments, this seems infinitely preferable to what we’ve got. We believe in him, or at least want him to find redemption, come what may, and I wonder that the BBC hasn’t learned more from the success of the series that seems to spread out from around him like the tentacles of an octopus, sold and adored across the planet.
At some point, Knight was just allowed to get on with it, delivering a series that is labyrinthine in its plotting, complex in its morality, singular in its setting (the stroke of genius was to make Tommy not only a traumatised survivor of the trenches, and a Brummie, but a Romani to boot). The viewer is never patronised. He or she can take away from this strange spirit world as much (a PhD in the overlap of Shelby studies and British history) or as little (a good cliffhanger) as they like. RIP, then, Peaky Blinders. People are going to miss you so much. They’re going to ache for Tommy, and remember him – those pristine collars! – until the day they die.
[See also: Why we’re obsessed with catfish scams]
Aired Sunday 27 February 9pm; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times